*Editor's note: The following is a handwritten account and history lesson by Commander Henry D. Davison, U.S. Navy (ret) of Dec. 7, 1941, the events leading up to and the state of the soldiers after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Davison passed away Feb. 17, 1999. However, he was one of roughly half of the crewmembers aboard the U.S.S. Arizona who survived the surprise attack. The letter was contributed by the Davison family, who live in Waxahachie, and retyped for print by WDL staff in its entirety. On behalf of the entire WDL staff, thank you, soldiers. To those who have served, are serving or will in the future, thank you for protecting our freedoms.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was one of the greatest tragedies of the American involvement in World War II. The carefully planned surprise attack on that sleepy Sunday morning in December immediately awakened a great nation’s sleeping patriotism. Now awakened fully from the Great Depression this incident united a country of diverse opinion and catapulted it into the heart of World War II. As President Roosevelt proclaimed, this tragedy was “A day to live in infamy.”
The United States’ decision to enter into World War II was not solely based on the events that unfolded at Pearl Harbor. Earlier events influenced the United States Government in their decision. Pearl was the final major factor.
Several incidents involving the American Navy had already happened in the Atlantic. There had been several incidents where U.S. Destroyers and German U-Boats had clashed. In September 1941, the U.S. Destroyer Greer was attacked while trailing a German U-Boat. On October 17, the scoring Destroyer USS Kearny, while engaged in a battle with U-boats, lost 11 men when it was crippled. Two weeks later, the destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk off Southwestern Ireland with the loss of more than 100 officers and men (Bailey/Kennedy, 790).
In the time before the attack, Americans knew that they would eventually go to war with Japan, but there was a feeling of invincibility.
“Those days, we all knew we were going to be at war with Japan sooner or later. But we thought we could lick them with one hand. In a way, maybe we even looked forward to it,” stated Commander Henry D. Davison, USN (ret), who was the officer on the deck of the USS Arizona during the attack.
Before the attack, there had been warning signs that were ignored that perhaps, if noted, could have not necessarily prevented the attack but would have allowed the U.S. level of preparedness and then Pearl Harbor might not have been as big a tragedy as it was. An unidentified submarine had been detected a week or so earlier, near a cruising fleet on it, for example. But higher-ups had not seen fit to establish any sort of effective security patrol.
Even on the morning of December 7th, there were warning signs that were just shrugged off. One such incident occurred at the Army’s Opana radar station near Kahului Point on the northern tip of Oahu. The Opana Station was one of five mobile units set up at strategic points around the perimeter of Oahu. They were all linked to an information center at Fort Shafter, which kept track of the plots picked up by the station. At 7:02, Privates Joseph Lockard and George Elliot picked a huge flight of planes on the radar at 137 miles to the north and three degrees east. The message was relayed to the information station to Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, who was unimpressed and stated, “Well, don’t worry about it.” This rapidly approaching swarm of planes was thought to be a flight of B-17s coming from the mainland. At 7:39 am on December 7, 1941, the First wave of Japanese attack planes were located 22 miles from Oahu. They were detected and ignored. (Lord, 41-45)
The last examples of early detection of the Japanese would be the USS Ward’s encountering and destroying of a midget submarine. Two minutes before 0400 (4:00 AM), Ensign L.F. Platt, USNR, notified Lieutenant William Woodard, outer bridge skipper of the USS Ward, that a blinker signal had been received from the minesweeper Condor, informing Ward that she had detected a suspicious object in the darkness to the westward of her sweep area and that she believed it to have been a submarine. At 0651 (6:51 am) the USS Ward had destroyed a Japanese midget sub and sent a message to Pearl Harbor, “We have attacked, fired upon and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in the defensive area.” (Karic/Kelley, 13-16)
At 7:55 am the first attack force of Japanese Zeros reached Pearl Harbor and launched the surprise attack. Despite all of the early warning signs the U.S, Pacific fleet that was stationed at Pearl was caught napping. To the Japanese, the planes lined in neat rows to prevent to prevent sabotage, and the ships in battleship row, were perfect targets.
Most of the people that heard the sound of the aircraft thought that the army was continuing their wargames of the past week. Upon seeing that planes dividing and even after noticing the red meatballs on the wings that identified them as Japanese, the men did not believe that this was really happening. Their first thought was that the army was being ultra-realistic in their games. It wasn’t until the first bombs had been dropped that people realized that this wasn’t a game or drill, but the real thing. Shocking as the first emotion then anger.
Moored in the harbor that morning were eight battleships, nine cruisers, more than a score of destroyers and five submarines. The hospital ship Solace was out there at anchor and there were supply ships, repair ships, tenders, fleet tugs, oilers, gunboats, PTs — ships of many varieties. There were 86 combatant and service ships of the Pacific fleet in all, not counting smaller or yard craft and auxiliaries, missing were the ships of the two carrier task forces at sea and the few vessels on duty outside the harbor.
When talking about Pearl Harbor, there are several basic questions that arise. The first one of those is how big was the Japanese striking force? There were 31 ships, six carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, nine destroyers, three submarines, and eight tankers.
The Japanese air strength numbered 432 planes used as follows: 39 for combat air patrol, 40 for reserve, 353 for the raid, Another question that arises is what was the strength of the Japanese advance expeditionary force? Probably 28 submarines – 11 with small planes, five with the famous midget subs.
The losses that the Americans incurred at Pearl were great, but the greatest was the loss of 2,403 lives. The American casualties that occurred at Pearl Harbor were great in all branches of the survivors in the Navy. Two thousand and eight were killed and 710 were wounded, according to the Navy Bureau of Medicine. Marines – 109 killed and 69 wounded, according to Corps Headquarters. Army – 218 killed, 364 wounded, according to Adjutant General’s figures. Civilian – 68 killed, 35 wounded, according to the University of Hawaii War Records Depository. Of the 2403 killed, nearly half were lost when the Arizona blew up.
At Pearl Harbor 18 ships were sunk or seriously damaged.
Lost: Battleships Arizona and Oklahoma, Target Ship Utah, Destroyers Cassin and Downes.
Sunk or beached but later salvaged: battleships West Virginia California and Nevada; minelayer Oglala, Damaged: Battleships Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania; Cruiser Helena, Honolulu and Raleigh, destroyer Shaw and seaplane Tender Curtiss, repair ship Vestal.
At the airfields 188 planes were destroyed — 96 Army and 92 Navy. An additional 128 Army and 31 Navy planes were damaged. The hardest hit airfields were Kaneohe and EWA. Of the 82 planes caught at these two fields, only one was in shape to fly at the end of the raid. During the attack, there were about 40 explosions in the city of Honolulu — all except one, the result of U.S. anti-aircraft fire. These explosions did about $500,000 worth of damage.
Even though the Japanese were extremely successful in their surprise attack, this crippled U.S. fleet fought back and caused some Japanese losses. Tokyo sources agree that this striking force lost only 29 planes, nine fighters, 15 dive-bombers and five torpedo planes. In addition, the advanced expeditionary force lost one large submarine and five midgets (submarines). The Japanese personal loss totaled 55 airmen, nine crewmen on the midget subs, plus an unknown number on the large submarine.
Although the physical losses of Pearl Harbor were great, the greatest tragedy was the emotional effect that the attack had on the survivors’ morale. This effort is best stated by Pearl Harbor survivor and Commander Davison, USN (ret) of the Arizona.
“The strongest feeling I have now, as well as then, is that life had suddenly changed. We went to bed confident young men in the early stage of our careers. We were aware that the world was in a state of turmoil but that we (as a nation) could handle it and that our role whenever it happened would be adventurous and thrilling. I think we sort of looked forward to it. Maturity was thrust upon us overnight. Fantasy changed to reality and we now saw war for what it was — a long grim prospect with no pleasant aspect whatsoever. Even stronger is my feeling of sadness for my seven classmates lost in the Arizona as well as all other young men like them.
"Suddenly, with no chance to oppose it, with no warning at all, their futures were terminated. No chance to marry. No chance to have a family. No chance to develop their budding professionalism— no chance whatsoever to make their contributions to the world we live in. We repaired most of our ships. We went on as a navy and as a country to success. They were denied all opportunity to play their part. I think that is the real tragedy of Pearl Harbor.”
— Information cited by Davison in the article can be found in books: "The American Pageant" by Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy; “History of the 5th Air Force” by Karic and Kelley; “Day of Infamy” by Walter Lord; “I was there” — December 1941 by Walter Lord. There is also a table located at nationalgeographic.com/pearlharbor/history/pearlharbor_timeline that contains information but is not cited.