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Day of Infamy at Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor is a large American naval base on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. It is the center of U.S. naval power in the Pacific, 3,500 nautical miles from Japan. On 7 December 1941, Pearl Harbor was the target of an unexpected Japanese attack that killed thousands of Americans, sank or severely damaged 18 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and plunged the United States into World War II.

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48).
USS Tennessee (BB-43) is inboard of the sunken battleship. Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941
Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48). USS Tennessee (BB-43) is inboard of the sunken battleship. Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941.

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The Importance of Pearl Harbor

In 1941, the huge Pearl Harbor could hold the entire U.S. Navy fleet and nearby U.S. Army bases housed troops ready for deployment. In Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the bulk of the United States Pacific Fleet was at anchor, 96 vessels. Eight battleships of the Fleet were there, but by fortunate coincidence the aircraft carriers were all at sea. On Hawaii's airfields there were a total of about 390 Navy and Army planes of all types, less than 300 operationally ready.

At the time, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) was Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. Army forces in Hawaii, including the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions, were under the command of Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, Commanding General of the Hawaiian Department.

Japanese Planning for Pearl Harbor

Japanese military leaders recognized American naval strength as the chief deterrent to war with the United States. Early in 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, had initiated planning for a surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet as the first move of any hostilities. The assumption was that before the United States could recover from such a surprise blow, the Japanese would be able to seize all their objectives in the Far East, and could then hold out indefinitely.

By September 1941 the Japanese had practically completed secret plans for a huge assault against Malaya, the Philippines, and the Netherlands East Indies, to be coordinated with a crushing blow on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Early in November 1941, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was named commander of the Pearl Harbor Striking Force, which rendezvoused secretly in the Kurile Islands. The force of some 30 ships included six aircraft carriers with about 430 planes, of which approximately 360 took part at Pearl Harbor. At the same time in November, a Japanese Advance Expeditionary Force of some 20 submarines was assembled at Kure naval base on the west coast of Honshu to cooperate in the attack.

Carrying out the Pearl Harbor Attack

Submarines of the Advance Expeditionary Force began their eastward movement across the Pacific in mid-November, refueled and resupplied in the Marshalls, and arrived near Oahu about 5 December (Hawaiian time). On the night of 6-7 December five two-man midget submarines that had been transported by larger submarines cast off and began converging on Pearl Harbor. Nagumo's task force sailed from the Kuriles on 26 November and arrived, undetected by the Americans, at a point about 200 miles north of Oahu at 0600 hours (Hawaiian time) on 7 December 1941. Beginning at 0600 and ending at 0715, a total of some 360 planes were launched in three waves. These planes rendezvoused to the south and then flew toward Oahu for carefully orchestrated attacks.

Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Army Air Field, Oahu, soon after it was attacked. Photo taken from a Japanese Navy plane, 7 December 1941
Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Army Air Field, Oahu, soon after it was attacked. Photo taken from a Japanese Navy plane, 7 December 1941.

The Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor and on the airfields of Oahu began at 0755 on 7 December 1941, a clear Sunday morning. Although there had been some warnings of possible attack on Hawaii, they achieved complete tactical surprise. The Americans recovered rapidly from the shock and fought back vigorously with antiaircraft fire. But destruction at the airfields was so quick and complete that only a few American planes were able to get aloft to counterattack. Successive waves of attack dropped aerial torpedoes, then horizontal bombers, armed with heavy armor-piercing bombs, arrived and other horizontal and dive bombers came in later. The pilots had been thoroughly briefed, knew the target area intimately, and were devastatingly accurate. By 1000 the attack was over.

Results of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor

The Japanese were successful in accomplishing their principal mission, to cripple the Pacific Fleet. They sunk three battleships (Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma), caused another to capsize (California), and severely damaged the other four. All together the Japanese sank or severely damaged 18 ships, including the 8 battleships, 3 light cruisers, and 3 destroyers. Although others were eventually repaired, Oklahoma and Arizona would never return to service.

On the airfields the Japanese destroyed 161 American planes (Army 74, Navy 87) and seriously damaged 102 (Army 71, Navy 31). The Navy and Marine Corps suffered a total of 2,896 casualties of which 2,117 were deaths (Navy 2,008, Marines 109) and 779 wounded (Navy 710, Marines 69). The Army lost 228 killed or died of wounds, 113 seriously wounded and 346 slightly wounded. In addition, at least 57 civilians were killed and nearly as many seriously injured.

The Japanese lost a scant 29 planes over Oahu, one large submarine (on 10 December), and all 5 of the midget submarines. Japanese sources claim personnel losses were 55 airmen, 9 crewmen on the midget submarines, and an unknown number on the large submarines. The Japanese carrier task force sailed away undetected and unscathed.

Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

On 8 December 1941, within less than an hour after a stirring, six-minute address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a special joint session of Congress voted, with only one dissenter, that a state of war existed between the United States and Japan, and empowered the President to wage war with all the resources of the country. Americans lined up at recruiting stations and any isolationist feelings were suppressed. As the extent of the disaster at Pearl Harbor became known, there was intense anger against the Japanese but also bewilderment at how such a sneak attack could succeed. After the war investigations tried to find someone to blame.

While Pearl Harbor was a great Japanese military success, it fully awakened the United States to the dangers of the Axis fascist dictatorships. With cries of "Remember December 7th" the complete mobilization of the U.S. and its entry into World War II on the Allied side came immediately after Pearl Harbor. The destruction and unconditional surrender of Italy, Germany and Japan followed in turn. By September 1945 all the leaders of the Axis countries were dead or in Allied military prisons.

Recommended Books about Pearl Harbor

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