A serene Sunday morning becomes a nightmare


You could fill a long shelf with books written about Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 82 years ago, and yet Marc Favreau of West Tisbury has found a niche not taken. “Attacked!” is a short, concise account that can serve as a useful entry point if you’re curious about the origins of WWII, about Hawaii’s role as a U.S. territory before it became a state, about naval warfare in general. It was a fascinating, momentous chapter in our history, an event that effectively put an end to the Great Depression, and that, after the war, kicked off an era of peace and prosperity uninterrupted for the next 20-plus years.

Most Americans today recall Sept. 11, 2001, when four hijacked airliners were flown into or toward targets in New York and Washington, D.C. It was the first time in 60 years that the U.S. was attacked on our soil. The previous attack, on Dec. 7, 1941, took place in Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii, still 18 years away from becoming the 50th state. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the most recent incursion on our soil took place during the War of 1812.

To many Americans today, however, World War II is ancient history. But particularly considering the popularity of autocrats around the world today, the war is a vivid, incredibly costly reminder of the impact that a few absolute rulers can have on the world order — in that case, Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan. If the aphorism “Those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it” is true, we’d do well to revisit existential struggles like World War II as often as we can bear.

There are not many of us still around who were born before the end of that war, who grew up in its shadow. To many younger citizens, World War II is known as a good war, particularly in comparison with the nightmare of Vietnam and more recent disgraces in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Good” because we were fighting for our survival as a nation against what we considered evil forces — Nazism, Fascism, and the imperial aspirations of Japan.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, called by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt “a day which will live in infamy,” came as a complete surprise, and nearly devastated our Pacific Fleet, spearheaded by aircraft carriers and battleships. By chance, the three carriers stationed at Pearl Harbor were at sea early on that fateful Sunday.

But what led up to the attack? Since 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, its intention to expand and compete globally was well-known to diplomats and heads of state. It took the slaughter of some 300,000 soldiers and citizens in Nanking, China, which Japan invaded in 1937, to get the attention of most Americans. Still, even as Hitler invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, most Americans were isolationists, comforted by the protection of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Confronted by powerful forces in the America First Committee, Roosevelt knew it would be difficult to rally the country to join the war effort, though he was increasingly concerned about the way the world order was being threatened.

When Japan took over airfields in what is now Vietnam and Cambodia in the summer of 1941, however, Roosevelt placed an embargo on oil exports to Japan, which imported 80 percent of its oil. That fall he ordered a massive deployment of warships and planes to Pearl Harbor, until then a sleepy U.S. outpost. The message was clear: The U.S. would not tolerate further Japanese expansion in the Pacific. He never considered the idea that Japan might attack Pearl Harbor: It was almost 4,000 miles away from Japan.

With visions of empire dancing in their heads, Japanese military planners dared to use that seemingly impossible distance to their advantage. An armada that included all six of their aircraft carriers, dozens of support vessels, and 353 planes steamed East toward Hawaii, but via a circuitous northern route, where they were less likely to be detected. Along with good luck, winter weather, with rough water and cloudy skies, helped hide the fleet.

Before diving deep on the attack, the author introduces us to life on the ground in Honolulu late in the fall of 1941. The stories of several young people — a young native whose family had been relegated to subsistence farming after the U.S. colonized Hawaii 40 years earlier; the daughter of a vice-admiral in the Navy; an African-American from Texas who enlisted to escape poverty — help personalize the events that were about to unfold. Similarly, later in the book we learn of heroic efforts to rescue injured sailors during and after the hellish attack.

The heart of the book, though, is the account of the bedlam that ensued when hundreds of Japanese bombers descended on Pearl Harbor, bent on crippling our naval capabilities in the Pacific. They came in wave after wave, some of them skimming the water to deliver torpedoes known as thunderfish, others at 2,000 or 3,000 feet, where they released clusters of 500-pound bombs, all on an unsuspecting and unprepared enemy. Because Pearl Harbor was so shallow, torpedoes were never considered a threat, so torpedo nets hadn’t been deployed to protect our sitting duck battleships. The element of surprise, the fantastic level of planning, the heroism of Japanese pilots, the incredible damage inflicted — taken together, they make for riveting reading.

Unable to grasp what was going on around them at first — this was peaceful, tropical Pearl Harbor on a sunny Sunday morning, after all — those on the ground mobilized as best they could, manning antiaircraft batteries, extinguishing fires, rescuing oil-soaked sailors from a harbor that seemed to be on fire itself. But as heroic as their efforts were, the losses were catastrophic. In two hours, the Japanese damaged or destroyed eight battleships, the pride of our Pacific Fleet, many other vessels, and nearly 200 aircraft that never left the ground. Some 2,400 sailors and support personnel died; as many others were injured, many of them maimed.

As details of the attack were broadcast, citizens across the country reacted with shock and determination to fight back. Less than 24 hours after the attack, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Three days later we declared war on Nazi Germany. The U.S. turned to a furious buildup of men and materiel, an effort that would prove the difference in the outcome, some four years later, of World War II.

The author of three previous books written for young adults, Marc Favreau has a knack for keeping readers engaged while simultaneously educating them. It’s proof that you don’t need a three-pound tome to learn plenty about a certain topic. Whether your audience is frisky or wizened, and as writers such as Ross King (“Brunelleschi’s Dome”) and Mark Kurlansky (“Cod”) have demonstrated before him, Favreau reminds us that small books like “Attacked!” can pack plenty of punch, and provide lively reading loaded with detail and color.

“Attacked!” by Marc Favreau is available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. 



  1. As one of the few “now alive” who remembers these events, I find this an excellent summary review. If the book is as informative as this review, it should be a an assigned text in every K-8 schol in the nation. Thanks, author, reviewer and editor who published this account.

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