80 years later, threads of Pearl Harbor attack reflect fabric of our national story | Goodspeed

·7 min read

Threads of history, the connections of events and people woven together, have shaped the past and the attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago reflects that fabric of our national story. Some of those threads appeared long before Dec. 7, 1941.

Thirty-seven years before, at another harbor fortress named Port Arthur, Japanese destroyers approached under the cover of darkness to attack an enemy at anchor.

The operation, which heavily damaged three Russian capital ships, drew interest in naval circles around the world, and newspaper headlines lauded the boldness and skill of the attack against an unsuspecting enemy.

Such was the interest in the subsequent Russo-Japanese War that in June 1905 one young honeymooner en route to Europe on board a passenger liner would take time away from his bride, much to her consternation, to spend hours conversing with a pair of Japanese naval officers en route to England to take command of two ships under construction there. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During the previous months, other officers of the Japanese Navy had engaged the Russian Fleet and won a lopsided victory in the Tsushima Straits, among them a recent graduate of Eta Jima, the Japanese Naval Academy. His name was Isoroku Yamamoto, the future mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Real heroes are defined by their actions outside of the playing field | Capt. Tim Kinsella

A Navarre man secured ground zero for 28 days after 9/11. It forever changed his life.

Actions of the likes of Port Arthur and Tsushima prompted tactical evaluation and spurred technology. Among the latter was the introduction of the dreadnaught by Great Britain in 1906, which inspired worldwide battleship construction, including in the United States, where Roosevelt, now assistant secretary of the Navy, attended the 1914 ceremony in which one of these battlewagons was christened with the name of a state, as was customary during that time. Her name was Arizona, the ship's destruction on the morning of Dec. 7 symbolic of the tragic events of that day.

That same year, a naval aeronautic station, the first of its kind in the U.S. Navy, became operational in the Florida Panhandle after an inspection of the site by Roosevelt. In the skies over Pensacola, the generations of naval aviators who would lead and fight in World War II first learned their craft.

In this Dec. 7, 1941 file picture, the battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP Photo)
In this Dec. 7, 1941 file picture, the battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP Photo)

98-year-old WWII veteran, NAS Pensacola employee reflects on military service, career

Among them was Ensign Logan Ramsey, who like other naval aviators of his generation, championed the cause of naval airpower and its potential for decisive application in naval warfare, sharing his opinions in Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute. One of his articles, published in August 1937, argued that while naval tacticians were beginning to understand the airplane as an effective weapon in attacking ships at sea, scant attention had been paid to the threats to a fleet in port.

The quotes from his article, "Aerial Attacks on Fleets at Anchor," are telling.

"Any transoceanic aerial raid would be undertaken, not with the purpose of destroying our cities or aircraft factories, but in the hope and expectation of inflicting damage upon our fleet while it is in port. Such a long-distance operation would involve great risk of loss to the enemy of the entire raiding force, either before or after it made its attack … . As the hazards in such an attempt would be enormous, compensating damage upon our fleet could hardly be inflicted unless the maximum force available should be employed."

Flash forward to the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and now-Lt. Cmdr. Logan Ramsey served as chief of staff to Rear Adm. Patrick N.L. Bellinger, commander of Patrol Wing Two, on Ford Island when he watched the first Japanese dive-bomber unleash its deadly ordnance. He immediately ordered the transmission of the famous flash message that stunned a Navy and a nation. "Air Raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not drill." The conjecture of 1937 had become the reality of 1941.

As the Japanese aircraft roared over the harbor, explosions rumbled throughout the area and the rattle of machine guns permeated the air. The sea breezes of peace now carried the pungent smell of burning oil. Lt. Cmdr. Ramsey's 16-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, joined other civilians seeking shelter, a silver bracelet she was wearing hit by shrapnel as she made her way out of their house, the jewelry and her high school yearbook sentimental items that she had grabbed in haste. Soon, a severely burned survivor of a battleship, his blue eyes luminescent against the black oil that covered his body, arrived at their shelter.

‘Crimson Test Tube’ one of the Naval Aviation Museum's most unique aircraft | Hill Goodspeed

"When I saw that first sailor, so horribly burned, personal fear left me. He brought to me the full tragedy of that day, drastically changing my outlook. At 16, the idea that any man could be the instrument of such desecration of another, in so hideous a manner, had been incomprehensible. I had read nothing in history books that could match the impact of those first 15 minutes in the shelter. … My sense of values, my self-centered world had been shaken and changed forever."

One of the strokes of good fortune that day for the U.S. Navy was the fact that the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers were at sea away from port, but a formation of SBD Dauntless dive bombers launched from USS Enterprise (CV 6) as she headed back to Pearl Harbor, unfortunately, arrived amid the Japanese attack.

Military history from Hill Goodspeed

One of the pilots was Ensign Walter Willis, a Minnesotan who served a tour in the Marine Corps before joining the Navy and becoming a naval aviator. He wrote frequent letters to his mother during his service. "I am now a qualified 'carrier pilot,' having checked out on the Saratoga with seven take-offs and landings aboard her — solo. Wasn't bad at all, in fact, a lot of fun," he wrote in November 1940.

Approaching Pearl Harbor, Willis and his wingman, Lt. j.g. Frank A. Patriarca, noticed smoke rising and altered their course to one that took them along the southern coast of Oahu. Suddenly, Japanese Zero fighters attacked the two planes, making firing passes at them from above and behind. As the Japanese planes attacked, Patriarca put his Dauntless into a steep dive and eventually shook his pursuers. He never saw Willis and his aircraft again.

First Blue Angels pilots were combat-seasoned. Many more have followed the same path.

How the Blue Angels got their start (and their cherished name) | Hill Goodspeed

All told, of the 18 Dauntless dive-bombers that launched that fateful morning, one was shot down by friendly fire and five others fell to Japanese aircraft. Not until Dec. 22, 1941, would a telegram arrive at 140 Eighth Ave. NE in Minneapolis informing Mrs. Marie Willis that her son was missing in action. Four days later, a personal letter from Rear Adm. John H. Towers arrived, this one bearing news that her son's status had been changed to killed in action.

The name Willis would carry on in the war that claimed his life. On Dec. 10, 1943, the destroyer escort Willis (DE 395) was placed in commission in Houston, Texas. Ironically, its combat actions came not against the Japanese, but in the Atlantic, serving in antisubmarine task groups hunting for U-boats. After Germany's surrender, Willis shifted to the Pacific Theater, arriving at Pearl Harbor on Aug. 7, 1945, 44 months to the day after her namesake flew into the midst of the first shots of the day of infamy and just days away from the end of World War II.

For millions of Americans, life changed eight decades ago and the threads of that moment in our history should always endure in our national memory just as the droplets of oil that still leak from the shattered hull of the Arizona beneath the waters of Pearl Harbor remind us of what happened one Sunday morning.

Hill Goodspeed is the historian for the National Naval Aviation Museum and a columnist for the News Journal.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Goodspeed: Pearl Harbor attack part of national story 80 years later