Pearl Harbour 1941: Past to Present

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date that will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

– US President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Pearl Harbour, Oahu, Hawaii 1941

japan-naval-ensignOn December 7th, 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted a surprise attack upon the US Navy base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii along with nearby USAAF and US Navy air bases. The attack was intended to cripple the US Pacific Fleet to enable Japanese forces an unmolested hand in their invasion of Asia and the Pacific region (that same day they launched simultaneous attacks across the region including Guam, Hong Kong, Malaya, Midway Island, the Philippines and Wake Island). The attack may have been a surprise but tension between the 2 nations hade been brewing for many years, especially over the war Japan had been conducting in China since 1937.

First Wave

A US Army radar had detected a large group of aircraft approaching that day but it was believed to be a squadron of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers that were transferring to Hawaii from California. As such no alert was raised. In reality it was approximately 183 Japanese aircraft launched from 6 aircraft carriers 322 km / 200 miles north of Oahu that were part of the first strike armada that was on its way to Pearl Harbour. The first wave consisted of 89 Nakajima B5N Kate bombers (1 failed to launch) armed with a mix of bombs and torpedoes, 51 Aichi D3A Val dive bombers (3 failed to launch) and an escort of 43 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters that also would conduct strafing attacks on ground targets (2 failed to launch).

Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft prepare to launch from the carrier Akagi to attack Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941
Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft prepare to launch from the carrier Akagi to attack Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941
A Mitsubishi A6M Zero takes off from the carrier Akagi to attack Pearl Harbour Dec 7 1941
A Mitsubishi A6M Zero takes off from the carrier Akagi to attack Pearl Harbour (Photo Source: US Navy)
A Japanese Navy Nakajima B5N Kate (Type 97) bomber takes off from the aircraft carrier Shokaku, en route to attack Pearl Harbor, during the morning of December 7th, 1941 (Photo Source: US Navy / US National Archives)
A Japanese Navy Nakajima B5N Kate (Type 97) bomber takes off from the aircraft carrier Shokaku, en route to attack Pearl Harbor, during the morning of December 7th, 1941 (Photo Source: US Navy / US National Archives)

Over 70 US Navy warships were in dock that day including 8 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 29 destroyers and 5 submarines. At 7:55 am the first wave of Japanese aircraft struck Pearl Harbour dropping torpedoes at low-level and high explosive bombs rained down from the sky followed up by machine gun and cannon fire. Within 30 minutes the Pacific Fleet was in tatters.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941 - this photo was taken from a Japanese aircraft Hawaii
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941 – this photo was taken from a Japanese aircraft and battleship row was their main target (Photo Source: U.S. Navy)
A Japanese Kate bomber prepares to attack Pearl Harbour
A Japanese Kate bomber prepares to attack Pearl Harbour (Photo Source: US Library of Congress)
Nakajima B5N2 Kate over Hickam Field and Pearl Harbour Dec 7 1941
Nakajima B5N2 Kate over Hickam Field and Pearl Harbour (Photo Source: US Navy)
Japanese Navy
Japanese Navy “Kate” torpedo bombers attack Battleship Row at about 0800 on December 7th, 1941. The ships are from lower left to right: Nevada (BB-36) with flag raised at stern; Arizona (BB-39) with Vestal (AR-4) outboard; Tennessee (BB-43) with West Virginia (BB-48) outboard; Maryland (BB-46) with Oklahoma (BB-37) outboard; Neosho (AO-23) and California (BB-44).
West Virginia, Oklahoma and California have been torpedoed, as marked by ripples and spreading oil, and the first two are listing to port. Torpedo drop splashes and running tracks are visible at left and center.
White smoke in the distance is from Hickam Field. Grey smoke in the center middle distance is from the torpedoed USS Helena (CL-50), at the Navy Yard’s 1010 dock.
Japanese writing in lower right states that the image was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry (Photo Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
Aerial view of Battleship Row beside Ford Island, during the early part of the horizontal bombing attack on the moored ships. Photographed from a Japanese aircraft.
Aerial view of Battleship Row beside Ford Island, during the early part of the horizontal bombing attack on the moored ships. Photographed from a Japanese aircraft.
Ships from left to right: USS Nevada ; USS Arizona with USS Vestal moored outboard; USS Tennessee with USS West Virginia moored outboard; USS Maryland with USS Oklahoma moored outboard; and USS Neosho, only partially visible at the extreme right.
The Japanese inscription in lower left states that the photograph has been officially released by the Navy Ministry (Photo Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
Pearl Harbour ablaze Dec 7 1941
Pearl Harbour ablaze

5 battleships were sunk and 2 were severely damaged in the attack. The most famous was the USS Arizona (BB-39) which was hit by an 1,800-pound bomb that went through the deck hitting a forward ammunition magazine which exploded, sinking the ship and sadly killing 1,177 officers and crewmen who were aboard during the attack. The battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) that was struck by 2 torpedoes causing her to roll onto her side and go under with 400 crew members aboard. A further 13 warships were sunk or destroyed with countless further damage was inflicted upon the other ships including the destruction of 2 destroyers in dry dock.

USS Arizona ablaze Japanese attack Pearl Harbour Dec 7 1941
USS Arizona – December 7th, 1941 (Photo Source: US National Archives)
USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37).
USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37).
USS West Virginia (BB-48) is burning in the background (Photo Source: US Navy / US National Archives)

Second Wave

At 9 am a second wave of Japanese aircraft struck but by then most of the ships were sunk, sinking or aflame so they mainly targeted airfields along with some shipping. This wave consisted of 54 Nakajima B5N Kate aircraft armed with bombs, 78 Aichi D3A Val dive bombers (3 had to abort the mission) and an escort of 35 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters (1 had to abort and return to the carriers).

The second wave of Japanese aircraft prepares to launch to attack Pearl Harbour Dec 7 1941
The second wave of Japanese aircraft prepares to launch to attack Pearl Harbour (Photo Source: US National Archives)
Japanese Val dive bombers prepare to launch for the second wave - the carrier Soryu is in the background
Japanese Val dive bombers prepare to launch for the second wave – the carrier Soryu is in the background (Photo Source: US Navy)
Destroyer USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the Japanese second wave attack (Photo Source: US Navy / US National Archives)
Destroyer USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the Japanese second wave attack (Photo Source: US Navy / US National Archives)
The view during the attack from the US Navy airfield on Ford Island - USS Show explodes in the background dec 7 1941 pearl harbor
The view during the attack from the US Navy airfield on Ford Island – USS Shaw explodes in the background (Photo Source: AP Photo)

By the end of the first and second waves, of the 400 US aircraft based nearby, 188 were destroyed and 159 were badly damaged. The majority of the US aircraft were caught on the ground that day but some did manage to get airborne and shot down at least 6 Japanese attackers (Japan lost 29 aircraft in the battle – mostly during the second wave and a further 74 were damaged by anti-aircraft ground fire).

A USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress destroyed at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack pearl harbour dec 7 1941
A USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress destroyed at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack (Photo Source: US Navy)

The Aftermath

2,403 Americans died in the attack and a further 1,178 were wounded (Japan lost just 55 aircrew and 9 submariners). Japan had struck a major blow but it was not enough to knock the US Navy out for long. Luckily the aircraft carrier fleet was not at Pearl Harbour that day (they had been out at sea on routine maneuvers) and the Japanese failed to destroy fuel depots and most importantly failed to destroy ship repair facilities. Many of the ships that had been sunk were able to be raised and repaired along with warships that had only been damaged in the attack (of the 8 battleships only USS Arizona and USS Utah were unable to be returned to service). All of these factors helped get the fleet back in to action relatively quickly.

The salvage of USS Oklahoma on March 19th, 1943 Pearl Harbour
The salvage of USS Oklahoma on March 19th, 1943 (Photo Source: US National Archives)
The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour (Image Source: Graphs.net)
The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour

This attack triggered the entry of the United States into World War Two and opened the Pacific theatre of that war (The United States declared war upon Japan on December 8th, 1941 and then in return 3 days later the other major Axis powers Germany and Italy also declared war on the United States). It also essentially began the end of the war too, as it brought into play the industrial might of the United States that could never be matched by the key Axis powers or in fact the other major Allied Nations including Great Britain, Canada and the Soviet Union.

President Roosevelt signs the declaration of war with Japan on December 8th, 1941
President Roosevelt signs the declaration of war with Japan on December 8th, 1941

Possible Third Wave

Admiral Nagumo of the Japanese Imperial Navy
Admiral Nagumo of the Japanese Imperial Navy (Photo Source: US Navy)

Japanese commanders urged for a third wave of aircraft to attack Pearl Harbour but given that anti-aircraft defences had intensified during the second wave resulting in more Japanese losses (the element of surprise was gone), Japanese Admiral Nagumo did not want to risk the fleets remaining aircraft. He was also concerned that given the location of the US Navy carrier fleet was unknown and that the Japanese carrier fleet was in range of US land based bombers, they were at risk. Fuel reserves were also getting low and the primary objective to negate the US fleet had been more or less achieved (in his opinion). It was time to withdraw to fight another day.

If this third attack had occurred much more damage could have been inflicted including the destruction of the fuel depots and ship repair facilities. US Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz said “it would have prolonged the war another two years.” The decision to not conduct the third attack was later regarded by the Japanese military commanders as a major mistake in their war.

Pearl Harbour, Oahu, Hawaii 2013

Today Pearl still remains as a US Navy base but also acts as a memorial to the 1941 attack with the ultimate tribute being made by USS Arizona laying on the bottom of the harbour where she sank that fateful day. This area is known as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument Hawaii Pearl Harbour
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument – preserving the past for future generations
Pearl Harbour Hawaii Dec 7 1941
Pearl Harbour – Past & Present

You start your visit by watching a 25 minute documentary about the attack, then you board a boat to visit the USS Arizona Memorial (dedicated on Memorial Day 1962). This is built over the sunken battleship that lays there undisturbed since the war. The ship is a tomb to the men that were lost and still remain inside.

Aerial view of the USS Arizona memorial Pearl Harbour
Aerial view of the USS Arizona memorial (Photo Source: US Navy)
USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial Battleship Row Pearl Harbour Hawaii
Battleship Row
USS Arizona - former gun turret
USS Arizona – remains of a gun turret
USS Arizona lays in Battleship Row Pearl Harbour
USS Arizona lays in Battleship Row

The memorial is a respectful tribute and a fitting place to pay your respect to those lost below. The marble wall of the shrine has the names of all 1,177 crewmen lost on December 7th, 1941.

USS Arizona Shrine
USS Arizona Shrine
USS Arizona Shrine
Fallen but never forgotten

Amazingly over 70 years later oil still leaks from the ship! It is a surreal sight-seeing the oil bubble up to the water’s surface from the ship you can see so clearly below. Get there early has they only allocate 2,000 tickets per day to visit the USS Arizona Memorial.

Oil still leaks from the USS Arizona over 70 years later
Oil still leaks from the USS Arizona over 70 years later

Amongst the grounds of the memorial are museum displays and weaponry. This area along with the trip to the USS Arizona Memorial are free. There are fees associated with visiting other areas including the USS Bowfin submarine (one of the most successful during World War Two sinking 39 Japanese merchant ships, four Japanese military ships and 1 Vichy French ship off the coast of Vietnam), the excellent Pacific Aviation Museum and “Mighty Mo” the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63). The latter 2 are out on Ford Island and are only accessible by a tour bus from the main memorial area (they are inside the active base).

USS Bowfin Submarine Pearl Harbour
USS Bowfin
USS Missouri battleship pearl harbour
USS Missouri
The big 16
The big 16″ guns of the USS Missouri
Looking across the mighty guns of the USS Missouri to the USS Arizona Memorial
Looking across the mighty guns of the USS Missouri to the USS Arizona Memorial
USS Oklahoma Memorial
USS Oklahoma Memorial
USS Oklahoma Memorial Pearl Harbour
The names of those lost aboard the USS Oklahoma

USS Missouri was the last battleship commissioned by the US Navy and had a highly successful career in the war and served from 1944 to 1955 then again following a major refit from 1986 to 1992. The battleship also became a significant part of history as it was the location where Imperial Japan formally surrendered to end World War Two on September 2nd, 1945 in Tokyo Bay, Japan (more on that in my USS Missouri battleship post).

Japanese General Yoshijiro Umezu signs the surrender papers aboard the USS Missouri in September 1945 under the watchful gaze of General Douglas MacArthur and Allied commanders
Japanese General Yoshijiro Umezu signs the surrender papers aboard the USS Missouri in September 1945 under the watchful gaze of General Douglas MacArthur and Allied commanders

The Pacific Aviation Museum is housed in two of the old World War Two era hangars and also incorporates the Ford Island control tower. All of which still bear the scars of the 1941 attack including bullet holes!

Battle scars from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour remain today at the historic Ford Island airbase hawaii pacific aviation museum
Battle scars from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour remain today at the historic Ford Island airbase that is today the Pacific Aviation Museum

The Pacific Aviation Museum contains much more than just aircraft involved in the attack on Pearl Harbour but it does feature examples of both Japanese and US aircraft types involved including the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and USAAF Curtiss P-40E Warhawk. The aircraft are well restored and displayed in a unique manner to fully appreciate their historical significance.

Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M Zero Pacific Aviation Museum Ford Island Hawaii
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M Zero
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M Zero Pacific Aviation Museum Ford Island Hawaii
Tora! Tora! Tora!
the Zero was the primary Japanese fighter for the duration of WW2
the Zero was the primary Japanese fighter for the duration of WW2
Imperial Japanese Navy weapons of war at Pearl Harbour
Imperial Japanese Navy weapons of war at Pearl Harbour
The Curtiss P-40E Warhawk was one of the few aircraft to take off in defence of Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941
The Curtiss P-40E Warhawk was one of the few aircraft to take off in defence of Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941

There is another very unique aircraft on display, an Aeronca 65TC that was actually the first aircraft to encounter the Japanese attackers. It was being flown by civilian Roy Vitousek with his son Martin onboard. They were on a simple pleasure flight when suddenly they were surrounded by Japanese aircraft! Miraculously they managed to escape and land safely with just a few bullet holes in the aircraft!

Aeronca 65TC survived japanese attack pearl harbour Pacific Aviation Museum Ford Island
One lucky little Aeronca 65TC!
A poster issued in 1942 as a remembrance of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941 (Image Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
A poster issued in 1942 as a remembrance of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941 (Image Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

To see everything at Pearl Harbour you need to get a very early start and be prepared to stay all day (some may even need 2 days!). It is a place of great significance to the United States and one that I think anyone interested in history should visit some day.

Originally posted on Deano In America in May 2014 (this is an expanded version of that original post)

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8 thoughts on “Pearl Harbour 1941: Past to Present

  1. Very impressive post! I particularly like your pictures of the current displays and memorials, I’ve never seen some of that before.
    One of your wartime photos, of the Kate attacking Pearl Harbor, looks fake to me. It is too clear and detailed. Maybe from a wartime documentary or propaganda film? But it looked either staged or compostied.

    So much has been written over the years about a “Third Attack” and all the opportunities the Japanese missed. For a variety of reasons I think it was never likely to have happened (not least, it would have involved staying another full day). I also think many of the worst case fears were greatly exagerated. Many ports and repair facilities were attacked during the war and they were never easy targets. No doubt Nimitz looked at the damage done and saw all his weak points and imagined how much worse things could have been. But most of those targets are much harder to recognize and destroy for an attacker.
    But no doubt such things will always generate tons of “what if” speculation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Yes I am not sure on that photo – it is part of the US Navy collection but given photos back then were often painted over to enhance the image or censor the image, it could well be fabricated to some extent? As for the third attack, it would indeed have come at a high cost for both parties. If they had taken out the major fuel tank depot though…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yeah no doubt the Japanese could have made things a lot messier for us.
        Although I recently read “Attack on Pearl Harbor” by Alan B. Zimm where he makes the argument that oil tanks are cheap to replace, and the U.S. Absolutely had adequate tanker tonnage to replace such losses quickly. Perhaps if those tankers had been replenishing Pearl Harbor we wouldn’t have lost so many in Operation Drumbeat! So many possibilities…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great work with this post. It’s very thorough. If you don’t know the story behind the photo of the B-17, we can fill that in a bit.
    B-17C #40-2074 was one of the bombers that arrived from the States that morning. All the B-17s that flew in hadn’t been loaded with ammunition because they wanted to limit the amount of weight the planes would be carrying. So, they show up right in the middle of the raid on Pearl Harbor. This particular aircraft was jumped by several Zeros while the pilot, Capt. Raymond T. Swenson, was trying to land. The Zeros shooting at the B-17 hit a box of magnesium flares, forcing Swenson to crash-land. The plane split on landing. As the men on board were trying to escape, a Zero strafed the wreck. One crewmember died, five others were injured.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Travel for Aircraft and commented:
    Deano is an Ozzie who writes and photographs much better than most, He wrote this post about the Pearl Harbor attack as well as the museum and memorials there today. I can’t think of a better piece than his from last year on this this date in remembrance of the surprise attack which yanked the U.S. into World War II…

    Liked by 1 person

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