Historian Berry Craig on the 80th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Attack
On December 7th, 1941, Japanese forces led a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii. More than 3,400 Americans, Japanese, and civilians died. Historian and WKCTC emeritus professor Berry Craig speaks to Tracy Ross on the 80th anniversary of the deadly attack.
Berry Craig was born eight years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both his father and his father-in-law fought in WWII. Craig began heavily researching the attacks in 1976 while working at the Paducah Sun Democrat.
Craig’s history professor at Murray State gave him a list of Pearl Harbor survivors that were currently living in Kentucky. “The list was pretty extensive, at least 200, maybe 250 people.” Craig set up an interview with James Vessels, a sailor on the USS Arizona.
“I phoned him. He was retired at the time. I went out there and spent two or three hours absolutely astonished, amazed, at what he wrote. I remember going back to the paper…I thought to myself, no matter how long you stay in this career and no matter how many stories you write, this one will be among the most memorable. And it was.”
Craig was most astonished at the clarity with which Vessels remembered the event. “It was seared into his memory,” Craig says. “He started the day playing cards with a buddy on the deck of the USS Arizona. The attack began. At first, people thought it was the Army or the Air Force or the Navy practicing.”
Once the base realized it was under attack, Vessels headed toward his battle station. “His battle station was at the top of the main mast of the Arizona about 90 feet above the water. At the very top of this, there is an anti-aircraft in position called the Birdbath.”
“So, he starts climbing up the legs of this three-legged tower,” Craig continues. “90 feet—that’s a pretty good climb even for a young person. But can you imagine doing this under fire with people being shot on both ladders above and below you?”
Because the attack occurred during peacetime, all the ammunition was stored under lock and key below the deck. “Not long into the attack, the Arizona blew up. Blew the whole floor apart. It lifted the Arizona something like 50 feet in the air. And you’re talking thousands and thousands of tons of steel flung into the air. An enormous fireball.”
Vessels told Craig the explosion “blew all of his clothes off. They wound up sitting on their keesters in the bottom of this thing with nothing on but their underwear. He survived—very, very few did. That was an incredible story.”
Craig interviewed 11 or 12 other Pearl Harbor stories before compiling his findings in his book, Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy. Craig released Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor in November 2020.
Eighty years later, Craig believes there are two main lessons to take away from Pearl Harbor. “The first lesson is don’t underestimate the ability of the American people to rise to the challenge of war. The Germans and the Japanese believed the Americans were soft, lazy, and that all we could produce was consumer goods.”
“The second thing that really impressed me about WWII is that this is a war won by amateurs. My dad wanted to be a baseball player. He didn’t want to be in the Navy, but he joined. My father-in-law was a storekeeper. He didn’t want to be in the Army, but he joined.”
“The German army was a professional fighting army machine, the Japanese army the same,” Craig continues. “And amateurs beat them. They were beaten by a people’s army, and I think that’s a tremendous thing to remember and be proud of.”
“This is the greatest generation; it really was. I miss my dad terribly—and my father-in-law. They literally left their whole heart and went off and got the job done. That’s what I hope you’ll remember about this book.”
Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor is available online now.