[December 7th marks National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, so this week I’ll remember and AmericanStudy some histories and contexts related to the 1941 attack.]
On three little-known histories that add layers to the Pearl Harbor attack.
1) The Other Attacks: On the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese forces also launched attacks on three other US territories (the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island) and three British ones (Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong). Compared to the immediacy and intense focus of the Pearl Harbor bombings, those other attacks tended to be the start of multi-day and –week (or even –month) campaigns, and so they were less dramatic, produced far fewer casualties in that first day, and generally don’t stand out in the same ways as did and does Pearl Harbor. All of which is to say, I understand why Pearl Harbor drew the lion’s share of the outrage, attention, and collective memories, in its own moment and down into ours. But when it comes to collective memories I’m an additive guy, and so I think it would still be interesting and important to make these other attacks, and thus these other spaces and communities, part of our remembrances on December 7th as well.
2) The First Prisoners of War: Despite that central focus on Pearl Harbor, there are of course also histories related to that attack with which we’re not as collectively familiar. For example, while the bulk of the attack was from the air, the Japanese sent five two-man “midget submarines” to raid the harbor; all five were sunk, and nine of their ten crew killed. The tenth, Japanese sailor Kazuo Sakamaki, lost consciousness while trying to detonate an explosive device in his submarine and was found and captured by an American infantryman, Native Hawaiian and Hawaii National Guard member David Akui. Sakamaki became the first Japanese prisoner of war in the U.S., and his submarine became the second: it was recovered and exhibited around the country as part of wartime propaganda and fund-raising efforts. After his return to Japan at the war’s end, Sakamaki wrote a memoir, apparently an honest and thoughtful attempt to grapple with both his role in the attacks (the English title is I Attacked Pearl Harbor) and his time as a POW (the Japanese one is Four Years as Prisoner of War Number One), each of which make Sakamaki one of the war’s most significant individual figures.
3) The Niihau Incident: Another prominent Japanese individual, Shigenori Nishikaichi, was part of a more complex and fraught post-Pearl Harbor history. Nishikaichi’s Zero fighter was damaged during the attack, and he flew to Niihau, a small nearby Hawaiian island that the Japanese had chosen as a landing and rescue point for such damaged aircraft. Niihau had no radio or other means of hearing about the attacks, and that separation contributed to a complex and controversial next few days for Nishikaichi and the island’s few inhabitants, a period that ended with Nishikaichi dead, a Japanese American islander committing suicide after allegedly collaborating with the pilot to recover maps and documents taken from the plane, and a set of questions that remain open to this day. As that last hyperlink notes, a new film in production about the incident seems likely at the very least to reopen all those questions, and perhaps stir up anti-Japanese American fears at a moment when such xenophobia is literally the last thing we need. But such is the complex ongoing legacy of Pearl Harbor and its many historical contexts and echoes.
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?