Pearl Harbor after Pearl Harbor

Every year the United States pauses for a moment on December 7 to remember the “date that will live in infamy.”    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5166/  It is only one of a number of anniversaries that Americans mark by the date — July 4, 9/11, December 7 — but among the most important.  The interest peaks every 12/7, as this Google Trends analysis shows:

First

The peaks are the beginning of December of each year as the nation turns to Hawaii and then, when the moment passes, turns away again.  There are other historical events in the Pacific War to move on to:  the fall of Wake Island, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and so.  The dominant narrative of the war is locked into those highlights, one coming after the other.  Here is the Google Trends graph for “Coral Sea:”

Second

It shows the same, if somewhat lower, peaks and valleys as the Pearl Harbor graph.

While the historical narrative shines its light in various places and then moves on, the actual history kept going in those places.  Those left alive in Oahu after the Japanese attack on December 7 woke up the next day, December 8, and the next, December 9, and set to work recovering the base, the ships, and themselves.  Pearl Harbor, the military base, remained, even after Pearl Harbor, the historical event, had passed.

Wreckage littered the harbor in the water and on land.  Gas and oil slicked surfaces.  The ruins of ships still burned fiercely.  Bodies and body parts were everywhere. The survivors, still stunned by the attack and worried about a renewed assault or even an amphibious landing, had to set about clearing everything.  It was an awful experience.  John Harold Chapman, a sailor on the West Virginia  http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.11756 spent the day after the attack dealing with the dead bodies on the USS Arizona:

Geez what a mess.  The men on top were still intact, but the men down below were cooked raw.  They had been steamed.  The fire had been raging underneath them for 12 hours and they were steamed.  We tried to grab them by the leg and the whole flesh would come off the  leg.  We tried to grab the bone and the bone came off.  Men were getting sick and heaving over the side.

Third

In addition to the cleanup, there was resurrection.  Ships, unlike men, could be brought back to life.  The shattered hulks on battleship row were potentially salvageable and so each was evaluated for potential repair.  The Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah were beyond hope, but the rest could be raised out of the water and fixed.  As the months went by, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cofferdam cofferdams sprouted around the gashes in the bulkheads, water was pumped out, and the ships were raised.  The ships that could not be raised were left where they were, blackened reminders of the disaster of December 7.

The foremast of the Arizona, an iconic presence since the attack, was cut down and hauled ashore on 6 May 1942, serving as as good an end point to the recovery as any.  Work continued throughout the war, but perhaps without the desperation of those first few months.  That same day, American forces in the Philippines finally surrendered, and the Battle of Coral Sea continued.  The former could be seen as the end of the beginning of the Pacific War, a period of almost uninterrupted Japanese victories, and the latter the beginning of next phase, as the United States successfully pushed back.  Despite the repairs and its continuing use as a naval base, in some ways Pearl Harbor would never advance beyond December 7, 1941, at 7:55 am, as the Sunday bands played, and the Japanese planes first tilted down over the water.  That image, at least, could not be fixed.

David Silbey, Associate Director, Cornell in Washington,
Adjunct Associate Professor, Cornell History Department