The Long Blue Line: The attack on Pearl Harbor—“a date that will live in infamy”

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Early Coast Guard recruiting poster shows a Coast Guard patrol boat battling attacking Japanese aircraft. (Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum)

Early Coast Guard recruiting poster shows a Coast Guard patrol boat battling attacking Japanese aircraft. (Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum)

In his war declaration speech, President Franklin Roosevelt labeled Dec. 7, 1941, as a “date that will live in infamy.” On that day, without forewarning or a declaration of war, forces of Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In the battle, Coast Guard units served alongside the Navy firing anti-aircraft barrages against the Japanese attackers and performing harbor and anti-submarine patrols.

A rare aerial photograph of Pearl Harbor in October 1941, a few weeks before the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

A rare aerial photograph of Pearl Harbor in October 1941, a few weeks before the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Supporting U.S. naval forces on December 7, were the Coast Guard cutters, patrol boats, bases, stations, lighthouses and personnel assigned to the 14th Naval District. These units included high-endurance cutter Taney and patrol cutters Tiger and Reliance; buoy tenders Kukui and Walnut; patrol boats CG-400, CG-403, CG-27, and CG-8; a buoy boat and the former Lighthouse Service launch Lehua. Coast Guard radiomen George Larsen and Melvin Bell manned the communications station at the Diamond Head Lighthouse broadcasting that an attack was underway. Coast Guard aviator, Lt. Frank Erickson, who later pioneered helicopter flight, was standing watch at Ford Island before the attack then took command of an anti-aircraft battery to fight off enemy aircraft.

Aerial view of Pearl Harbor, during the surprise attack, shot from a Japanese aircraft. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Aerial view of Pearl Harbor, during the surprise attack, shot from a Japanese aircraft. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

The Coast Guard had supported the war effort even before Pearl Harbor. The service had been transferred from the Department of Treasury to the Navy in November 1941; however, Coast Guard units in Hawaii had served alongside the Navy since the summer. By the time of the attack, these units had been integrated with their Navy counterparts. Earlier, the service had participated in the pre-war Neutrality Patrol guarding against attacks by belligerent warships in the Atlantic. Since June 1941, the Coast Guard had overseen the Greenland theater of operations in air, sea and ice operations, and there it had captured the U.S. military’s first enemy vessel of World War II.

The 125-foot patrol cutter Tiger. Designed for Prohibition enforcement, Tiger and Pearl Harbor-based sister cutter Reliance were reconfigured for anti-submarine duties. (Coast Guard Collection)

The 125-foot patrol cutter Tiger. Designed for Prohibition enforcement, Tiger and Pearl Harbor-based sister cutter Reliance were reconfigured for anti-submarine duties. (Coast Guard Collection)

After December 7, the Coast Guard proved worthy of the service’s motto Semper Paratus-“Always Ready.” On Jan. 29, 1942, Cutter Alexander Hamilton became the nation’s first warship lost in action, suffering the service’s first battle casualties. A day later, the Coast Guard-manned transport USS Wakefield delivered Allied troops to Singapore, evacuated many of the island’s civilian population and suffered casualties from Japanese bombers. In May, the Coast Guard Cutter Icarus sank the second U-boat destroyed by U.S. forces and captured the first enemy prisoners of the war.

Painting of high-endurance cutter Taney firing at Japanese aircraft from its dock in Honolulu. (Coast Guard Collection)

Painting of high-endurance cutter Taney firing at Japanese aircraft from its dock in Honolulu. (Coast Guard Collection)

In the first few months of the war, the Japanese military seemed unstoppable in the Pacific. By July 1942, the enemy had occupied Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, Singapore, vast areas of China, the Philippines, Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies. But by the middle of 1942, the U.S. Navy had vanquished a powerful Japanese fleet in the pivotal naval battle of Midway Island. In August 1942, the U.S. military launched its first land offensive of World War II at Guadalcanal. The struggle for this island proved the first true test of all branches of the American military, including the Coast Guard, against determined Japanese forces within enemy-held territory. Guadalcanal became a killing field that consumed thousands of men, hundreds of aircraft and dozens of front-line warships. It also became one of the most honored combat operations in Coast Guard history, with service members receiving Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star and Navy Cross medals, the Presidential Unit Commendation, and Coast Guard’s only Medal of Honor.

The wreck of the battleship USS Arizona in flames and sitting on the harbor bottom. (National Archives)

The wreck of the battleship USS Arizona in flames and sitting on the harbor bottom. (National Archives)

Pearl Harbor had proven a lopsided victory for Imperial Japan. However, by the end of 1942, the tide of the Pacific War had turned in favor of U.S. and Allied forces. For the next 2 1/2 years, the Allies would fight island battles whose names were written in blood against retreating Japanese forces. The Coast Guard participated in all of these major amphibious operations, including Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Coast Guardsmen also operated thousands of Coast Guard, Army and Navy supply ships that supported U.S. troops and the fighting fleets of the Pacific.

President Franklin Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Japan. (National Archives)

President Franklin Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Japan. (National Archives)

In early August 1945, hostilities came to an end. In the late summer and fall of that year, Coast Guard-manned ships participated in Operation “Magic Carpet,” transporting thousands of troops home to the U.S. On Jan. 1, 1946, after providing nearly 250,000 Coast Guard men and women to support the war effort, the Coast Guard left Navy control and returned to its former position within the Department of Treasury. Before, during and after Pearl Harbor, the United States Coast Guard had truly proven itself Semper Paratus or “Always Ready” to perform any naval or maritime mission required to defeat the enemy in World War II.

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