Pearl Harbor: A Place of Waiting, Diversity, and Sacrifice During World War II

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Shifting Tides: The Precursor to Pearl Harbor and the Unfolding Drama of Global Involvement

A war was brewing up on the European front, where Germany was rising to power once again, like World War 1. The United States attempted to refrain from entering a war that did not correspond to them. Although the United States did not physically enter the war when it broke out, the United States did offer its help by sending weapons over to Britain. The people from the United States were not fond of entering a war that did not involve them in any way.

It seemed that after World War 1, the war spirits had died down after many lives were lost in order to return peace to the world. The tide changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese decided to attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where many lives were lost. This not only opened the doors for the United States’ entry into the war but also to how the world would view the United States after. As well as how Hawaii responded to the changes that it would take on from the start of Pearl Harbor to the end of the war.

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To understand why Hawaii became a place where it was neither “home front” nor “war front,” we must comprehend why the Japanese decided to attack on the Pacific side instead of striking against Russia, which at the time was at a weak point. Although the United States was not involved in the war directly, the United States kept a close eye on what was going on in Asia, especially with China. The United States saw China as a trading center and for cheap labor. Around 1937, the Japanese conquered parts of China, which caused the United States to impose an embargo on goods that were being sent to China. This enraged the Japanese because some of the material that was exported to China was needed to keep their military running. By the summer of 1939, the Japanese had plans to push Russians out of China, but those plans were backed up. Instead, it turned into a disaster for the Japanese, causing the neutrality pact to be signed between Russia and Japan in 1941.

Before the Russians and Japanese had signed the neutrality pact, the Tripartite Pact was signed on September 27, 1940. This pact was between Germany, Japan, and Italy, which stated that if any of the three were to be attacked by a non-European nation, then they would back them up. The only reason for this pact was to pressure the United States to retreat from imposing embargos on the Japanese, but in return, they got more sanctions than before. Upon this happening, the Japanese were further angered, so they created a plan that would end the war with the United States and other European countries. Thus, the Pearl Harbor attack was created, which only encouraged the United States to enter the war, which would later change the cards in favor of the Allies.

Cultural Diversity and Conflicting Identities: Hawaii’s Complex Social Landscape Amidst War

Hawaii, at the time of the war, was a territory of the United States that had a natural harbor that housed most of its military and the newest weapon that was created. This was a perfect spot to weaken the United States temporarily. However, this did not affect the United States that much, for most of their weapon was not stationed at Pearl Harbor at the time, but it did cause a culture clash. Along with that, it brought many disillusions for most who were courageous enough to wander outside their comfort zone because the promise of paradise land that Hollywood depicted of Hawaii was nothing to what actual Hawaii was. The Hawaii that many sailors saw, as stated by Bailey and Farber, “‘ Believe me if Paradise is anything like this, I’ll take my chances in Hell'” (Bailey and Farber 32). The reason behind this was that Hawaii was a multicultural mixed race and contained heavy amounts of prostitution.

The island had a mass diversity of races that the mainland did not have. On the island, there were Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Caucasian Portuguese, and Puerto Ricans. The percentage of white people was very minimal on the island, and the highest percentage of colored people was uncomfortable for those who were not used to it. Most sailors who entered the island had never seen such interaction on the mainland. On the mainland, the colored and white people were separate for the most part, as well as had separate sections in the cities where they all lived separated from each other. So, entering a place where everyone enjoyed their freedom to go anywhere was a shocker for most. This mass diversity caused a clash between the sailors and the natives of the island.

The Japanese held the highest percentage of the population, which made it difficult for the Japanese to live there. The reason for this was that the attack on Pearl Harbor was caused by Japan, so most thought the Japanese would betray them at one point. This caused conflicts to occur between sailors and the Japanese. Some Japanese even had to ditch their cultural beliefs and their way of dressing to make sure that people would not call them out. The mainland Japanese were sent to internment camps where their freedom was stripped away from them.

Lauren Kessler states, “In the spring of 1942, 112,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry… [were] ‘relocated'” (Kessler 1). Some of these people were American-born citizens who were raised with American ideology and had never gone to Japan. Simply for having Japanese blood, they were sent off to camps where they lived in the worst conditions ever. For Hawaii, the Japanese who lived there were not stripped of their freedom for the most part because they were needed for the farms or factory work. But for the most part, they were discriminated against for something they had no part in.

Unveiling the Shadows: The Underbelly of Pearl Harbor’s Impact on Hawaii’s Social Fabric

For those who entered Hawaii were sailors around the ages twenty to forty, who did not have a family of their own and were willing to fight in a war. Among these groups were also those who were looking for an adventure or trying to escape from the state they were in due to the depression of 1930. Nevertheless, a place called Honolulu was always packed with sailors either in bars, brothels, or movie theaters. Even though the island was under martial law, the sailor was separated from the downtown area, shopping center, and residential areas.

This was to create less conflict between the natives and the sailors. This meant that the sailors had to waste their money in order to have an adventure, but to most, it was expensive to even wander out of the camp. Most sailors would stay behind and gamble or play a pick-up game in Waikiki Bars. These pick-up games consisted of them sometimes having sex with each other, but it was not considered to be homosexual. The reason behind this was that the women population was very low.

This is where prostitution comes into the picture and has a great influence on how life was in Hawaii during the remainder of the war. There was a district where brothels were located, and it was called Hotel Street. This was the place where the men got their three minutes of satisfaction for only three dollars. Even though prostitution was forbidden for the most part in the United States, strict laws prevented anyone from doing it. For Hawaii, these laws were avoided, such as the May Act of 1941, which was not enforced. Why would this law and many others be avoided because the people of the island and the military thought it was the best way for the soldiers to take out their urges in this brothel than rape young women. Not only that, but the rates of venereal diseases were low.

It seemed that this was not only the reason for prostitution to remain open in Hawaii but also because great amounts of money were behind this industry. Jean O’Hara would soon find out that the chief of police, William Gabrielson, who controlled what brothel, would remain open or closed. The purpose for this was that the madams would pay a quota to Gabrielson to remain open, and they had to remain on the good side of him. For Jean O’Hara, she happened to land on the wrong side of Gabrielson. It went to a point where she was even beaten to near death by him for not following the rules.

These rules consisted, as Bailey and Farber highlight, “…may not visit Waikiki Beach, patronize any bars or better class cafes, own property or an automobile, have a steady ‘boyfriend,’ marry service personnel, attend dances, ride in the front of a taxicab or with a man in the back seat, wire money to the mainland, telephone the mainland without permission if the Madame, [and] be out of the brothel after 10:30 at night” (Bailey and Farber 109). This oppressed the rights of these women, which Jean O’Hara could not stand, which caused her to rebel against these rules for better treatment for all these women in this business.

Unity and Struggles: Diverse Experiences in Hawaii’s Crucible of War and Change

The women of the brothels were not the only ones who suffered through hardships but also African Americans. They seemed to be fighting a double war outside of home and at home. As Bailey and Farber emphasized, “‘It’s awfully hard for one to concentrate all his efforts towards the war when he has such a great battle to fight at home. Yet they tell us we are fighting for freedom. Maybe I am too young to understand” (Bailey and Farber 138-139). Many African Americans were not drafted out of the mainland because the government did not want them to get a taste of freedom and start a revolution at home. Those who were drafted were separated from the white people and given jobs like common laborers or cooking chefs.

The jobs were always lower ranking and jobs that they would never be able to scale up the chain. This led some African Americans like John Hope Franklin to start to not enlist in the army, which was not something that the government wanted. In the end, they had to compromise with them, but it still was not enough for them. For those African Americans who entered Hawaii, they still saw discrimination, but they also saw freedom due to seeing all these colored people walking freely without having to worry about not being allowed in. Even though “approximately 200 [African Americans] lived on the islands” (Bailey and Farber 2), they still did not feel left out.

All these interactions between various cultures and races brought conflicts among each other on the island, but in the end, they were still united for one cause. The cause was the war that the United States was entering to take revenge for the lives that were taken to Pearl Harbor. Everyone took their part in showing their support, and it did not matter if you were a soldier preparing to go to war or a prostitute helping a soldier to enjoy themselves with the little time they had on the island. They all did their part.

Along with this, it also brought up inequality among many races and genders who did not have the same rights as others, which only led to future movements to evolve from this conflict. Hawaii, for the most part, was the middle piece of the war in the Pacific, where the enemy would advance as well as the United States would push them back. In the end, Hawaii was not a “home front” nor a “war front; instead, it was a “place of waiting” (Bailey and Farber 31). A place where most feared being taken under the control of the Japanese and having to go under harsh rule. To a place where the sailors and soldiers would have the last chance to enjoy their last taste of life before they were shipped off to war, where they either came back or died.


  1. Bailey, B., & Farber, D. (1992). “The Unfinished War: The World War II Service of a Group of Young Men from the American Midwest.” Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  2. Kessler, L. (2002). “Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family.” New York: Random House.

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Pearl Harbor: A Place of Waiting, Diversity, and Sacrifice During World War II. (2023, Aug 30). Retrieved from

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