The Attack on Pearl Harbor Proved that Radar is More than a Toy

Amid the exotic eye candy and glorious luxury of Hawaii, it’s ok to interrupt regularly scheduled programming and take time not only to learn, but to honor.

Pearl Harbor and The USS Arizona Memorial truly should be imperative on everyone’s itinerary. I was in awe–of how little I know about this era; about the planning involved in the attack; about the good intentions gone wrong; about the Japanese knowledge of what they could do in the short term and could not do in the long term.

How Did the U.S. and Japan Come to Battle in WWII?

Japan was on an expansion mission to control Asia. They wanted oil and any resource they could access. To do this, they instigated undeclared war on China, occupied Indochina, signed the Tri-Partite Pact with Germany and Italy.

In response, the U.S. seized assets and cut off oil exports to Japan. The American motivation was two-fold: balance, and to protect our own interests in the region. No surprise, that did not go over well.

Why Was Pearl Harbor a Target?

The United States territorialized Hawaii purely for military reasons. It gave us  a base in the Pacific: a port; and a refueling location.

With the Japanese activity in Asia, Roosevelt turned the boats around in Pearl Harbor to face Japan–4,000 miles away. The thought was that it would deter Japanese aggression. Instead, Japan called it a dagger at the throat.

With that, Japan began plans to wipe out the American Pacific fleet. Once eliminated, Japan could continue their course of acquisition before the U.S. could rebuild, and Japan’s domination would be a fait accompli.

U.S. Military Intelligence

They knew an attack was coming, but they never conceived of an air attack–and they weren’t entirely sure it would come at Pearl Harbor. Day after day, drills practiced ground maneuvers–and they were well prepared had that been the course of events. But it wasn’t.

The American plane fleet was inadequate at best, anyway. But fearing saboteurs, the planes were unloaded of bombs and artillery, and lined up wing tip to wing tip–making them hard to steal; but ultimately supremely easy targets for Japanese destruction.

Japanese Planning and Commitment

Assigned with the task of taking out the American fleet, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto followed orders, but knew in his heart that ultimately they would only “wake a sleeping giant.” He was right.

But first, he planned and accomplished the largest aircraft carrier strike ever.

The Japanese military planned this attack for a year–using publicly available maps and charts. Each pilot trained with his plane until he knew it as well as a jockey knows his racehorse. They developed a weapon that could sink ships in shallow water, adapting torpedoes with wooden fins.

Their fleet then moved 4,000 miles for 12 days in radio silence–undetected. Mattresses covered the ships to protect them from inevitable shrapnel. And 350 planes went in for two waves of attacks that crippled–but didn’t paralyze–the American fleet.

Radar is More than a Nifty Gizmo

As the first wave of 183 planes came in, American military crew noticed the movement on radar and reported it. They were told to ignore it, as U.S. planes were due in from the mainland within the hour–these were likely they.

In retrospect, they clearly weren’t. And radar took on a greater role in future military endeavors.

The Battle of Pearl Harbor

In two hours the Japanese sent in two waves of planes, causing massive destruction. Twenty-one vessels sunk (and all but three were later restored); 300 aircraft were destroyed; 3,500 people were killed–many of them drowned in their sunken ships. The USS Arizona burned for two-and-a-half days; it had just refueled.

Fourteen American planes were able to take flight, and in turn took down 29 Japanese planes. Japan lost 69 men; and the first POW ever was taken by the Americans. Hardly an equal loss–but their time would come.

This was “the date that will live in infamy.”

One Day Leads to Three Years of War

The U.S. recovered more quickly than Japan anticipated. And as the Admiral predicted, the sleeping giant awoke–with anger. War raged for three years, putting Japan in its place until surrender, with the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

I’ve seen this image countless times but never connected the dots that it relates to Pearl Harbor. Sure, I could have read more history; but I’m also disappointed in my formal education that I didn’t know that–or actually, any of this.

Yes, field trips cost money. But imaginative teaching doesn’t. Putting things into context vs staying theoretical takes more effort for the teacher, but gives them so much more from their student. I was in high school honors classes and went to a top college–I’m not gloating; I’m expressing my stunned state at what I don’t know. I can postulate and write; but I don’t know how things connect. This cross-country trip is teaching me about the incredible gap in American education. I don’t yet know what my role will be in it, but know that I will always vote to fund the library and to pay inspired teachers what they’re worth.

The USS Arizona Memorial

The memorial was the most compelling I’ve seen–for good and for bad, as I’ve had the chance to see many around the world. It’s all white: heavenly, ethereal. Open space, open air, open sky, open water.

USS Arizona Memorial aerial view

The memorial sits over the sunken ship

USS Arizona Memorial

Photos courtesy of Flickr

USS Arizona Memorial aerial viewParts of the ship are visible above water

Oil from the USS Arizona

Oil continues to surface from the Arizona’s tanks. Tests show that it causes no harm to wildlife;
and therefore they leave it be–better not to disturb the cemetery below.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Reserved Parking for Veterens at Pearl Harbor

My heart swells

In the blink of an eye I had spent four hours at Pearl Harbor. Sure, I could have been at the beach or hiking, but without the context of having the ability to do such things, it’s ignorant bliss; not pure bliss.


Where have you learned how much you don’t know?

7 Responses


You ask when did I learn how much I didn’t know? When I read blogs like this one. Thank you.

Wonderful history lesson! Thanks!


I know what you mean about the sad state of our education. I am shocked by how little I know about so many things, despite the privilege of so much education! Travelling definitely helps me fill in the gaps and learn more about the world.


This was great! Ive been to PH and forgot how moving it was. Thanks for reminding me.

I learned quite a bit about this from reading the book Unbroken, which is about a US pilot, who was sent to Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and who was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese. It is goes into a lot of detail about how unprepared our air force was. It also gives a terrible history lesson on why we did not pursue the Japanese military leaders for their war crimes. They were very cruel in their killing and elimination of many small pacific and asian populations during WWII, but you never here about it because we wanted to maintain our good relations with Japan.

It is amazing how much history you can learn by reading and if you saw the reading list of junior high and high schoolers now you would think your education was amazing. I agree with you our education system is lacking for sure! Awesome BLOG PAULA!! I learn so much reading it! xoxoxo

Danielle – thanks for the book rec–it’s going on my GoodReads list. And we’ll see how it fares with my first world problems….

We visited Pearl Harbor a few years ago. When I watched the film in the Visitor’s Center, I sat next to an older Japanese gentleman. Indeed, many of the visitors were Japanese. Japan is now a big supporter of the tourist industry in Hawaii. Many of the stores and restaurants on Waikiki advertise that they have Japanese speakers and there are menus in Japanese. I should be less naive, but it is always still shocking to me that our species still fights wars.

One place I learned what I didn’t know was visiting the World War I battlefields around Ypres. Senseless slaughter on steroids.
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