December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor Remembrances
By Joe Olvera ©, 2012
“A day that will live in infamy,” quoth then-President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Remember Pearl Harbor then became the rallying cry that propelled the U.S. into the Second World War, after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The death and destruction that rattled the Naval base in Hawaii is, indeed, a date that will live in infamy forever more.
2,402 service members were killed, 1,281 were wounded; eight battleships were completely destroyed, four others were sunk, while numerous destroyers, cruisers and other ships suffered untold damage. In addition to the destruction of the ocean craft, 188 airplanes were destroyed by Japanese pilots. In this unprecedented attack, the first Hispanic, Rudolph Martinez of San Diego, CA, became the first Hispanic to die in World War II. An Electrician Third Class, Martinez was serving aboard the USS Utah, when it was sunk by enemy fire. 52 other Navy personnel were also killed by enemy fire.
The vile attack by the Japanese zeros pushed anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 Hispanics to enlist in the war between the U.S. and its allies against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, among others. Many of those enlistees were, of course, from El Paso. More than 70 years later, many Americans, who were too young to enlist, remember where they were when they heard news of the attack. Louie Mendez said in an interview seven years ago, that the attack caught everyone by surprise. “I heard the news on the radio,” Mendez said. “My folks had hired a cleaning lady who would also watch me during the day. When I heard the news, I envisioned the attack was coming to our city also. I was born in El Paso, Texas. Mickey, the cleaning lady, enjoyed listening to the radio station from Mexico. Being bilingual, I listened to the Spanish broadcast and I immediately became very frightened as I didn’t want anything to happen to my family. Mickey took me in her arms and assured me that nothing was going to happen since we were a long way from Pearl. We had many Japanese friends who lived in the Southern part of the city. My father told me that those families were not the enemy but, rather, were placed in between our country and their heritage. Later, many of them were taken away.”
Americans across the nation wondered how such a powerful Navy could have been taken by surprise. Conspiracy theorists figured that President Roosevelt had known an attack was coming, but, did nothing about it. They reasoned that he must have known but he wanted the U.S. to enter the war. The Japanese attack virtually guaranteed that the U.S. would be thrust into the war. However, that theory was shot full of holes when it was realized that Americans were not able to break Japanese code at that time. Even some Japanese pilots were caught by surprise because the mission had been so secretive. Saburo Sakai, Japan’s greatest combat pilot – also known as the Angel of Death – writes in his book, Samurai: “Abruptly, the loudspeaker cackeled:
‘Attention! Here’s an important announcement. At 0600 this morning a Japanese task force succeeded in carrying out a devastating surprise attack against American forces in the Hawaiian Islands.’ “A wild, surging roar went up in the darkness. Pilots danced and slapped their friends on the back. Many of the pilots were releasing their pent-up anger of being chained to the ground, while our other planes were surprising the enemy.”
Meanwhile, back in El Paso, people were getting ready to celebrate Christmas, albeit, in a quiet, respectful manner. Christmas carolers were on board a USO bus that would take them caroling to places far and near. Would-be cowboys and cowgirls were learning the fine art of horse riding and roping at the Ranchotel, a dude ranch owned by hotel mogul, Conrad Hilton. People were getting married, getting divorced, going to Juarez – although the border had been closed to Japanese citizens. Not much action was expected in El Paso, albeit, the city did go into alert status. The arrest and placement of Japanese citizens in internment camps hadn’t yet started in earnest, but, things were headed in that direction. The Sun Carnival Parade was scheduled and went on as before, albeit, in a more subdued manner. In short, life went on in El Paso as it had done before that infamous attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.