INTRO: This fan-favorite episode of History Daily originally aired on December 7th, 2021.
It’s December 7th, 1941, a warm Sunday morning at the Opana Radar Site, on the northernmost tip of Oahu Island, Hawaii.
Two young army privates, George Elliott Junior, and Joseph Lockard, sit inside a monitoring van designed to detect enemy aircraft. The two men are at the end of their early morning shift and, as usual, they’ve detected nothing. They’re bored and they’re hungry. A truck was supposed to have picked them up already to relieve them and take them to breakfast. But it hasn’t come yet.
While Joe gets out of the van to stretch his legs, George stays inside and fiddles with the radar equipment to pass the time. He puts on his headset and stares at the oscilloscope, a five-inch monitor which blips when a plane passes by. But there's been no blips at all... until George notices a sudden, dramatic spike on the monitor; bigger than anyone he’s seen before.
George turns off the radio. He calls Joe in to take a look.
George shows Joe the high spike and asks if he thinks the machine is broken. If it isn’t, George explains, then this reading might mean there are dozens of planes approaching the island, maybe fifty or more.
Joe runs some checks to make sure the equipment is working properly and finds nothing wrong. According to their readings, these planes are 137 miles away and closing in at two miles a minute.
Concerned, George picks up the phone. Hearing the details, the operator on the other end of the line tells George to stand by. Someone will call them back, as soon as possible. So George hangs up. And he and Joe sit in silence, waiting.
Minutes later, the phone rings. This time, Joe picks it up. An officer is calling to tell Joe that a dozen B-17 Flying Fortresses - American planes - are due from San Francisco from almost the same direction as the mystery blip. The officer assures them there’s nothing to worry about.
So George turns the music back on and goes back to thinking about breakfast. But that blip is not B-17s. It’s a Japanese strike force, poised to launch a surprise attack that will change the tide of World War II, and alter the course of history.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 7th, 1941: The Attack on Pearl Harbour.
Act One: First Wave
It’s Sunday, December 7th, 1941. Just past 7 AM at Fort Shafter on Oahu Island.
First Lieutenant Kermit Tyler stands in front of a map on a plotting table at the Pearl Harbor Intercept Centre. A young private approaches with some startling news. According to a call from the Opana Radar Site, a number of unidentified planes are approaching Hawaii, fast. But Tyler is incredulous. He asks the panicked private to repeat himself.
Tyler has been the Officer in charge here for just two days. He has little experience. But he’s confident that the two men at the radar site - George Elliott Junior and Joseph Lockard - are overreacting. He tells the private that a formation of American B-17 bombers are scheduled to come in from the mainland today. He’s certain that’s what’s making the radar jump. His message to Joe and George is “Don’t worry about it.”
Less than an hour later, at 7:52 AM, a 21-year-old sailor named Lauren Bruner has just woken up. He stands in front of the small mirror in his cabin and gets ready for what he hopes is a beautiful Sunday morning. Later today, he has a date with a girl named Nikki who he met last week on the beach. Excited, he puts on his best civilian clothes and brushes his teeth.
Like many servicemen in Pearl Harbour, Bruner spends most of his free time on the beach with his friends, wearing Hawaiian shirts, drinking rum cocktails, and chatting up the local girls. He was born in Olympia, Washington and, by a nice coincidence, his best friend from high school, Billy Mann, also serves on the same ship as he.
The USS Arizona is one of the eight battleships currently at the dock in Pearl Harbor. When Bruner was first assigned to the Arizonahe was awestruck by the enormous ship with its powerful triple-gun turrets. He and Billy Mann were originally part of the deck force, carrying out menial tasks such as painting, sweeping, and keeping things shiny. But Bruner has now risen to become a fire controlman in charge of operating one of the 50 caliber guns.
But there's no work at guns today. It's a Sunday. Bruner is looking forward to his day off. As Bruner makes his way along the deck to the ship’s chapel, someone grabs him from behind. It’s his best friend Billy horsing around, as usual. In many ways, these two sailors are lucky. Throughout their young lives, they’ve never seen the violence of war. World War I was before their time. And even though World War II is raging, the United States has remained neutral and stayed out of the fight.
So Bruner and Mann, what's about to happen is inconceivable. They don't even notice the dull roar and the low rumbling, what they do notice is the sudden sharp announcement over the ship's loudspeaker: "All hands on deck. Man your battle stations. This is not a drill." The two sailors share a concerned, confused glance, then dash off in separate directions ready to defend their ship.
As they look to the horizon, low-flying planes swarm in the sky firing torpedoes that skim through the water and smash straight into the side of two of the Navy’s largest ships, the USS Oklahoma and the USS West Virginia. Explosions reverberate around the harbor as oil gushes out from the ships as if they were bleeding.
Bruner quickly ascends the decks of the Arizona on his way to his gun turret, wondering who’s behind this attack. On the fourth deck he pauses and looks out at the thick cloud of buzzing enemy planes; darting in every direction; and firing indiscriminately. Bruner sees they all have red circles painted on their sides; the sign of the Rising Sign. The planes are Japanese.
Just then, one of them flies so close to Bruner that he can see the grin on the pilot’s face as he releases a burst of gunfire. Bruner takes two bullets to the leg and collapses in agony.
Bruner is not the first or only casualty. Over the next hour and a half, the relentless Japanese attack will continue. It will leave 2403 people dead, another half that number wounded. Eighteen American ships, including five battleships, will be destroyed. And America’s enjoyment of peace will be shattered.
Act Two: Second Wave
It’s December 7th, 1941, minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander-in-chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, is at home enjoying a peaceful, quiet morning. He hopes to spend his Sunday on the golf course. But then the phone rings. Kimmel picks it up. A fleet duty officer on the other end of the line breathlessly tells him: “The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbour… this is no drill.”
Stunned, Kimmel puts down the phone and steps out of his Hawaiian home that overlooks the harbor. There, he sees the swarms of Japanese aircraft and the destruction they are bringing to his fleet from every direction. A neighbor joins him in the yard, dumbfounded by the catastrophe that’s unfolding before their eyes. When the neighbor looks at Kimmel, she notices that his face is as white as his uniform.
Many of the US ships have already sustained damage; the USS California;the USS West Virginia.But it is the USS Oklahomathat has suffered the worst damage so far. The ship is completely overturned in the water, and hundreds of men are trapped inside as it continues to sink.
Further along in the harbor, on the USS Arizona,Lauren Bruner crawls along the deck, his wounded legs dragging behind him. He fights his way through the pain to reach a turret gun. But before he gets there, he sees more Japanese Bombers closing in on his ship.
Just as Bruner reaches the turret, these bombers release their payload. One of the Japanese explosives, a 1700-pound bomb, smashes into the ship, only feet away from Bruner’s, crashing through the deck and falling three decks below; where Bruner’s best friend Billy Mann is stationed, and where the bulk of the Arizona’s ammunition and explosives are stored.
The resulting explosion shakes the entire harbor as a tremendous fireball reaches up a thousand feet into the sky. Moments later, flaming pieces of an exploded battleship rain down around the harbor and the oily water surrounding the other ships catches fire.
Inside the Arizona,over a thousand men are dead, killed instantly by the blast. But Lauren Bruner is still alive. He and a handful of shipmates hang onto the forward mast as the ship starts to sink. The smoke fills their lungs. The heat of the fire burns their skin, and Bruner is sure that this is the end.
But through the smoke and flames, Bruner sees what might be a small repair ship, moored to the Arizona. He and his shipmates call out for help.
On board, a young sailor sees Bruner and his mates. He has just been ordered to cut the lines between the two ships because the Arizona is sinking. And if he doesn’t cut them fast, his own ship might go down with her. But the sailor defies his orders and throws Bruner and his shipmates a rope. One of Bruner’s shipmates ties it to the Arizona's mast. Then Bruner and the others on the Arizonatake turns crawling the 100-foot distance to the repair-ship, over the flaming, treacherous waters.
Bruner watches several men make it across alive, but when it’s his turn, he fears he doesn’t have the strength. He’s in severe pain, shot twice, and burned badly. But Bruner has no choice. He grabs the rope and starts crawling. When he reaches the repair ship, he will be the second to last person to escape from the blazing ship. His best friend Billy Mann is not one of them.
Then at 8:55 AM, a second wave of Japanese planes appear above the harbor to strike at targets the first wave missed. But this second wave no longer has the element of surprise. By now, all across the harbor, US sailors and marines have overcome their initial shock and begin firing back from the decks of the remaining vessels. On the light cruiser, the USS Helena, the commanding officer is impressed by the admirable behavior of his men under such extreme circumstances. He will later write that “to point out distinguished conduct would require naming every person I observed.”
The bravery and valor of the US servicemen cause the second wave to miss the majority of their targets. And just ninety minutes after the initial strike, the heinous assault is over. And the Japanese fighter planes disappear from Pearl Harbor as fast as they came. The damage is immeasurable. In that short time, they sank five battleships, including USS Arizona.
Over the years, a number of the other stricken ships will be rescued and rehabilitated and returned to active service. But the wreckage of the Arizona,and those who died serving in her, will remain at the bottom of Pearl Harbor forever.
Lauren Bruner survives the assault despite his two gunshot wounds and burns covering 70 percent of his body. He will go on to live a long and full life. But decades later, on December 7th, 2019, Bruner will return to Pearl Harbor to be reunited with his fallen shipmates.
Act Three: Interment
It’s December 7th, 2019 at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
A small group of US Navy divers stand on a bridge that floats above the wreckage of the Arizona. They have gathered to lay to rest the ashes of a fallen sailor.
Lauren Bruner passed away on September 10th, 2019, a few months shy of his 99th birthday. Before his passing, he asked to be interred within the wreckage of the Arizona,where so many of his fellow seamen, including his friend Billy Mann, met their end.
Following a private family funeral, Bruner’s ashes were taken to Pearl Harbor for a ceremony in honor of his life and career. Solemnly, divers enter the water and take Bruner’s ashes down to the rusted wreck where he is laid to rest at the same gun turret he operated all those years before.
But throughout his life, Bruner didn’t talk much about Pearl Harbor. He once said, “I do not want to further discuss... the actual attack… it was truly Hell on Earth. The horrors of what I witnessed on that morning have kept me from sleep for many years after. I chose to face the future and not let my past dictate what might be ahead.”
Bruner did leave Pearl Harbor behind, living an eventful life. After recovering from the wounds he received in service of his country, he was awarded the Purple Heart, and then continued to fight in World War II, taking part in eight more major battles in the Pacific. He retired from the Navy in 1947. And years later, Bruner worked hard to ensure that the young sailor on the supply ship who saved his life by defying orders was awarded the Bronze Star, one of the nation's highest honors.
When asked why he chose to be interred in the hull of the Arizona, sunk on this day, December 7th, 1941, Bruner once replied: All my family and friends have been buried in… cemeteries... after a while, nobody pays attention to them anymore... I hope that a lot of people will still be coming to the Arizona. I would be glad to see them.”
Next on History Daily. December 8th, 1953. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivers his famous "Atoms for Peace" speech.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.