In Oahu, Hawaii, early on the morning of December 7, 1941, the War in the Pacific was already over an hour old. Nobody in Hawaii knew it yet, just like nobody yet knew that several flights of Japanese warplanes were already in the air and headed toward the island. The approaching Japanese aircraft were launched from Japan's six biggest and best aircraft carriers – part of a small task force that had brazenly steamed to within 200 miles of the American held Hawaiian Islands in order to execute a key part of the Imperial Japanese government's war plan.
The Pearl Harbor attack plan had two immediate goals; the destruction of American aircraft carriers known to frequent the area, and the sinking of as many other capital ships as possible, especially battleships. With these two tasks complete, the Japanese hoped to neutralize the American fleet's ability to project air and sea power in the Pacific Basin for at least six months. During that time they planned to occupy the East Asian and West Pacific regions with such firmness that the Allies would be forced to negotiate a settlement. In pursuit of these attack goals, Japanese naval officers created a detailed plan which took advantage of known factors such as the American Navy's habit of returning to its main anchorage at Pearl Harbor every weekend. Equally detailed alternate plans included options for attacking the American fleet's deep sea anchorage at Lahaina Roads, or hunting down U.S. fleet units in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. This later plan was the worst case scenario for them, because it would require their carrier fleet to fight its way into the attack zone. They were however, prepared to do this if necessary and only if discovered before "X-Day" did they have any intention of withdrawing without a fight.
The core planning for the attack was conducted by Commanders Mitsuo Fuchida and Minoru Genda, both of whom belonged to Japan's elite of bright young naval aviators who were sure that the future of naval warfare would be decided by aviation. As in other navies of the time, these officers faced resistance by older leaders who disliked change, and who thought that battleships still represented the pinnacle of naval power. This was ultimately revealed in the final attack plans, which included both American aircraft carriers and battleships as primary targets. The plan envisioned passage of a six-carrier task force through the "vast empty sea" which lay between Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands. Once north of Hawaii, a scouting mission of two float planes was to be launched in order to ascertain the presence of American fleet units at Pearl Harbor, Lahaina Roads and in the waters immediately around Oahu. Their final reports were to be forwarded to the Japanese air fleet which by then would be nearing its final deployment point. Precise timing was required in order to guarantee that the attacking air fleet would know what vessels to expect and where to expect them. Fuchida actually hoped to be able to strike the US Fleet at the Lahaina anchorage, where deep water would prevent salvage of sunken ships. He and Genda had formulated detailed attack plans in case such an opportunity arose. However, because their targets would most likely be in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese high level bombers were slated to carry specially converted 16-inch naval shells capable of penetrating the armored deck of the heaviest American battleships. It was hoped that these heavy shells would detonate the powder magazines of their heavily armored targets, thereby causing such colossal damage as to make salvage impossible. Modifications were also made to the Japanese aerial torpedoes in order to allow their launching in very shallow waters. Nothing they could consider was left to chance. They were prepared for any eventuality. Such detailed preparations helped to counter the heavy weight of uncertainty which hung over the entire operation. Every senior Japanese officer knew that if the American Fleet were to avoid contact until they were discovered, the tables could unpredictably turn against them.
As the days passed and war appeared inevitable – as indeed it was under the circumstances – the American government continued its preparations while struggling to avoid conflict. When political negotiations broke down, war warnings were sent to all major American commands in the Pacific, including both Navy and Army commands in Hawaii. From the American perspective, the main military threat remained in the southwestern Pacific where over 200 Japanese naval vessels were deploying in an ominous pre-amble to war. This served as a perfect camouflage for Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's strike fleet already headed for Hawaii. On board this fleet, Fuchida and Genda constantly sought to raise Nagumo's morale by emphasizing the need for multiple attacks against the American military bases. Nagumo, who thought the "Hawaiian Operation" a dangerous gamble, insisted that he would follow the letter of his orders. These orders required a single heavy attack in two waves followed by an immediate withdrawal. His conviction that they would probably be discovered ahead of time by the Americans was a notable contrast to the real picture, in which the Americans remained not only unaware of his approach, but barely considered it a possibility.
Probably the closest that anyone came to considering an attack against Oahu was Admiral Husband Kimmel. On November 27, a large meeting took place in which Kimmel and his staff met with Lt. General Walter Short, the senior US Army commander in Hawaii. During the meeting, the army's plan to assume command of the defense of Wake and Midway islands was viewed with concern by Lt. Colonel James Mollison, primarily because such a defense would drain valuable aircraft away from Oahu. To this Kimmel responded "Why are you so worried about this? Do you think we are in danger of attack?"
To which Mollison replied "The Japanese have such a capability."
"Capability, yes, but possibility?" asked Kimmel. Immediately he asked the fleet war plans officer, Captain Charles McMorris, "What do you think about the prospects of a Japanese air attack?"
McMorris replied "None, absolutely none."
Still, Kimmel may not have been completely convinced. He turned down the prospective move of half the island's army aircraft, keeping them on Oahu just in case.
Very little action was taken to further counter this tantalizing prospect, even several days later when Japanese fleet carriers remained unaccounted for in Navy intelligence reports. Unfortunately the Intelligence bureaus were struggle with a recently changed set of Imperial Navy call signs while also trying to track the naval buildup in the south and attempting to relocate Japan's two primary carrier groups. Because those same carrier groups had been unaccounted for 12 times since the middle of the year, the most recent blind period failed to cause alarm. In any case, by November 25 everybody knew there was going to be war, it was just a matter of where. And in the opinion of the American naval command in Hawaii, the "where" was the Philippines, Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. They considered Pearl Harbor's task being to train and prepare men for combat in the western Pacific, not to spread alarm and bring the entire training and ferry service to a halt (B-17 bombers being ferried to Philippine command traveled through Hawaii). Whether this was truly justified in the world before December 7 will probably never be known. For the reality was that by December 1, Nagumo and his six large fleet carriers were carrying the cream-of-the-crop of Japanese naval aviation toward a launch point 200 miles north of Oahu, Hawaii. And once launched, they would not turn back until they had struck the heavy blow for which they had meticulously trained.
On December 3, a warning was sent by OPNAV to Kimmel's Pearl Harbor command (CinCPAC) warning: "...categoric and urgent instructions were sent yesterday to Japanese diplomatic and consular posts at Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia, Manila, Washington and London to destroy most of their codes and ciphers at once and to burn all other important confidential and secret documents." War was considered to be imminent. A large Japanese transport fleet was steaming toward Southeast Asia. Other Japanese fleet units had left Japan and it appeared that the entire Japanese Imperial Navy was deploying.
By this time American Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey was taking the aircraft carrier Enterprise out to Wake to deliver a squadron of Marine fighters in place of the withdrawn army aircraft which were being kept on Oahu. He had departed Pearl Harbor on November 28 in the company of several battleships, apparently headed out on routine maneuvers (his presence at Pearl had indeed been noted by officials from the Japanese consulate in Honolulu). As soon as he reached the open sea, he sent the battleships to their usual exercise area and headed west with a heavy escort of cruisers and destroyers. Once clear of the battleships, he issued Battle Order Number One, which read: "The Enterprise is now operating under war conditions..." Enterprise maintained radio silence for the rest of her voyage, and flew fully armed combat air patrols and search patterns out to 200 miles. His own feelings were that his carrier would be at war by the time he returned to Pearl.
He was correct.
Ironically, Kimmel preferred to keep the Pacific Fleet's battleships in harbor due to the unavailability of fleet carriers to provide air cover. The carrier Enterprise was between Wake and Oahu, the carrier Lexington was out near Midway and the carrier Saratoga was on the west coast of the American mainland. Kimmel instead left the battleships at Pearl Harbor, where they could be protected from enemy air attack by large contingents of local army aircraft. Unfortunately Lt. General Short had decided that sabotage was the most likely threat, and he had ordered that all aircraft ammunition be locked away, and for aircraft to be arrayed in neat rows for observation. The fact that the senior Navy and Army commanders for the most important American installations in the Pacific implemented somewhat conflicting policies apparently did not occur to anyone. So as the hours ticked by, and the alerts and warnings piled up, the bulk of the US Pacific Fleet remained in Pearl Harbor and took its usual weekend off.
By 0330 on December 7, 1941, pilots on board the Japanese carriers began to wake up from fitful sleep. Throughout the next 90 minutes the men slowly arose and prepared for their mission. Fuchida found Lt. Commander Shigeharu Murata, leader of the torpedo bombers which would strike battleship row. Murata was "vigorously" consuming breakfast and sang out to Fuchida "Good morning commander, Honolulu sleeps!"
"How do you know?" Fuchida asked.
"The Honolulu radio plays soft music..." he responded, "...everything is fine."
By 0615 the first fighters rose from the decks of the six Japanese carriers ¹ . The first wave of 183 aircraft were launched in record time; 15 minutes. At 0630 Fuchida flew south over Akagi, followed by 40 Kate torpedo bombers under command of Lt. Commander Murata, 51 dive bombers under command of Lt. Commander Kakuichi Takahashi, 43 fighters under command of Lt. Commander Shigeru Itaya, and immediately under Fuchida, 49 Kate high level bombers. Months of grueling training, meticulous preparation and last minute labor was about to culminate in an operation with the most dire consequences; an attack which essentially committed the Imperial Navy to a war against the rest of the world. As they approached the north shore of Oahu, two reconnaissance planes reported from ahead; the Lahaina anchorage was empty, the American fleet was at Pearl Harbor, resting quietly with no sign of an alert. Also, there were no American aircraft carriers present. This last detail caused a pang of frustration with the Japanese Commander. He had hoped to catch at least one or two carriers in the harbor. Indeed, one-third of the available Japanese torpedo bombers approached from the northwest specifically in the hope that they would be able to torpedo any American carriers moored at their traditional places north of Ford Island.
Now the task was clear. Fuchida gave the signal to deploy for full surprise attack. Had the Americans shown signs of being alert, the dive bombers would have been ordered to attack first. With the American fleet showing no sign of preparation, the torpedo bombers would attack first. Due to a misunderstanding however, both dive bombers and torpedo bombers deployed for their respective "attack first" positions. In frustration Fuchida realized that his carefully coordinated plan was falling apart. But with a moment's consideration, the total lack of American preparation sank in, and he realized that it no longer mattered. As he took a last look at the US Fleet, he sent the now famous radio message to all Japanese commands in the Pacific: "Tora, Tora, Tora," complete surprise achieved.
The first aircraft to arrive in the air over Oahu were Itaya's fighters, who fanned out over the island directly from their deployment point north of Kahuku Point. Their original purpose was to establish air superiority in case American fighters were fully deployed. Their secondary task in case of complete surprise was to strafe aircraft on the ground. First to be attacked by them was the Kaneohe Naval Air Station on the east side of Oahu, which was attacked seven minutes before Pearl Harbor. A sole fighter also flew as far south as Bellows field and quickly strafed there before flying off. At Wheeler Field, the US Army base in central Oahu, the fighters again were the first to arrive, and began strafing aircraft several minutes before Takahashi's dive bombers arrived to join the fray. Around the same time, more dive bombers made their first runs on the Army air base at Hickam Field and the Navy field on Ford Island.
Within a few minutes of these first bomb drops, the Nakajima "Kate" torpedo bombers of Murata's command arrived to administer the worst damage of the day. Coasting low over Pearl City and the Southeast Loch, they skimmed below rooftop level, dropping their lethal "fish" into the water from point-blank range. The torpedo attacks took longer than anticipated, because each pilot had been instructed not to waste any torpedoes. In pursuit of this goal, many pilots made two and even three attack runs before actually launching. This gave the effect that there were far more attacking aircraft than there really were, and it also enabled the American crewmen on the warships to react and begin shooting back. Indeed, the speed with which the American ships reacted from a state of complete repose was a shock to many of the Japanese pilots.
Because the fleet was on a very low-level alert, there were even a few manned machine guns at the very start of the attack. The battleship Nevada had some machine guns in her fighting tops manned as part of the alert, and it was these guns which distracted or shot down most of the torpedo planes who tried to attack her. Only one torpedo hit Nevada, as compared to six which hit the battleship West Virginia, four which hit Oklahoma, one which hit Arizona and two which hit California. Nevada was fortunate in another way. She was the only capital ship present which had two boilers fired instead of the usual one. Once the attack began, her senior officers ordered two more boilers brought on-line in preparation to sortie. The torpedo attack on Battleship Row was one of the most dramatic of the day. As the torpedoes kept slamming home, Oklahoma slowly turned onto her side and rolled into the bay. Soon only her glistening hull stuck out of the water outboard of the Maryland. West Virginia also began to list precariously, but quick counterflooding by a handful of crewmen quickly settled the "WeeVee" onto the harbor bottom on an even keel.
As the attack progressed, Fuchida brought his high level bombers in over battleship row. Their task was to drop heavy armor-piercing bombs designed to detonate the powder magazines of the battleships, thereby preventing their repair. As with the torpedo bombers, Fuchida's bombers had been instructed to make as many passes as necessary in order to assure hits. It was only a matter of time then, before some of these bombs found their way onto vital targets. Tennessee, Maryland, West Virginia, Arizona and Vestal (a repair ship moored next to the Arizona) were all hit in the first few minutes. Arizona was worst hit, suffering at least five bomb strikes. One of them exploded near her forward magazine, triggering a titanic eruption of flame and smoke which shot into the sky ² . In a split second, half of all deaths suffered by Americans during the attack was suffered by Arizona's crew as she split open and sank to the bottom of the harbor. As she settled into the mud, the weight of her hull broke the main water line running into Ford Island, crippling the fire-fighting equipment there. As raging fires enveloped Arizona, a flood of burning oil spilled out into the harbor. Tennessee, which was already trapped by the sunken and burning West Virginia, now had to contend with this new threat. Flaming debris, wreckage and dead bodies rained onto her fantail from Arizona's explosion was now highlighted by the ensuing inferno. Out of the blazing wreckage drifted sheets of burning oil which were only kept at bay by running the Tennessee's giant screws slowly in reverse and by firing streams of water from the ship's fire hoses directly off her stern.
While the torpedo and high level bombers executed their missions, dive bombers and fighters continued to hit their own assigned target areas. For even though the attack seemed confusing to the untrained eye, numerous American officers correctly observed the meticulous order with which Japanese aircraft "worked over" their respective target zones. While good visibility lasted, most of the aircraft made their attack runs in groups of three to five planes and maintained excellent bombing discipline. Many strafing aircraft approached at surprisingly low altitude, sometimes passing within a yard of the ground in pursuit of their targets.
By 0830, the first attack wave had spent itself. A lull settled over the island as men on the ground prepared for more attacks. Some American pilots managed to fuel and arm a few surviving P-40 fighters and get them into the air. Fuchida was still airborne over the harbor, recording observations and waiting for the last stragglers of the first wave to complete their work. He was still there when Lt. Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki led the 167 aircraft of the second attack wave into the air over Oahu. The second wave left their carriers about an hour after the first wave, and included additional dive bombers tasked with striking warships, and high level bombers assigned to bomb air fields. First to be hit was the air station at Kaneohe, followed quickly by Bellows Field, and then Pearl Harbor itself. Again dive bombers swept in from the east (the direction of the prevailing winds), bombing the dockyards and moored ships which had escaped the first wave's attention.
Almost as the second wave arrived, a sight which both American and Japanese agree was the most stirring sight of the day occurred. Nevada, which had been working up extra boiler pressure for 50 minutes, slowly backed out of her mooring position on battleship row. Nearly crashing through a dredge line behind her, she slowly twisted left out into the channel without the aide of tugboats. Then, as the second wave arrived, all 34,000 tons of battleship slowly picked up speed at she moved down the channel past the blazing Arizona. The effect was electric. From miles away people could see the "tops" of the Nevada moving across the harbor. From the hills nearby witnesses had a clear view as one of the battleships made a run for the sea. From across the harbor, men saw the U.S. flag swinging from the stern of the largest ship to get underway during the attack. To the Japanese, the sight was no less stirring. They had been told that the best opportunity would come if one of the large U.S. ships attempted to run for the open sea. If that happens, they were told, sink that vessel in the main channel and you will paralyze the whole American fleet for months! So the stage was set for a vicious attack which was not long in coming. As Nevada cleared into the channel, groups of dive bombers descended on her, scoring several hits. After several more minutes she approached the narrow gap between the drydock and the dredge Turbine, when yet another wave of bombers crashed down on her. This last attack brought her damage total to five direct bomb hits in addition to the original torpedo hit she had suffered during the first wave. As she passed down the channel, the signal tower above the docks communicated the final word on the issue of escape for Nevada. The signal flags read "Stay clear of channel." Orders were orders, so after squeezing past the dredge, Nevada was gently grounded in the mud off Hospital Point.
Throughout Nevada's sortie, more dive bombers arrived in the skies over the Harbor area. Unlike the first wave which were given fairly specific targets, the dive bombers of the second wave had free rein to choose warship targets of opportunity. Groups of them circled high over the harbor, choosing warships which appeared valuable yet undamaged. The dockyards and main drydock came under some of the heaviest pressure. Moored in the main dockyard area were numerous cruisers and destroyers. Immediately south of 1010 Dock was Drydock Number One, which held the U.S. Pacific Fleet's flagship Pennsylvania. This battleship, which was the sistership of Arizona, sat high and dry on stocks, with two destroyers, the Cassin and Downes, perched immediately forward of her. All of them had armed during the first wave, so once they attracted the attention of the second wave's dive bombers, they were able to send up a fairly dangerous curtain of flak. Pennsylvania was only struck by one bomb, but Cassin and Downes were totally destroyed by bombing and fires. The destroyer Shaw, in the nearby floating drydock was also a highly visible target, and before long she too was in flames.
By the end of the second wave, areas other than Kaneohe and Pearl Harbor had been raided again. Wheeler and especially Hickam Field were subjected to further strafing and bombing attacks ³ . The installations and aircraft hangars at Hickam Field were some of the final target areas for Shimazaki's high level bombers, as were the hangars at Ford Island. Dozens of other places and ships suffered dive bomb and strafing attacks including the tender Curtiss, the cruiser Raleigh (already torpedoed during the first wave) and several destroyers who managed to sortie during the attack. The later often had to run a gauntlet of strafing fighters, drifting wreckage, floating sailors and burning ships.
By 0930 the attacks were giving way to sporadic strafing. Fires on board Shaw finally reached her forward magazines, disintegrating the entire front of the ship in one of the most dramatic (and most photographed) events of the day. Over at the dockyard the cruiser St. Louis backed out of her berth next to Honolulu and quickly violated the harbor master's usual speed limit. Once clear of the docks, she reversed her engines and quickly worked up to 20 knots, smashing through the dredging line which connected Turbine to Ford Island before speeding out to sea through the main channel.
It was 0945 before the last of the strafing planes left for their rendezvous point northwest of Oahu. The survivors of the attack were left to fight fires, tend the wounded and prepare for an invasion which all were sure would come. The anticipated invasion never came, but the fires at Pearl Harbor burned for days, and navy engineers were salvaging wrecked ships for years. On board the Japanese task force Admiral Nagumo and his staff nervously awaited Fuchida's attack report, uneasy about the inevitable debate about whether or not to retire and sail back to Japan. Once all of the aircraft were retrieved, those fit for duty (74 returning planes were damaged) were re-armed for an possible carrier action. The men were issued fresh cakes and tea, and after talking with his flight leaders Fuchida met briefly with Genda, Nagumo and the staff. Even then it was apparent that Nagumo intended to keep to the letter of his orders, and Fuchida was dismissed after a quick description of the attack. Sometime after this briefing, the orders on Akagi went out: "Preparations for attack canceled." There would be no follow up attack, and no hunt for the undamaged American carriers.
Fuchida stormed onto the bridge of Akagi to complain but to no avail. Nagumo "felt like a man who had staked his fortune on the turn of a card" and he had no intention of tempting fate. So fortunately for the United States, the aggressive plans formulated by Genda and Fuchida were shelved. These included plans for tracking down and destroying the American carriers they knew must be nearby, plans for bombing the fuel tank farms at Pearl Harbor, and plans for destroying the repair shops known to be among the surviving dockyard buildings. Fuchida was so incensed about the withdrawal that he refused to speak with Nagumo for the rest of the return voyage.
Back in Japan, Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki wrote "Last night a telegram came in that the task force was withdrawing . . . not without being criticized as the quick pace of a fleeing thief and also as being contented with a humble lot." It should be remembered however, that most of the attack planning failed to consider the possibility of complete and total surprise, which left the task force commanders with too many marginal options. Ironically, nothing the Japanese could have done would have prevented the inevitable. The American war machine was so immense compared to Japan's local industries, that even the greatest successes would only have delayed the war's end. Almost everything, from Japan's selective (and slow) process of pilot training, to their methods of intelligence assessment (too often based on wishful thinking) impeded their ability to force any kind of successful negotiations.
Considering the overall war program, the final tally of destruction at Pearl Harbor was surprisingly light, proving Genda's opinion that the shallow harbor would facilitate repairs. Only two American battleships were permanently lost, and of the eight present during the attack, four were armed and at sea less than two weeks after the attack. One senior U.S. officer later commented that really, all that happened on Oahu was that the Japanese bombed a bunch of "old equipment." Considering the galvanizing effect the attack had on American public opinion, the end results were not really worth the enormous risk. This was recognized even by many Japanese officers and pilots. One such pilot later captured the irony of Japan's victory in battle with the blackly humorous quip that maybe the U.S. Government should also have given medals to them as thanks for their help in the mobilization effort.