December 7: The Day 'All Hell Broke Loose'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today is Pearl Harbor day. It has been 74 years since Japan attacked a United States Naval Base on the island of Oahu, prompting the country to enter World War II. Today also marks the first year that Congress no longer has a World War II veteran in its ranks. Michigan Democrat John Dingell and Texas Republican Ralph Hall, both veterans of the war, retired last year.

During my stint as a political reporter, I covered the Hawaii delegation at a time when the state’s U.S. senators were both World War II vets: Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka. Inouye died in 2012, and Akaka retired in 2013. Over the years, I've talked to both of them about their memories of the Pearl Harbor attack, which both men witnessed firsthand.

It was early on a Sunday morning when, as Inouye once put it to me, “all hell broke loose.” He was just 17 years old at the time, and was listening to the radio as he got dressed for church. Out of nowhere, the on-air announcer began screaming. Then, a distant buzz of airplanes turned into a roar. When Inouye went outside to see what was happening, he looked up and saw the underside of airplane wings peeling across the sky, all “gray with red dots.”

Akaka remembers a similar sight. “When the squadron passed over us, we saw those red balls on the wings,” he told me back in 2012. “That’s when we knew it was the Japanese attacking.”

At the time, he was a senior at Kamehameha School for Boys in Honolulu. “Out of my dormitory window I watched all this smoke and was able to see the planes diving in at Pearl Harbor. I was able to see—and I didn't know what it was until later of course—that they were torpedoing the battleships in a row, and how some of them kind of keeled over.”

“We got orders to put a unit together and guard the hills in back of school because they were expecting paratroopers to land,” Akaka said. “They wanted to have a unit up in the mountains to protect the water. We took our own rifles and we moved up into the hills.”

“At that time, everything changed so much … I was drafted into the Army and served in the Northern Pacific, which included the Marshall Islands and the Marianas … and I ended up in Saipan.”

“It was from Saipan, in 1945, for several months before August, we started to bomb Japan from that area—from Tinian and Saipan, two islands close to eachother. They would fly every day to Japan and bomb it. They had permission to use the atom bomb, and it was from there they put the atom bomb on planes and bombed Japan … So, in a way, I saw the beginning of the war and also the ending of the war.”

World War II loomed large over the 20th century, and the continual presence of that war’s veterans in Congress helped shape American policy in the ensuing decades, for better and for worse. There are still veterans in Congress; Hawaii, for example, is now represented by Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard who served two tours of duty in the Middle East. The lessons that these new leaders will distill from the very different conflicts in which they’ve served are likely to shape American policy in this new century, too.