By Chad Stewart
The Pearl Harbor attack is known for its overwhelming surprise, spectacular explosions and countless heroic acts. But there were also internal Japanese disagreements about warning America, a mysterious board game and at least one unlikely friendship spawned 50 years after the bombs dropped.
I asked historian and New York Times best-selling author Craig Nelson to share some lesser-known stories about the Pearl Harbor attack.
His book, “Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness,” is based on five years of research and original interviews with remaining survivors. Nelson, who has written about the moon landing, the Doolittle Raid, Thomas Paine and the Atomic Age in previous works, set out to paint a clearer picture of Pearl Harbor.
Nelson’s exhaustive research includes behind-the-scenes accounts from Japan, 200 recent oral histories and memoirs from both the American and Japanese perspectives.
I asked Nelson to share some of what he learned white writing the book. Here’s what he revealed:
1. Sailors jumped into fires to escape sinking vessels.
“There was a huge oil fire on the surface of the water fueled by the ships’ tanks, so it created these giant fires all over the water,” Nelson said. “Everyone jumped off the boats to save themselves, but then they’re being set on fire once they hit the water.
“And some of the most extraordinary moments are these young boys who are rescuing their friends and everyone they know out of these fires and … this affected them for the rest of their lives.”
Sign up for our emails to stay connected to the USO and the troops we serve.
2. The vast majority of the American service members killed were junior enlisted men.
“The officers of the Navy all lived in houses and the junior people were the ones on the boats, so pretty much all of the people who died in the direct line of the attack were very junior people,” Nelson said. “So everyone is about 17 or 18 who’s story is told there.”
3. Pearl Harbor had a paralyzing effect on some survivors.
“There’s one incredible story where, years later, a man is at the beach with his young son – he’s a Pearl Harbor survivor – and all of a sudden a wave comes up and grabs hold of the son and the little table that they are sitting at and pulls it out into the water,” Nelson said. “And the man jumps in the water to save him [but he’s paralyzed with fear] and can’t swim. They have a military dog that they adopted as a pet that rescues the child. But from then on, that man cannot even walk by a beach because he had rescued bodies at Pearl Harbor and the experience stuck with him.”
4. Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii feared for their lives after the attack.
“We ended up talking to a lot of civilian survivors who were living in Hawaii and were children at the time,” Nelson said. “It was touching to get a child’s perspective on what happened. … Their stories are very resonant. There are some Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii who, of course, everyone thought were responsible. They were terrified and thought their families were going to be executed.”
5. The key architect of the attacks traveled around the U.S. earlier in his military career.
“In fact, [Japanese Adm. Isoroku] Yamamoto – the key architect of Pearl Harbor – had served as a military attaché in Washington and had traveled across the United States living in flophouses on his small military paycheck,” Nelson said.
6. Diaries and memoirs show some in the Japanese navy did not want to attack.
“In the scheme of things, [the Japanese] were trying to keep the American Navy from interfering with [their takeover of Southeast Asia] by attacking Pearl Harbor,” Nelson said. “It was very much on the sidelines [for them] but it was a huge part of their conversation in all of this. Because the Japanese navy had a very long history of friendship with the Americans. … The navy did not want to do it and the army sort of cowed them into it.”
“And now through all of these diaries and memoirs, we see the [leaders] of the country swinging back and forth as to whether or not they’re going to [attack].”
7. Some Japanese wanted to warn American officials before the attack, but one man decided to stand in the way.
“Many of the Japanese wanted to give Americans a little warning,” Nelson said. “Their idea was that they would present this document – which was 14 parts long and took hours and hours to cable from Tokyo to Washington – and the diplomats would present this document 30 minutes before the attack on Hawaii. But then the [Japanese] army got involved and decided that the announcement of war was too striking. So they just said, “Our treaty negotiations are over,” which no one in Washington, except for Roosevelt, took to mean war.”
“Also, a [Japanese] army officer in the cable office also arranged to delay the message so that it wasn’t presented to [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull until after the attack had already started. And he also delayed the last-minute efforts by Roosevelt to cable Hirohito (the Japanese emperor) directly to try and negotiate a peace. So pretty much one army officer in the cable office screwed everything up.”
8. Was a mysterious ad for a board game in the New Yorker really a coded warning?
“On Nov. 21, there was a series of ads – one big ad and a lot of little smaller ads,” Nelson said. “It’s about ‘Chicago’s favorite game’ called ‘The Deadly Double.’ The headline was ‘Achtung, Warning, Alert!’ And under it, it shows people in an air raid shelter playing dice. And the dice is numbered 12 and seven – December 7.
“No dice has 12 and seven on them. The game never existed and the company that supposedly made it never existed. Military intelligence investigated this, but everything led to a dead end. The person buying the ad space had brought the copy in person, paid in cash and no one knows what the real story is behind that creepy ad.”
9. Years later, a Japanese pilot and U.S. Marine – both Pearl Harbor survivors – became friends.
“When one of the lead dive bombers in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Zenji Abe, heard this story – that they had not given any notice beforehand and had attacked without warning – he was filled with shame and remorse,” Nelson said. “He decided to develop something called the Japan Friends of Pearl Harbor and he went around to all of the airmen he could find who took part in the attack and got them the sign a letter of apology.
“[Abe] arranges for a group of them to come to Pearl Harbor for the anniversary. And they show up and at first, nobody will have anything to do with them. But he keeps trying and trying, and finally he meets a Marine bugler from West Virginia named Richard Fiske, who had survived Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima. [Fiske] said that he had spent almost 50 years hating the Japanese, but they became friends. They arranged so that every year, Fiske would appear with roses donated by Abe and play American and Japanese taps at Pearl Harbor.”
A version of this story first appeared on USO.org in 2017.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.
More from the USO
Jul 1, 2020
How the U.S. Military Made the T-Shirt the Most Popular Garment in the World
T-shirts are something most people wear almost everyday all around the world. But did you know that the history of the T-shirt, and its rise to global popularity, has roots in the U.S. military dating back to World War I?
Jun 30, 2020
7 Historical Images of the USO and Independence Day Throughout the Years
Thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, Independence Day celebrations at USO locations around the world on July 4 this year might look a little different. While there’s no doubt that USO staffers around the world will offer up a slew of creative (and safe) ways for service members to mark the national holiday, here’s a look back at a handful of USO July 4 events from the past.