Why in the world did Japan make us mad?


THIS DAY NEVER PASSES without me pausing to remember it.

Pearl Harbor.

Even its name sends shivers crawling down my back.

Japanese warplanes.

A rain of bombs.

A reign of terror.

And when a doomed Sunday in Honolulu ended, more than 3,500 American boys lay dead. Eighteen ships, the pride of the Pacific Fleet, lay at the bottom of the sea.

We were at war.

I hadn’t been born when the bombs fell on December 7, 1941.

But twenty-three days later, I saw the light of day. And for the next four years, I felt and watched and heard the deadly rigors of war through the eyes and whispered thoughts of my parents.


My father made bombs. My mother farmed a Victory Garden. Money had been scarce before the war with the lingering cloud of The Great Depression still hanging like the plague above the land.

Sugar was rationed.

So was milk, coffee, butter, and meat.

Families suffered.

Gas was rationed.

So was steel and rubber.

They were all taken away and invested in the war effort: tires, tanks, weapons, planes. We could go hungry, but give our boys what they needed to fight. And protect them. And keep them safe.

Back in McGregor, Texas, we had a roof over our heads. But I went to sleep every night lightening to my mother pray that some Japanese bomb would not shatter it before morning.

We lived in uncertainty.

We didn’t live in fear.

But we lived in dread.

We saw young men climb on trains and leave. They were eager to fight. Mostly the young men didn’t come back.

Old men desperately tried to join the Army. If Uncle Sam needed them, they were ready to march. They were mad. They would carry carbines or shotguns or squirrel guns.

It didn’t matter.

Who were we fighting?

Where were we fighting?

That didn’t make any difference either.

Let’s fight.

I have never been able to understand the politics of war. It certainly must be planned and executed by the scrambled brains of mad men who suffer from delusions, illusion, and collusions. Who knows why grown men do what they do.

Germany was at war in the late thirties, and from the radio reports we heard, Hitler wanted to control all of Europe and possibly the Soviet Union. His soldiers and tanks were blasting their way through Poland and any other country – large or small – that got in his way. Some country would be an enemy today and an ally tomorrow.

It didn’t make sense then.

Still doesn’t.

We had a President who preferred to remain neutral. The dying was so far away from our shores. We sensed it, but we didn’t feel it. Not personally. Not yet. The destruction during 1940 had not touched us or wounded us in any way.

We kept an uneasy eye on Great Britain, France, Spain, and Belgium. But, as far as we were concerned, Hitler was Europe’s fight. It wasn’t ours.

Franklin Roosevelt wanted to stay out of the conflict. Besides, we had some of the world’s great industrialists, and they were making large fortunes selling to the manufacturing firms of Germany. Certainly, they wouldn’t sell to an enemy.

But Germany wasn’t an enemy.

In their eyes, Hitler was merely an importer, and our economic bottom line liked importers. They kept a lot of men working.

So here we were.

Minding our own business.

Staying out of trouble.

Staying out of the way.

And here came out of the blue – Japanese warplanes headed toward Pearl Harbor.

Why? Was Japan that stupid? A history professor later told me that Japan needed oil and gas and scrap iron.

We had some.

We wouldn’t let them have it.

So Japan came to take the spoils of war even if it warplanes had to start one. Pearly Harbor was Japan’s greatest victory and led to its greatest defeat.

Japan misjudged us. When the smoke cleared, we were in a fighting mood. Every man, woman, and child was ready to attack Japan – with knives and pitchforks if necessary. Get me a map. Where is it? Can I get there by train or by john boat? I’ll hitchhike if that’s what it takes.

And what did Hitler do?

He could have kept his mouth shut. He could have let us squander thousands of lives in the Pacific while he invaded all of Europe and patched together his empire without any disturbance at all from the good old U.S. of A. We weren’t going to bother him or even threaten him. The politicians might rave and rant a little, but politicians didn’t carry guns

The Fuhrer wasn’t our fight, they reasoned, and we were ready to let Europe live or die on its own.

But, no, Hitler was beside himself with jubilation. When he was briefed on the Pearl Harbor attack, he said, “We can’t lose the war at all. We now have an ally (Japan) which has never been conquered in three thousand years.”

Hitler simply couldn’t leave well enough alone. Four days after Pearl Harbor, he declared war on the United States. He planned to invade us. He never thought he would see us coming his way. He didn’t think our soldiers would ever leave their blood or footprints on German soil.

He was wrong. He might never realize it, but his dream of conquest began to fall apart on this day seventy-three years ago.

And four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we would strike Japan with the world’s deadliest weapon. On this day in 1941,  the atomic bomb was still nothing more than a figment in somebody imagination or on somebody chalk board.

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  • jack43

    I was blissfully unaware of WWII inasmuch as I wasn’t born until 1943. However, my cousins weren’t as lucky. There were vast age differences between my parents and their siblings and several of my cousins served, two dying on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

    That being said, I experienced the ravages of WWII vicariously as a student of history and war. My own experiences in Vietnam provided me with the knowledge and context to study war more expertly than most.

    I find war quite easy to understand. In fact, anyone who has ever known a bully should. Fundamentally, aggressors are bullies. They prey on the weak. The weak are those who don’t fight back. Cowards all, bullies recoil when they meet resistance, but with success they grow more brazen and begin testing their mettle against those who appear stronger though reluctant to exercise their strength. In time they form gangs and the mob mentality takes over. Then even the strong may become their victim.

    Now take that paradigm and study Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Tojo, any aggressor.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jack, you’ve explained it better than most history professors do. As long as we have two men left standing, there will be war. One is always stronger. One always wants it more. Still, only the Good Lord knows how long we would have stayed out of the war if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor and awaked the Sleeping Giant. We might not have fought until the U-Boats were docked in our own harbors.

      • jack43

        We were bound for war regardless. The attack on Pearl Harbor was merely an excuse.

        FDR campaigned on the promise of “no foreign entanglements” but there is ample proof that he knew he couldn’t keep it. He aided the Chinese and the Europeans, and inasmuch as everyone was beginning to acknowledge the importance of strategic and total war, it may be argued that the US was already a participant before Dec 7th. There is even a long standing debate that the fleet was positioned at Pearl Harbor as a tempting target to incite the attack. Fortunately, the battleships there were outmoded and no great loss. (The carriers were strangely absent)

        Oh, and incidentally, German U-Boats did transport dyes to Baltimore Harbor in exchange for gold bullion up until the US entry into the war.

  • Don Newbury

    It may yet be life’s most sobering moment, staring from the monument down into the now peaceful waters, waiting for the next drop of oil to appear from he wrecked ship below….I was one season past age four when the Japanese attacked, but I remember slivers of my parents’ words on that day….

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I understand, Don. I was not yet born, but I will never forget the look in my mother’s eyes when she spoke of Pearl Harbor. Eighty years later, it was as fresh on her mind as it was the day the attack happened.

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