A version of this post appeared here on Pearl Harbor Day 2017.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, several thousand people attended that day’s Moses Greeley Parker lecture at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Admission was free, the doors opened at 2:15 pm, and the event began at 3 pm. The performers that day were the Trapp Family Singers, the same group that is familiar to us from the movie, The Sound of Music.
The song list that day did not feature Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi, or Climb Every Mountain; those songs would be written 17 years later by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Instead, the Trapp Family sang Austrian folk songs, some classical pieces by Bach, and a few traditional Christmas carols.
I’m sure the Trapps gave a wonderful performance, but when asked about that day, people who were there – including my mother, who was then 9 years old and had come with her family – didn’t talk about the music, they talked about what came afterwards. That’s because as soon as the performance ended, everyone learned that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and that the United States was at war.
Now the fact that we went to war with Japan should not have been a complete surprise. Tensions between the two countries had been steadily rising for years, and things were particularly intense during the summer and fall of 1941. Just two days earlier, on Friday, December 5, 1941, giant headlines in the Lowell Sun read “US Jap War Decision Possible Within Hours.”
What did come as a huge surprise to us was where the Japanese attacked. Our country’s military planners and political leaders expected that a Japanese attack, if it should come, would be against American bases in the Philippines, which were much closer to Japan and within that country’s zone of military operations. They could not imagine an attack against Pearl Harbor which was 4000 miles from Japan.
Yet that is where the Japanese attacked. Using six of their aircraft carriers and the 400 aircraft they carried, the Japanese did what no one had ever done before; launch a major attack against a distant military base using carrier-based aircraft.
One reason the Japanese undertook such a bold and risky mission was because their naval commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, knew America well. He had spent two years studying at Harvard, had served as a Naval attaché in Washington, and had traveled extensively around the United States. He knew first hand of the industrial might of America.
Yamamoto convinced the leadership in Japan that the only way to win a war with America was to deliver a crushing knockout blow at the beginning and end the war within a year, two at the most. In any conflict longer than that, Yamamoto said the United States was sure to prevail.
The plan to attack Pearl Harbor was intended to be that knockout blow, and it nearly succeeded. In reports created right after the attack, Japanese pilots wrote that they knew they had achieved complete success because when they tuned their aircraft radios to the frequency of the commercial radio station in Honolulu, they heard popular music. If the Americans knew the attack was coming, the radio station would be off the air. The Japanese pilots used the radio waves from that station to guide them directly to their target.
The Japanese pilots wrote something else in those after action reports. They wrote of their amazement with how rapidly and accurately the Americans on the ground fought back, despite being completely surprised by the attack. The heavy anti-aircraft fire coming from the ground shot down a number of Japanese planes and disrupted the aim of the rest.
A number of men from Lowell were at Pearl Harbor that day, and they all fought back. Clifton Edwards, a 1936 graduate of Lowell High who lived on Merrill Street, was a 24 year old seamen on the USS Curtiss, which was one of the few ships to get underway that morning. The ship’s movement and the intense anti-aircraft fire coming from it attracted the attention of the Japanese and the Curtis was hit by several aerial bombs, killing 19 of its crew, including Clifton Edwards. The second Lowell man to die that day was 23 year old Arthur Boyle of 28 Ralph Street, A 1940 graduate of Lowell High, Private Boyle was an aviation mechanic stationed at Hickam Field, the main US Army air base in Hawaii. Boyle was killed while trying to get an American fighter plane airborne to counterattack the Japanese.
While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was devastating, it was not the knockout blow intended. A big reason it was not was that despite a desperate and deadly situation, individual American service members used their own initiative and courage to fight back. Throughout the opening year of the war – the Japanese window of opportunity for victory, according to Admiral Yamamoto – the actions of thousands of men like Clifton Edwards and Arthur Boyle kept America in the fight, giving the country time to mobilize its superior resources, to go on the offensive, and to ultimately prevail.