Just over 75 years ago, on 7 December 1941, 353 Japanese fighter planes, torpedo planes and bombers attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.
In a matter of 110 minutes, the Japanese had destroyed 188 aircraft and damaged eight battleships (sinking four), and sank three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and a minelayer.
Over 2,000 American servicemen were killed and over 1,100 were wounded in one of the most horrifying attacks on America. It was one of several coordinated attacks throughout the Pacific that sought to prevent the United States hindering Japan’s aggressive expansion in the Far East.
While the attack was catastrophic and sudden, it did not have its desired effect. Rather, it galvanised the United States into becoming fully involved in World War II, in both the European and Pacific theatres. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt so aptly said, it was ‘a date which will live in infamy’ (‘Infamy’ speech, 8 December 1941).
Japan’s attack on the stronghold of the American navy was not an overnight affair. Preparations for war had begun nearly a year earlier, and planning this attack in October 1941.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the mastermind behind it and, with the help of Admiral Minoru Genda, based his plan largely on the British air attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, in 1940. At first, his plan was opposed by his staff and other high command officers. But eventually he convinced the naval general staff of the plan’s expediency, and it was finalised by 5 November. (‘Planning Pearl Harbor’, David C. Evans, Hoover digest, 4/30/98).
On the morning of Sunday, 7 December 1941, the task force of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, comprising six aircraft carriers with 408 aircraft, stopped just northwest of Oahu, Hawaii. The US did detect their approach, but the first wave of Japanese aircraft were thought to be American B-17 bombers.
At 7.48am the Japanese commenced attack. Yamamoto believed America’s battleships to be the most vital to their navy, so they were targeted first. They sat in the harbour’s shallow water, so torpedoes used were specifically designed to operate in shallow water.
Out of 49 bombs dropped on the battleships, only eight made contact with their intended targets, while the torpedoes did the rest of the damage. One bomb made a direct hit on the magazine in the USS Arizona. This caused nearly half the deaths that day.
As bombs and bullets rained from the skies, American servicemen were called to general quarters. Although most American guns and planes were not in readiness for defence, they responded quickly to the air raid alarm and did make a stand.
Japanese dive bombers not only destroyed major ships in the harbour, but also destroyed hundreds of American aircraft, making air-to-air combat nearly impossible. Only eight American pilots were able to take to the skies. They succeeded in downing one Japanese aircraft.
The second wave of Japanese aircraft came at 9.00am and met more resistance than the first wave, but still successfully bombed what was left of Pearl Harbour. After the attack was over, ships lay sunk or severely crippled and the Japanese returned to their carriers, having lost only 64 men.
Although they succeeded in taking the American forces by complete surprise, their initial goal of destroying American aircraft carriers was not successful. Furthermore, the oilfields and repair yards were left unharmed.
The United States declared war on Japan and her allies the following day. The attack on Pearl Harbour had stirred the hearts of Americans, like nothing else, and would serve as powerful propaganda against the Japanese.
One of the principal leaders in the Japanese attack was Captain Mitsuo Fuchida. Fuchida was a renowned Japanese airman, with perhaps more flight experience than anyone in the Imperial Japanese Navy. He had enlisted at 18 and, by 1941, was a competent instructor in horizontal bombing and commander of the air group on the Akagi.
As Fuchida led the first wave of airmen in their attack on Pearl Harbour, he is the one who gave the order to his radioman to transmit to the Akagi the infamous words, ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’
Fuchida described that day as ‘the most thrilling exploit of my career. Ever since I had heard of my country’s winning the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, I had dreamed of becoming an admiral like Admiral Togo, our commander-in-chief in the decisive Battle of the Japan Sea’.
As the war raged on and the Allies neared victory, Fuchida was troubled by thought of a Japanese surrender. He wanted to fight to the last man. He was in Hiroshima the day before the atom bomb fell, but was called back to Tokyo for an important meeting.
By the providence of God, Fuchida was not in the city during that massive attack and never succumbed to radiation poisoning, even though he was instructed to assess the damage in Hiroshima (everyone else in the assessment team died from radiation poisoning).
After Japan’s surrender, its army and navy were disbanded and Fuchida was called to testify in war crime trials. He was angered by these demands, thinking it was the victor’s way of boasting. He firmly believed the Americans had treated Japanese POWs unjustly.
He met an old friend who had been a POW and asked him for evidence to support his view. His friend, Kazuo Kanegasaki, told him that he and the other Japanese prisoners had been given excellent care, especially at the hand of Peggy Covell, whose missionary parents had been martyred by Japanese soldiers.
Her parents had prayed for their executioners, just before they were beheaded. Fuchida asked Kanegasaki why she had returned and taken such care of the Japanese. Kanegasaki told him it was because Japanese soldiers had killed her parents. Fuchida and his friend were bewildered by this, since they both believed in Bushido (teaching, among other things, that virtue requires revenge, to prove loyalty to a loved one whose honour has been disgraced).
Fuchida saw no rationale for Peggy’s forgiveness or any higher obligation to love someone, especially an enemy. He returned to Tokyo perplexed and curious about this Christian god.
While in Tokyo (1948) he was handed a tract by a Westerner at the train station. The tract was entitled I was a prisoner in Japan. It told the story of an American pilot (Jacob DeShazer) who was taken prisoner in China by the Japanese, sometime after participating in the famous ‘Doolittle’ air raid on Tokyo (April 1942). DeShazer had come to Christ while in the POW camp. Initially he had great hatred for his captors, until he began reading the Scriptures.
Like Covell, DeShazer had a passion to share the love of Christ with the Japanese and returned to became a missionary in Japan. Fuchida describes his reaction: ‘What I read was the fascinating episode which eventually changed my life … The peaceful motivation I had read about was exactly what I was seeking. Since the American had found it in the Bible, I decided to purchase one myself, despite my traditionally Buddhist heritage’.
Upon reading the Scriptures, especially Luke 23:34, Fuchida found the peace and love of Christ that he longed for and submitted his life to Christ. ‘Right at that moment, I seemed to meet Jesus for the first time. I understood the meaning of his death as a substitute for my wickedness, and so in prayer, I requested him to forgive my sins and change me from a bitter, disillusioned ex-pilot into a well-balanced Christian, with purpose in living’.
Fuchida spent the remainder of his life sharing the gospel in Japan and throughout the Far East. He stated: ‘Though my country has the highest literacy rate in the world, education has not brought salvation. Peace and freedom, both national and personal, come only through an encounter with Jesus Christ’.
Fuchida met DeShazer in May 1950 and they embraced as brothers in Christ. Fuchida went on to found a missions’ association and wrote and co-wrote many books throughout the remainder of his life. He was fully active in evangelism until his death, on 30 May 1976.
He wrote these words in 1953: ‘I would give anything to retract my actions of twenty-nine years ago at Pearl Harbor, but it is impossible. Instead, I now work at striking the death-blow to the basic hatred which infests the human heart and causes such tragedies. And that hatred cannot be uprooted without assistance from Jesus Christ.
‘He is the only one who was powerful enough to change my life and inspire it with his thoughts. He was the only answer to Jake DeShazer’s tormented life. He is the only answer for young people today’.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA
From Pearl Harbor to Calvary, Mitsuo Fuchida.
‘Mitsuo Fuchida: a forgotten story’, Christian Treasury.