Historic Headlines Capture Tragic Drama

Payson man treasures newspapers that chronicle attack on Pearl Harbor

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

World War Two newspaper headline

The paper has yellowed, but the headlines produced by the day the world changed 68 years ago remain black and bold.

Yesterday — on the anniversary of that famed “day of infamy” — Bud Collette, 80, once more brought out his poster boards adorned with a slew of front page announcements of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He set them on a tabletop so he could stare at them awhile, thinking of the old friends and vivid battles that remade the world.

“Time just keeps going faster,” muses Collette, who retired to Payson some 24 years ago.

In Payson, he made friends with his neighbor — Bill Canning, who was a World War II veteran. Bill’s mother had saved a lot of newspapers of big events during the war, which her son inherited.

After Canning died about six years ago, his wife — Lynn — turned over her World War II newspaper collection to Colette — the new keeper of the flame.

“I thought they were worthwhile to preserve,” says Colette.

The blare of headlines and breathless details of Pearl Harbor capture something of the drama and the impact of the surprise attack that finally drew the United States into the global conflagration of World War II.

The Japanese fleet built around six aircraft carriers achieved stunning surprise and a great, ultimately fatal victory. The captains disabled their radios and left behind their radio operators to send dummy messages designed to make the Americans believe the Japanese carriers remained in port. Meanwhile, they slipped across the Pacific in silence. The carriers launched 353 planes on a quiet Sunday morning and caught Pearl Harbor completely unprepared.

Attacking in two waves, the Japanese pilots used specially designed torpedoes that confounded U.S. experts by working perfectly in the 40-foot-deep harbor. The attack killed 2,402 Americans and wounded another 1,300. The Japanese destroyed 188 airplanes — most of them on the ground — and sank four battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, one minelayer.

Half of the Americans killed were aboard the battleship Arizona, which exploded in flames and sank, along with 1,300 crew members.

Ironically, the Americans had more land-based planes than the Japanese fleet, but few of them even made it off the ground.

The Japanese lost just 29 planes and 65 men, one of the most lopsided victories in history. The Japanese also launched five midget submarines, none of which returned — and only one of which apparently fired its torpedoes.

Although the attack seemed an unmitigated triumph for the Japanese, three American carriers by happy chance were not in the harbor that day. Moreover, the Japanese decided not to launch a third strike to destroy the submarine base, oil storage and shipbuilding facilities — a stroke that could have extended the war one or two years.

Through a Japanese miscalculation, the blow fell before its embassy in Washington could translate and deliver a 5,000-word message that was an effective declaration of war. The resulting surprise attack outraged and unified Americans, despite fierce isolationist sentiment that had kept the nation out of the war raging between Germany and Great Britain.

Adolph Hitler promptly declared war on the United States, going beyond his treaty obligations to Japan — and effectively sealing his own fate.

The Japanese attack achieved its military objective, all but eliminating the American Pacific Fleet for the next few months as Japan swept across the Pacific, scooping up the oil and natural resources vital to its long effort to conquer China. A U.S.-led oil embargo had effectively backed Japan into an economic corner, prompting the attack. The Japanese believed the U.S. had moved its Pacific fleet from San Diego to Hawaii to position its fleet to intervene should Japan attempt to seize the oil-rich Dutch West Indies. In fact, the American war plan called for focusing first on Hitler, so the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor was probably unnecessary, given its war aims.

Still, the attack proved a disaster for the victorious Japanese, chiefly in unifying Americans behind the war. Moreover, losing the supposedly vital battleships proved something of a blessing in disguise, since the Americans concentrated on aircraft carriers in reconstructing their naval forces.

Controversy has persisted in recent decades about whether politicians in Washington essentially ignored the threat of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, knowing the treacherous attack would unify the country and bring America into the war.

Historians have debated the point fiercely, with the consensus opinion blaming the success of the surprise attack on bungled communications, disorganization and the pervasive assumption that the Japanese would strike first much closer to home. Moreover, naval planners remained hypnotized by the lessons of World War I, where the focus remained with the battleships. This obsession with battleships blinded planners to the importance of the aircraft carrier — and the ease with which airplanes could sink warships.

The American response to the surprise attack signaled the ferocity of the fighting that would rage across the Pacific for the next four years. In all, 14 American officers were awarded the Medal of Honor as a result of their heroic actions on that day.

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto who planned the brilliantly successful attack despite his fears of “waking a sleeping giant,” later concluded the Japanese admiral in charge of the fleet had made a fatal error in not launching a third wave of attack.

Admiral Hara Tadaichi later concluded, “we won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”

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