Pearl Harbor, 70 Years Later: A Look Back at TIME’s Coverage

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US Navy / National Archives

The wreckage at Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station after the attack.

The day after Japanese pilots attacked the U.S. Naval installation at Pearl Harbor, an angered, determined President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy.”

But a week later, TIME editors deduced something else: “The U.S. Navy was caught with its pants down.” Most newspaper and wire reports were giving scattered and scant details on what turned out to be a near-complete decimation of the naval installation, killing 2,403 (half on the USS Arizona, wounding 1,779), destroying 188 aircraft and sinking or damaging 21 U.S. Pacific Fleet ships.

(ARCHIVE: Tragedy at HonoluluTIME Dec 15, 1941)

That number came much later, but editors were able to put together an account of the events of the day, which started out rather serene.

In fine homes on the heights above the city, in beach shacks near Waikiki, in the congested district around the Punchbowl, assorted Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos, Hawaiians and kamaainas (long-settled whites) were taking their ease…The clock on the Aloha Tower read 7:55.

But then the analysis explained why the Navy was caught off guard.

Although the Japanese attackers had certainly been approaching for several days, the Navy apparently had no news of either airplane carriers sneaking up or of submarines fanning out around Hawaii. Not till the first bombs began to fall was an alarm given. And when the blow fell the air force at Pearl Harbor was apparently not ready to offer effective opposition to the attackers.

(COVER: Dec. 15, 1941: Admiral Kimmel)

The military was not ready to announce exactly how much damage had been done, possibly because of how unprepared they would ultimately seem, but the result of the onslaught to civilians was clear.

When the first ghastly day was over, Honolulu began to reckon up the score. It was one to make the U.S. Navy and Army shudder. Of the 200,000 inhabitants of Oahu, 1,500 were dead, 1,500 others injured.

The Dec. 15, 1941 issue of TIME chronicles the military, political and public response to the attack, which occurred 70 years ago today. Read the full cover story here, as well as additional articles from that historic issue which are available to subscribers.

COVER: Dec. 22, 1941: Admiral Yamamoto