A “Day That Will Live in Infamy” Told Through Pictures


In the sparkling blue waters off the coast of Oahu, the massive hulk of the USS Arizona sits frozen, a snapshot of tragedy from more than seventy years ago. A watery tomb for many of the ship’s crew, the sunken remnant represents the first American casualties of a war destined to consume the entire world.

To this day, the Arizona mourns her fallen crew. Seven decades later, tiny droplets of oil continue to leak from the sunken battleship, collecting on the surface where visitors can observe these “Tears of the Arizona.” And the sense of mourning is mutual. Occasionally, when one of the ill-fated ship’s survivors dies, they elect to rejoin the fallen crew of the Arizona as their final resting place, a solemn act that reunites the comrades in death.

Despite the intensity and chaos of the attack, a few photographs of the devastation exist, snapped during and in the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack. They tell a story of a wounded nation, filled with terrible resolve. Indeed, the sleeping giant was now wide awake and ready to avenge the losses at Pearl Harbor.

In addition to the crippled battleships littering the harbor, Japanese aircraft strafed the nearby airfields. The burning and bullet-riddled frames of the U.S. fighters capture the true extent of the surprise, destroyed before they could even leave the ground.

A break in the thick smoke choking the horizon reveals the towers of the badly damaged battleships, USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee. Moored side-by-side in the harbor’s Battleship Row, the pair of battleships fought valiantly to repel the Japanese aircraft while keeping the ships above water. Fifteen sailors received the Medal of Honor that day, including the Captain of the West Virginia when he refused to leave his post, even after an exploding shell mortally wounded him, instead directing his crew’s efforts.

After spreading fires forced the crew to abandon the USS Shaw, the raging flames reached the ship’s forward magazine, resulting in a tremendous explosion and a spectacular photograph. But the Shaw also serves as a symbol of the military’s resilience. Despite the tremendous damage, the Navy repaired the Shaw within months of the attacks, and the destroyer would go on to serve throughout the war, earning eleven battled stars.

Tragic as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was, it was only a prelude to the looming devastation awaiting U.S. forces in the field of Europe and the Islands of the East Pacific.

Images (from top to bottom):
1) Sailors stand amid wrecked planes at the Ford Island seaplane base, watching as USS Shaw explodes in the center background, 7 December 1941. USS Nevada (BB-36) is also visible in the middle background, with her bow headed toward the left. Planes present include PBY, OS2U and SOC types. Wrecked wing in the foreground is from a PBY., U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives Collection; 2) An aerial view of the USS Arizona Memorial with a US Navy (USN) Tour Boat, USS Arizona Memorial Detachment, moored at the pier as visitor disembark to visit and pay their respects to the Sailors and Marines who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, USN photo by PH3 Jayme Pastoric; 3) The battleship USS ARIZONA sinking after being hit by Japanese air attack on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Navy photo, National Archives; 4) Another casualty of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, this photograph was taken seconds after the plane exploded, from the Claude Larkin Collection (COLL/791) at the Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections; 5) The U.S. Navy battleships USS West Virginia (BB-48) (sunken at left) and USS Tennessee (BB-43) shrouded in smoke following the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives Collection; 6) A navy photographer snapped this photograph of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, just as the USS Shaw exploded, U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives Collection.

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