Attack on Pearl Harbor

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Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. The geyser of water in the center marks a torpedo hit on USS West Virginia

The Attack on Pearl Harbor or (less often) the Battle of Pearl Harbor was a major battle that immediately led to U.S. entry into World War II. The battle comprised a series of naval air strikes by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the morning of December 7, 1941 against U.S. air and naval forces at its main Pacific base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The strike was designed to cripple the U.S. battleships fleet, giving Japan naval dominance in the Pacific and thus giving Japan to have easy access to much of the western Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. The Japanese destroyed or disabled all the battleships but missed the aircraft carriers (which were not present), allowing the U.S. to fight back using naval air power. The United States Congress declared war against Japan the next day. The attack was seen by Americans as a "Day of Infamy" that silenced the isolationists and united the people in a demand for victory in the Pacific.


The road to war between Japan and the United States began in the 1930s when differences over China drove the two nations apart. In 1931 Japan conquered Manchuria, which until then had been part of China. In 1937 Japan began a long and ultimately unsuccessful war to conquer the rest of China, an informal ally of the United States. In 1940, the Japanese government allied their country with Nazi Germany in the Axis Alliance, and, in the following year, occupied all of French Indochina, isolating China and threatening British and Dutch possessions.

The U.S. increased military and financial aid to China, and embarked on a program of strengthening its military power in the Pacific. In 1941 the U.S., in alliance with Britain and the Netherlands, ended oil shipments to Japan, thus cutting off 95% of Japan's oil supply. The American policy was that Japan's aggression had to end and would no longer be facilitated by American oil. Japan found itself in a position where its oil reserves would be exhausted in two years, unless it either made peace or went to war and conquered the oil fields in Sumatra (controlled by the Dutch) and Burma (controlled by the British). The chief of the Navy told the emperor that if Japan resorted to war, it would be very doubtful that it could win. The decision was war, by going south to seize the resource-rich territories of Southeast Asia. Knocking out the American fleet was critical to the success of the strategy, hence the attack was ordered on Pearl Harbor.

Roosevelt meanwhile thought that Japanese movements south would be deterred by the threat of large scale air bombing of the main cities of Japan. He ordered raids undertaken (in the name of China) by American forces in China, but they never got close enough. Washington then ordered new B-17 long-range bombers to the Philippines, expecting to have enough air power by spring 1942 to seriously threaten Japan. It was too little too late.

Japanese plan

The main immediate threat to Japan was the U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, devised a plan to immobilize the U.S. fleet at the outset of the war with a surprise attack.

The key elements in Yamamoto's plans were meticulous preparation, the achievement of surprise, and the use of aircraft carriers and naval aviation on an unprecedented scale. In the spring of 1941, Japanese carrier pilots began training in the special tactics called for by the Pearl Harbor attack plan.

Captured Japanese photograph taken during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. In the distance, the smoke rises from Hickam Field. (Navy)

In October 1941 the naval general staff gave final approval to Yamamoto's plan, which called for the formation of an attack force commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. It centered around six heavy aircraft carriers accompanied by 24 supporting vessels. A separate group of submarines was to sink any American warships which escaped the Japanese carrier force.

Nagumo's fleet assembled in the remote anchorage of Tankan Bay in the Kurile Islands and departed in strictest secrecy for Hawaii on November 26, 1941. The ships' route crossed the North Pacific and avoided normal shipping lanes. At dawn on December 7, 1941, the Japanese task force had approached undetected to a point slightly more than 200 miles north of Oahu. No one sighted the force en route and it maintained complete radio silence. Neither Japan's allies nor Japan's diplomats knew the strike was coming. Nagumo did not know that the American aircraft carriers based at Pearl Harbor would not be there on December 7.[1]

Nagumo's force included, in addition to its supply train, six aircraft carriers, two battleships, two cruisers, nine destroyers, and three submarines. They reached position approximately 200 miles north of Oahu before dawn on 7 December (Hawaiian time.) Plans for the strike had been initiated during the previous summer, completed by early November. In September picked crews—with pilots who averaged better than 800 hours' flying time—from the Japanese First Air Fleet had begun a period of intensive training in horizontal and dive bombing and in the technique of torpedo attack in shallow waters. En route to the rendezvous above Oahu, with the ships under radio silence, the pilots were briefed on their coming mission. The primary target was the naval base of Pearl Harbor, the design to cripple the Pacific Fleet. It was hoped that at least four aircraft carriers and four battleships could be sunk or rendered useless for a long period. Exactly on schedule, at 0600 on the 7th, orders for the take-off were given. Shortly thereafter the first wave—fifty fighters, fifty horizontal bombers, forty torpedo bombers, and fifty dive bombers—roared off the carriers and headed toward Oahu. Forty-five minutes later fifty horizontal bombers, eighty dive bombers, and forty fighters followed as the second and last wave of attack.[2]

The attack

At 6:00 a.m. on December 7, the six Japanese carriers launched a first wave of 181 planes composed of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, horizontal bombers and fighters. Even as they winged south, some elements of U.S. forces on Oahu realized there was something different about this Sunday morning.

In the hours before dawn, U.S. Navy vessels spotted an unidentified submarine periscope near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. It was attacked and reported sunk by the destroyer USS Ward (DD-139) and a patrol plane. At 0700, an alert operator of an Army radar station at Opana spotted the approaching first wave of the attack force. The officers to whom those reports were relayed did not consider them significant enough to take action. The report of the submarine sinking was handled routinely, and the radar sighting was passed off as an approaching group of American planes due to arrive that morning.

The Japanese aircrews achieved complete surprise when they hit American ships and military installations on Oahu shortly before 0800. They attacked military airfields at the same time they hit the fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor. The Navy air bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the Air Force fields at Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam were all bombed and strafed as other elements of the attacking force began their assaults on the ships moored in Pearl Harbor. The purpose of the simultaneous attacks was to destroy the American planes before they could rise to intercept the Japanese.

Battleship Row

Battleship USS Arizona burns after her magazine was hit by a Japanese bomb.

Before dawn on 7 December 1941, the American strategic center of gravity in the Pacific reposed in the seven battleships then moored along "Battleship Row", the six pairs of interrupted quays located along Ford Island's eastern side. Quay F-2, the southernmost, which usually hosted an aircraft carrier, was empty. Northeastward, Battle Force flagship California was next, moored at F-3. Then came two pairs, moored side by side: Maryland with Oklahoma outboard, and Tennessee with West Virginia outboard. Astern of Tennessee lay Arizona, which had the repair ship Vestal alongside. Last in line was Nevada, by herself at quay F-8. These seven battleships, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-five years, represented all but two of those available to the Pacific Fleet. The Fleet flagship, Pennsylvania, was also in Pearl Harbor, drydocked at the nearby Navy Yard. The ninth, Colorado, was undergoing overhaul on the west coast.

Together, these ships were one short of equaling Japan's active battlefleet. Clearly a worrisome threat to Japanese plans for Pacific Ocean dominance, they were the Japanese raiders' priority target. Twenty-four of the forty Japanese torpedo planes were assigned to attack "Battleship Row", and five more diverted to that side of Ford Island when they found no battleships in their intended target areas. Of these planes' twenty-nine Type 91 aerial torpedoes (each with a warhead of some 450 pounds of high explosive), up to twenty-one found their targets: two hit California, one exploded against Nevada and as many as nine each struck Oklahoma and West Virginia. The latter two ships sank within minutes of receiving this torpedo damage. The excessive concentration on Oklahoma and West Virginia was a byproduct of the overly-complex torpedo plane attack plan (which had multiple flight paths criss-crossing south of Battleship Row), a breakdown in Japanese command and control during the final run-in, and the higher difficulty of flying a torpedo attack profile against the northern end of Battleship Row.

Horizontal bombers, armed with heavy armor-piercing bombs, arrived just as the last torpedo planes finished their attacks, and other horizontal and dive bombers came in later. Together, these planes scored many hits or damaging near-misses on the "Battleship Row" ships: two on California, Maryland and Tennessee; a few on West Virginia. Most spectacular of the bombers' victims was Arizona, which was struck many times. One bomb penetrated to the vicinity of her forward magazines, which detonated with a massive blast, immediately sinking the ship.

There was a short lull in the fury of the attack at about 0830. At that time Nevada, despite her wounds, managed to get underway and move down the channel toward the open sea. Before she could clear the harbor, a second wave of 170 Japanese planes, launched 30 minutes after the first, appeared over the harbor. They concentrated their attacks on the moving battleship, hoping to sink her in the channel and block the narrow entrance to Pearl Harbor. On orders from the harbor control tower, Nevada beached herself at Hospital Point and the channel remained clear.

West side of Ford Island

Destroyer USS Shaw explodes during the second wave.

In addition to strategically vital "Battleship Row", the Japanese thought two other areas were important enough to warrant attention from the initial Pearl Harbor attack wave's torpedo planes. These were the long 1010 Dock at the Navy Yard, and the fixed moorings on the western side of Ford Island, both of which might hold battleships or aircraft carriers. On the morning of the attack the latter location was occupied by the seaplane tender Tangier, the old target and training ship Utah and the light cruisers Raleigh and Detroit. Six aerial torpedoes were launched against these ships, of which three hit, sinking one vessel and nearly sinking another.

The thirty-year-old Utah, which had been converted from an obsolete battleship ten years earlier, received two torpedoes, completely overwhelming her very limited ability to absorb underwater damage. She capsized to port in about ten minutes, coming to rest with her bottom in the air. As Utah's crew were abandoning ship and swimming through the oily water to Ford Island, they were the target of machine-gun attacks by Japanese planes. Although ten trapped Sailors were later cut free from her upturned hull, about sixty were lost with their ship. Utah was partially turned upright in 1943-44 but was not further salvaged.

USS Raleigh was hit by one torpedo and a bomb. An elderly Omaha-class cruiser, she barely avoided capsizing, but her crew, assisted by a salvage barge and a tug, kept her upright and afloat. Major repairs returned Raleigh to the active fleet in a little over a half-year.

Also damaged west of Ford Island was the seaplane tender Curtiss, hit by a crashing enemy dive bomber, plus one bomb and fragments of another during the second wave attack. Curtiss was also unsuccessfully attacked by a Japanese midget submarine, which fired a torpedo at the seaplane tender and was then promptly sunk by the destroyer Monaghan.

Navy Yard area

Destroyers Downes and Cassin lie wrecked in front of the lightly-damaged battleship Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

The initial Japanese attack wave hit the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard area relatively lightly, with a few torpedoes launched at ships along 1010 Dock and some dive bombers targeting that vicinity and the drydock area immediately to the southward. The torpedo planes made one hit, on the light cruiser Helena, opening two of her engineering spaces to the sea. The minelayer Oglala, tied up alongside Helena, fared much worse. This old converted passenger ship had her port side opened up by the blast of the torpedo that hit the cruiser, and the resulting inrush of water could not be controlled. About two hours later, Oglala rolled over to port and sank alongside 1010 Dock.

The second Japanese attack wave's horizontal and dive bombers gave the Navy Yard's drydock area considerable attention. Though their efforts were somewhat mitigated by the diversion of some planes against USS Nevada as she passed nearby, these bombers made several hits, wrecking three destroyers and damaging the battleship Pennsylvania. The latter, Flagship of the Pacific Fleet and one of the raiders' priority targets, was "high and dry" in Drydock #1 with destroyers Cassin and Downes. One bomb hit Pennsylvania amidships, killing eighteen crewmembers and producing modest damage to the battleship. Other bombs, hitting on and near the two destroyers, opened their fuel tanks and set intense fires. Ammunition explosions, including the detonation of a torpedo on Downes, added to the destruction, which was compounded when the drydock was partially flooded. Cassin then lifted off her blocks and rolled over against Downes.

Dive bombers from the second wave also struck the destroyer Shaw, which was in the floating drydock YFD-2. The resulting fires spread to Shaw's forward magazines, which blew up spectacularly, severing her bow. However, the rest of the ship remained afloat as the drydock sank beneath her. The little tug Sotoyomo, also in YFD-2, was badly burned by Shaw's fires and went down as well.

Japanese bombs near-missed some of the ships at the piers in the northeastern part of the Navy Yard, producing notable damage to the hull of light cruiser Honolulu. However, the attackers' concentration on battleship targets left the Yard's vital industrial facilities essentially untouched. These were soon hard at work on rescue, repair and salvage jobs, of which there were many immediately at hand.

The airfields and aerial combat

Military and Naval aircraft at Oahu's airfields were second only to battleships among the Japanese target priorities, though the reason was different. While Pearl Harbor's battleships represented American strategic "reach", and had to be eliminated to safeguard Japan's offensive into Southeast Asia and the East Indies, Oahu's aircraft had to be taken out for a more immediate reason: to protect the Pearl Harbor attack force. U.S. fighter planes, if they could get into the air in any numbers, would be a serious threat to Japanese bombers. U.S. Air Force bombers and Navy patrol planes potentially imperiled the Striking Force's invaluable aircraft carriers.

The Japanese first attack wave therefore assigned many fighters and bombers to airbase suppression, the fighters to set planes afire with machine gun and cannon fire and the bombers to wreck them with high explosives. The second attack wave also had airfield strikes among its tasks. Wheeler Airfield, in central Oahu, was Hawaii's main fighter base. It was heavily attacked. Of some 140 planes on the ground there, mainly P-40 and P-36 pursuits, nearly two-thirds were destroyed or put out of action. A similar proportion of the B-17, B-18 and A-20 bombers at Hickam Airfield, adjacent to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, was also wrecked or damaged enough to keep them grounded. Many airmen were killed at Hickam when the Japanese bombed their barracks. Smaller Bellows Field in eastern Oahu was also hit, destroying several P-40s, including two whose pilots attempted to take off in the teeth of the enemy onslaught.

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps air stations on Pearl Harbor's Ford Island, at Ewa to the west of Pearl and at Kanoehe Bay near Bellows Field, also received concentrated attention from the raiders. Ewa's aircraft complement, mainly carrier-type bombers and fighters, was reduced from nearly fifty operational planes to less than twenty. Ford Island and Kanoehe, home to several squadrons of long-range PBY patrol seaplanes, were massively attacked, with Ford Island losing about half its planes and Kaneohe all but a few.

These very successful Japanese strikes thus prevented any significant aerial opposition, though the few Air Force fighters that got airborne gave a good account of themselves. P-36 pilot Lt. Harry Brown, who would finish the war with seven victories to his credit, splashed two Kates near Wheeler, probably the first American aerial kills of the war.[3] When Brown returned to his airfield, his crew chief was surprised to see the pilot still wearing his tuxedo from the previous night's party! P-40 pilot Lt. John Dains downed a bomber near the Kaawa radar station, but was shot down and killed later that morning. The two most successful pilots that day were Army pilots George Welch and Ken Tayler, who between them shot down eight Japanese planes (one Zeke and seven Vals).[4] In total, American interceptors accounted for twelve Japanese planes over Oahu, ten of them bombers, and damaged at least two others for only three losses in air combat.

Later on December Seventh, surviving bombers and patrol planes were sent out to search for the Japanese carriers. They found nothing and confronted considerable "friendly" anti-aircraft gunfire when they returned to their bases.


USS Bennington (CVA-20) passes the wreck of USS Arizona (BB-39) on Memorial Day, 31 May 1958. By the mid-1950s platforms were constructed over the sunken battleship for services to the more than 1,100 sailors and Marines entombed on board; a white marble memorial structure would span the wreck in 1962, inscribed with their names.

When the attack ended shortly before 10:00 a.m., less than two hours after it began, the American forces have paid a fearful price. Twenty-one ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged: the battleships Arizona, California, Maryland, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia; cruisers Helena (CL-50), Honolulu (CL-48), and Raleigh (CL-7); the destroyers Cassin (DD-372), Downes (DD-375), Helm (DD-388), and Shaw (DD-373); seaplane tender Curtiss (AV-4); target ship (ex-battleship) Utah (AG-16); repair ship Vestal (AR-4); minelayer Oglala (CM-4); tug Sotoyomo (YT-9); and Floating Drydock Number 2. Aircraft losses were 188 destroyed and 159 damaged, the majority hit before they had a chance to take off. The AAF reported 64 of its 231 aircraft had been destroyed, and 79 of the remaining planes needed major repairs. At Hickam Field some of the more important administrative and engineering files, the base parachute section, and the overhaul and assembly sections of the Engine Repair Branch had been wiped out. Test equipment, about 75 per cent of the equipment of Aero Repair Branch, and more than half of the depot property stocks were destroyed. AAF casualties, especially at Hickam Field, were heavy, reaching a total of 163 killed, 43 missing, and 336 wounded. The Japanese canceled a third strike that would have knocked out the vital American oil supply, which proved critical to rebuilding Pearl Harbor in the months to come.

American dead numbered 2,403. That figure included 68 civilians, most of them killed by improperly fused anti-aircraft shells landing in Honolulu. There were 1,178 military and civilian wounded.

Japanese losses were comparatively light. Twenty-nine planes, less than 10 percent of the attacking force, failed to return to their carriers.

The Japanese success was overwhelming, but it was not a strategic victory. They failed to damage any American aircraft carriers, which by a stroke of luck, had been absent from the harbor. They were unable to damage the shoreside facilities at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, which played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II (it would have been impossible to do strategically significant damage to industrial facilities at Pearl Harbor with carrier-based aircraft). American technological skill raised and repaired all but three of the ships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor (Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah). Most importantly, the shock and anger caused by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor united a divided nation and was translated into a wholehearted commitment to victory in World War II.

See also

Further reading

  • Craven, Wesley, and James Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces in World War II. (1958). Official history in 7 vol; Vol. 1, Plans and Early Operations, January 1939 to August 1942 online edition
  • Feis, Herbert. The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War Between the United States and Japan (1963), standard diplomatic history
  • Goldstein, Donald M., and Katherine V. Dillon. The Pearl Harbor Papers: Inside the Japanese Plans (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Prange, Gordon W. At Dawn We Slept. (1982), the standard history of the Pearl Harbor attack excerpt and text search
  • Wohlstetter, Roberta. Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962), explains why the U.S. was surprised excerpt and text search
  • Zimm, Alan. Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions (2011), analyzes the attack using US Navy operations research methods; disagrees with the "standard" view that the attack was well-planned and executed [1]

Primary sources

  • Allen, Thomas B. Remember Pearl Harbor: American and Japanese Survivors Tell Their Stories (2007)


  1. The Japanese did not have current information on the disposition of ships at Pearl Harbor. On November 28, Admiral Kimmel sent USS Enterprise under Rear Admiral William Halsey to deliver Marine Corps fighter planes to Wake Island. On December 4 Enterprise delivered the aircraft and on December 7 the task force was on its way back to Pearl Harbor. On December 5, Admiral Kimmel sent the USS Lexington with a task force under Rear Admiral Newton to deliver 25 scout bombers to Midway Island. The last Pacific carrier, USS Saratoga, had left Pearl Harbor for upkeep and repairs on the West Coast.
  2. Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, eds. Army Air Forces in World War II: Vol. I: Plans & Early Operations, January 1939 to August 1942 (1949), ch. 6
  3. P-36 Hawk Aces of World War 2, by Lionel Rersyn, Kari Stenman, and Andrew Thomas, Osprey Publishing, 2009
  4. P-40 Warhawk Aces of the Pacific, by Carl Molesworth, Osprey Publishing, 2003


Copyright Details
License: This work is in the Public Domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the U.S. Code
Source: File available from the United States Federal Government.

source = [2]