Hylander Talk Brings Pearl Harbor to Life
The attack on Pearl Harbor may seem like ancient history to many, but when Dr. Gary Hylander recently visited the Bellingham Senior Center to kick off a series of talks about WWII, it might have happened yesterday. Members of the audience such as Bellingham resident Gordon Curtis nodded their heads often throughout Hylander’s presentation. Curtis is a WWII veteran, Commander of Bellingham’s VFW Post 7272, and he remembers clearly that time when our country was plunged into war. He offered a few observations of his own during the presentation.
Dr. Hylander, a history professor at Stonehill College and Boston College, is a skilled storyteller. Rather than recounting just “facts and dates,” he plunged the group straight into the events prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, introducing us to the leading characters of the drama, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, U.S. President at that time, and Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack.
Traditionally, naval power was “supreme,” Hylander noted. “Planning to use airpower to attack [therefore] promised surprise, and attacking Sunday morning at daybreak assured that most would be asleep after being out on the town Saturday night.” The multiple warnings of imminent attack on Pearl Harbor that had been untrue had lulled people into a complacency that was understandable but that would prove fatal for many. Hylander noted that prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, an assignment to the base in Hawaii was considered “a good gig,” since it included good weather, good drinks, and available women.
Unlike present-day America as a military power, in 1941 the U.S. was ranked 39th in the world in military strength, according to Hylander. “The Depression continued, factories were closed, oilfields were capped. We were an oil-exporting nation, but Cordell Hull [FDR’s Secretary of State] warned FDR that by selling oil to the Japanese we were aiding and abetting Japanese aggression.” Hylander detailed Japan’s moves to make itself less dependent on the West by invading China in the 1930s and eyeing Indochina for its rubber products and Indonesia for additional resources.
The two-ocean Navy Act, passed in 1940 by the U.S. Congress to strengthen the Pacific fleet, had indicated a recognition that the U.S. needed to dedicate resources to strengthening our defenses. “Most of our ships in the Atlantic could not sail through the Panama Canal,” Gordon Curtis pointed out.
According to Hylander, the attack on Pearl Harbor was devastating, but could have been much worse if the Japanese had taken advantage of their position. “General Yamamoto was considered too valuable to risk having him command the attack,” Hylander explained. “Another admiral was put in charge to command the attack; he followed the blueprint, but didn’t believe in the plan. When the Japanese pilots returned to the carriers, they asked to be refueled and sent back, since they hadn’t hit the oil tanks at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. aircraft carriers were not in the harbor. They wanted to go back to look for the carriers and launch another attack on Pearl Harbor. The commanding admiral refused this request and headed back to Japan.” That the destruction suffered at Pearl Harbor could have been even more devastating is a sobering thought indeed.
FDR’s State of the Union speech took place January 6, 1942, just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hylander noted that FDR bluffed about the U.S.’s capabilities by using highly inflated numbers of what the U.S. would produce in the coming days. “In fact, we never reached the numbers FDR had boasted of,” Hylander said.
After the talk, Kenneth Kruger of Milford noted that he had just visited Pearl Harbor last summer. “I felt compelled to get there—I’m a Navy veteran. It’s hard to believe there’s a battleship [the Arizona] underwater there in the harbor,” he said.
This was the first in a series of three talks Hylander is offering at the Bellingham Senior Center. The second presentation in the series, about D-Day, was scheduled for April 24.