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This month in history: Japanese fleet leaves Tokyo for Pearl Harbor; Pearl Harbor survivors speak in Rapid City

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- During the final days of November the Japanese First Air Fleet, which was a carrier strike force bound for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, departed Tokyo for what would eventually be called "A day which will live in infamy" by President Roosevelt and ignite America's entry into the Second World War.

Two Pearl Harbor survivors, Mr. Steve Warren, who moved to South Dakota after retiring in Texas and Mr. Stan Lieberman, who was once stationed at what was then Rapid City Army Airfield before it became Ellsworth Air Force Base, spoke of their experiences at a lecture recently held in Rapid City.

"Can anyone beat me and say they're older than 92?" Mr. Lieberman asked the assembled audience. "No? I'm the oldest guy here," he said, with a laugh.

Mr. Lieberman was an aerial photographer in the Army Air Corps prior to World War II.
The other Pearl Harbor survivor, Mr. Steve Warren, said he didn't foresee spending the rest of his life farming in Texas, so he joined the Navy in early 1941.

"I explained to my dad the Navy paid well," he said. "They paid $21 a month."

War was not on the immediate horizon when these two men joined the armed forces.

"In November 1941, a poll showed most Americans were against entering World War II," said Mr. John Quinn, chief executive officer of North American University's Rapid City campus, as he introduced the guest speakers. "It was Great Britain alone holding out against the Axis."

The American people were not the only ones who were against the nation's direct involvement in the war. The architect of the strike against Pearl Harbor was a reluctant participant as well.

"Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was initially against waging war with the United States," said Ryan Warner, 28th Bomb Wing historian. "He visited the United States and even studied at Harvard."

Mr. Warner said Admiral Yamamoto knew of America's industrial capability and realized then President Franklin Roosevelt would have to quickly capitulate for Japan to be successful.

"Admiral Yamamoto didn't devise the sneak attack for Pearl Harbor until Emperor Hirohito approved going to war with the U.S.," Mr. Warner said.

The tensions between the U.S. and Japan had been ongoing for several months.
According to a Web site dedicated to military history, Adm. Chuichi Nagumo led his fleet toward his target of Pearl Harbor with orders stipulating that should continuing negotiations with the U.S. prove successful, he would turn his fleet around and head home.

"Japan wanted our involvement to end in China and the sanctions America had imposed (on them) lifted," said Mr. Warner. "But, neither side would budge."

Mr. Warner explained President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull anticipated a retaliatory Japanese strike as a result of refusing to lift sanctions, but just didn't know where.

"Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo offered what he called a 'Plan B'," said Mr. Warner. "Basically, he wanted the U.S. to eliminate sanctions but without any immediate allowances by Japan."

The U.S. refused and the Japanese government considered this an ultimatum.
Admiral Nagumo's orders to turn his fleet around never came and the two former servicemembers, Mr. Warren and Mr. Lieberman, found themselves at Pearl Harbor just prior to December 7, 1941.

Six Japanese aircraft carriers and more than 300 planes catapulted America into a war that lasted four bloody years and finally ended in late autumn 1945, Mr. Quinn said.

We saw everything that day except fear from our side, Mr. Warren said.

For further information on the Pearl Harbor survivors lecture, see Ellsworth's video story at www.ellsworth.af.mil.

Editor's Note: This is part one of a series. Part two will recount Mr. Warren and Mr. Lieberman's experiences during the December 7 attack.