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Attack on Pearl Harbor: How to explain Pearl Harbor to kids

A history teacher shares 6 things to know about this important day in American history.
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/ Source: TODAY

For many kids, Hawaii in 1941 seems like another world entirely. But Dec. 7, 1941 is an important milestone in American history: It’s the day when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii.

“To America’s greatest generation, they were just seeing the end of the tunnel that was the Great Depression and their focus was only on domestic issues at home,” Tim Miller, a U.S. history teacher at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents. “This attack unified the calls for American involvement in World War II and pushed this generation to a war that, in decades prior, they had hoped to never see again.”

Described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy,” Dec. 7, 1941 is a significant historical marker for children to understand. Here’s how to explain to kids what happened at Pearl Harbor and why it is so critical to understanding America’s role in World War II.

The United States’ opposition to Japanese expansion led to the attacks.

As the Japanese empire spread throughout the South Pacific, the U.S. imposed harsh economic sanctions and trade embargoes on Japan.

“The Japanese ignored the economic sanctions,” Miller explained. “They knew we would get involved in the Pacific at one point or another, so they decided to take out as many of our ships as possible to give them time to finish conquering the South Pacific before we could rebuild and then challenge their expansion.”

The attacks on Pearl Harbor were planned.

Pearl Harbor was extensively planned by the Japanese as a preemptive, or preventative, strike on the U.S. Pacific fleet. Some scholars suggest that Japanese naval officer Isoroku Yamamoto began playing out war games as early as 1927 to plot a raid against Pearl Harbor.

“When the U.S. Navy finally moved their Pacific fleet from the West Coast to Hawaii in May of 1940, by December of the same year, the planning began,” Miller said. “For that year, the Japanese built makeshift islands to replicate Pearl Harbor so pilots could practice the attack runs. Many pilots claimed that they could have successfully performed the attack blindfolded.”

The attack consisted of two parts.

In all, more than 2,400 Americans lost their lives; the Japanese lost 29 planes and more than 100 men. Eight U.S. battleships, three destroyers and many other ships sustained heavy damage.

“The attack came in two waves which totaled 353 planes,” Miller said. “These planes attacked battleships, dry docks where ships are repaired, and air fields to prevent American counterattack, and any other ship that could inflict damage in a future war.”

The most important targets were not destroyed in the attack.

The United States’ aircraft carriers were not in the harbor at the time, and military oil fields were left untouched. Later in the war, aircraft carriers played a pivotal role in the war’s outcome, and the oil that was left alone was used to power the new Pacific fleet that became operational within months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“The Japanese believed that the battleships were the most powerful symbol of naval dominance, and to destroy them would hurt American pride and dissuade us from fighting,” Miller said. “The Japanese knew that the oil fields were important, but did not attack them as a lot of burning oil meant smoke, which limits visibility for pilots who need to hit their targets.”

Ships were salvaged after the attacks.

All but one of the ships were either repaired or reduced to scrap metal to be melted down to build new ships.

“That one ship is the USS Arizona, which was left in the harbor to serve as an underwater grave for more than 900 sailors who could not be recovered, and as a memorial to the attack,” Miller said. “Any veteran who survived the attack at Pearl Harbor is allowed, once they die, to have their ashes placed in the ship to be with their shipmates.”

You can visit Pearl Harbor today.

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial operates out of Honolulu to guide visitors through the attack and the memorial of the USS Arizona.

“It is one of the saddest memorials to visit due to the loss of life, but very important to remember, because of the country America became during and after the war,” Miller said.

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