Each year the first week of December is one in which the mass media dutifully reminds the American public of the infamous Japanese attack upon American military facilities on the island of Oahu and the over 2,000 Americans who perished on December 7, 1941. One way to do that is to broadcast documentaries and feature films about it. One of them, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), has for generations taught the public about the attack. In an iconic scene near the end of the movie, the architect of the successful attack, Admiral Isoruoku Yamamoto (Soh Yamamura), ruefully opines afterward, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve."The apocryphal line says less about what Yamamoto really said aboard the Japanese battleship Nagato in December 1941 and more about the beliefs of some Hollywood producers and writers nearly three decades later. With this in mind it seems that they believed that Americans collectively refused to get involved in the war until after American territory was attacked. But was America really so "America First" in 1941? Some academics and reporters seem to think so, 75 years on. A recent Florida State University news release called the attacks “a brutal salvo that forced the United States into the fray of World War II,” and a national security writer for US News and World Report recently wrote of the attack's significance: “Pearl Harbor was supposed to serve as a lesson that American popular disapproval for going to war should not have allowed its government to fail in preparing for one.”
This widely held assumption about prewar American ill-preparedness ignores abundant evidence that thousands if not millions of Americans had been actively preparing the nation for a war that presidents from Theodore Roosevelt onward to his cousin Franklin knew the nation had to be ready for. And ready, the nation was. You would be hard pressed to find a better example of this prewar preparation than in Hampton Roads, where by mid-1941, one could hardly be blamed for thinking that the nation was already at war. In fact, local shipyard workers and Sailors had been preparing since President Herbert Hoover ordered a significant part of the Atlantic Squadron transferred from Norfolk to the Pacific in 1931 during his administration’s Asia pivot to counter Japanese expansionism.
The shift of so many ships from Norfolk had hit the local economy pretty hard at first, just as the Great Depression was entering its darkest days. Rents and the cost of living dropped over 20 percent over the next few years, yet by 1935, they started to rise again, thanks to shipyard and construction jobs springing up in the defense sector. Because of the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Vinson-Trammell Act during the decade preceding the Pearl Harbor attack, not to mention the Naval Act of 1938, Norfolk Navy Yard and what is now Newport News Shipbuilding spent the decade making up for the warship tonnage lost as a result of Hoover’s Asia pivot, hiring many thousands in the process. Norfolk Navy Yard built nine destroyers during the 1930s as its workforce expanded to 7,625 by September 1, 1939, when World War II actually began in Europe. By 1940, 1,000 employees were being added to the shipyard’s rolls every month. Newport News Shipyard increased from 6,500 workers in 1935 to more than 10,000 in 1940.
|Still being painted before her first war deployment, USS Indiana (BB-58) is shown here in September 1942 off Old Point Comfort, with Fort Monroe and the Chamberlin Hotel in the background. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)|
Throughout 1941, the naval expansion was bearing fruit. On February 1, after an 18-year hiatus, the United States Atlantic Fleet was resurrected as a command under Admiral Ernest King. By mid-March, King commanded 159 ships. By October 20, when the aircraft carrier Hornet (CV-8), built at Newport News Shipbuilding, was commissioned under the command of Capt. Marc A. "Pete" Mitscher, the Atlantic Fleet had more than doubled, to 355 ships. The battleship Indiana (BB-58) was launched in Newport News on November 21, while her sister ship Alabama (BB-60) was only a few months away from launching in Norfolk when news of the Pearl Harbor attack broke over local radio at a little after 2 pm on December 7.
During 1940 and 1941, the Naval Operating Base at Sewells Point was virtually doubling in size with the acquisition of land for a new South Annex. Naval Air Station Norfolk had also added about 1,500 acres of runways to the east of the base in the past year and a half, absorbing even Norfolk's old commercial airport. Between 1938 and 1941, NAS Norfolk had already provided aircrews, material, maintenance, training and repair capability for two carriers built in Newport News during the 1930s, Ranger (CV-4), and Yorktown (CV-5), as well as the aircraft carrier Wasp (CV-7).
Among the six battle-weary British warships that paid call in Hampton Roads for vital repairs during the summer of 1941, the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious had arrived for repairs and structural modifications at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on May 12, so British pilots from Illustrious and a sister ship, HMS Formidable, which arrived August 25, were likely some of the first to benefit from the major expansion of the air station’s runways and hangars, as well as its aircraft testing and repair facilities, that were completed that summer. Royal Navy Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten arrived to take command of Illustrious at a ceremony at the yard on August 28, 1941. Norfolk was only one of the locations Lord Mountbatten visited on his speaking tour across the America, professing his belief to the consternation of some senior American military leaders that Pearl Harbor was vulnerable to surprise attack. Both carriers left the area for Europe, reinvigorated and ready for battle, shortly after the official American entry into the war.
In addition to the major expansion of existing naval facilities in the area, new bases which still serve the fleet today came into being during the months leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek had been commissioned on September 2, and Anti-Aircraft training and Test Center, Dam Neck, was completed on November 29, 1941. Within months, work would also begin on another new facility, Camp Peary, near Williamsburg, which would train members of some of the Navy's first Mobile Construction Battalions, known later as Seabees.
More ships, planes, shore stations and runways meant that more Sailors were needed in a hurry, and recruits were being brought to Hampton Roads in exponentially larger numbers. By 1940, the traditional areas of downtown Norfolk open to Sailors could no longer hold them. The downtown Norfolk YMCA, for example, recorded 213,000 more Sailors entering its doors than it had just a year earlier. In addition to the hordes of single Sailors, Rear Adm. Joseph K. Taussig, who as commandant of the Fifth Naval District led the effort to prepare Naval Operating Base Norfolk for the Second World War, estimated that there were 7,500 married Navy personnel with over 22,000 dependents in the area, not accounting for those who wanted also to bring their families to the area but could not for want of housing. In response he and Rear Adm. Ben Moreel, head of the Bureau of Yards and Docks (and later the founder of the Seabees), launched the first Navy efforts to construct housing for its own enlisted members on a large scale.
Although the evidence is clear that preparations for war were in full swing by late-1941, it would be no exaggeration to say that, at least for the United States Navy, an undeclared war with Germany had already begun. German U-boats were prowling off the east coast, dodging the neutrality patrols that had been instituted under the order of President Roosevelt in 1939. The destroyer Greer (DD-145) had narrowly missed being torpedoed in September 1941 after chasing a German submarine with the help of British planes. In response, Roosevelt had issued “shoot on sight” orders for all US vessels on patrol. He then ordered that destroyers of the Atlantic Fleet relieve their British counterparts on convoy escort duty to Iceland, escalating the potential for armed hostilities between American destroyers of the new Support Force and German submarines. On October 17, seven Sailors were killed when the Norfolk-based destroyer Kearny (DD-432) sustained a torpedo hit, and on the 31st, USS Reuben James (DD-245) sank into the frigid waters off Iceland after a torpedo attack, taking 115 of her crew with her. Although actual declarations of war would be voted upon by Congress against Japan and the other Axis powers about seven weeks later, it is safe to say that Hampton Roads was already playing the role it would play throughout the war for months, if not years, beforehand.
December 7 is a time to remember those who lost their lives in America’s far-flung Pacific outposts after one of the worst tactical intelligence failures in American history, yet should we not also bring to remembrance those who paved the path to victory, and paid the ultimate price, before that fateful morning? Their hard work and sacrifice made it possible to bomb Tokyo a little over four months later and strategically turn the tide of the war only two months after that (something Adm. Yamamoto actually predicted could happen), and place victorious American troops firmly in control of the Japanese home islands less then four years later. Improvement in intelligence collection and analysis deservedly receives credit for the victory at Midway six months after Pearl Harbor, but without the "giant" building, modernization, and expansion programs begun years before the Pearl Harbor attack, much of which were carried out in Hampton Roads, that intelligence would not have been actionable.