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Wednesday June 29, 2022

Tora, Tora, Tora – This is no Drill : Part I

USS Arizona memorial

The white boat was twenty feet long, white seats went across and the top was covered. It gently rocked from side to side, one by one people from a long line gingerly stepped on to the boat. They looked to their left to search for a seat. I was already seated at the last row and at the edge with a clear view across the still blue water. The boat slowly filled up. I looked around, taking in my surroundings. The boat belonged to the United States Navy. At the helm, an officer of the United States Navy adjusted his cap and placed his left hand on the silver wheel. He peered ahead, getting ready for the short journey.

Two hundred meters away, a white structure, one story high, rose out of the water – the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. It was our destination on this boat ride. I was in the capital city of Honolulu in the US state of Hawaii. It is located on an island named Oahu in the Pacific Ocean. Oahu is one of the islands that make the State of Hawaii. The name comes from the largest island which is named Hawaii.

On Board USS Arizona War Memorial. Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

The morning sky was a clear blue. Pearl Harbor was a major base of the US Navy and the Pacific Fleet was stationed at that location. This involved eight battleships, several support ships and planes and thousands of personnel.

I looked at the sky again, it was clear blue. It had been a beautiful morning, just like this one, on 7 December 1941. It was a Sunday, families were getting dressed for church. Its serenity was shattered by the sound of approaching airplanes. Nobody had paid much attention. Pearl Harbor was after all, a military base, full of ships and airplanes. At that time the US Navy was not aware of the Japanese aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean which were about to launch hundreds of warplanes towards Pearl Harbor. Till then the US had no interest in the war raging in Europe and Asia. But that peace would be shattered in moments.

It was a Sunday, families were getting dressed for church. Its serenity was shattered by the sound of approaching airplanes. Nobody had paid much attention. Pearl Harbor was after all, a military base, full of ships and airplanes.

The clock just approached 7.55 a.m. The first wave of Japanese fighters arrived over Pearl Harbor. Bombs and torpedoes rained down. A few minutes later the planes turned back towards their aircraft carriers far away. The airwaves over Pearl Harbor crackled with two different messages. From the Japanese warplanes went out the following encoded message to their commanders: “Tora, Tora, Tora….” It was a code that meant the first attack had been a success. The element of surprise had been exploited to the hilt. From the American side, the calls went out, crisp and clear: “Air Raid Pearl Harbor this is no drill”

Pearl Harbor was under attack. The nature of the war raging in Europe and Asia would change. The USA would declare war and join the Allied forces.

Two further waves of Japanese fighters would follow soon after. Many of these planes were flown by Kamikaze pilots trained for suicide missions: they were required to fly directly into targeted ships. Eight battleships were thus -hit. Seven of them were salvaged later and some even put back into action. The exception was the battleship USS Arizona. The bombs landed on the part of the ship that stored ammunition.

tora tora tora
TORA! TORA! TORA! Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

USS Arizona went up in a ball of flames and quickly sank, leading to the loss of more than a thousand lives on board. It was not possible to salvage the wreck and the ship still lies where it had sunk in the harbor’s shallow waters. Two rusted round parts belonging to the chimneys protrude ten feet above the water. The bodies of over nine hundred sailors could not be recovered from the wreck and remain entombed in their watery grave. The attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in more than two thousand four hundred casualties, was a historically significant one: it played a decisive role in the United States joining the Second World War against Japan and its allies.

In 1962, twenty-one years after the event, a white edifice would be constructed across the sunken ship to serve as a memorial. It is visited by almost two million people every year and we were soon going to add to those numbers.

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