On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launches a surprise attack on the U.S. military stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Stuart Hedley is a sailor on the USS West Virginia and witnesses the horror of the attack firsthand. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Pearl Harbor
KATE SNOW, reporting:
It's late 1941. The Empire of Japan is rapidly expanding its control throughout Asia. The United States, still neutral, reacts to this possible threat by sending its naval fleet to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in hopes that its strong presence will deter the Japanese from starting a war with America. Twenty-year-old Stuart Hedley is a seaman-first-class in the U.S. Navy and is stationed on the battleship USS West Virginia, anchored in Pearl Harbor. On the morning of December 7th, he wakes early to meet his girlfriend for a picnic.
STUART HEDLEY (Gun Pointer, U.S. Navy): She said, 'I'll be here at the dock at 9:00 to pick you up.' Well, there were no motor launches later that morning, believe me, other than to pick up bodies out of the water.
SNOW: Just before 8 AM, the first of two waves of Japanese airplanes launch a deadly surprise attack on the U.S. Naval fleet in Pearl Harbor. It claims 2,400 American lives. The sailors are shaken into action. Hedley is immediately ordered to his battle station.
HEDLEY: I ran across the deck and as I was going up the ladder, here comes a Japanese torpedo plane down on our port side.
SNOW: Dozens of Navy ships are damaged and several sink, including the battleship USS Arizona, which produces a massive fireball in the harbor after a Japanese torpedo strikes its ammunition stores.
HEDLEY: Bam! There went the Arizona, and I estimated there were about thirty some-odd bodies that went flying through the air.
SNOW: Hedley's battleship, the USS West Virginia, is hit by seven torpedoes dropped by the attacking planes. It sinks.
HEDLEY: When they dropped those torpedoes in Pearl, you could see them coming through the water. They were about 15, 20 feet under the water. But you could see them coming.
SNOW: Hedley escapes by swimming under pools of burning oil on the water's surface.
HEDLEY: I was not an underwater swimmer, but I swam underwater that morning!
SNOW: The Japanese launch more than 350 airplanes during the attack. Nearly 80 are the famed, and much feared, Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Zero pilot Kaname Harada flies protective patrols during the attack.
KANAME HARADA (Pilot, Japanese Imperial Navy): This aircraft was the most trustworthy, and probably the machine which most pilots cared for.
SNOW: The Zero, one of the most innovative fighter planes in existence in 1941, is engineered specifically for long distance attacks, like the one on Pearl Harbor.
JASON MUSZALA (Flying Heritage Collection): The reason that they were such an effective force for that attack, that sneak attack, is because of their long range.
SNOW: Jason Muszala is Senior Manager of Restoration and Maintenance, and a Zero pilot at the Flying Heritage Collection near Seattle, Washington, where vintage World War II aircraft are meticulously restored to their original flying condition. To increase the Zero's range, the Japanese plane has strict weight limits, with a skin constructed from a top-secret, super-light, yet durable, aluminum alloy named "Extra Super Duralumin," produced by Sumitomo Metal Industries.
MUSZALA: It was rigid enough to provide the structure it needed, but light enough to keep the airplane light.
SNOW: These specifications give the Zero not just range, they maximize its horsepower-to-weight ratio, making it faster and more maneuverable than Allied fighter planes. But what the Zero gains by being lightweight, it sacrifices in pilot safety.
MUSZALA: It didn't leave any protection from enemy fire. And the fuel cells were only covered by a very thin sheet of aluminum, and so they caught fire very easily when they were hit.
HARADA: However, this plane also represented the worst of Japan, which was disregard for human life.
SNOW: The attack shocks the nation and stirs the U.S. military into action.
HEDLEY: Truthfully, I did not hear any anger, even when we were all collected together that evening. I think it was the fact that we were so stunned by what happened. But there was the attitude that they'll pay for this.
President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.
SNOW: While the attack on Pearl Harbor is a devastating blow, it propels American ingenuity, sparking an era of unprecedented technological innovation that gives rise to the P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt, F6F Hellcat, and other Allied aircraft that will soon outmatch the Japanese Zero and help lead to victory in the Pacific, and ultimately an Allied victory in World War II.
The attack on Pearl Harbor came after years of worsening relations between Japan and the United States. They had differences over Japan's behavior toward China. This breakdown began in 1931, when Japanese army extremists defied their government policy and invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria.
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