“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.”
(Excerpt) Day of Infamy Speech
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
December 8, 1941
Japan’s plan of attack
On December 2009, Robert J. Hanyok published an article for the U.S. Naval Institute entitled How the Japanese Did It. Hanyok’s article explored the rationales behind Japan’s successful surprise assault on Pearl Harbor.
Mentioned in the article was Gordon Prange’s book, At Dawn We Slept where in 11 pages, he gave a detailed recollection of America’s failures. Of those 11 pages, only 3 paragraphs recognized Japan’s efforts.
Various accounts of literature written from an American perspective (succeeding the attack) follows the same pattern. These narratives normally treat Japan’s planning and preparations in a dismissive tone, some going as far as calling it “sheer luck”. But according to Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Japan’s attack was a “beautifully planned and executed military maneuver”.
• Proposal – On September 6, 1941, Japan made the final decision for war following the feasibility study of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The proposal was submitted by the Japanese naval aviation experts.
• Requirements – Aviation experts concluded that while possible, the operation will be dangerous and to succeed will require the deployment of 6 fleets of aircraft carriers and approximately 400 high-level dive bombers, torpedo bombers and fighters.
• Intensive training – Japanese forces who will be involved in the operation underwent intensive training in Kagoshima Bay. Their training included low-level torpedo bombing.
• Planning – By the end of October 1941, Japan’s plan of attack was completed. Senior commanders were briefed on November 2. The commanders concurred that to avoid detection, their forces will have to approach the target (the American carriers) in a circuitous route from the north.
• Execution – Japan’s task force started to gather in Hitokappu Bay, Kuril Islands on November 22. Their fleet sailed for Pearl Harbor on November 26, 1941.
Day of Infamy
Did it really happen? A question not uttered out of doubt, but merely out of denial.
And yes, it did happen.
On December 7, 1941 at approximately 6:00 am, Japanese aircraft began taking off from their carriers to launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. At around 7:00 am, US Destroyer Ward took down 2 Japanese midget submarines off of Pearl Harbor’s entrance.
Unfortunately, this information was not relayed to the Pacific Fleet nor to the Oahu Army Command. The US Army radar station at Opana, Oahu detected a large number of aircraft but it was explained as nothing more than the expected B-17 Flying Fortress from California.
At 7: 49 am, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida gave the order to launch the surprise Pearl Harbor attack. The assault’s first wave dispatched 183 aircraft consisting of 49 Kate high-level bombers, 40 Kate torpedo bombers, 51 Val dive bombers, and 43 Zeke fighters.
Each of the Kate high-level bombers were armed with an 800 kilogram armor-piercing bomb heading for the Pacific Fleet’s battleships. The torpedo bombers were assigned to also target the battleships as well as the cruisers. The Val dive bombers each carried a 250 kg bomb to be deployed towards the airfields.
- USS California (BB-44)
- USS Maryland (BB-46)
- USS Oklahoma (BB-37)
- USS Tennessee (BB-43)
- USS Tennessee (BB-43)
- USS Arizona (BB-39)
- USS Nevada (BB-36)
- USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)
- Hickam Field
- Ford Island
The first wave
The Kate torpedo bombers started their attacks at 7:51 am. They divided into 2 groups, targeting the ships docked on the west of Ford Island Naval Station and those on “Battleship Row”. Only four minutes later, Commander Fuchida transmitted Tora, Tora, Tora (tora is Japanese for tiger) to the Japanese carrier to signal the success of their strategic surprise attack.
After the initial assault, high-level bombers joined in. The target ship USS Utah (BB-31) and light cruisers USS Raleigh (LPD-1) and USS Helena (CL-50) were struck. Devastating blows followed within the next 10 minutes; USS Arizona (BB-39) and USS Nevada (BB-36) were both hit once, USS California (BB-44) twice, USS Oklahoma (BB-37) four times, and USS West Virginia (BB-48) was hit six times.
Many of these battleships has been made into memorials and museums and are important highlights in our Pearl Harbor tours.
Japanese dive bombers and fighters were also successful in attacking the American airfields. They first bombed the Kaneohe Naval Station at 7:48 am. A few minutes later, they went after Wheeler Field, Hickam Field, and Ford Island.
Keneohe Naval Station lost 33 (of its 36) Catalina flying boats, Wheeler Field lost hundreds of army personnel, and half of Hickam Field’s aircraft and many of its buildings were destroyed. The 12 Flying Fortress from California flew in just as the Japanese were dropping bombs on Hickam Field. Three of which suffered severe damages while one was shot down. Ewa Marine Corps Air Station also lost a number of aircraft.
The Japanese air raid destroyed half of the aircraft carriers based on Ford Island. Many of the wounded and dying men from the stricken battleships were brought to Ford Island which made their situation even worse. At 7:58 am, the Ford Island Command Center transmitted what will become the most famous message in Pearl Harbor history, “Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill”.
The second wave
At 8:54 am, roughly seventy minutes after the first attack was over, 167 Japanese aircraft were launched for the second wave under the command of Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki. The second wave consisted of 54 Kate high-level bombers to target the airfields, 78 Val dive bombers headed for the battleships, and 35 Zeke fighters.
By this time, American defenses have been forewarned and are fighting back, which is why the second wave of attack was less successful than the first. Nevertheless, the second wave caused substantial damages.
USS Nevada (BB-36), in an attempt to escape the blazing USS Arizona battleship (one of the 8 bombs that struck Arizona caused a large explosion, killing nearly 1,000 of her crew) headed for the main channel but this only gave the Japanese the opportunity to not only sink the battleship, but also block the harbor.
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) sustained light damages. The destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372) and USS Downes (DD-375) which were docked next to USS Pennsylvania were completely wrecked. Yet another destroyer, USS (DD-373) exploded when 2 bombs landed on her forward magazine.
The second wave of airfield raids were also less successful. Still, the combined effects of both waves left Kanoehe Naval Air Station in ruins, the Ewa Marin Corps Air Station scraped by gunfire, Wheeler Field lost half of its aircraft, and Ford Island, masked by smoke during the second wave, escaped in somewhat better conditions.
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida who was the last to leave, left Pearl Harbor at 10:00 am – the Japanese attack was finally over.
The heroes of Pearl Harbor
Japan’s attack resulted in the death of 2, 403 Americans and wounded 1, 178. 2, 008 sailors died and 710 were wounded. 218 Army soldiers and airmen were also killed and 364 were injured. The marines lost 109 men while 69 were wounded. Nearly half of the fatalities were due to the explosion of USS Arizona’s forward magazine. The magazine exploded after it was hit by a modified 16-inch (40 cm) shell. The total Pearl Harbor casualties included civilians, 68 were killed and 35 were wounded.
Left with ruined bases, shipwrecks (18 ships sunk, including 5 battleships), damaged aircraft (of the 402, 188 were destroyed and 159 were damaged), thousands of dead crewman and hundreds more were wounded – Pearl Harbor faced the insurmountable task of getting back on its feet.
Luckily, various vital infrastructures surrounding the harbor were ignored and left unscathed, making it possible for the United States to re-establish Pearl Harbor’s force sooner than the Japanese had hoped. Among the ignored targets are the oil storage tanks, CINCPAC HQ building, submarine base, and the Navy Yard.
Overwhelming as it was, the U.S. was left with no other choice than to work together, as a nation, in order to recover. It was without a doubt, a bleak part in American history, one that led to the United States’ participation in the Second World War.
America’s efforts and sacrifices were not in vain as the country and its allies claimed their much deserved victory over the Empire of Japan on September 2, 1945.
Pearl Harbor Conspiracy Theories
Various conspiracy theories surround the Japanese attack, at one point dubbing it “the mother of all conspiracies”. Many, if not all of those theories dwell mostly on America’s shortcomings. One theory in particular speculated that the attack was provoked by President Franklin Roosevelt himself.
It was said that President Roosevelt knew very well about the attack but did not warn the Hawaiian commanders. Also, it was said that FDR used the attack as his backdoor into war for reasons which included his intention to strike at Hitler and the Nazi Party.