The Attack on Pearl Harbor Article # _______________
Part 1: The Noise at Dawn
It was a Sunday morning. Many sailors were still sleeping in their quarters, aboard their ships. Some were sleeping on land.
At 7:02 a.m. at the Opana Radar Station on Oahu, privates Joseph Lockhard & George Elliott saw something on their screen. It looked like a lot of planes flying toward them. Opana's was the only radar turned on just then, and it was on only for training. The other radar stations had been turned off. It was standard procedure.
Following standard procedure, Lockhard and Elliott reported what they saw. (Click here for an eyewitness account of the attack.) The commanding officer on duty knew that a squadron of American planes was due in from California about the same time. Reasoning that what Lockhard and Elliott saw was that squadron of American planes, the commanding officer told the two privates not to worry.
What they didn't know and what nobody in America knew was that Japanese planes had taken off at 6 a.m. from aircraft carriers 230 miles away. What nobody in America thought was possible was happening: The Japanese were attacking Pearl harbor. At 7:55, the Japanese attacked with deadly force. The first wave of 183 planes dropped bombs and fired bullets at the almost defenseless American ships in Pearl Harbor and planes at three nearby airfields. A second wave of 167 planes followed about an hour later. American sailors fought back, struggling to get their planes off the ground and fire their guns at targets they couldn't quite see.
A fleet of midget submarines was also part of the Japanese attack. These subs dropped deadly torpedoes, which had been modified with wooden fins to run their course in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor.
Part 2: The Damage
When the attack was finished, 21 of the 96 ships at anchor had been sunk and others had been severaly damaged. Of the 394 planes at Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows airfields, 188 were destroyed and 159 were damaged. The death total was 2,403 (including 68 civilians). The wounded total was 1,178.
Eight battleships were damaged in the attack, along with three destroyers and four other smaller ships. Among the battleship casualties:
* The USS Arizona was struck by a torpedo, which hit a gun magazine. The ship went down in 9 minutes, killing 1,177 aboard.
* The USS Oklahoma rolled over on its side, pinning many men inside and underwater. Some were rescued; many were not. Of the crew of 1,301, 429 died.
* The USS West Virginia was struck numberous times by both torpedos and bombs. It sank.
* The USS Nevada was struck numberous times by both torpedos and bombs. After the first wave, the Nevada tried to get out to sea through the narrow channel leading into the harbor. The Nevada had almost made it when the second wave of Japanese planes attacked. The planes tried to sink the Nevada and block the channel, but the Nevada chose to beach itself instead.
Two other smaller ships, the Shaw and the Oglala, were badly damaged. (The Oglala capsized.) The Vestal was beached. The Utah, which had been a target ship for the U.S. military, was itself sunk in the attack.
The Japanese attack force lost 29 planes and a handful of midget submarines.
Part 3 : The Result
In a little more than two hours, the Japanese had sunk 21 ships and killed more than 2,000 Americans. It was a devastating blow.
However, the American aircraft carriers were not in port. They were out to sea. As later results would prove, the aircraft carrier was the dominant ship in the navy. By not sinking the American carriers, the Japanese left the American left fleet largely intact. Of the 21 ships that were sunk on December 7, 1941, all but three were eventually refitted and sailed again under the American flag during the war.
When U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan the day after the attack, the answer was a resounding yes. An American that had been deeply divided over how much aid to give the Allies was not united in a common purpose: make the Japanese pay for their attack and rid the world of Nazism and Fascism.
Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, who had planned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had studied at Harvard University and knew well the temperament and capabilities of the American people. He had warned others in the Japanese government that for the Pearl Harbor attack to succeed, it must be a crushing blow.
The attack was devastating, yes, but it wasn't a crushing blow. Moreover, it gave the American soldiers and their families a rallying cry that carried them through to the end of the war: "Remember Pearl Harbor."
Part 4: Japanese Successes
The United States declared war on Japan, but it didn't make a whole lot of difference to Japan. In the minds of the Japanese leaders, they were already at war with the U.S.
In the months that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan gained control of the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), much of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Guam, and other strategic areas all over the western Pacific. Japan even occupied part of the Aleutian islands, which belonged to Alaska.
The U.S. had had a presence in the Philippines ever since the Spanish-American War, near the beginning of the 19th Century. When Japanese took over the Philippines, they took many Americans prisoner and forced them to march for miles and miles to a prison camp. (This was the Bataan Death March.)
Japan threatened to invade Australia as well.
The U.S. response in the Pacific was muted somewhat because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to help Britain fight Germany above all. Much of the American manpower and machinery went to fighting the Axis troops in Europe.
And because Japan had damaged much of the Pacific Fleet, an American response was slow in coming.
But come it did.
Part 5: American Victory
A large part of wartime communication was messages sent in code. By 1942, American codebreakers had broken the Japanese code. American military commanders knew that almost the entire Japanese fleet was headed to Midway Island in early 1942.
Taking a huge risk, the U.S. Navy decided to send most of its fleet there, too. In a bold surprise attack, the U.S. defended Midway Island and succeeded in sinking four of Japan's six aircraft carriers. It was a stunning victory, from which Japan would never quite recover.
A month earlier, the U.S. had won a victory in the Coral Sea, near Australia. The next year, the U.S. liberated Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. This began a series of "island hopping" battles, in which American forces would seize Japanese-held islands with the ultimate goal of being able to use them as bases for an attack on the Japanese homeland.
More islands were liberated: Guam in 1944, Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Even the Philippines was taken from Japanese control.
But Japan wouldn't give up. The fighting for the islands had been fierce, and Japanese pilots had taken to flying "kamikaze" raids, in which they intentionally flew their planes into American ships, hoping to sink them.
President Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945. His vice-president, Harry Truman, became president. He was troubled by his options for defeating Japan. It was thought that an invasion of Japan would cost 1 million American lives. Based on that and many other factors, Truman decided to allow the Army to drop two atomic bombs on Japan.
Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9. Japan surrendered five days later.
The war was over.