December 7, 1941: The Sleeping Giant Awakens

  • Published
  • By General Paul V. Hester
  • Commander, Pacific Air Forces
On an early Sunday morning 65 years ago, America changed forever. Shortly before 0800 on December 7th, 1941, the skies over the Hawaiian island of Oahu were darkened by 353 aircraft from the Imperial Japanese Navy--their mission: to destroy America's military establishment in the Pacific ... and with it, our national will to wage war.

Despite heroic attempts to mount a defense, the attack inflicted tremendous destruction. The Pacific fleet moored at Pearl Harbor lay smoldering in ruins, as did the vast majority of the aircraft based at Hickam Field and the other Air Corps installations. All told that day, 2,400 Americans were killed, including 244 Airmen.

As Japan celebrated their success, the architect of the attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, worried that the triumph would be short lived as he spoke the now famous words, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

Yamamoto knew America. He had studied in our country, graduating from Harvard with an economics degree and a keen understanding of America's resources and industrial might. And while living in the United States, Yamamoto learned something even more important ... the extraordinary character and spirit of the American people. Yamomoto feared that his surprise attack would galvanize American resolve and unleash the full brunt of our national power squarely against Japan. As it turns out, of course, he could not have been more correct.

After the attack, the American spirit appeared in a special group of young people who traveled east into Europe and west into the Pacific to fight tirelessly for the freedom and security of millions of people. They marched, sailed, and flew through unimaginable hardships for nearly four years, eventually emerging victorious and earning the title of America's Greatest Generation. On the homefront, Americans rallied to support the effort as well. From rationing and recycling to Rosie the Riveter and war bonds, our Nation mobilized on all fronts to ensure success. The sleeping giant indeed awoke ... and the terrible resolve did not relent until the world was once again safe.

Each day, as I walk into our PACAF Headquarters, I pause to reflect on the still visible scars covering the building's exterior ... timeless reminders of the young Americans who gave their life for our country that fateful day. I'm humbled by these heroes of our past, just as I'm humbled by the heroes of today ... Americans once again standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends and allies, often in harm's way, for the quintessential cause of freedom.

Throughout history, our Nation has been blessed to have wonderful men and women willing to serve far from America's shores to keep her safe. Like the generations of the past, you are precisely what Yamomoto feared ... you are, in fact, the heart and soul of that sleeping giant that is once again awake. Along with your grateful Nation, I am incredibly proud of each and every one of you.