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A rainbow appears over the USS
ArizonaMemorial. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Wallace Ciccarelli Jr.

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luciano Marano

The area of Oahu that would one day be known around the world as Pearl Harbor was once a tranquil enclosed bay revered by the native Hawaiians for its numerous pearl-producing oysters. Known as Wai Momi (the Harbor of Pearls), it was thought to be the home of the great shark goddess Ka’ahupahau and her brother Kahi’uha.

For many years after the arrival of the first European sailors, the entrance to the harbor remained too shallow for it to be of much use as a port. It was not until the United States purchased Alaska and became more aware of the importance of the Pacific that it saw the need to obtain exclusive rights from the Kingdom of Hawaii to establish “a coaling or repair station” in Pearl Harbor. In 1887, the U.S. Navy leased land for a coal depot.

The harbor nevertheless remained largely unimproved until after the formal annexation of Hawaii in 1898. In 1900, the naval installations at Pearl Harbor were formally designated “Naval Station Hawaii,” and work commenced to enlarge the channel and dredge the harbor to accommodate modern battleships, the first of which arrived to take on coal in 1903. Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was established in 1908. Additional areas of the harbor were deepened to take large ships, and the expansion of shore facilities at what was now called Naval Station Pearl Harbor proceeded apace. This period of great improvement and growth culminated in 1917 with the purchase of Ford Island, in the middle of the harbor, to build a joint Army-Navy airfield.

The infamous surprise attack by the Empire of Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, brought the United States into World War II. Shortly after six o’clock that morning, six aircraft carriers operating under the overall command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto launched the first wave of planes, followed by a second wave about two hours later. Despite the valiant efforts of American servicemembers, the damage was severe, and the U.S. death toll eventually exceeded 2,000, including 68 civilians.

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Aerial view of “Battleship Row” moorings on the southern side of Ford Island, Dec. 10, 1941, showing damage from the Japanese raid three days earlier. U.S. Navy photo

The attack was intended to catch the U.S. Fleet in the harbor and inflict so much damage that the United States would not regain the initiative in the Pacific for the foreseeable future. The obvious targets were aircraft carriers and battleships, which both sides considered the keys to victory. Fortunately, no U.S. aircraft carrier was in port when the Japanese attacked. Equally fortunate, the Japanese planes ignored the American submarine base, even though they flew directly over it on their way to attack what they considered more important targets.

This misplaced priority contributed to their eventual undoing. The U.S. Submarine Force proved to be one of the most effective American weapons in the Pacific Theater, and Pearl Harbor was its most important base of operations. Although U.S. submarines achieved significant victories over Japanese naval forces, their greatest contribution was the devastation of Japan’s merchant marine. U.S. submarines sank at least 55 percent of the more than 8 million tons of shipping Japan lost during the war, crippling the merchant fleet’s ability to support the Japanese war machine and giving Allied forces in the Pacific a tremendous advantage.

By the end of World War II, U.S. submarines had made more than 1,600 war patrols, but the cost of their success was heavy. The U.S. Pacific Fleet lost 52 submarines, and more than 3,500 submariners perished.

The years after World War II saw numerous improvements to the facilities at Pearl Harbor, including the construction of additional piers and modifications necessary to support nuclear-powered warships. Today, Pearl Harbor is one of the most advanced naval installations on the planet. It is the home of several major military commands, including the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and every year receives ships from numerous allied countries around the world. Several memorials commemorate the tragedies of the past, each one frequented by thousands of visitors from all walks of life and many nationalities.

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Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus and his wife, Lynne Mabus, pay their respects at the USS
ArizonaMemorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin O’Brien

What was once a tranquil pearl fishery sacred to a Hawaiian goddess has grown into one of the most important and unique locations in the Pacific. From ancient Hawaiians to modern Americans of all origins, everyone has realized the importance of this place, no matter its name.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Marano is a Public Affairs Mass Communications Specialist for Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific (COMSUBPAC).