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Attack on Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7, 1941, planes and midget submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, caught the United States off guard with a surprise attack carried out on the United States Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii and against the Army Air Corps and Marine air fields nearby on Oahu, Hawaii. This attack has been called the Bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Pearl Harbor but, most commonly, the Attack on Pearl Harbor or simply Pearl Harbor.



On November 26 1941 a fleet including six aircraft carriers commanded by Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo left Hitokappu Bay in the Kuril Islands and headed for Pearl Harbor under strict radio silence.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, that fleet's planes bombed the US military air bases on Oahu (the biggest was the US Army air base at Hickam Field), and many of the ships at Pearl, including "Battleship Row". Nearly every plane on the ground was destroyed; only a few fighters got airborne and offered any opposition. Twelve battleships and other ships either were sunk or damaged, 188 aircraft were destroyed, 155 were damaged and 2,403 Americans lost their lives. The battleship USS Arizona exploded and sank with a loss of over 1,100 men, nearly half of the Americans dead. Its hull became, and remains, a memorial to those lost that day, most of whom remain within the ship.

The first shots fired and the first casualties in the attack on Pearl Harbor actually occurred when USS Ward attacked and sank a Japanese midget submarine. There were five Ko-hyoteki class midget submarines which planned to torpedo US ships after the bombing started. None of the subs made it back safely, and only four out of the five have since been found. Of the ten sailors aboard the five submarines, nine died and the only survivor, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured; he became the first prisoner of war captured by the Americans in World War II.

Recent photographic analysis by the United States Naval Institute indicates a high likelihood that one midget submarine managed to enter the harbor, and successfully fired a torpedo into USS West Virginia. The final disposition of this submarine is unknown. [1]

The Japanese aircraft carriers were: Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, Shokaku, Soryu, Zuikaku. Together they had a total of 441 planes, including fighters, torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers, and fighter-bombers. Of these, 29 were lost during the battle. The planes attacked in two waves, and Nagumo decided to forgo a third attack in favor of withdrawing.

The first attack on Pearl Harbor was at 07:53 7 December Hawaiian Time which was 03:23 December 8 Japanese Standard Time (see The Pearl Harbor Strike Force, Note). Japanese troops started to move across the frontier of the New Territories of Hong Kong at dawn on December 8 1941[2]. Hong Kong Time is one hour behind Japanese Standard Time, so the attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a theater-wide near-simultaneous coordinated attack and was not a precursor—24 hours before the attacks in Asia—which the dates at first glance seem to imply.


The purpose of the attack on Pearl Harbor was to neutralize American naval power in the Pacific, if only temporarily. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku himself suggested that even a successful attack would gain only a year or so of freedom of action. Japan had been embroiled in a war with China for some years (starting in 1937) and had seized Manchuria some years before. Planning began for a Pearl Harbor attack in support of further military advances in January 1941, and training for the mission was underway by mid-year when the project was finally judged worthwhile after some Imperial Navy infighting.

Part of the Japanese plans for the attack included breaking off negotiations with the US prior (and only just prior) to the attack. Diplomats from the Japanese Embassy in Washington, including special representative Saburu Kurusu , had been conducting extended talks with the State Department regarding the US reactions to the Japanese move into Indochina in the summer. Just before the attack, a long message was sent to the Embassy from the Foreign Office in Tokyo (encyphered with the Purple machine), with instructions to deliver it to Secretary of State Cordell Hull just before the attack was scheduled to begin (i.e., 1 PM Washington time). Because of decryption and typing delays, the Embassy personnel could not manage to do so; the long message breaking off negotiations was delivered well after the intended time, and well after the attack had actually begun. The late delivery of the note contributed to US outrage about the attack, and is a major reason for Roosevelt's famous characterization of that day as "… a date which will live in infamy". Yamamoto seems to have agreed; he was unhappy about the botched timing. He is commonly thought to have said, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve", but this seems to be a quote made for the movie, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). See Yamamoto's "sleeping giant" quote for more information. Even though the quote may not have been said by Yamamoto, it did seem to capture his feelings about the attack.

 presented an attractive concentration of targets.
Battleship Row presented an attractive concentration of targets.

Both parts of the final message had been decrypted by the US well before the Japanese Embassy had managed to finish, and it was the decrypt of the second part which prompted General George Marshall to send his famous warning to Hawaii that morning—the one that was actually delivered, by a young Japanese-American cycle messenger, to General Walter Short at Pearl Harbor several hours after the attack had ended (there had been difficulties with the Army's communications, and transmission delays by commercial cable, and it had somehow lost its "urgent" marking during its travels).

Immediate outcome

The forward magazines of the exploded after she was hit by a bomb dropped by Tadashi Kusumi.
The forward magazines of the USS Arizona exploded after she was hit by a bomb dropped by Tadashi Kusumi.

In the short-to-medium term, in terms of its cardinal objectives, the attack on Pearl Harbor was an astonishing success which eclipsed the wildest dreams of its planners and has few parallels in the military history of any era. Due to its grievous losses at Pearl Harbor and in the subsequent Japanese invasion of the Philippines, for the next six months, the United States Navy was unable to play any significant role in the Pacific War. With the US Pacific Fleet essentially out of the picture, Japan was free of worries about the other major Pacific naval power. It went on to conquer southeast Asia, the southwest Pacific and to extend its reach far into the Indian Ocean.

Longer-term effects

However, in the longer term, the attack on Pearl Harbor was an unmitigated strategic debacle for Japan. Indeed, Admiral Yamamoto, who devised the Pearl Harbor attack, had predicted himself that even a successful attack on the US Fleet would not and could not win a war with the US, as American productive capacity was too large. One of the main Japanese objectives was to destroy the three American aircraft carriers stationed in the Pacific, but these were not present—Enterprise was returning, Lexington had sortied a few days prior, and Saratoga was in San Diego following a refit at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Putting most of the US battleships out of commission, was widely regarded—in both Navies and by most observers worldwide—as a tremendous success for the Japanese. The elimination of the battleships left the US Navy with no choice but to put its faith in aircraft carriers and submarines, these being most of what was left—and these were the tools with which the US Navy halted and later reversed the Japanese advance. The loss of the battleships turned out to be less important than previously thought in Japan, but was thought immediately after the attack in Japan and the US.

Probably most significantly, the Pearl Harbor attack immediately galvanized a divided nation into action as little else could have done. Overnight, it united the US with the goal of fighting and winning the war with Japan, and it probably made possible the unconditional surrender position taken by the Allied Powers. Some historians believe that Japan was doomed to defeat by the attack on Pearl Harbor itself, regardless of whether the fuel depots and machine shops were destroyed or if the carriers had been in port and sunk.

US response

On December 8, 1941, the US Congress declared war on Japan with Jeannette Rankin being the only dissenting vote. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the declaration of war shortly afterward, calling the previous day "a date which will live in infamy." The US Government continued and intensified its military mobilization, and started to convert to a war economy.

A related question is why Nazi Germany declared war on the United States December 11, 1941 immediately following the Japanese attack. Hitler was under no obligation to do so under the terms of the Axis Pact, but did so regardless. This doubly outraged the American public and allowed the United States to greatly step up its support of the United Kingdom, which delayed for some time a full US response to the setback in the Pacific.

Historical significance

This battle, like the Battle of Lexington and Concord, had history-altering consequences. It only had a small military impact due to the failure of the Japanese Navy to sink US aircraft carriers, but even if the air carriers had been sunk it may not have helped Japan in the long term. The attack firmly drew the United States and its massive industrial and service economy into World War II, leading to the defeat of the Axis powers worldwide. On hearing that the attack on Pearl Harbor had finally drawn the United States into the war, the Prime Minister of the UK, Winston Churchill, wrote "Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful". (Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol 3, page 539)". The Allied victory in this war and US emergence as a dominant world power has shaped international politics ever since.

In terms of military history, the attack on Pearl Harbor foreshadowed the emergence of the aircraft carrier as the center of naval power, replacing the battleship as the keystone of the fleet. However, it was not until later battles in the war, such as the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, that this breakthrough became apparent to the world's naval powers.

Did the United States receive forewarning of the attack?

See also: Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge debate

The US government and armed forces had, between them, sufficient information to anticipate Japanese aggression weeks, or even months, before the attack. The armed forces at Pearl Harbor had a number of warnings on the day of the attack. Both of these information sources could have brought Pearl to a higher level of alert and made the attack less damaging.

US signals intelligence through the Army's Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Office of Naval Intelligence's (ONI) OP-20-G intercepted Japanese diplomatic traffic and had broken many Japanese cyphers. Distribution of this intelligence was poor and did not include material from the Japanese military. Often the information was incomplete or contradictory, see the Winds Code. Warnings were sent to the US forces in the Pacific in November, 1940. Despite the growing information pointing to a new phase of Japanese aggression there was little information specific to Pearl Harbor.

On the day of the attack the Japanese force was detected by the Army's Opana Point radar station. Some commercial shipping may have reported "unusual" radio traffic. Midget submarines were sighted and attacked outside Pearl Harbor. A number of US aircraft were shot down as the air attack approached, one at least radioed a (somewhat incohenrent) warning.

The radar warning was confused with an expected arrival of US aircraft and discounted. The other warning were still being processed or awaiting confirmation when the attack began.


 took a hit and capsized early in the battle. The wreck remains at Pearl Harbor.
USS Utah took a torpedo hit and capsized early in the battle. The wreck remains at Pearl Harbor.

Despite the perception of this battle as a devastating blow to America, only five ships were permanently lost to the Navy. These were the battleships Arizona, Oklahoma, the old battleship Utah (then used as a target ship), and the destroyers Cassin and Downes ; nevertheless, much usable material was salvaged from them, including the two aft main turrets from Arizona. Four ships sunk during the attack were later raised and returned to duty, including the battleships California, West Virginia and Nevada. Of the 22 Japanese ships that took part in the attack, only one survived the war.

There are many who say that the Japanese would have been wise to have attacked with a third strike to destroy the oil storage facilities, machine shops and dry docks at Pearl Harbor, including several senior officers on Nagumo's ships or flying in the strikes. Destruction of these facilities would have greatly increased the US Navy's difficulties as the nearest immediately usable Fleet facilities would have been several thousand miles east of Hawaii on the West Coast of the States. Nagumo declined to order a third strike for several reasons:

  • Losses during the second strike had been more significant than during the first; a third strike could have been expected to suffer still worse losses.
  • The first two strikes had essentially used all the previously prepped aircraft available, so a third strike would have taken some time to prepare, allowing the Americans time to, perhaps, find and attack Nagumo's force. The location of the American carriers was and remained unknown to Nagumo.
  • The Japanese pilots had not practiced attack against the Pearl Harbor shore facilities and organizing such an attack would have taken still more time, though several of the strike leaders urged a third strike anyway.
  • The fuel situation did not permit remaining on station north of Pearl Harbor much longer. The Japanese were acting at the limit of their logistical ability to support the strike on Pearl Harbor. To remain in those waters for much longer would have risked running unacceptably low on fuel.
  • The timing of a third strike would have been such that aircraft would probably have returned to their carriers after dark. Night operations from aircraft carriers were in their infancy in 1941, and neither the Japanese nor anyone else had developed reliable technique and doctrine.
  • The second strike had essentially completed the entire mission, neutralization of the American Pacific Fleet.
  • There was the simple danger of remaining near one place for too long. The Japanese were very fortunate to have escaped detection during their voyage from the Inland Sea to Hawaii. The longer they remained off Hawaii, the more danger they were in, e.g., from a lucky US Navy submarine, or from the absent American carriers.
  • The carriers were needed to support the main Japanese attack, toward the "Southern Resources Area", where they were intending to capture oil and other supplies. The Japanese government had been reluctant to allow the attack at all as it took air cover from the southern thrust, and Nagumo was under strict orders not to risk his command any more than necessary. As the war games during the planning of the attack had predicted that 2–4 carriers might be lost in the attack, Nagumo must have been very happy to suffer no losses, and didn't want to push his luck.
U.S. Navy Cook Third Class Doris Miller, one of the most famous heroes during the attack, earning Navy Cross for his actions during the incident.
U.S. Navy Cook Third Class Doris Miller, one of the most famous heroes during the attack, earning Navy Cross for his actions during the incident.

Despite the debacle of unpreparedness including locked ammunition lockers, undispersed aircraft, etc, there were American military personnel who served with distinction in the incident. An ensign got his ship underway from a dead start during the attack. One ship got underway with only four officers onboard, all ensigns, none of which had more than a year's sea duty. That destroyer operated for four days at sea before her commanding officer caught up with her. Probably the most famous is Doris Miller, an African-American sailor who went beyond the call of duty during the attack when he took control of an unattended machine gun and used it in defense of the base. He was awarded the Navy Cross. Anti-aircraft performance during the second strike was much improved over that during the first. Two-thirds of the Japanese losses happened during the second wave.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the resulting state of war between Japan and the United States were factors in the later Japanese internment in the western United States. Another important factor were the views of General John DeWitt , commander of the West Coast Defense District. He claimed existence of evidence of sabotage and espionage intentions among the Japanese and Japanese descended in support of his recommendation to President Roosevelt that those of Japanese descent be interned. He had no such evidence.

In 1991, it was rumored that Japan was going to make an official apology to the United States for the attack. The apology did not come in the form many expected, however. The Japanese Foreign Ministry released a statement that said Japan had intended to make a formal declaration of war to the US at 1 PM, twenty-five minutes before the attacks at Pearl Harbor were scheduled to begin (it appears that the Japanese government was referring to the "14-part message", which did not even formally break off negotiations, let alone declare war). However, due to various delays, the Japanese ambassador was unable to make the declaration until well after the attacks had begun. For this, the Japanese government apologized. The Japanese records admitted into evidence during the Congressional Hearing show that the Japanese had not even written a declaration of war until after they heard of the successful attack on Pearl Harbor; it would be difficult for them to deliver a document that had not yet been written. The two-line declaration of war was delivered to Ambassador Grew about ten hours after the attack was over. He was allowed to transmit it to the United States where it was received late Monday afternoon.

The only US ship still afloat today that participated in the attack is the USCGC Taney. A special military award, the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal, is authorized to all military veterans of the attack.

It is usually viewed that the Japanese fell victim to victory disease due to the perceived ease of their first victories.

Film Dramatizations

The attack has been depicted numerous times on film. Examples include:

  • From Here to Eternity (1953) Deals with social issues in the military, with 1941 Honolulu as the setting and the Pearl Harbor attack only tangential to the story.
  • Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) By many seen as the best theatrical treatment of the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • The Final Countdown (1980) A science fiction "what if" movie involving time travel back to the eve of the attack and whether the time travelers should intervene.
  • Pearl Harbor (2001) Dramatization of a love story based on the events of the Pearl Harbor Attack. Based on a real story.

Further reading

  • Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept (McGraw-Hill, 1981), Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History (McGraw-Hill, 1986), and December 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor (McGraw-Hill, 1988). This monumental trilogy, written with collaborators Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, is considered the authoritative work on the subject.
  • Walter Lord, Day of Infamy (Henry Holt, 1957) is a very readable, and entirely anecdotal, re-telling of the day's events.
  • W. J. Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets: US Naval Intelligence Operations in the Pacific During World War II (Naval Institute, 1979) contains some important material, such as Holmes' point that had the US Navy been warned of the attack and put to sea, it would have likely resulted in an even greater disaster, as all the ships sunk would have been lost completely in deep water, along with a higher loss of life. At the time of Pearl Harbor, Holmes was an intelligence officer who worked closely with the cryptographers stationed in Hawaii.
  • Michael V. Gannon, Pearl Harbor Betrayed (Henry Holt, 2001) is a recent examination of the issues surrounding the surprise of the attack.
  • Frederick D. Parker, Pearl Harbor Revisited: United States Navy Communications Intelligence 1924–1941 (Center for Cryptologic History, 1994) contains a quite detailed description of what the Navy knew from intercepted and decrypted Japanese communications prior to Pearl.
  • Henry C. Clausen and Bruce Lee, Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement, (HarperCollins, 2001), is Clausen's account of the secret 'Clausen Inquiry' undertaken late in the War by order of Congress to Secretary of War Stimson. Clausen's effort was extraordinary, if only because of the exploding vest he wore as he traveled, and the astonishing letter of authority Stimson gave him. His account supports the 'bumbling around in Washington' and the 'bumbling around in Hawaii' theories, but not the 'Roosevelt/Marshall knew' variant. He also thinks that Kimmel and Short failed in their duty to be prepared, as they were ordered to be in November. He faults General Marshall as well for allegedly committing perjury. Clausen admired MacArthur despite the losses in the Philippines, MacArthur's area of responsibility, several hours after the raid at Pearl, in part because they were both Masons. Clausen's investigative brief from Stimson did not include being caught by surprise in the Philippines.
  • Robert A. Theobald, Final Secret of Pearl Harbor (Devin-Adair Pub, 1954) ISBN 0815955030 ISBN 0317659286 Foreword by Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.
  • Albert C. Wedemeyer, Wedemeyer Reports! (Henry Holt Co, 1958) ISBN 0892750111 ISBN 0815972164
  • Hamilton Fish, Tragic Deception: FDR and America's Involvement in World War II (Devin-Adair Pub, 1983) ISBN 0815969171

External links

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