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Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941 - A Date That Will Live in Infamy

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Picture of the USS Arizona burning after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The USS Arizona (BB-39) burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (December 7, 1941)

(Picture courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)
On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise air attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. After just two hours of bombing, more than 2,400 Americans were dead, 21 ships* had either been sunk or damaged, and more than 188 U.S. aircraft destroyed.

The attack at Pearl Harbor so outraged Americans that the U.S. abandoned its policy of isolationism and declared war on Japan the following day -- officially bringing the United States into World War II.

Why Attack?

The Japanese were tired of negotiations with the United States. They wanted to continue their expansion within Asia but the United States had placed an extremely restrictive embargo on Japan in the hopes of curbing Japan's aggression. Negotiations to solve their differences hadn't been going well.

Rather than giving in to U.S. demands, the Japanese decided to launch a surprise attack against the United States in an attempt to destroy the United States' naval power even before an official announcement of war was given.

The Japanese Prepare for Attack

The Japanese practiced and prepared carefully for their attack on Pearl Harbor. They knew their plan was extremely risky. The probability of success depended heavily on complete surprise.

On November 26, 1941, the Japanese attack force, led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, left Etorofu Island in the Kurils (located northeast of Japan) and began its 3,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean. Sneaking six aircraft carriers, nine destroyers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and three submarines across the Pacific Ocean was not an easy task.

Worried that they might be spotted by another ship, the Japanese attack force continually zig-zagged and avoided major shipping lines. After a week and a half at sea, the attack force made it safely to its destination, about 230 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began. At 6:00 a.m., the Japanese aircraft carriers began launching their planes amid rough sea. In total, 183 Japanese aircraft took to the air as part of the first wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

At 7:15 a.m., the Japanese aircraft carriers, plagued by even rougher seas, launched 167 additional planes to participate in the second wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The first wave of Japanese planes reached the U.S. Naval Station at Pearl Harbor (located on the south side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu) at 7:55 a.m. on December 7, 1941. Just before the first bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, leader of the air attack, called out, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" ("Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!"), a coded message which told the entire Japanese navy that they had caught the Americans totally by surprise.

Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor

Sunday mornings were a time of leisure for many U.S. military personnel at Pearl Harbor. Many were either still asleep, in mess halls eating breakfast, or getting ready for church on the morning of December 7, 1941. They were completely unaware that an attack was imminent.

Then the explosions started. The loud booms, pillars of smoke, and low-flying enemy aircraft shocked many into the realization that this was not a training exercise; Pearl Harbor was really under attack.

Despite the surprise, many acted quickly. Within five minutes of the beginning of the attack, several gunners had reached their anti-aircraft guns and were trying to shoot down the Japanese planes.

At 8:00 a.m., Admiral Husband Kimmel, in charge of Pearl Harbor, sent out a hurried dispatch to all in the U.S. naval fleet, "AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL."

The Attack on Battleship Row

The Japanese had been hoping to catch U.S. aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor, but the aircraft carriers were out to sea that day. The next major important naval target was the battleships.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, there were eight U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor, seven of which were lined up at what was called Battleship Row and one (the Pennsylvania) was in dry dock for repairs. (The Colorado, the only other battleship of the U.S.'s Pacific fleet, was not at Pearl Harbor that day.)

Since the Japanese attack was a total surprise, many of the first torpedoes and bombs dropped on the unsuspecting ships hit their targets. The damage done was severe. Although the crews on board each battleship worked feverishly to keep their ship afloat, some were destined to sink.

The seven U.S. battleships on Battleship Row:

  • Nevada - Just over a half hour after the Nevada was hit by one torpedo, the Nevada got underway and left its berth in Battleship Row to head toward the harbor entrance. The moving ship made an attractive target to the Japanese bombers, who caused enough damage to the Nevada that it was forced to beach itself.
  • Arizona - The Arizona was struck a number of times by bombs. One of these bombs, thought to have hit the forward magazine, caused a massive explosion, which quickly sank the ship. Approximately 1,100 of her crew were killed. A memorial has since been placed over the Arizona's wreckage.
  • Tennessee - The Tennessee was hit by two bombs and was damaged by oil fires after the nearby Arizona exploded. However, it stayed afloat.
  • West Virginia - The West Virginia was hit by up to nine torpedoes and quickly sank.
  • Maryland - The Maryland was hit by two bombs but was not heavily damaged.
  • Oklahoma - The Oklahoma was hit by up to nine torpedoes and then listed so severely that she turned nearly upside down. Despite being upside down, a large number of her crew remained trapped on board. Rescue efforts were only able to save 32 of her crew.
  • California - The California was struck by two torpedoes and hit by a bomb. The flooding grew out of control and the California sank three days later.

In addition to the air assault on Battleship Row, the Japanese had launched five midget submarines. These midget subs, which were approximately 78 1/2 feet long and 6 feet wide and held only a two man crew, were to sneak into Pearl Harbor and aid in the attack against the battleships. However, all five of these midget subs were sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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