Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 7, 2013

Music signaled first disaster and later inevitable triumph forged from Dec. 7


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— Radio station KGMB seldom played music at night — certainly almost never all night — but on Dec. 6 and into the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, Hawaiian melodies were broadcast all around the islands and far out to sea. Few citizens complained as most radios in homes and many in car radios stayed on to hear the music and instead enjoyed the unexpected treat.

Fewer still knew why that music was being played. It was, in fact, in part a signal to U.S. military aircraft including a flight incoming from California as well as a group of 11 Army Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress bombers sent from the Philippines.

En route to Hawaii in the pre-dawn darkness was another group of airplanes. They, too, were homed in on the radio signals and headed straight for the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was not a few bombers or a limited number of attack planes destined to shatter the peaceful Sunday morning calm.

A mighty strike force, some 350 planes in all including fighters, torpedo bombers and dive bombers had taken off from several of the six aircraft carriers rolling in rough seas. Admiral Nagumo’s Japanese Carrier Force, beginning its launch in unsettling half-light, was poised to blast the American entry into World War II.

The U.S. radar station operated on limited hours and on that Sunday was due to shut down at 7 a.m. Moments away from that time, as the two technicians on Opana station, watched a very large  “blip” appeared at a distance of about 140 miles. Communication between the radar station and command post did not include the fact that the obvious number of aircraft was much greater than what was expected from the U.S. flights. As a result, no action was taken. That oversight would prove fatal in less than an hour.

Pearl Harbor was the key to the Japanese success in holding their advantage of the mammoth Pacific Ocean. Several Japanese military leaders had privately compared the U.S. Fleet to a dagger pointed at Tokyo’s throat. Negotiations in Washington had proven to be fruitless amid widespread fears in recent months that a confrontation was not only likely but inevitable.

As the attack force drew near, the island of Oahu and Ford Island which shelters Pearl Harbor was filled with U.S. Navy vessels. Including seven battleships moored on “battle ship row” with an eighth battle wagon in nearby drydock for repairs. Overall, there were 185 ships of various sizes including destroyers, seaplane tenders, training ships and a host of small vessels. Japanese advance scouts and surveillance reports had pin pointed the location and a thorough plan of attack had been prepared. A prize portion of the fleet, the three U.S. aircraft carriers, had been highlighted as key targets.

By 7:40 a.m. local time, strike force leader Mitsu Fuchida realized his dream of a surprise had been achieved and the Japanese pilot fired a single flare from his speeding Zero to signal the planes behind him to form into an attack unit. The dive bombers began to climb, some to almost 14,000 feet while most of the group maintained an altitude of about 9,500 feet before preparing a gentle glide that drop many of them to near sea-level when they zoomed in on their as yet unsuspecting targets.

There were 11 Zeros in that first wave, approaching at about 200 miles an hour, and nine dive bombers bearing down on Ford Island, at almost exactly 7:55 a.m. Within less than two hours about 321 Japanese planes left the island, leaving behind 55 dead airmen. The Americans had lost 2,390 service personnel. It was a disaster of epic proportions, with 19 American warships lost.

Ominously for the Japanese, three American carriers had not been in port that weekend. In addition, a giant petroleum area where more than four-and-a-half million gallons of fuel remained intact. So, too, was a major ship repair facility left standing. As a result, the U.S. Navy was able to remain in Hawaii and did not have to retreat almost 2,500 miles back to California.

As the smoke swirled above Pearl Harbor from ships including the U.S.S. West Virginia there was perhaps much for the Americans to fear. Yet on that Sunday morning, the usual day of rest and peace, America’s Armed Forces were already preparing to fight with virtually no rest for the next four years.

The inevitable triumph, celebrated not only with sweet island tunes, but with the American National Anthem, would play in 1945.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.