Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously called December 7, 1941 “a date that will live in infamy.”
Eighty-plus years later, December seventh is still infamous, although the media nowadays seems to use Pearl Harbor mostly as a metaphor instead of an actuality. 9-11, for instance, has been compared to Pearl Harbor more times than anyone can shake a stick at.
While the comparison is valid in that both events are so momentous people remember where they were at the moment they heard about them, there are several major differences. For one thing, the Pearl Harbor attack primarily affected servicemen instead of civilians. For another, the impact of the tragedy was initially blunted by the fact that many Americans didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was.
For those who might not be familiar with the particulars, the attack took place early on a Sunday morning, when many enlisted men were sleeping in, eating breakfast, and planning what they thought was going to be a lazy day of rest. Japanese bombers and fighter pilots strafed and bombed American airfields and Naval ports on the island of Oahu, burning buildings and sinking ships. According to the National Park Service, the United States lost seventy-five percent of its military planes and twenty-one Naval vessels. Over 2,400 servicemen were killed and 1,104 were wounded.
Why did the Japanese attack? The answer was simple: They wanted to control the Pacific and later, the Western United States. The more islands they took, the easier it would be to make their way to the mainland.
Contrary to popular belief, not all of the Japanese were in favor of the attack. According to author Craig Nelson, the Japanese navy felt coerced into the plan by the Japanese army, and there was a lot of waffling on the part of the leadership in general as to whether or not to go through with it.
This sentiment remained right up until the attack was taking place. Nelson’s research further shows that a Japanese army officer not only deliberately delayed a cable that would have warned the United States about the attack, but stopped communication between Roosevelt and Hirohito. Not only that, but while the attack was mobilizing and then taking place, Special Envoy Saboru Kurusu was still meeting with Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
To this day, the Pearl Harbor attack is a source of shame and hostility for certain Japanese people. The history is not taught to students, or if it is mentioned it’s presented as an American conspiracy meant to push Japan into war. As we know from history, this willful denial will not end well. Those who have been honest about what happened are mostly veterans who consider Pearl Harbor a dishonorable sneak attack.
Like any major historical event, there are all kinds of rumors and conspiracy theories floating around about what we knew about the attack and when did we know it, but I’m not going to touch those. Just knowing that Pearl Harbor happened is enough, and it’s as far as the average American in the nineteen-forties would have gone anyway.
On December eighth, President Roosevelt declared war:
Now that America was in the fight, Hollywood had yet another fine line to walk. Countless movies throughout the war, whether they were directly about servicepeople fighting or not, mentioned Pearl Harbor as a way to vault the characters into action.
Only thing was, very few if any films actually showed the attack on Pearl Harbor itself. More often than not, characters found out about it while listening to the radio, such as in The Fighting Sullivans, Pride of the Marines, and the superb but mostly inaccessible The War Against Mrs. Hadley.
Some movies tried to cash in, though. In 1942, Remember Pearl Harbor was released to poor reviews, mainly because everyone felt gypped (Read Bosley Crowther’s reaction here). The title might have invoked Pearl Harbor, but the movie was set in the Philippines.
1943’s Air Force is a different story. It follows the crew of a B-17, the Mary Ann, that flies from California to Hawaii in what’s supposed to be a routine flight. When the leader of the squadron radioes the air traffic control tower at Hickam Field, he’s told that the attack is still happening and the bombers should land elsewhere. As if to prove the officer’s point, a bomb drops and some glass breaks.
The Mary Ann lands on Maui but then leaves soon after because they’re getting peppered with Japanese sniper bullets.
Some films did occasionally portray the aftermath, either by a character’s firsthand account or by taking the film into a hospital crowded with victims. The latter happened in Air Force, which showed the flames coming from the island and the devastation at Hickam Field. It also has the Mary Ann‘s bombardier, Tommy’s (Arthur Kennedy) sister, Susan (Faye Emerson) wounded. The disgruntled Tommy, along with co-pilot Bill (Gig Young) later grill Tex (James Bell), the fighter pilot who was with Susan at the time of the attack. The three of them make amends when Tex joins the Mary Ann‘s crew.
In So Proudly We Hail! nurse Olivia (Veronica Lake) is sullen and withdrawn from her fellow nurses until her commanding officer, Davie (Claudette Colbert) presses her about it. Olivia, who was at Pearl Harbor, tearfully describes her fiancee being shot up so badly she couldn’t see his face. She knows she’s supposed to be a nurse but she thinks she has nothing left to live for except punishing the Japanese.
Movies might have been off the table, but documentaries were fair game, and John Ford’s 1943 movie, December 7, Pearl Harbor is well-worth a watch. It’s a docudrama filmed by Greg Toland and featuring Henry Davenport as the mysterious “Mr. C” and Walter Huston as Uncle Sam.
While it’s relatively balanced in its portrayal of the Japanese Americans who lived in Hawaii, it makes no bones about Fifth Column activities that were going on at the time, correctly assessing that the Japanese consular and a Nazi were responsible for any espionage. The film also calls out America’s reluctance and apathy to take part in world events because that lack of attention brought us to where we were.
So why was the Pearl Harbor attack such a tabu subject? Film historians seem to be a little fuzzy on this, but I have a few theories. First of all, the government would have been actively investigating the circumstances of the attack during the war, and many of the details were classified and would remain classified for decades after. To explicitly portray Pearl Harbor may have been a security risk.
Secondly, Hollywood still had to contend with the Production Code, which dictated that cultures be treated fairly. However, it was acceptable to portray the Japanese, particularly Special Envoy Kurusu, as slimy backstabbers bent on destruction.
Thirdly, overt portrayals of Pearl Harbor may have harmed public morale, which was raw from all the bad news and uncertainty. The American people had a lot of guilt and apprehension to work through, especially as events played out, not only in Europe, but in the Pacific.
While Pearl Harbor may have been vetiti subiecti, the Pacific Theater wasn’t, but that’s another story for another time.
The Aviation In Film Blogathon is coming on FRIDAY, all. Hope to see you then…
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Koppes, Clayton R. and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes To War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 1990.