Historian reflects on anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

Wednesday marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, a day when 2,403 Americans were killed and the U.S. was drawn into World War II.

In a statement, President Barack Obama said he joined all Americans in remembering those who gave their lives that day and in honoring their families. Later this month, Obama will visit Pearl Harbor along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will be the first Japanese leader to visit the site since the end of World War II. Obama visited Hiroshima earlier this year.

William Fowler, Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern, reflected on Pearl Harbor both as a historian and as the son and nephew of World War II veterans. His father, four uncles, and an aunt all served in—and returned from—the war. Fowler called Pearl Harbor “a defining moment for them and for their generation.”

“I grew up in a family where Pearl Harbor and the war were living memories,” he said. “They never bragged about their service, it was something that they simply did. They knew that that they had been involved in a noble crusade against forces that threatened them and all that they believed in.”

From a military history perspective, Fowler noted that Pearl Harbor came at a time when naval strategy placed great emphasis on battleships. “They were the intended target at Pearl Harbor and the Japanese attack decimated the American Pacific battleship fleet,” he said. “What were not present at Pearl Harbor were American aircraft carriers. The importance of the carrier became apparent in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea—the first sea battle to be undertaken by ships that never saw one another—it was an air battle conducted by carriers.”

The battle was the first air-sea battle in history, one in which aircraft were launched by ships at sea.

Fowler explained that while that Coral Sea battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese, it halted their advance. Both sides’ carriers sustained damage, but the Japanese were left without the planes to cover the ground attack of Port Moresby. One month later at Midway the American carriers achieved a decisive victory. “It is a truism in military history that you are always fighting the last war,” he said. “That was certainly true for the Japanese at Pearl Harbor who underestimated the emerging power of air at sea.”