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 was a military air strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the morning of December 7, 1941, that was designed to cripple the U.S. Fleet, enabling Japan to have free and unfettered access to much of the western Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. The attack resulted in the United States declaring war against Japan the next day.


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 campaign to conquer the rest of China. In 1940, the Japanese government allied their country with Nazi Germany in the Axis Alliance, and, in the following year, occupied all of Indochina.

The U.S. increased military and financial aid to China, and embarked on a program of strengthening its military power in the Pacific. Secretary of State Cordell Hull sought to make America's economic policy ambiguous so that Japan might be deterred by fear of sanctions not yet imposed and won by hopes of concessions not yet granted. Such a policy obtained Roosevelt's explicit approval while at the same time it more aggressive elements in Japan to take control.

Roosevelt accepted a plan for economic sanctions presented by Treasury Assistant Harry Dexter White. On July 26, 1941, a full scale economic blockade was implemented, all Japanese financial assets in the U.S. were frozen and trade virtually ended between the two countries. Japan found itself in a position where its oil reserves would be exhausted in two years, its aluminum reserves in seven months. The chief of the Navy told the emperor that if Japan resorted to war, it would be very doubtful that it could win. The Japanese Cabinet sought desperately to reach an agreement in Washington. [1]

Because Japan was poor in natural resources, its government viewed these steps, especially the embargo on oil, as a threat to the nation's survival. Japan's leaders responded by resolving to seize the resource-rich territories of Southeast Asia, even though that move would certainly result in war with the United States. A proposal by Japanese Premier Fumimaro Konoe for a personal meeting with Roosevelt was rejected. Hull abandoned all thought of a truce with Japan and put in final shape an ultimatum. Hull's use of harsh, demanding language only strengthened the position of the war party in Tokyo. Ambassador Nomura found it impossible to reach an agreement because the demands were extreme. [2]

On the 25th of November, U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson had stated the problem as one of "how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot." [3] Secretary Hull solved the problem the next day. This was the conclusion of the Army Pearl Harbor Board when it reported that the Hull note "touched the button that started the war." [4]

It is significant that in the ten-point ultimatum sent to Japan on November 26, 1941, eight of the drastic demands were written by Harry Dexter White. In other words, Harry Dexter White, an agent of the Soviet Union, helped in a decisive way to draft the ultimatum that provoked war between Japan and the United States. This was the primary aim of Soviet foreign policy to advance the interests of the Comintern and the Soviet Union in the Far East [5]

Japanese plan

The problem with the plan was the danger posed by 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.

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. At this time the U.S. carriers were not 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.

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 Army Air Corps 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.

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. Of an old and not very sturdy design, 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 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. Army 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 supression, 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 Army 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 Army Airfield, adjacent to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, was also wrecked or damaged enough to keep them grounded. Many men 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 courageously 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 Army fighters that got airborne gave a good account of themselves. 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-1950's platforms were constructed over the sunken battleship for services to the more than 1,100 sailors and Marines entombed onboard; 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. 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 neglected to damage the shoreside facilities at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, which played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II. 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.


  1. Soviet penetration of the U.S. gets fresh look, Allan H Ryskind, Human Events, Jan 29, 2001. Review of Romerstein and Breindel, The Venona Secrets.
  2. Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time, Carroll Quigley, Collier-Macmillan, 1966, pgs. 735 - 741. ISBN 0-945001-10-X
  3. As Stimson explained: "In spite of the risk involved... in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people, it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so that there should remain no doubt in anyone's mind as to who were the aggressors." Stimson's Testimony quoted in Basil Rauch, Roosevelt from Munich to Pearl Harbor (New York: Creative Age, 1950), p. 473.
  4. Pearl Harbor Attack. Part 39, p. 137. [1]
  5. Communism at Pearl Harbor, How the Communists Helped to Bring on Pearl Harbor and Open up Asia to Communinization, Dr. Anthony Kubek, Dallas Texas, Teaching Publishing Company, 1959, pg. 19. Dr. Anthony Kubek was the Editor of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, Report on the Morgenthau Diaries. The records of the Morgenthau Diary Study, 1953-65 consist largely of copies of portions of memorandums, correspondence, transcripts of meetings, and other records preserved by Secretary Morgenthau in order to document his tenure. The original records are in the custody of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. In 1965, the SISS issued a two volume committee print entitled Morgenthau Diary (China), Edited by Dr. Anthony Kubek, containing entries from the records at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library selected to illustrate the implementation of Roosevelt administration policy in China. According to Dr. Kubek, the subcommittee wanted to produce a documentary history on the subject and "also indicate the serious problem of unauthorized, uncontrolled and often dangerous power exercised by non-elected officials," specifically Harry Dexter White. White was a major figure in Senator William Jenner's investigation of interlocking subversion in Government departments in 1953. The bipartisan investigation lasted for twelve years, and the Subcommittee's Report took another two years to write. [2] Dr. Kubek also is a recognized expert on the subject of U.S. Naval Intelligence's Operation Magic, the effort to crack Japanese diplomatic ciphers. [3]
    Kubek writing in 1959 during the interwar period between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, two "hot wars" in the "cold war," concluded: "The United States destroyed the one power that was able to check the flow of that Red tide in the Far East. ...The present Soviet military might, which threatens our national security, is the direct product of billions of lend-lease aid, coddling of Communists in high places in the American Government and failure to understand the basic drives of world Communism. ...Never before in our history was Presidential leadership so devoid of vision and never before had the mistakes of our Chief Executive been so fraught with peril to our nation."


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