The story

Background to Pearl Harbor - History

As 1941 progressed war between Japan and the United States became all but inevitable. Japanese expansion had begun with its invasion of Manchuria. Japan became embroiled in a war with China that it could not seem to win. The United States while remaining officially neutral clearly sympathized with the Chinese.

When Germany, who the Japanese were allied with attacked the Soviet Union, the Japanese made the strategic decision to move south and seize Indo-China. This action resulted in the freezing of Japanese assets in the United States together with a trade embargo. This all but made war with Japan all but certain.

While war was inevitable the timing of it was not. The United States, which was preoccupied by Nazis Germany in Europe, and was in the midst of a massive rearmament, wanted to do all it could to delay the war. The Japanese however, were looking at the same timetable and knew that by late 1942 a steady stream of large naval ships would be joining the US fleet. The US embargo was also taking a toll on the Japanese economy. Thus the Japanese knew they needed to take dramatic action.

Why Did Japan Fail So Badly at Pearl Harbor? China Knows.

A look at Pearl Harbor through the eyes of the enemy.

Here's What You Need to Remember: In short, this is a rival who seems to have learned from Yamamoto: don’t jab a sleeping giant, and if you do, don’t steel his resolve.

As we afford our hallowed forebears the remembrance they deserve, let’s also try to learn from what transpired here seventy-five years ago, and see what it tells us about America’s future as an Asia-Pacific sea power.

In particular, let’s look at Pearl Harbor through the eyes of the enemy.

(This first appeared in 2016.)

Why did Japan do it? Doing nothing is a viable strategic option, and oftentimes a good one. Imperial Japan would have been far better off had it forgone the attack on Pearl Harbor and confined its operations to the Western Pacific. Had Tokyo exercised some forbearance, it may have avoided rousing the “sleeping giant” that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto reputedly said he feared so much. And even if it did awaken the American giant, it would have avoided filling him with what Yamamoto called a “terrible resolve” to crush Japan. Think about it:

• By attacking Oahu, Japan took on a second full-blown war in the Pacific Ocean while waging a massive land war on the continent of Asia. Bear in mind that Japan had already been at war for a decade by the time it attacked Hawaii the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937. This was a mammoth undertaking. When the shooting stopped in 1945, some 1.8 million Japanese troops were left in China, Manchuria and Korea. That illustrates the dimensions of the ground war—a war comparable in scale to the maritime war.

• Japan picked a fight with a foe boasting vastly greater economic and industrial power, and it fired that foe’s resolve to translate economic and industrial resources—potential military power, in other words—into deployable military might on a scale that Japan had little hope of matching. My former chairman George Baer, the author of an award-winning history of the United States Navy, reminds us that our navy’s shipbuilding budget for 1940 alone exceeded a decade’s worth of Imperial Japanese Navy shipbuilding budgets. That shows what Japan was up against.

• And after the sleeping giant had started awake, the Japanese leadership failed to walk back its ambitious political and strategic aims. It tried to defend the vast territories it overran in 1941–42—and never really adapted to the new circumstances it had created by poking a slumbering America.

Picking a fight with a stronger enemy, enraging that enemy and refusing to admit the likelihood of defeat—that adds up to “self-defeating behavior” of the first order on the part of Japan’s military rulers. And the repercussions were hardly unexpected. We know they were foreseeable because perceptive Japanese military men foresaw them.

Admiral Yamamoto, to name one, caught sight of how the war would unfold. He compared fighting the United States to “fighting the whole world.” The mismatch in economic and military power would be that lopsided once American industry was in full gear, turning out war materiel in vast quantities. Yamamoto told his political superiors: “If you insist that we really do it, you may trust us for the perfect execution of a breath-taking show of naval victories for the first half-year or full year. But if the war should be prolonged into a second or third year, I am not confident at all.”

Nor should he have been. As we know from the history books, the war did spill into a second year, 1942–43, and then into a third, 1943–44, and into a fourth. By late 1943, what amounted to a second complete U.S. Navy—the shiny, new, higher-tech fleet authorized by Congress under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940—was steaming into the combat theater to do battle. Events bore out Yamamoto’s prophecy once that force arrived on scene—and began overpowering Imperial Japanese Navy defenders.

So Yamamoto was right: Japan had to win quickly or not at all. But he was also wrong: by executing his plan to strike Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy guaranteed there would be no quick win. So, again: if the outcome was predictable, why did they do it? What should they have done?

This is a roundabout way of getting to the beginning. Let’s ask “what if?” as we look back seventy-five years to the Japanese aerial assault on this place. Now, as a Naval War College professor of strategy, I am required to mention our patron saint—our holiest of holies, the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz—every time I give a talk like this one. So here’s a pearl of wisdom from the great Carl: no fair Monday-morning quarterbacking!

To learn from past failures, in other words, it’s not enough to second-guess what commanders or statesmen of bygone ages did wrong amid the fury of war. To truly learn from them, we have to envision some alternative course of action that would have yielded better results than the one they took.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? No one likes the armchair QB in New England, my adopted home, who takes Bill Belichick or Tom Brady to task for substandard play in a Patriots defeat. The natural response—the Clausewitzian response—is to ask: okay, what would you have done better, wise guy? Or if you prefer your rejoinders more highfalutin, my hero Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed that it’s not the critic who counts, but the man in the arena, splattered with sweat and blood but getting it done. And then we would subject the armchair QB’s proposed alternative to the same scrutiny we used to vet the play that actually was run.

Who knows? Maybe we would make ourselves better play-callers than Belichick or Brady through this learning process—a process we at the Naval War College call “critical analysis.”

So let’s play critic. Let’s look at Japanese failures in strategy, and then consider the strategic import of Japanese tactical failures once Tokyo did send Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s aircraft-carrier task force hurtling toward Hawaii on its errand of destruction. Japan erred by attacking Pearl Harbor—then it erred in how its aviators attacked Pearl Harbor.

First consider the failure of Japanese strategy as strategy. What did Japanese want in the Pacific? To oversimplify, they wanted to partition that ocean between Japan and the United States. The waters, skies and landmasses west of Asia’s “second island chain”—a loose line of islands stretching from northern Japan through Guam down to New Guinea—would become a Japanese preserve.

To accomplish such an ambitious goal, the resource-poor island state desperately needed imports of raw materials—primarily from Southeast Asia. That lent even more momentum to Tokyo’s plans for aggression.

In effect, then, Tokyo envisioned enclosing its territorial conquests and sources of natural resources within a long, distended defense perimeter that coincided, more or less, with the second island chain. It would barricade them off from outsiders. Now, Japanese strategists had seen the United States as the next likely enemy in the Pacific since shortly after the turn of the century. The Imperial Japanese Navy had eradicated Chinese sea power during a short, sharp war in 1895, then turned around and crushed the Russian Navy in naval battles in 1904 and 1905—putting an end to Russian sea power in the Far East for decades to come.

That left the United States Navy as the next big thing for Japan’s navy. Japanese strategists set to work determining how to overcome another strong yet faraway foe—just as U.S. naval strategists in places like the Naval War College pondered how to project military might into a determined opponent’s home region, thousands of miles from American shores.

Think about what Japan was contemplating from a geographic and geometric perspective. Every time Japan extended its defense perimeter eastward or southward was like extending the radius of a circle: it expanded the sea area Japan’s fleet had to police by the square of the distance from the Japanese home islands, which lay at the empire’s center. And perversely, Tokyo had an insatiable appetite for more sea space. It was constantly extending the defensive frontier—including at far-flung places like Guadalcanal, in late 1942. The circle got bigger and bigger, Japanese naval coverage thinner and thinner. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s reach exceeded its grasp by mid-1942—just as Yamamoto had foreseen.

But the problem was worse than policing vast sea areas: trying to defend a long defensive line is hard, at sea or on land. Think about it. If I want to defend a line, I have to be stronger than my opponent at every point along the perimeter. That verges on impossible. By contrast, my opponent only has to be stronger than me at one point along the line. He can mass forces at some point along the line and punch through. There’s no such thing as an impenetrable defensive wall sprawling across hundreds or thousands of miles. That’s a fallacy.

Prelude to war

In the late 1930s, American foreign policy in the Pacific hinged on support for China, and aggression against China by Japan therefore necessarily would bring Japan into conflict with the United States. As early as 1931 the Tokyo government had extended its control over the Chinese province of Manchuria, and the following year the Japanese cemented their hold on the region with the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo. A clash at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing on July 7, 1937, signaled the beginning of open warfare between Japan and the United Front of Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party. In response, the United States government extended its first loan to China in 1938.

In July 1939 the U.S. announced the termination of the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan. Beginning in the summer of 1940, the U.S. began to restrict the export to Japan of materials useful in war. Between June 1940 and the fateful crisis of December 1941, the tension constantly mounted. In July 1941, by which time the Japanese had occupied all of Indochina and had entered into an alliance with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy), the U.S. government severed all commercial and financial relations with Japan. Japanese assets were frozen, and an embargo was declared on shipments to Japan of petroleum and other vital war materials. Militarists were steadily gaining in influence in the Tokyo government they bitterly resented U.S. aid to China, which by this time had been stepped up. They saw in the German invasion of the Soviet Union an unrivaled opportunity to pursue a policy of aggression in the Far East without danger of an attack upon their rear by the forces of the Red Army. Nonetheless, negotiations looking to find some kind of understanding between the United States and Japan took place through the autumn of 1941, and not until near the end of November did it become clear that no agreement was possible.

Although Japan continued to negotiate with the United States up to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, the government of Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki decided on war. Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku, the commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, had planned the attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet with great care. Once the U.S. fleet was out of action, the way for the unhindered Japanese conquest of all of Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago would be open. The order for the assault was issued on November 5, 1941, and on November 16 the task force began its rendezvous in the Kuril Islands. Commanders were instructed that the fleet might be recalled, however, in case of a favourable outcome of the negotiations in Washington, D.C. On November 26, Vice Adm. Nagumo Chuichi led a fleet including 6 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 11 destroyers to a point some 275 miles (440 km) north of Hawaii. From there about 360 planes in total were launched.

Pearl Harbor: A short history before Dec. 7, 1941

It was whaling, sugar and pineapples that first brought Pearl Harbor to America's attention.

At the whaling industry's peak in 1846, nearly 800 whaling vessels made port calls in the Hawaiian Islands, mostly U.S.-flagged ships, according to Navy history and heritage command. The Navy was ordered to send regular patrols around the islands to protect the commercial whaling ships from pirates or rival nations.

The impact on Hawaii, an exotic land where natives farmed and fished for centuries, was dramatic. Ship repair facilities cropped up, and Honolulu and Lahaina became bustling towns catering to hungry, thirsty and sometimes rowdy sailors. Bakeries, laundries, carpenter shops, blacksmiths and boarding houses sprang up overnight, according to a Navy history command account of those years.

"Business was booming," said Guy Nasuti, a Navy historian.

Just when it seemed the growth would never stop, it did. The discovery of oil in 1859 in Pennsylvania devastated the whaling industry, since the need for whale oil for lamps and other uses drove much of the demand. The Civil War then devastated what was left of the fleet. The Confederate ship Shenandoah pursued Yankee whaling ships into the farthest reaches of the Pacific, successfully sinking many of them, in an effort to knock the air out of the Union economy.

By the late part of the 19th century, Hawaii's whaling boom was over.

But Washington didn't lose interest in using Hawaii as a toehold in the Pacific.

The History of Pearl Harbor Before the Attack

1918 photo of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Oahu.

Polynesians have inhabited the Hawaiian Islands for centuries. Hawaii was discovered relatively late by Europeans. The first visit by westerners to the islands was in 1778 when the British Captain James Cook arrived.

The English ship Butterworth, under Captain William Brown, entered Honolulu Harbor in 1793. Captain Cook passed it on his famous voyage in 1778, but did not enter because there was coral at the entrance of the harbor. The coral rock was blasted away in 1902 and sand a rock was dredged to allow large vessels to enter the locks.

The violent interference with the harbor was said to upset the shark goddess Ka’ahupahau and Hawaiians soon predicted trouble. Many tragic incidents followed as work continued in Pearl Harbor.

In 1876, the Kingdom of Hawaii signed a reciprocity treaty with the United States of America, ceding control of Pearl Harbor to the US in exchange for duty-free exportation of raw sugar to the United States.

The Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown in 1893 and Hawaii was annexed as a territory of the United States in 1898. This was a strategically important event for the United States because Pearl Harbor is in such an important strategic location in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1940, President Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to be moved to Pearl Harbor from California. Japanese strategists saw this as a threat. The governments of Japan and the US negotiated for peace, but it was unsuccessful and World War Two began when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

Not only did the history of Pearl Harbor change drastically after the attack. The history of the entire world changed that day. Read More about the Pearl Harbor Attack

Atlantic Crossing: History to Know Before You Watch

MASTERPIECE’s Atlantic Crossing covers some surprising and little-known history involving U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Norway’s Crown Princess Martha. Before the premiere on Sunday, April 4, 9/8c, catch up on five historic situations that will help you best appreciate the show–from Norway’s intent to stay out of World War II, to Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term.

Norway Plans to Sit Out the Next War

John Frost Newspapers / Alamy Stock Photo

Norway stayed neutral during World War I, which ended in 1918. Two decades later, another global war loomed and Norwegians fervently hoped to stay out of it as well. Norway’s neighbor Germany had good reasons for wanting to seize Norwegian ports in order to secure access to raw materials and threaten Great Britain. But German Chancellor Adolf Hitler had publicly renounced such plans, which was reassuring to anyone who believed him. As a fallback, Norway’s leaders were confident that Great Britain would quickly repulse a German invasion, should it come.

Therefore Norwegians were stunned when Nazi forces mounted an overwhelming surprise attack on Norway and Denmark on April 9, 1940. ”We are never going to give back these countries,” Hitler brazenly told one of his deputies. Denmark immediately capitulated, but Norway’s King Haakon VII called on his subjects to resist. Britain did come to Norway’s aid for a few weeks but had to withdraw when Hitler’s troops invaded the Low Countries and France the following month, where the bulk of the British army was stationed. Norwegians briefly fought on, but their fate was sealed.

From Vinland to “Larger Norway”

AA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Norse first came to North America around 1000 A.D., establishing a short-lived colony called Vinland in what is now Newfoundland. They came in much greater numbers eight centuries later, in the 1800s, escaping poverty, rising population, and a shortage of arable land in Scandinavia. Most who emigrated from Norway to the United States were farmers, taking advantage of the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of land to anyone who would work the parcel for at least five years. By the early 20th century, the population of Norwegian America was over a million—almost half that of Norway itself—with eighty percent living in the Upper Midwest, particularly Minnesota and Wisconsin. The U.S. had become “larger Norway”—a Norwegian enclave beyond Europe.

Norwegian America represented the old, religious, rural Norway, as the mother country became increasingly secular and urban. Norwegian Americans also spoke an older form of the language, losing touch with the linguistic changes back home. But World War II brought the two kindred cultures back together, as Americans of Norwegian descent became a powerful voice in support of their occupied compatriots abroad—a voice that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt heard very clearly.

A Royal Mission

Roosevelts with Crown Prince Olav of Norway and Crown Princess Martha. Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

At the beginning of Atlantic Crossing, Norwegian Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha are visiting the United States. What was their mission? The year was 1939, and the world was just emerging from the Great Depression, a decade-long economic crisis that helped spur totalitarian movements across the globe. The U.S. and Norway each had their troubles in the 1930s, but both stayed democratic and maintained strong trading and cultural ties. However, Norway had two repressive and well-armed neighbors: Germany and the Soviet Union. Norwegians were therefore nervous about isolationist sentiment in the U.S. that promoted a minimal role for America in world affairs.

Norway was officially neutral, and so was the United States. Neither country was interested in a mutual defense treaty. Yet the U.S. could still do much to protect Norway’s security, principally by ensuring freedom of the seas. A belligerent naval power such as Germany could easily cripple the Norwegian economy. As a small nation, Norway needed powerful friends. The United States was one, and Norway wanted to keep it that way. The visit of the Crown Prince and Crown Princess was a ten-week, cross-country tour designed to sow as much friendship as possible.

Roosevelt Rejects Retirement

John Frost Newspapers / Alamy Stock Photo

During Franklin Roosevelt’s second term as president, he began to make plans for his impending retirement. Since George Washington, U.S. presidents had served no more than two terms. Roosevelt saw no reason to break the tradition, so he directed aide Sam Rosenman to acquire a piece of property adjoining the family’s Hyde Park estate in New York, where a presidential library would be built. The plans called for a private study, where Roosevelt could write his memoirs. This pleasant vision persisted even after the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939. According to Rosenman, it was not until April 1940, when “the Nazis invaded Denmark and then Norway,” that Roosevelt changed his mind. “He became determined to stay in the White House until the Nazis were defeated.”

Thus began Roosevelt’s campaign for an unprecedented third term. He faced Republican challenger Wendell Willkie, an internationalist who differed mainly on domestic issues. Both men pledged to keep America out of overseas conflicts, while also helping Great Britain and other Allies, short of war. Although many of Roosevelt’s own supporters objected to a third term on principle, his popularity carried him to victory in November 1940. Thirteen months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war on the U.S. brought America into World War II.


Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo

Despite his promise to stay out of conflicts abroad (“unless attacked,” he would carefully add), President Roosevelt was sure that America would inevitably have to fight. His biggest obstacle to preparing the country was isolationism—a broad coalition of American citizens of different political views, classes, faiths, and occupations who were united in the view that foreign wars were not America’s concern. The most notable spokesman for the cause was aviator Charles Lindbergh, who had ties to leaders in Nazi Germany and who had aired explicitly anti-Semitic views. But many others were isolationists out of the innocent and commonsense conviction that the country should mind its own business.

Pearl harbor

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USS Lexington: Walter Hassell Recalls the Torpedo Attack That Ended Lady Lex

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Weaponry: Scientists Meet at Berkeley to Lay Foundation to Build an Atomic.

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James Flanagan's triumph and relief on D-Day were captured in a soon-to-be-famous photograph wired to newspapers across the United States.

Edward R. Murrow: Inventing Broadcast Journalism

In spite of his youth and inexperience in journalism, Edward R. Murrow assembled a team of radio reporters in Europe that brought World War II into the parlors of America and set the gold standard for all broadcast news to this day.

The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (Book.

Reviewed by Geoffrey Wawro By Douglas Porch FS&G, New York, 2004 Just after Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the Allied chiefs of staff met in Washington to craft a common strategy for what had quite suddenly.

Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military During World War.

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Battle of the Aleutian Islands: Recapturing Attu

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Battle of Iwo Jima: U.S. Seaman First Class William P. Campbell, Jr.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt Flew to Meet British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

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The USS Arizona Memorial. The memorial marks the resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Today, a memorial exists at Pearl Harbor to honor those who lost their lives that day. It includes the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Oklahoma Memorial, the USS Utah Memorial, parts of Ford Island, and Battleship Row. Built over the battleship whose name it carries, The USS Arizona Memorial receives over 1.8 million visitors each year. You can read AHF’s Alexandra Levy’s account of her visit to the memorials here.

In December 2016, Shinzo Abe became the first sitting Japanese Prime Minister to visit Pearl Harbor. Abe asserted, “We must never repeat the horrors of war again. This is the solemn vow we, the people of Japan, have taken.” He also spoke of “the spirit of tolerance and the power of reconciliation” and offered his “sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives.”

The Complicated Lead Up to Pearl Harbor

Today, on the 75 th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Curator Laurence Burke took a step back and explored the long and complicated history that led up to the Japanese attack.

Burke, to an audience outside the Museum’s Sea-Air Operations gallery, said the story of Pearl Harbor often focuses on the events of December 7, 1941, but not what happened before the day that President Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy.”

To understand Pearl Harbor, Burke took the audience back to 1853-1854 when U.S. Naval Captain Matthew C. Perry sailed to Japan and negotiated the opening of Japanese ports for trade. After more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan wanted to engage with the rest of the world.

To compete globally, Japan needed resources—a theme that persistently pushes the narrative of Pearl Harbor to its climax. Iron and coal were key natural resources in the steam era at the end of the 19 th century, but were not available in any significance on the Japanese island. Japan needed to look elsewhere.

Japan engaged in war in 1894-5 with China and in 1904-5 with Russia to secure resources. It was a 1905 win against the Russian Navy that shocked the world and alerted the U.S. that they needed to be prepared for a potential war with Japan.

As early as 1911, the U.S. Navy drafted plans for dealing with a possible war with Japan, known as War Plan Orange. The 1921 Washington Naval Treaty set out to prevent expensive naval building races between nations, but limited Japan to a much smaller navy than the U.S., a result that further soured the relationship between the two countries.

In September 1940, Japan aligned with Germany and Italy. Japan hoped the war would result in a boon of new resources and saw the alignment as a way to push back against the U.S. If America wanted to declare war on Japan, they would also have to declare war on Germany meaning a fight across two oceans.

In the summer of 1941, Japan moved to take the rest of Indochina. This aggression launched major diplomatic negotiations between Japan and the United States that would continue up until the attack on Pearl Harbor. While the U.S. had put embargoes on Japan in the past, in 1941 it completely froze all trade with Japan. This cut Japan off from key resources like scrap iron and petroleum.

The U.S. believed that Japan would run out of necessary resources in six months and would have to agree to negotiations or cease military action. Japan did the same math and realized they needed to act. Japan began to plan the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“This is not a unanimously acclaimed idea,” Burke noted. Many within the Japanese military were wary of the risks—Japanese carriers did not have the range to make it to Pearl Harbor and would need to refuel at sea, a maneuver that was unfamiliar to their navy. But to Japan, the potential reward outweighed the risks. They believed an attack on the U.S. would prevent America from entering the war for up to six months. In that time, Japan could shift the balance of power and take Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Japan also hoped the attack would demoralize the United States into inaction.

The Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto knew that to be successful secrecy was key. Few within the military were aware of what was conspired. Japanese carriers would take an extremely northern path to avoid shipping routes, and while travelling they were under complete radio silence. Even ship-to-ship communication was done using flags or blinker lights.

The final orders to attack Pearl Harbor were delivered to the ships by hand before they sailed on November 26th.

Six Murals at Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

The six murals recently hung in Hangar 79 at Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum were painted during World War II, and decorated the Navy theater at Midway atoll. The theater was built by the 123rd Naval Construction Battalion — the unit famous as the can-do “Seabees” — and the insignia of the 123rd NCB were three horses racing neck and neck, a symbol of the urgency of war. The murals were painted by Victor Nels Solander of A Company, 2nd Platoon, a Missoula, MT, native who joined the Seabees in his 30s and returned home after the war.

The murals depict scenes lifted out of the widely scattered reaches of the Pacific War:

* a gleaming, golden torpedo being carefully loaded into a submarine.

* an amphibious invasion of a South Pacific island, with Army soldiers dashing out of Navy LCVP landing craft into a hail of gunfire.
* a South Dakota-class battleship steaming along under leaden skies.

* a bustling carrier deck filled with SBD Dauntless dive bombers being prepared to sortie.
* a Seabee motorized crane painted in Navy gray, lifting a load of pierced-steel planking (PSP) runway decking.

* an 80-foot ELCO PT boat dashing at high speed on a calm sea. Sometime in the 1960s, somebody added the letters “PT109” to the mural, honoring President John F. Kennedy’s wartime service.

Using whatever military paints he could scrounge, Solander painted the 8-by-12-foot murals on the canvas-like back of Masonite board, in turn attached to thin plywood. The building was originally built as a gymnasium with large windows, but during construction the role was altered to theater, and the holes intended for windows were filled with Solander’s murals.

As for the artist, he didn’t have much time to enjoy his creations. The end of the war found Solander and the 123rd NCB on Calicoan Island near Samar in the Philippines, a tropical paradise largely untouched by the war.

Victor Nils Solander, born on October 14, 1912, in Missoula, Montana. We don’t have any information about his youth or background, except that he had five siblings. He would have been 30 years old in 1942, too old to serve in an active duty role. However, the SeaBees took older, experienced men for largely noncombat roles. Solander died in 1994, in his Missoula hometown.

In the six decades since the war, the plywood backing for the murals has been chewed up by termites and the cardboard-like Masonite turned brittle.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their non-profit association, Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, were anxious to preserve the murals from the crumbling theater, and turned to the expertise of Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum’s curatorial department. After careful removal and shipping to Pearl Harbor, the murals were loaned to the museum for stabilization and display.

Stabilization included removal of rotted wood, and the flimsy pieces that remained were attached to steel structural forms and treated for insects. The painting surfaces were carefully cleaned by hand before being coated with a benign preservative.

Many volunteers, including several from the Navy Information Operations Detachment at Kaneohe, worked long hours to meticulously clean the murals.

When the war ended, the 123rd NCB ceased to exist, subsumed into another construction brigade, and their quickly built structures across the Pacific crumbled over the years. As the Seabee-built theater at Midway began to deteriorate, the staff at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge/Battle of Midway National Memorial took responsibility for moving the murals for safekeeping and public visibility.

The future of the Midway theater itself is in doubt. It has been ravaged by termites and weather.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge/Battle of Midway National Memorial is part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

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