Illinois at War, 1941-1945
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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December 7, 1941


The Japanese navy launched a surprise carrier based aerial attack on American military installations on Oahu Island, Territory of Hawaii, on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. The first of three bombing waves struck at 7:55 a.m. with the primary target being the fleet of United States battleships docked in close proximity in Pearl Harbor. These included the Arizona, California, Maryland, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

Aboard the West Virginia the general alarm was sounded within the first few moments of the bombardment and this sent the crew running topside. Six or seven flying torpedoes exploded into her port side slashing holes 12 to 15 feet high over a length of 40 yards. Two bombs fell directly onto her main deck, one of which penetrated 10 feet below the third deck level. She sank upright with her superstructure above water. The ship's captain, Mervyn S. Bennion, was disemboweled by bomb fragments and he died on the bridge. Of 1,541 officers and men on board that morning, 105 were killed. An additional 52 were wounded but later recovered.

All enemy aircraft had withdrawn by 9:45 a.m. In less than two hours 423 Japanese planes launched from 6 aircraft carriers inflicted serious damage to the American Pacific Fleet. Seven of the 8 battleships were sunk or critically damaged (the Pennsylvania was undergoing work in a dry dock and it was the successful target of only one bomb) and numerous cruisers, destroyers, and smaller craft were hit hard as well. On the ground U.S. Army Air Corps planes were parked wing to wing and unable to be deployed easily. Consequently few were made airborne and nearly half were destroyed. In all 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 wounded.

Most Americans had hoped to avoid direct involvement in World War II, which had raged in Europe since 1939, if that course were possible honorably. Pearl Harbor changed all that. Their country had been dealt a low blow and there was no question of their collective will to fight back. President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan the day after the sneak attack and this was done overwhelmingly. December 11 Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. in accordance with the terms of the Tripartite Pact they had made with Japan in 1940. The same day the American Congress declared war on them as well. Thus the United States became a full participant in the Allied cause against the Axis powers.

Points to Consider

What happened on the morning of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii?

What happened on board the USS West Virginia that morning?

Why was there confusion concerning the fate of the sailor who was the subject of this letter?

Can you empathize with this sailor's family for the period December 7, 1941-February 27, 1942 and beyond?

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