Pearl Harbor wasn’t always a place of war

Umi Perkins

HONOLULU—Seventy years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the famous speech that marked a day, and a place, that would “live in infamy.” But Puʻuloa, or Wai Momi, later called Pearl Harbor, was not always associated with war. A kupua, or shapeshifter, Kaʻahupahau (named in the famous song “Pupu a o Ewa”) was said to guard the harbor in the form of a shark. Many ahupuaʻa, with names beginning with “wai,” met the shore at Puʻuloa—Waimalu, Waiawa, Waiau, Waipiʻo, Waikele—showing the importance of this body of water and its abundant seafood.

The association with Pearl Harbor in the popular imagination, however, began with Roosevelt’s speech: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor might have been averted. Some contend that officials had prior knowledge of the possibility of the attack. As Gwenfread Allen explains:

“At 3:42 a.m. on December 7, 1941, the minesweeper Condor sighted a submarine periscope off the entrance of Pearl Harbor. Since this was an area where no American submarine traveled submerged, the Condor immediately notified the destroyer Ward. Inshore waters were searched for an hour and a half but without success.

“At 6:30 a.m., the destroyer answered a similar alert from the target repair ship Antares and this time located the submarine, apparently trailing the Antares into Honolulu Harbor. The Ward fired on the intruder—the first American shots of World War II—and scored a hit. After the crippled submarine went down, a Navy plane joined the destroyer in a depth charge attack ...

“Meanwhile, two Army privates were completing their three-hour training period at an isolated radar station in the hills between Waialua and Kahuku ... Suddenly the radar screen was covered with markings unlike any they had ever seen before ... Since the lookouts were officially off duty after 7:00 a.m., they debated whether or not to follow the usual routine of notifying the information center. At 7:20 a.m. they decided to phone, but by that time everyone had left the center except the telephone operator and a lieutenant ... [who] assumed that the planes were the B-17s, which he knew were flying in from the Mainland and dismissed the matter.”

Just before 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began. The Japanese planes fired at American planes at Ewa and Pearl Harbor, attacked “battleship row” next to Ford Island, and airfields at Hickham Field, Kaneʻohe Naval Air Station and Wheeler Field in Wahiawā. By 8:30 a.m., seven battleships had been hit, including the West Virginia, California, Arizona, Tennesee, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma. After attempting to escape to sea, the Nevada was grounded to prevent blocking the harbor entrance.

Radio stations began to announce that the attack was happening. At 8:04 a.m., KGMB called all military personnel to report to duty. The first public announcement of the attack, at 8:40 a.m. said “a sporadic air attack has been made on Oahu. ... Enemy airplanes have been shot down ... the rising sun has been sighted on the wingtips!” Another announced “This is no maneuver ... This is the real McCoy!” The public was ordered to stay off of telephones, store water, stay off the street, and listen to the radio for updates.

The attack took the lives of 2,323 military personnel, mainly from the Navy, and another 1,500 were injured. Civilians also experienced effects of the attack. Shells fell on the grounds of ʻIolani Palace (then Territorial Governor Joseph Poindexterʻs office), and Kamehameha Schools at Kapālama. Fires broke out in McCully, and 57 civilians were killed by fire from planes. This sequence of events is depicted in the film Tora! Tora! Tora!—the title refers to a torpedo attack—made by both American and Japanese filmmakers in 1970.

Just after noon on December 7, Lieutenant General Walter C. Short met with Governor Poindexter to discuss the instituting of martial law. Despite the fact that governor Poindexter, as a civilian, was “not very keen about having martial law,” General Short felt that the Territory “could be better handled through martial law than by civil authorities.”

General Short publicly announced: “I have this day assumed the position of military governor of Hawaii, and have taken charge of the government of the Territory.” He called President Roosevelt a few minutes later. The President urged imposing marital law for “a reasonably short time.” Firmly in place by the next day, martial law continued for nearly three years. While the military assumed control of most vital government functions, there was actually a complex division of powers that left some minor functions to the civilian government.

The governor’s power to declare martial law, contained in the 1900 Organic Act, included the right to suspend the writ of habeas corpus—the right to trail by jury—and allowed the military governor to “exercise the powers normally exercised by judicial officers” (Allen, 1950, 36). The general’s proclamation stated to the populace:

“The imminence of attack by the enemy and the possibility of invasion make necessary a stricter control of your actions than would be necessary or proper at other times. I shall therefore publish ordinances governing the conduct of the people of the territory with respect to the showing of lights [to deter attacks at night], circulation, meetings, censorship, possession of arms, ammunition, and explosives, the sale of intoxicating liquors, and other subjects.”

Some Hawaiʻi residents, including civil libertarians, professors, and some in the business community opposed the restrictions imposed by martial law. Others did not. There was some discussion of deporting Japanese American residents, but others called it “economic suicide” to deport the more than 40 percent of Hawaiʻiʻs population that Japanese Americans made up. Over 500 local Japanese were actually interned at Honouliuli Internment Camp and Sand Island on Oahu, Kilauea Military Camp on the Big Island, Haiku Internment Camp on Maui, and the Kalaheo Stockade on Kauai. Japanese newspapers such as the Hawaii Hochi and Nippu Jiji were carefully monitored by the Army. According to social historian Lawrence Fuchs, anti-Japanese sentiment did not only come from the military or Caucasian elites, but from other ethnic groups as well. Because of their numbers, however, most historians hold that Japanese in Hawaiʻi were treated better than those in the continental United States.

The true significance of the Pearl Harbor attack can only be estimated through “what if?” scenarios. But two facts are clear: For the world, the entrance of the United States into World War II was of monumental significance in turning the tide of the war for the allied forces, and for Hawaiʻi, Pearl Harbor began a period of martial law that has been understudied and under-appreciated.