An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Pearl Harbor Remembered

Dec 7, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Professor Elder, we are approaching December 7th, a day that will “live forever in infamy”. Why was this event such a tragic one in American history?

USS Arizona - Foremast Structure, Conning Tower and Top of Turret #2

This was one of the worst tragedies in our history for a number of reasons. First, there was the loss of life that day. It ranks third in American history for most deaths in one day. Second, it started our nation’s involvement in a world-wide conflict that would result in 400,000 American deaths. Finally, the United States citizenry recognized from that point on that there was always a possibility of another devastating sneak attack upon our populace.

  1. Were the forces at Pearl Harbor at all prepared for any type of attack?

The government had given the top ranking Army and Navy officers at Pearl Harbor warnings that a Japanese military operation was impending. Unfortunately, neither the Army nor the Navy seemed to have understood that Pearl Harbor could be a target. Fearing sabotage more than an actual attack, the Army commander had his airplanes park in close proximity to each other, thus ironically making the Japanese task of destroying our airplanes that much easier.

  1. Was there any intelligence at all that this was planned?

There has been a controversy for the last 70 years regarding what US intelligence personnel knew about Japanese intentions. It seems clear that the US knew the Japanese were planning a military operation for early December of 1941, but beyond that historians split into two camps. One group believes that there were indications that Pearl Harbor would be a target (a Soviet merchant fleet spotted the Japanese convoy heading towards Pearl Harbor but the report seems to have never been acted on, for example), while the other group believes that there was nothing that suggested an attack of that nature. I tend to fall into the second category.

4) There seem to be key turning points in many wars- was this one? If so why?

Here again, there is a debate in historical circles about the effect of the US entry into the war against the Germans and Italians (after the US declared war on Japan, Hitler and Mussolini had declared war on the US). Some argue that the USSR would have defeated the Germans and Italians anyway, while others maintain that the US played an important role in that victory. What is clear, however, is that Japan lost everything it had gained in its military campaigns in Asia prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

5) Who was actually in charge or in command at that time at that base?

Lieutenant General Walter Short commanded Army forces at Pearl Harbor (the Air Force was part of the Army in those days), while Admiral Husband Kimmel commanded the naval forces.

6) Many of our current students have obviously seen the movie Pearl Harbor- have you seen it and how accurate a depiction is it?

Sunken USS Arizona - Turrets #3 and 4

I was amazed at how realistically the attack at Pearl Harbor was portrayed in that movie. All of the ships that are shown being sunk actually did sink. And some Army Air Corps pilots did manage to take off and engage the enemy. From that point on there are some glaring inaccuracies, but the attack itself is portrayed quite well.

7) How many Americans died that day? And who kept a historical account?

There are fairly consistent numbers reported of US fatalities. Counting civilians, 2400 Americans died that day. It was difficult to ascertain how many had died, as in the confusion many individuals could not report for a roll call the next day. Gradually, the bodies that could be identified were identified, establishing a base number. Then, the names of those who were not reporting for roll call but hadn’t been identified as deceased were listed as Missing In Action. Over the next few months, those individuals who were unaccounted for were transferred from Missing In Action, To Killed In Action. That’s where the number 2400 comes from.

8)  Is there any one historian who has made it their life’s work to study this day of infamy?

Gordon Prange is the historian most associated with the study of Pearl Harbor. Edwin Hoyt would be second in my estimation.

9)  Is there any record as to who wrote the phrase “a day that will live forever in infamy”?

When Franklin Roosevelt sat down to write his message to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Japan, he initially wrote “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a day that will live in history.” But he edited his speech and substituted the phrase “a date that will live in infamy.” This, of course, gave us that memorable quote.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

As always, you have asked great questions!

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