December 7, 1941 – Japan launches a sneak attack on US military bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.


On November 24, 1852, Commodore Matthew Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia under orders from President Millard Fillmore to force the opening of Japanese harbors to foreign trade, authorizing military action if necessary. When Perry’s fleet arrived near modern-day Tokyo on July 8, 1853, he found a closed society that was entirely self sufficient. However, following contact with the outside world, and the restoration of imperial rule, Japan quickly became an industrialized nation, and, as such, she increasingly needed more natural resources to keep her factories running. By the 1870s, Japan had begun stretching its tentacles outward with eyes on resources they did not possess, such as coal, oil, steel, tin and rubber. In 1940, Japan’s stated goal became the creation of what they called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was really nothing more than a grandiose name for a hoped-for Japanese empire that would encompass most of the western Pacific, a large part of eastern China, southeast Asia, and as far south as New Guinea. Essentially, their goals were identical to those of Germany, in that they wanted to create their own Lebensraum in the Pacific.

The extent of Japanese expansion

The Second Sino-Japanese War began with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, but by 1940 the Japanese were bogged down. In order to continue their offensive, the Japanese needed to sever the supply lines coming into China from the South. This meant that the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island would have to be taken, as well as the British Imperial possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. But, in order to do this, they would need to neutralize the American fleet based in Hawaii.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

While many believe that the Japanese attack on December 7 was entirely unprovoked, the US had actually provided Japan with a casus belli. Since the early 1930s, America had been engaged in an increasingly stringent economic war of sanctions against Japan as a protest against Japanese military actions in Indochina. The US was also providing limited military aid to China, which the Japanese believed was hampering their efforts to defeat the Chinese. So, in many ways, America was forcing Japan’s hand. With war under way in Europe, many Americans were non-interventionist, but American President Franklin Roosevelt was not. He was looking for an excuse to join the war in Europe, and Germany and Japan were allies. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor gave Roosevelt the justification he needed to take America into the Second World War, and some historians suggest that Roosevelt had prior knowledge of the attack, but allowed it to happen anyway.

Japanese planes prepare to takeoff from the carrier Shokaku

On November 26, the Japanese fleet, which included the six aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, Hiryū, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku, stood out from northern Japan and steamed towards Hawaii. Arriving north of the islands on December 6, they prepared for the attack, completely undetected by the Americans. Early on the morning of December 7, 1941, two successive waves of Japanese Mitsubishi A6M fighters, Aichi D3A dive bombers and Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers launched from the carriers. The first wave of 180 aircraft approached Oahu from the northwest, where they were detected by American radar installations. However, the radar operators believed that they were seeing a formation of Boeing B-17 bombers that was scheduled to arrive that morning from California. The Japanese attackers found Pearl Harbor completely open to attack, with ships moored side by side and defensive emplacements unmanned.

A boat rescues survivors from the waters of Pearl Harbor as the USS West Virginia (BB-48), struck by six torpedoes and two bombs, burns in the background.

Commencing their attack at 7:48 am local time, the slower torpedo bombers led the way, since they would be most vulnerable once the Americans realized they were under attack and started shooting back. The torpedo bombers headed straight for Battleship Row, while the dive bombers attacked ships and other targets in Oahu, including Hickam Field and Wheeler Army Airfield. The second wave, arriving at 8:54 am and made up of 171 aircraft, attacked simultaneously from three separate directions. Of the eight US battleships moored in Pearl Harbor, all were damaged and four were sunk. The attacks also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and a minelaying ship. Attacks on the airfields destroyed 188 aircraft, including four of the B-17s that arrived from the US while the attack was underway. In all, 2,403 Americans were killed, over half perishing in the USS Arizona when a bomb penetrated her deck and detonated the forward magazine. Against the American casualties, the Japanese lost 55 airmen, along with nine crewmen from six midget submarines that also took part in the attack. A third wave, which could have done crippling damage to American oil and port facilities, was not carried out.

The destroyer USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes as two bombs penetrate her forward magazine

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the island of Oahu ranks as one of the most audacious in military history. For the navies of the world, it demonstrated that the aircraft carrier, not the battleship, was now the most potent capital ship in the modern fleet. And though the attack was judged a tactical success, it ultimately turned out to be a serious strategic blunder for the Japanese. While the Japanese goal of keeping the Americans from interfering with their immediate plans in the Pacific was successful, the attack fell short of its aim of destroying the American Pacific fleet, nor did it put the strategic harbor out of action. Key port facilities and oil installations were not destroyed, or were quickly repaired, meaning that Oahu never stopped functioning as a forward naval base as the Japanese hoped. Due to the shallow draft of the harbor, all the battleships but the Arizona were raised following the attack, and six of the ships were repaired and returned to fight later in the war. The loss of older battleships also hastened the modernization of the American fleet. But, most importantly, the three American aircraft carriers stationed in the Pacific—USS Enterprise, USS Hornet, and USS Yorktown—were out to sea on December 7 and escaped the attack. Had they been sunk or seriously damaged, it would likely have set back American efforts in the Pacific for a year or more.

Destroyed American aircraft at Wheeler Army Airfield

Though some Japanese military commanders advocated for the invasion and occupation of Hawaii, the nation’s leaders decided against it. They believed that simply destroying America’s ability to use Pearl Harbor as a base was enough. They did not consider Hawaii as a place from which to launch further attacks against the US mainland, and they failed to appreciate the importance of Hawaii as a base from which the Americans might launch attacks against Japan. Rather than occupy Hawaii, the Japanese hoped to win a quick, decisive victory in the western Pacific while America licked its wounds, gaining territory that could then be defended while eventually wearing down their enemies and finally negotiating treaties to maintain their conquered possessions. But that was not to be. By awakening the military and industrial might of the US and its allies, the Japanese sowed the seeds for their ultimate defeat. Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto famously said,

In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.

These turned out to be prophetic words. Just six months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy decisively defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Midway, an American victory that, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, was fought entirely by aircraft. Though the battle cost the US the Yorktown, the Japanese carrier force was crippled when four of the six carriers that had taken part at Pearl Harbor were sent to the bottom of the Pacific by American dive bombers. In a fitting footnote to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, which swung the course of the war decidedly in America’s favor, was won by aircraft from the very American carriers that escaped Japanese bombs and torpedoes on December 7, 1941. (Top image by unidentified Japanese pilot; map via worldhistory.biz; other photos via US Navy)


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