“When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the Submarine Force that I looked to carry the load. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.” –Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (and also a submarine officer)
This week America remembers the 75thanniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This remembrance is particularly meaningful to the U.S. Navy, and even more to Sailors serving at Pearl Harbor. But it should have the greatest significance to the Submarine Force, because it was our contributions to the Second World War that suggest that December 7th, 1941was actually the day that Imperial Japan won a battle, but lost the war.
Submariners are well-aware that World War II provided some of our greatest challenges, our greatest successes, our greatest heroes, and also our greatest sacrifices. And here in Pearl Harbor, we can stand atop the Dive Tower on the Submarine Base and actually see the most visceral reminders of the complete cycle of the war: its opening salvo, the seeds of our eventual victory, and even the war’s conclusion. That makes Pearl Harbor unique—where else in the world is there such a singular vantage point for the breadth of such a major conflict?
The Opening Salvo:
Visual reminders of the start of the war are obvious, and infamous. In the harbor lies the USS ARIZONA Memorial, which honors the nearly 1200 Sailors and Marines who lost their lives onboard that fateful day. Seaward of ARIZONA sat the battleships that comprised Battleship Row, remembered now by a line of white caissons. These caissons remind us not only of the Sailors of those battleships, but of the sheer number of casualties: the nearly 2,400 men, women, and children, both service members and civilians, who lost their lives on that “day that shall live in infamy.”
The War’s Conclusion:
Sweeping to the left of the Arizona from the Dive Tower, those caissons now bracket the most powerful symbol of the war’s conclusion: the battleship USS MISSOURI. Today we can visit the very place on board that ship where in September 1945 the peace treaty was signed that ended the war. That signing ceremony marked both a beginning and an end. As an end, it meant that the war had been won. But it also marked the beginning of the equally important challenge of how to win the peace. And as a result of having won the peace, the United States of America and our former adversary of Japan are now close friends, partners, and allies –committed to each other’s success, to each other’s defense, and to promoting freedom and democracy throughout the Pacific.
The Seeds of Victory:
So the USS ARIZONA reminds us of the start of the war, and USS MISSOURI reminds us of the end of the war; but the reminders of how the war was won are also visible from the Dive Tower. Although the results of December 7thwere horrific, they did not prevent us from prevailing. There were three significant targets that were not struck, and the omission of the fuel farm, the shipyard, and the submarine base had strategic consequence.
From the Dive Tower we can see some of the many fuel tanks that supplied the fleet. Admiral Nimitz observed that had these tanks been struck, and their four million barrels of fuel lost, it would have taken two years to replenish our supply such that the fleet could prosecute the war across the vast, vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
From here we can also see the dry docks and the incredible industrial capacity of the Navy’s “No Ka Oi” shipyard, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. After the attack, 12 ships including five battleships had been sunk or beached and nine ships including three more battleships had been damaged. Yet within only three months, most of the smaller ships and all three of the damaged battleships were returned to service or refloated, and all of them eventually returned to the fight in the Pacific.
Lastly, Pearl Harbor submarines and the Submarine Base weren’t struck. Within hours of the attack, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark ordered, “EXECUTE AGAINST JAPAN UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE;” our submarines were the only forces able to immediately begin war patrols. They carried the battle across the Pacific and into Japanese home waters while the fleet was repaired.
Our submariners did their deadly business very well. Although submarines made up only two per cent of our entire Navy, they sank 30% of all Japanese warships, and 55% of all Japanese merchant ships sunk during the war. But submariners also paid the heavy price of the heaviest casualty rate of any American branch of service in the war: fifty-two submarines were lost, and 3,628 submariners (22% of the force) remain on eternal patrol.
The Pearl Harbor horizon has many memorials containing much history, but this important story of Submarine Force success and sacrifice is hard to find within the Pearl Harbor narrative already on display. Until now. Today, we begin to share that story—honoring our heroes and educating the public—with a new display located in front of the USS Bowfin Memorial, free and accessible to anyone visiting Pearl Harbor’s iconic landmarks.
It’s important to remember though that the history of our Submarine Force didn’t begin on December 7th, 1941; and the Submarine Force’s significant contributions to our nation’s security didn’t end in September 1945. Throughout the hostile peace of the Cold War, our strategic forces proved undetectable and invulnerable to threats, while our attack submarines demonstrated the ability to hold at risk what other nations’ hold mostdear. And strategic deterrence and undersea superiority are just as important to our national security today as they have been in the past.
That makes this an incredibly exciting time to be a submariner, and an incredibly important time for our Submarine Force to maintain its undersea superiority. Our Navy and our Nation should expect no less. So although the history of our Submarine Force is impressive and is to be celebrated, that history is not complete. Our history is being made today, and every day, by every one of today’s submariners. Because throughout the 116-year history of the U.S. Submarine Force, the most important factor in all of our many successes and in all of our nation’s conflicts has been the submarine Sailor. It is our submarine Sailors, supported by our families, then as now, that are our greatest asset; our secret sauce; our competitive advantage. They are the envy of every would-be competitor on the high seas—or below them.
So on this Pearl Harbor Day, let us remember the debt we owe to the veterans who preceded us—veterans who have won our nation’s wars and who have also won the peace. But perhaps their greatest legacy is their example of honor, courage, and commitment that is now proudly carried forward and embodied in today’s generation of submarine veterans. This is another greatest generation; one that continues to preserve that hard-won peace. It is their service that should now give us all great confidence that General MacArthur’s words delivered on board USS MISSOURI in 1945 should prove to be prophetic: “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world, and that God will preserve it always.”