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Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor, or Pu’uloa, is a harbor on the O’ahu’s south central coast, west of Honolulu. Much of the harbor and surrounding lands is a United States Navy deep-water naval base. It is also the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941, brought the United States into World War II.

History

Pearl Harbor was originally an extensive, shallow embayment called Wai Momi (meaning, “pearl water”) or Puʻuloa (meaning, “long hill”) by the Hawaiians. Puʻuloa was regarded as the home of the shark goddess, Kaʻahupahau, and her brother (or son), Kahiʻuka, in Hawaiian legends. Keaunui, the head of the powerful Ewa chiefs, is credited with cutting a navigable channel near the present Puʻuloa saltworks, by which made the estuary, known as “Pearl River,” accessible to navigation. Making due allowance for legendary amplification, the estuary already had an outlet for its waters where the present gap is; but Keaunui is usually given the credit for widening and deepening it.

Nineteenth Century

During the early 19th century Pearl Harbor was not used for large ships due to its shallow entrance. The interest of the United States in the Hawaiian Islands followed its whaling and trading ships in the Pacific. As early as 1820, an “Agent of the United States for Commerce and Seamen” was appointed to look after American business in the Port of Honolulu. These commercial ties to the American continent were accompanied by the work of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. American missionaries and their families became an integral part of the Hawaiian political body.

An 1826 incident illustrates some of the high-handed tactics used by colonizers of the islands at this time. When Percival’s ship, Dolphin, arrived in Honolulu, an ordinance inspired by the missionaries, placed restrictions on alcoholic liquors and the taking of women aboard vessels in the Honolulu Harbor. Lieutenant Percival and members of his crew felt that the new vice laws were unfair and, with more than a mere threat of force, had them rescinded. This action was later renounced by the United States and resulted in the sending of an envoy to King Kauikeaouli. When Captain Thomas Catesby Jones arrived, in command of the Peacock, he was the first naval officer to visit Hawai’i armed with instructions to discuss international affairs with the Hawai’i King and Chiefs and to conclude a trade treaty.

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, many American warships visited Honolulu. In most cases, the commanding officers carried letters from the U.S. Government giving advice on governmental affairs and of the relations of the island nation with foreign powers. In 1841, the newspaper Polynesian, printed in Honolulu, advocated that the U.S. establish a naval base in Hawai’i. Its pretext was protection of American citizens engaged in the whaling industry. The British Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs Robert Crichton Wyllie, remarked in 1840 that “…my opinion is that the tide of events rushes on to annexation to the United States.” This trend was helped by incidents with the British and French. On February 13, 1843, Lord George Paulet, of HMS Carysfort occupied the islands in an incident known as the Paulet Affair. Although an American warship, Boston, was in the harbor, its commanding officer did not interfere. Official protest was made a few days later, however, by Commodore Kearney of Constellation. The actions of Lord Paulet were disavowed by Lord Aberdeen in London. France and Britain recognized Hawaiian independence, but the United States declined.

After France agitated again in the 1849 invasion, King Kamehameha III, under the influence of his American advisors, drew up a deed of cessation to the United States. The commanding officer of Vandalia had his ship stand by while awaiting Washington’s reply. With the death of the king, the retirement of the French forces, and the foreign policy of the Fillmore administration, the cessation idea fell into disfavor. The Navy Department received orders, however, to keep the naval armament of the U.S. in the Pacific.

With the conclusion of the Civil War, the purchase of Alaska, the increased importance of the Pacific states, the projected trade with the Orient and the desire for a duty free market for Hawaiian staples, Hawaiian trade expanded. In 1865, the North Pacific Squadron was formed to embrace the western coast and Hawai’i. Lackawanna in the following year was assigned to cruise among the islands, “a locality of great and increasing interest and importance.” This vessel surveyed the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands toward Japan. As a result the United States claimed Midway Island. The Secretary of the Navy was able to write in his annual report of 1868, that in November, 1867, 42 American flags flew over whaleships and merchant vessels in Honolulu to only six of other nations. This increased activity caused the permanent assignment of at least one warship to Hawaiian waters. It also praised Midway Island as possessing a harbor surpassing Honolulu’s. In the following year, Congress approved an appropriation of $50,000 on March 1, 1869, to deepen the approaches to this harbor.

After 1868, when the Commander of the Pacific Fleet visited the islands to look after “American interests,” naval officers played an important role in internal affairs. They served as arbitrators in business disputes, negotiators of trade agreements and defenders of law and order. Periodic voyages among the islands and to the mainland aboard U.S. warships were arranged for members of the Hawaiian royal family and important island government officials. When King Lunalilo died in 1873, negotiations were underway for the cessation of Pearl Harbor as a port for the duty-free export of sugar to the U.S. With the election of King Kalākaua in March, 1874, riots prompted landing of bluejackets from USS Tuscorora and Portsmouth. The British warship, HMS Tenedos, also landed a token force. During the reign of King Kalākaua the United States was granted exclusive rights to enter Pearl Harbor and to establish “a coaling and repair station.”

This treaty continued in force until August 1898, the U.S. did not fortify Pearl Harbor as a naval base. The shallow entrance constituted a formidable barrier against the use of the deep protected waters of the inner harbor as it had for 60 years.

The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom signed the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 as supplemented by Convention on December 6, 1884 and ratified in 1887. On January 20, 1887, the United States Senate allowed the Navy to lease Pearl Harbor as a naval base (the US took possession on November 9 that year). The Spanish-American War of 1898 and the desire for the United States to have a permanent presence in the Pacific both contributed to the decision.

Following the annexation, Pearl Harbor was refitted to allow for more navy ships. In May 1899, Commander F. Merry was made naval representative with authority to transact business for the Navy Department and its Bureaus. He immediately assumed control of the Coal Depot and its equipment. To supplement his facilities, he was assigned the Navy tug Iroquois and two coal barges. Inquiries that commenced in June culminated in the establishment of the “Naval Station, Honolulu” on November 17, 1899. On February 2, 1900, this title was changed to “Naval Station, Hawaii.”

The creation of the Naval Station allowed the Navy Department to explore territorial outposts. In October 1899, Nero and Iroquois made extensive surveys and sounding of the waterways to Midway and Guam. One of the reasons for these explorations was to select a possible cable route to Luzon.

A coal famine and an outbreak of the bubonic plague were the only two incidents that hindered the Commandant from fulfilling his primary functions. Because of the severe coal shortage in September 1899, the Commandant sold coal to the Oahu Railway and Land Company and the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. Although this indicated the affinity of economic ties with the Navy, it was to a certain extent counteracted by the quarantine of the naval establishment from December 1899-February 1900, because of the bubonic plague. Approximately 61 deaths were recorded in Honolulu for this period. Work was consequently delayed on nascent Navy projects in Honolulu Harbor.

From 1900-1908, the Navy devoted its time to improving the facilities of the 85 acres that constituted the naval reservation in Honolulu. Under the Appropriation Act of March 3, 1901, this tract of land was improved with the erection of additional sheds and housing. Improvements included a machine shop, smithery and foundry, Commandant’s house and stables, cottage for the watchman, fencing, 10-ton wharf crane, and water-pipe system. The harbor was dredged and the channel enlarged to accommodate larger ships. On May 28, 1903, the first battleship, Wisconsin, entered the harbor for coal and water. However, when the vessels of the Asiatic station visited Honolulu in January 1904, Rear Admiral Silas Terry complained that they were inadequately accommodated with dockage and water.

Under the above Appropriation Act, Congress approved the acquisition of lands for the development of a naval station at Pearl Harbor and the improvement of the channel to the Lochs. The Commandant, under the direction of the Bureau of Equipment, attempted to obtain options on lands surrounding Pearl Harbor that were recommended for naval use. This endeavor was unsuccessful when the owners of the property refused to accept what was deemed to be a fair price. Condemnation proceedings, under the Hawaiian law of eminent domain, were begun on July 6, 1901. The land acquired by this suit included the present Navy Yard, Kauhua Island, and a strip on the southeast coast of Ford Island. The work of dredging the coral reef that blocked Pearl Harbor progressed rapidly enough to allow the gunboat Petrel to proceed to the upper part of Main Loch in January 1905.

One of the early concerns of the growing station was that the Army would make claims on its property. Because of their facilities, as wharves, cranes, artesian wells, and coal supplies, many requests were made by the Army for their use. By February 1901, the Army had made application for the privilege of establishing on Navy docks movable cranes for handling coal and other stores, a saluting battery and a flag staff on the naval reservation, and an artesian well of its own. All these requests were rejected by the Bureau of Equipment on the theory that, once granted, they “will practically constitute a permanent foothold on the property, and end in dividing it between the two Departments, or in the entire exclusion of the Navy Department on the ground of military expediency as established by frequency of use.” However, the Army Depot Quartermaster at Honolulu contracted for the sinking of an artesian well on the Naval Station with the Commandant’s approval, who, in turn, acted on a recommendation of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. The flow of water obtained amounted to over 1.5 million gallons per day, sufficient for all purposes of the Army and Navy. The Bureau of Equipment felt that its word of caution was justified when the Depot Quartermaster in 1902 let it be known that any water used by the Navy from the artesian well was “only given by courtesy of the Army.”

Despite the warnings of the Bureau of Equipment, the War Department, the Department of Labor and Commerce, and the Department of Agriculture had secured permission to settle on the naval reservation. By 1906, the Commandant believed that it was necessary for the Bureau of Yards and Docks to develop a policy on the future of the station. The docks were being used to a greater extent by the Army transports, than by Navy ships, and the Army was actually attempting to get possession of Quarantine Wharf (which was built by the Territorial Government on the Naval Reservation, with the understanding that it could be taken over at any time by the Navy Department upon the payment of its appraised value.) In 1903, the Department of Labor and Commerce received about 7 acres for an Immigration Station. The Department of Agriculture had, in the meanwhile, secured part of the site intended for a hospital as an experimental station. The Commandant felt that, if the station was going to develop beyond a mere coaling depot, these territorial encroachments on the part of other departments should be stopped, particularly when they were enjoying the benefits of naval appropriations. “On the other hand,” he wrote, “if it is the intention to improve Pearl Harbor and eventually abandon this station every effort should be made to begin work there as soon as possible. . . . I am informed that important commercial interests will make a strong effort next year to have Pearl Harbor improved, and I think that will be an opportune time for the Navy Department to make efforts in the same direction.”

In 1908, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was established. The period from 1908-1919 was one of steady and continuous growth of the Naval Station, Pearl Harbor, with the exception of the discouraging collapse of the drydock in 1913. Work on the dock started on September 21, 1909 and on February 17, 1913, the entire drydock structure rumbled, rocked, and caved in. It was ceremonially opened to flooding by Mrs. Josephus Daniels, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, on August 21, 1919. The Act of May 13, 1908 authorized the enlargement and dredging of the Pearl Harbor channel and lochs “to admit the largest ships,” the building of shops and supply houses for the Navy Yard, and the construction of a drydock. Work progressed satisfactorily on all projects, except the drydock. After much wrangling with Congress to secure an appropriation of over three million dollars for its construction, it was wrecked by “underground pressure. ” In 1917, Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor was purchased for joint Army and Navy use in the development of military aviation in the Pacific.

As the Japanese military pressed its war in China, concern over Japan’s intentions caused the U.S. to begin taking defensive measures. On February 1, 1933, the U.S. Navy staged a mock attack on the base at Pearl Harbor as part of a preparedness exercise.  The attack “succeeded” and the defense was deemed a “failure”.

December 7, 1941

Aircraft and midget submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy began an attack on the U.S. The Americans had deciphered Japan’s code earlier and knew about a planned attack before it actually occurred. However, due to difficulty in deciphering intercepted messages, the Americans failed to discover Japan’s target location before the attack occurred. Under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the attack was devastating in loss of life and damage to the U.S. fleet. At 06:05 on December 7, the six Japanese carriers launched a first wave of 183 planes composed mainly of dive bombers, horizontal bombers and fighters. The Japanese hit American ships and military installations at 07:51. The first wave attacked military airfields of Ford Island. At 08:30, a second wave of 170 Japanese planes, mostly torpedo bombers, attacked the fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor. The battleship ARIZONA was hit with an armor piercing bomb which penetrated the forward ammunition compartment, blowing the ship apart and sinking it within seconds. Overall, nine ships of the U.S. fleet were sunk and 21 ships were severely damaged. Three of the 21 would be irreparable. The overall death toll reached 2,350, including 68 civilians, and 1,178 injured. Of the military personnel lost at Pearl Harbor, 1,177 were from ARIZONA. The first shots fired were from the destroyer WARD on a midget submarine that had surfaced outside of Pearl Harbor; WARD did successfully sink the midget sub at approximately 06:55, about an hour before the assault on Pearl Harbor.

A much less well known tragedy occurred during WWII in Pearl Harbor’s “West Loch” ammuniton depot.  On May 21, 1944, the tank landing ship LST-353 caught fire and exploded handling ammunition. In a short space of time, six LSTs were so damaged that they sank. Two others were severely damaged. 163 sailors were killed; 396 wounded

The Navy base itself was recognized on January 29, 1964 as a National Historic Landmark district. Within its bounds, it contains several other National Historic Landmarks associated with the attack on Pearl Harbor, including  ARIZONA, BOWFIN and UTAH.   As an active Navy base, many of the historic buildings that contributed to the NHL designation are under threat of demolition and rebuilding.




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