Pearl Harbor in Images: 'A Date Which Will Live in Infamy'

Pearl Harbor in Images: 'A Date Which Will Live in Infamy'

If you were raised in the United States, you were taught about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. You’ve heard the famous description of it by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called it “a date which will live in infamy.” With a lack of declaration of war and without warning — and killing 2,403 Americans — the surprise attack by Japan’s military on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was judged to be a war crime, and was the impetus for the U.S. officially entering World War II. You know this, but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen many (or any) photos from that day.

What better way to immortalize the events of that day 76 years ago than through photographs? As photographers, we know that photographs are time capsules; the images we create pause time and document history in ways we won’t understand until we ourselves are long gone. Looking back on photos taken during this time is certainly a reminder of that. Here are a few of them from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, along with some of their captions, that I thought were interesting. I encourage you to take a look at that site and look at more of the images -- there are a lot of them, and they certainly have a story to tell.

A Japanese Navy Attack Plane taking off from an aircraft carrier on its way to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For some reason I liked the profile in the foreground of the Japanese soldier looking on.

Here's a cartoon that was found in a wrecked Japanese plane following the attack on Pearl Harbor. I think drawings and cartoons like this say a lot about the spirit of the times. The Japanese inscription at left reads: "Hear! The voice of the moment of death. Wake up, you fools."

Image taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island.

A view of Pearl Harbor looking southwest from the hills towards the north. Taken during the Japanese raid, with anti-aircraft shell bursts overhead. Large column of smoke in lower center is from USS Arizona.

View from a pier looking toward the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard's drydocks.

A photograph taken from an automobile around 9:30 a.m. on December 7.

There aren't as many images like this, showing the U.S. forces fighting back.

A patrol bomber burning at Naval Air Station Kaneohe, on Oahu, with crews trying to put out the fires.

"A U.S. Army B-17E at Hickam Air Field, after landing safely during the Japanese air raid. Smoke from burning ships at Pearl Harbor is visible in the distance. Photographer may be Staff Sergeant Lee Embree."

"Destroyed U.S. Army aircraft at Wheeler Field, Oahu, during post-attack cleanup activities. P-40 pursuit planes are among the types present."

The forward magazine of USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the second Japanese attack wave. At right is the bow of USS Nevada (BB-36), with a tug alongside fighting fires. Photographed from Ford Island, with a dredging line in the foreground. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Explosion of the forward magazines of USS Shaw in the floating drydock, after a bombing attack by Japanese planes on 7 December 1941. USS Nevada, also hit by the attackers, is at right. Photographed from Ford Island, with USS Avocet partially visible at left. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

USS Cassin burned out and capsized against USS Downes after the attack. It's hard to imagine the time and effort required to clean up the wreckage from these massive ships.

"USS Downes, at left, and USS Cassin, capsized at right, burned out and sunk in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard drydock on 7 December 1941, after the Japanese attack. The relatively undamaged USS Pennsylvania is in the background." Note the man in a white shirt standing under the gun, in awe.

Here are the wrecked destroyers USS Downes and USS Cassin at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard after the attacks were over. This image has been attributed to Navy Photographer's Mate Harold Fawcett

Sailor lies face down, killed during the air attack at the Naval Air Station in Kaneohe Bay.

"A Marine rifle squad fires a volley over the bodies of fifteen officers and men killed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay during the Pearl Harbor raid. These burial ceremonies took place on 8 December 1941, the day after the attack."

This, to me, almost looked like an old drone shot. "Aerial view of Battleship Row moorings on the southern side of Ford Island, 10 December 1941. ... Note dark oil streaks on the harbor surface, originating from the sunken battleships."

I didn't see many portraits in the archives, but here are a couple. "Divers emerging from a gas-filled compartment aboard one of the ships undergoing salvage, after the 7 December 1941 Japanese raid. Note oily conditions, and face masks worn by the men."

Taking the time to pose during cleanup. "Divers standing in front of a decompression chamber, while they were working to salvage ships sunk in the 7 December 1941 Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. Note warrant officer standing at right."

Looking back on these images is also a reminder of how far photography has come since the 40s. These images are in black and white, taken before the popularity of color film hit in the 1970s. Many are out of focus, no doubt taken with a manual focus camera in a quickly developing, traumatic situation. The question is, would we want these images to be more “technically correct” than they are, so as to get a more accurate picture of what happened on that day? Or, at this point, is there something about the historical "feel" to them that adds something to what they communicate? I don’t have an answer. Either way, they still tell a story that shouldn't be forgotten. And maybe, if we all look back and remember the damage caused during past wars, we'll be less inclined to start new ones.

All images from the U.S. Naval History and Historical Command Archive.

Stephen Ironside's picture

Stephen Ironside is a commercial photographer with an outdoor twist based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. While attempting to specialize in adventure and travel photography, you can usually find him in the woods, in another country, or oftentimes stuffing his face at an Indian buffet.

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Previous comments

We're debating the definition of the phrase 'starting a war' If by starting a war you mean pulling a trigger, we are talking about different things. I can't argue that Japan fired first. I would maintain that that isn't the 'start of a war.' That the start of a war is rooted in causation. I understand you disagree. I understand where you disagree. And, I understand why you disagree. I think that it oversimplifies things, and I think that that oversimplification is dangerous, but I certainly understand.

We don't agree on what the 'start of war' means. I see causation, you see action.

As for my apology, your right. I accept what you're saying and I apologize without qualification for assuming your intentions.

As for continuing to discuss Nixon etc. Perhaps that is better left outside a photographic forum, even if the article is related to politics.

Telling me the definition of the word truth escapes me is a bit condescending. I didn't simply state what I thought truth meant. I took time to explain my understanding to you. My definition may be different than yours, but it isn't wrong.

the aerosmith song was for the movie Armageddon, not the equally tragic movie that also featured Michael Bay directing Ben Affleck that in no way reflected actual history, Pearl Harbor.

You're right. I don't know what I was thinking. This is what happens when I write an article before I have coffee.

Oh wait, I don't drink coffee.

Maybe I should drink coffee...

I had the honor of diving and photographing the USS Arizona some time ago :)

also did some work in Truk Lagoon (Chuuk)

An incredible opportunity. If any of those images are available online, I’d love to take a look.

"For some reason I liked the profile in the foreground of the Japanese soldier looking on."

Kill yourself.

As one of many members in my family who have served, that line, among some other questionable ones, pisses me off like nothing else.

what a douche bag comment. The author was making a comment on an image. My grandfather fought in WW2, lost his leg in D-Day. I am not offended by this comment and neither would he. Take your own advice.

Brent: I liked the composition of the image. I wasn't commenting on the content or saying I favored the Japanese military or something. The image tells a story. That's it.

"Kill yourself" seems a little dramatic.