The story behind the Pearl Harbor attack

A photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the Dec. 7, 1941 torpedo attack.


By CONOR GRIFFITH | The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va. | Published: December 7, 2015

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. (Tribune News Service) — Seventy-four years ago today, any illusions that the world wasn’t at war were shattered when torpedoes and bombs of the Imperial Japanese Navy rained down on Pearl Harbor, plunging America into World War II.

At least that’s the condensed version that most people are reminded of each year. But history is never that simple. Nearly 75 years after the Pearl Harbor attack, most of America’s Greatest Generation has passed on, and many of their stories with them.

One Navy veteran who was at Pearl Harbor, Seaman 1st Class Richard Cunningham, visited Morgantown to celebrate Veterans Day and serve as parade marshal for the city’s annual Veterans Day Parade. He served on the U.S.S. West Virginia at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack and would go on to serve on other ships throughout the Pacific Theatre of World War II.

In addition to his personal experiences, Cunningham delved into the subject of Japanese history leading up to Pearl Harbor.

Cunningham explained that the Japanese Empire’s decision to attack the U.S. stemmed from a greater campaign for resources, notably oil.

“I’ve read a lot of books about Pearl Harbor,” Cunningham said. “I did this because I think people would better understand why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor — it goes back a long way.”

The following is a glimpse into the people and events that set the stage for war between Japan and the U.S., courtesy of Cunningham’s research into the subject.

Yamamoto and rapid modernization

Prior to 1853, Japan was a feudal nation, self-contained with little contact with the outside world.

All of that changed in 1853, when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry sailed his sloop, the Susquehanna, into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) and fired a cannon shot, which changed the course of Japanese history.

Japan’s samurai warriors quickly realized their swords were no match for gunpowder, and thus opened Japan up for trade. Almost immediately, Japan hired the British to teach them shipbuilding, Germans for engineering, Americans for commerce and the French for military training.

By 1905, Japan had a naval fleet large enough to defeat the Russians at Port Arthur — all in just 52 years. Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind Pearl Harbor, was a 21-year-old ensign during the battle at Port Arthur, serving under Admiral Heihachiro Togo.

Yamamoto was born in 1884. His birth name was Isoruko Taranta. Isoruko means 56 in Japanese, for he was born on his father’s 56th birthday. Considering his stature in history, he wasn’t very tall, barely reaching 5 feet 3 inches.

After his parents died, Isoruko and his siblings went to live with the richest family in the area, the Yamamoto family, as was the custom in Japan at the time. Isoruko soon took their name and learned to speak English from missionaries who routinely visited the Yamamoto home.

Yamamoto learned a valuable lesson from Togo at Port Arthur — the assault on the Russian fleet was a sneak attack. Togo attacked without a declaration of war.

Pathway to war

By 1941, Japan had larger, newer and faster battleships than Britain or the U.S. However, Japan needed oil and lots of it as the country’s reserves were estimated to last only three years.

The Japanese weren’t fans of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In July 1940, he enacted the Export Control Act, which stopped all shipments of oil, minerals and scrap iron to Japan. This was devastating since 80 percent of Japan’s oil came from the U.S. The rest was Japanese-produced or came from the Dutch East Indies.

Tensions rose. Japan invaded China in 1937 looking for oil. Cordell Hull, then secretary of state, repeatedly told Japan to withdraw its troops from China, which did not happen. The hierarchy of Japan’s military-dominated government decided to go to war with America.

Yamamoto was selected to spearhead this operation. Yamamoto liked the U.S. and later described the country as a sleeping giant that was awakened by the events of Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, he was a patriot first and foremost and began planning the attack in January 1941.

Yamamoto’s plan called for the destruction of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor followed by the seizure of every American, British and Dutch holding in the Pacific. The next step was to take Hawaii and use it as a base to raid the West Coast, then seize the Panama Canal in order to dictate peace terms in Washington, D.C.


The story of Pearl Harbor cannot be written without including the Japanese Empire’s master spy, Takeo Yoshikawa.

He joined the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1929. At the top of his class, Yoshikawa served on battleships, submarines and as a naval pilot. It was thought that he would become an admiral and command the entire navy if not for stomach ailments he developed. However, Yoshikawa was later offered and accepted a job in naval intelligence. In 1941, he received a diplomatic passport and went to Honolulu as a vice consul under the name of Tadashi Morimura.

As a diplomat, Yoshikawa was free to move around Oahu, often making observations while flying around the island in rented planes from John Rodgers Field. He kept all information in his head, never keeping written notes. Yoshikawa was also an accomplished swimmer, covering all of Pearl Harbor’s installations, often while submerged breathing through a hollow reed.

Yoshikawa used a nearby teahouse to view fleet movements in the harbor. He knew what ships were at anchor, how heavily loaded they were and what cargo was.

Trusting officers would often give away valuable information while conversing with girls at the teahouse. Yoshikawa picked up on this and also got details by picking up hitchhiking sailors. He even posed as a Filipino dishwasher at an officers’ mess hall to scrounge up anything of value he could learn.

Yoshikawa stayed up late each night sending coded messages to Tokyo, which went directly to Admiral Yamamoto. Yoshikawa was picked up by American authorities soon after the attack but was released due to his diplomatic status.

Yoshikawa is considered by many to be one of history’s most successful spies. However, he received no medals, honors or even a pension from the Japanese government after the war — the only authority who could verify his identity (and mission as a spy) was Yamamoto, who was killed when his plane was shot down by American fighters in the Solomon Islands during the war.

The master spy lived down-and-out after the war, often drinking to forget. Little did anyone know years later that the man in peasants’ clothing drinking sake (rice wine) was directly responsible for much of what occurred Dec. 7, 1941.

©2015 The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.)
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