When discussing the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s easy to forget that just moments before the first bombs fell at around 0755, the sailors serving aboard the battleships and other vessels moored in the harbor were going about their business as normal. Nothing about that quiet Sunday morning gave any indication of what was to come, so it’s no surprise that crewmen like Leslie Short, who was addressing Christmas cards aboard the USS Maryland, were caught off guard.

In an instant, their day went from routine to terrifying. One moment, Gunner’s Mate Leslie Short was wishing those closest to him a safe and healthy holiday and the next, he was manning a machine gun trying to blow an unexpected enemy out of the air.

A Time of War

The country was on edge; the world was locked in a large-scale conflict that engulfed much of Europe. The Germans were making their way towards Great Britain, occupying cities and leaving countless dead in their wake, and while the United States supported the Allied forces, it wasn’t actively involved in the war.

In the Pacific, something was brewing. Japanese leaders were on edge, made worse when the United States cut off the nation’s oil supplies. From the American perspective, there didn’t seem to be any major concern that would warrant military action. What else would explain the lack of preparedness at a major US Navy base standing between the mainland United States and Japan?

The Morning of the Attack

USS Arizona Photo burning devastation

Explosion of the USS Arizona

Ask any Pearl Harbor veteran what he was doing in the moments leading up to the attack and you likely won’t hear a word about preparation. Leslie Short wasn’t prepping antiaircraft guns, he was spreading holiday cheer. Other sailors were in-between shifts, some enjoying breakfast, while others were looking forward to going into town for some R&R.

It was a quiet Sunday morning, the perfect time for an enemy to swoop in and attempt to lay waste to a fleet of battleships and other vessels of the US Navy. Even as the fighters and bombers drew closer, for most of the sailors, it wasn’t until the first bombs hit that there was any indication something was happening.

If not for the quick action of many sailors like Short, who was said to be responsible for taking down one of the first bombers—one that targeted the USS Oklahoma—the devastation at Pearl Harbor could have been even worse.

With over 2,400 lost that day, a quiet Sunday morning became one of the most devastating days in American history.

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