“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
On 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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
Possible Third Wave
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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!
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-40 Warhawk. The aircraft are well restored and displayed in a unique manner to fully appreciate their historical significance.
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!
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.