U.S. Marines at Pearl Harbor


U.S. Marines at Pearl Harbor: 7 December 1941

The earliest visit of U.S. Marines to Hawaii took place in the early nineteenth-century.  On 31 May 1814, during the War of 1812, Capt John Marshall Gamble, USMC, in command of the USS Sir Andrew Hammond, a commissioned ex-British prize, reached Wyatteetee Bay on the Island of Waohoo (Waikiki).  In 1843, Marines were serving on the USS Constellation when she fired her historic salute to the Hawaiian flag and to Kamehameha III, king of the Hawaiian Islands.

Two years later, Lt Joseph W. Curtis, commanding the Marine Guard of the Constellation, made a reconnaissance of Oahu and recommended that Pearl Harbor was the logical place for the defense of the island against foreign aggression and for a naval base.  Lt Curtis reported:  “…and may I call your attention to the vast importance of the harbor of Pearl Harbor.  The perfect security of the harbor, the excellence of its water, the perfect ease with which it can be made one of the finest places in the islands, all combine to make it a great consideration.”

The young Marine lieutenant’s astute observation was not lost upon future American military planners, as nearly one hundred years later, in the spring of 1940, Pearl Harbor became the home for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.  The “vast importance of Pearl Harbor” was not lost either upon the minds of foreign military analysts.  By December 1940, key Japanese military planners already envisaged a surprise air raid upon the American Pacific base in the event of war with the United States.  One year later their plans became reality.

On Sunday, 7 December 1941, there were approximately 4,500 Marines stationed at Pearl Harbor and its vicinity.  Ashore, in addition to Marine Aircraft Group 21 (MAG-21) at Ewa and the Marine Barracks, there were a variety of Marine units:  2d Engineer Battalion, 2d Service Battalion, 1st Defense Battalion (rear echelon), 3d Defense Battalion, 4th Defense Battalion, and a token element from the 6th Defense Battalion.

The Marine Corps Air Station at Ewa, Oahu, was the first target of the striking Japanese bomber and fighter planes, approximately two minutes before the portion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor was attacked.  The air raid began approximately at 7:55am and continued until shortly before 10:00am.  Three separate attacks were made in all, with MAG-21 losing nearly all of its 47 Grumman F4F Wildcats and dive bombers in the first attack.

It was noted in the official Marine Corps report of the air raid on Ewa that: “So precise and well executed were the individual (Japanese) attacks that it appeared as though each plane previously has selected its particular target; and aimed at the wings of the aircraft on the ground with the purpose of riddling them, and setting fire to the gas tanks, in order to render them useless for pursuit and interception.”

The commanding officer of MAG-21, LtCol Claude A. Larkin, although wounded almost immediately upon arriving at the field that morning, continued to direct the efforts of his Marines to meet the Japanese attack.  Marine personnel fought back with machine guns stripped from the ruins of smoldering planes, and in many instances with small arms.  Miraculously, only four Marines perished in the air raid at Ewa.

The official report added that, “practically to the last man, every Marine at the base met the attack with whatever weapon there was at hand, or that he could commandeer, or even improvise with the limited means of his command.  They displayed great courage and determination against insurmountable odds.”

Similarly, the commanding officer of the Marine Barracks at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard noted in his report of 7 December that immediately upon the first raid by hostile planes, “the (1st and 3d) defense battalions immediately went into action with antiaircraft machine guns with telling effect.”  In addition to manning battle stations, security posts and fire engines, Marines at the Barracks assisted in collecting and transporting casualties from the waterfront to the Naval Hospital.  One set of barracks, the Noncommissioned Officers’ Club and the Post Exchange were also vacated and prepared for the caring of casualties.  The mess halls were opened and served food on a 24-hour basis to civilian and military personnel at the Barracks.

Over 800 officers and enlisted Marines were serving aboard ships at Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese attack.  There were Marine ships’ detachments aboard the USS Arizona, California, Helena, Honolulu, Maryland, Nevada, Oklahoma, PennsylvaniaTennessee, Utah, and West Virginia.  During the first minute of the attack, a Japanese torpedo slammed into the port bow of the USS Arizona.  The senior Marine officer, Maj Alan Shapley, was thrown from the foremast at least a hundred feet into the water but managed to swim clear to Ford Island.   Rescuing two shipmates on his way to safety, Maj Shapley later received a Silver Star for his actions.

Though stunned by the fury of the enemy assault, the Marines who were not caught below ship manned their posts and returned antiaircraft fire.  Individual acts of heroism were numerous that December morning; four Marines serving aboard ships in “battleship row” received Navy Crosses for heroic actions in rescuing fellow Marines and Navy personnel.

Typical of the heroism displayed by many Marines were the actions of Sgt Thomas E. Hailey.  Stationed on the USS Oklahoma, when that battleship capsized, he swam to an adjacent battleship to assist in the rescue of the latter’s crew.  Then, on his own initiative, he manned an antiaircraft gun, despite enemy bombing and strafing and the fact that he had no previous experience on this type of weapon.  Later, clad only in his underwear and armed with a rifle, he volunteered and went up in an airplane on a five-hour search mission.

Similarly, aboard the USS Nevada, Cpl Joseph R. Driskell, although wounded and with most of his clothes burned off, manned another gun when his own was wrecked.  Subsequently he assisted other injured men and joined in fire-fighting squads which brought flames under control.

By the time the Japanese air raid was over at 9:45am, the destruction to the United States’ Fleet was vast.  The attack claimed the lives of 2,409 American servicemen and civilians and wounded another 1,178.  Eighteen ships in Pearl Harbor were destroyed or heavily damaged and 347 American aircraft were put out of action.  Fortunately, the attack on Pearl Harbor missed three naval aircraft carriers, which were at sea at the time.  The air raid also missed the base repair facilities, the submarine base and the fuel storage tanks.  The survival of these facilities made possible the eventual repair of 13 of the damaged American battleships at Pearl Harbor.

Marine Corps losses at Pearl Harbor included 112 Marines killed and missing in action and at least 64 wounded.  The heaviest Marine losses came from the ship’s detachment aboard the Arizona, only 3 officers and 12 enlisted men survived from a Marine detachment of 82.  In words that could easily apply to the actions of all U.S. servicemen stationed at Pearl Harbor of 7 December 1941, the executive officer of the West Virginia noted that: “Throughout the action, there never was the slightest sign of faltering or of cowardice.  The actions of the officers and men were wholly commendable; their spirit was marvelous; there was no sign of panic, no shirking nor flinching, and words fail in attempting to describe the truly magnificent display of courage, discipline, and devotion to duty of all.”

Though inflicting a serious, but temporary, blow upon American military power in the Pacific, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor also united Americans behind their President and Congress, when on 8 December, war was formally declared on Japan.  A “sleeping giant” had been awakened, and would not rest again until the final defeat of Japan and her Axis partners four years later.

Taken from a Fact Sheet Prepared by:

Reference Branch
Historical Division
November 1991

Marine Corps University