“A turning point in American history.” “The start of World War II for the United States.” “A date which will live in infamy,” in the eloquent words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Each description has been used to memorialize the Japanese attack on the U.S. military at Pearl Harbor, and each is accurate. With the exception of the attacks of Sept. 11, no attack on U.S. soil in over 200 years has impacted our nation more than the early morning Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed in the then-U.S. territory of Hawaii.
The surprise Sunday morning attack began at approximately 8 a.m. as a force of 353 Japanese airplanes, six aircraft carriers and 24 supporting enemy vessels, assisted by submarines, started to pummel American warships — including eight battleships — and aircraft with ammunition in hopes of claiming the region for Japan. Within two hours, the attack was over. A total of 2,403 Americans, including 68 civilians, lost their lives and 1,178 combined military troops and civilians were wounded.
Historians say about half of the American casualties that day were 1,177 crewmen, including at least 24 Kentuckians, who served on the battleship USS Arizona that was hit by an armor-piercing bomb, causing the ship to explode, catch fire, and sink. That vessel is the site of a memorial that commemorates all military personnel killed in the attack, including those who served on the USS Arizona, at least 20 other ships that were sunk or damaged in the attack, and U.S. aircraft — most destroyed or damaged before they could take flight.
Some of the most heart-wrenching losses from the attack were multiple casualties that occurred within one family.
There were casualties among 37 sets of brothers on the USS Arizona alone, including Rayon and Estelle Birdsell and twins Delbert and John Anderson. Delbert and Rayon died in the attack; John and Estelle survived. Malcolm Holman O’Bryan and Joseph Benjamin O’Bryan — two brothers from New Hope, Kentucky, located not far from Bardstown — were killed in action on the ship, as were brothers Donald Lee Keniston and Kenneth Howard Keniston of Cincinnati.
Among fathers and sons who died in service at Pearl Harbor that fateful morning were Thomas Augusta Free of Texas and his son, William Thomas Free — the only father and son killed in action while serving together on the USS Arizona.
Every single tragedy became a call to action that galvanized the nation through its grief, shock and anger. The United States became an unstoppable foe to enemies throughout the Pacific and European theaters of the war. And Allied victory was the ultimate result.
Today, approximately 680 World War II veterans are dying each day, according to recent U.S. Veterans Administration figures. By 2036, the VA estimates there will be no living World War II veterans left to share their experiences. Now is the time to honor them — and those who have passed on — and their sacrifice, whether they served at Pearl Harbor or another point in the war.