Arago: Exhibits

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Remembering Pearl Harbor

One of the most sobering items in the National Postal Museum’s collection is one of the smallest. It is a simple registration mail handstamp that was used to mark the date a mail piece was received and processed. What makes this ordinary piece striking are the date on the stamp, “Dec. 6 1941,” and where it was used, aboard the USS Oklahoma. The handstamp was recovered from the Oklahoma after it sank during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, a major U.S. naval base located on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, was attacked early in the morning of December 7, 1941, by a combined force of Japanese submarines and airplanes. The Imperial Japanese Navy launched two attacks. At 6 a.m. that morning, 183 warplanes left the decks of six Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers, headed for Hawaii. An hour later, a second group of 171 fighters, bombers, and torpedo airplanes followed.

The attack lasted only a few hours, but the U.S. losses were staggering. Eight U.S. battleships and ten other naval vessels were sunk or severely damaged during the attack in which 2,107 U.S. naval and military personnel were killed. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that December 7 would "live in infamy." It marked the entrance of the United States into World War II. Congress declared war against Japan on December 8, 1941.

The Oklahoma was one of eight battleships at Battleship Row that morning. Struck during the first phase of the attack, the ship was first hit by three torpedoes and immediately thereafter by two more. The ship heeled to port. Only minutes after being hit, it slowly rolled over until the mast jammed in the mud, leaving the ship upside down. One third of the ship's crew was killed, and 935 sailors survived. Thirty-two men, trapped inside the ship for three days, guided a rescue team to their location by tapping on the hull. The ship was eventually righted, and on September 1, 1944, it was decommissioned. Two years later, after having been sold for scrap, the Oklahoma sank in heavy seas while being towed to the mainland.

Because the attack on Pearl Harbor came early on Sunday morning, the registration handstamp still carried the previous day's date, Dec. 6, 1941.