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Pete Mecca: A brief history of Pearl Harbor

Local inhabitants called the shallow embayment Pu’uloa, meaning “Long Hill,” home to the shark goddess, Ku’ahupahau, and her brother, Kahi’uka. The natives also speak of Long Hill as Wai Momi, meaning Pearl Water. In time, Americans referred to the paradise anchorage as Pearl Harbor.

America's first interest with Pearl Harbor was born of whaling and the need of a safe port for its trading ships. By the 1820s, American business agents were assigned to Pearl Harbor to promote commerce in the port of Honolulu. American missionaries and their families poured into paradise, forever changing the political and religious flavor of the island.

Off again, on again misunderstandings and negotiations culminated in 1841 with an article in the Honolulu newspaper Polynesian advocating the establishment of a naval base in Hawaii by the U.S. to help protect American citizens and the whaling industry.

After prolonged bickering with France and England, King Kamehameha III drew up a deed, under the influence of American advisers, of cessation to the United States of America. But with the King's death, cessation fell from grace, yet the Navy Department maintained a military presence in the islands.

Trade expanded after the Civil War. The North Pacific Squadron was formed in 1865. The following year, the ship Lackawanna surveyed the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, after which the U.S. laid claim to Midway Island. The riots of 1874 prompted the landing of "bluejackets" from the USS Tuscorora and Portsmouth. Coaling and repair stations were soon established.

The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom signed the Reciprocity Treaty in 1875, then in January 1887, the U.S. Senate allowed the Navy to lease Pearl Harbor as a naval base. Improvements, dredging, machine shops, a 10-ton wharf crane, horse stables, housing, even bickering between the Army and Navy over an artesian well lay in Pearl's future.

In 1917, Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor was bought for the Army and Navy to help develop military aviation in the Pacific. In February of 1933, as a result of Japanese military aggression in China, the Navy staged a mock attack on Pearl Harbor to test its defenses. Results: the "attack" succeeded; the defense "failed." On Dec 7, 1941, the U.S. Navy Command at Pearl Harbor was called CINCUS, pronounced "Sink Us."

The warnings were too abundant to mention, but just a few: January 1941 -- U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, advises Washington that the Japanese Empire might attempt a surprise attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor. April 1941 -- plan ABC-1 is agreed to by America and England to "fight in Europe" first based on the belief that Gen. Douglas MacArthur would retain control of the Philippines and the battle against Japan would be a low-key holding action. Late November 1941 -- a powerful Japanese strike force leaves the Kurile Islands, destination unknown. U.S. Naval Intelligence has no idea where this strike force is heading, and worse, cannot track it. Even with a formidable fleet of Japanese naval vessels unaccounted for, the American aircraft on the Hawaiian Islands remained lined up wing to wing like a momma duck and her babies, the perfect target for bombers.

Nov. 27, 1941 -- the commanders at Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, are warned of imminent war. Virtually nothing is done to improve the security of the fleet nor the aircraft parked in row after row like sitting ducks. Dec. 7, 1941 -- at 6:55 a.m., an hour before the attack, the destroyer Ward intercepts a Japanese midget sub sneaking into Pearl Harbor, opens fire, and sinks it. Ashore, doubts are expressed about the sinking as confirmation requests are dispatched and re-dispatched.

At 7:15 a.m., two Army radar operators report a formation of aircraft approaching from the north of Pearl Harbor. A young lieutenant, thinking the large formation is B-17s arriving from the states, tells the radar operators, "Don't worry about it." Strangely, the lieutenant doesn't take into account a flight of B-17s arriving from the states would be flying in from the east, not from the north of Hawaii -- ain't nuttin' out there, young man, ceptin' water! At 7:55 a.m., the bombs fall and the torpedoes are launched.

An atmosphere of indifference, a flawed knowledge of Japanese military history, and the cost of contempt for a shrewd enemy: All eight battleships sunk or damaged, 21 other ships severely damaged, massive loss of aircraft at Wheeler and Hickham fields and the Kaneohe flying boat base, plus the utter destruction of naval targets on Ford Island. The human toll: 2,403 Americans dead, (1,177 aboard the USS Arizona) and 1,178 wounded. Dec. 7 was a brilliant tactical victory for the Japanese Empire, but strategically, a dismal failure.

The attack unified the American people, essentially due to no timely declaration of war by the Japanese. The Navy's three aircraft carriers were at sea, not in port, which saved an American retaliatory fleet that would cripple Japan at the Battle of Midway. At least 20 cruisers and 65 destroyers remained undamaged and ready for battle. And more notably, the attack failed to demolish the oil storage depots. Without oil, the ships of the Pacific Fleet would have been immobilized for months.

America, the sleeping giant, awoke to the harsh reality of a World War on Dec. 7, 1941. She would mobilize her people to build, send her young men to fight, and wage a war with a singular objective in mind: Unconditional Surrender.

Pete Mecca, a Conyers resident, is author of the weekly feature, "A Veteran's Story."