JAPAN ATTACKS PEARL HARBOR
Excerpt From The Everything World War II Book (Adams Media)
The morning of December 7, 1941 could not have been more
beautiful in Pearl Harbor, located on the Hawaiian island of
Oahu. The sun shone brightly, and a pleasant breeze wafted
over the naval and air base there as eight American battleships
– Arizona, California, Maryland, Nevada, Oklahoma,
Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia – sat moored on
Ford Island along what had become known as Battleship Row.
Nearby were five cruisers and 26 destroyers; at sea were seven
other cruisers and the three carriers that represented the
Pacific Fleet’s air power.
Because it was a Sunday, approximately one third of the ships’
crews were on shore leave, leaving antiaircraft batteries only
partially manned. In fact, most of the ammunition aboard the
ships was locked away. The morning started as any other, with
some men sitting down to breakfast while others performed their
daily chores. No one expected this day to be different from any
On shore, two Army radar operators – one of them still in
training – were watching the skies. Suddenly the screen was full
of blips indicating approaching aircraft. The radar operators
notified an officer, who dismissed their concerns with the
explanation that it was probably nothing more than a flight of
American B-17s arriving from California. But the officer was
horribly wrong in his assessment. There were no American
planes in the air that morning, not even patrol planes. It would
prove to be a costly mistake.
The previous day, military intelligence in Washington DC had
intercepted a series of memorandum from Tokyo that indicated
the Japanese were planning some kind of aggressive action.
The messages were delivered to President Roosevelt that
evening, but the president took no action. He believed that war
with Japan was imminent, but that the Japanese would never
attack American soil, preferring instead to push further into Asia.
On the morning of December 7, what was thought to be the last
of the 14 communiques from Tokyo was intercepted and
decoded. It noted that Japan was breaking off all negotiations
with the United States. The message was delivered to President
Roosevelt at 10 a.m. EST, but again Roosevelt saw no cause
for immediate concern. Then another message was intercepted,
this one instructing Ambassador Kurusu to present the
Japanese reply at exactly 1 p.m EST, or 7:30 a.m. Pearl Harbor
time. If everything went as planned, that would be the exact
moment that Japanese bombers would be over Pearl Harbor.
An astute naval officer immediately understood the significance
of Japan’s timing and arranged to have General George
Marshall, who had been enjoying a horseback ride around the
Potomac, brought to the War Department for consultation.
Marshall also understood the significance of the final Japanese
memorandum, but his message of warning to Pearl Harbor
could not be delivered immediately because the department
radio was not in contact with Honolulu at that particular time. It
went by commercial wire and radio instead, but was not
received until 7:33 a.m. Pearl Harbor time. The bicycle
messenger sent to deliver the warning was furiously pedaling to
Fort Shafter when, at 7:55 a.m., death and destruction came
raining down from the sky.
The first wave of Japanese bombers and attack planes
consisted of 40 torpedo bombers (known as Kates), 51 Val dive
bombers, and approximately 50 twin-engine Betty bombers
escorted by 50 Zero fighters. The torpedo bombers came in low
to drop their destructive torpedoes while the Vals dropped
bombs and armor-piercing shells on the docked ships below. At
the same time, Zeroes and other planes dropped bombs on the
planes that were huddled on the airfields like frightened sheep,
a move designed to thwart saboteurs; no thought had been
given to the effects of an enemy air attack.
The massive ships along Battleship Row never stood a chance.
The first to go down was the Oklahoma, its hull ripped open by
three torpedoes, and the death blow delivered by two more.
Panicked sailors screamed for their lives as the ship exploded
then began to sink. The crew of the Maryland, which was
moored next to the Oklahoma, used the burning wreckage of
their sister ship as protection while they fought the surprise
invaders with everything they could find. Astoundingly, the
Maryland survived the two bombs that struck it.
While Japanese planes screamed over head and bombs
exploded all around, the sailors aboard the ships along
Battleship Row used axes and hammers to open the locked
boxes containing the ammunition they needed to fight back. As
each box was opened, the ammunition inside was passed out
and antiaircraft gunners started firing back at the attacking
Japanese planes. As the first explosions rang over the island,
sailors on shore leave raced back to their ships, even swimming
The rest of the moored battleships, unable to maneuver, proved
easy targets for the attacking Japanese planes. The West
Virginia went down after being hit with two bombs and several
torpedoes; its hulk provided protection for the Tennessee,
which escaped most of the torpedoes aimed at it, but was set
afire by flaming debris from the Arizona, which was moored
behind it. The Arizona was hit so hard by the Japanese that it
sank in minutes, taking more than 1,100 crewmen with it,
including Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, Commander Battleship
Division 1, and the ship’s commanding officer, Captain F. Van
Valkenburgh. The California, which was moored alone,
exploded in a fireball that reached 500 feet into the sky when a
bomb struck its magazine.
The only battleship to attempt to get out to sea was the Nevada,
which was also moored alone. Its frantic crew engaged in a
grueling battle with Japanese planes before finally being forced
aground. The crew of the Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock
at the time of the attack, fought valiantly, blanketing the air with
so much antiaircraft fire that it took only one bomb hit, though it
was enough to put the ship out of commission.
The nearby airfields also suffered tremendous damage. Dozens
of planes, parked wingtip to wingtip, made an easy and
vulnerable target for Japanese bombers. In the end, only a
handful of American fighters managed to make it into the air to
engage the enemy attackers.
The Japanese sent two more waves of attack planes against
Pearl Harbor, intent on inflicting as much damage as possible in
the hope of permanently crippling American military presence in
the Pacific. By midmorning, as the last Japanese planes headed
back to Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s carrier fleet, four of the U.S.
Pacific fleet’s eight battleships had been sunk, and four had
been severely damaged. In addition, three light cruisers, three
destroyers, and four smaller vessels were also destroyed or
severely damaged. At Hickam and other area airfields, 188
aircraft – 75 percent of the island’s military air fleet – had been
destroyed before they could take to the air. Thankfully, the fleet’
s three aircraft carriers – the primary target of the Japanese
attack – were out to sea on maneuvers and escaped harm.
Human casualties were also high – 2,403 servicemen and
civilians killed and another 1,104 wounded. Most of the
casualties were aboard the destroyed ships, though a direct hit
on the mess hall at Hickam Field killed 35 men having breakfast.
Rather than raise the sunken ships, the military decided to
leave them where they went down and later turned the site into
a solemn memorial to the military personnel and civilians who
died protecting their country from the worst enemy attack ever
to occur on American soil.
Astoundingly, American servicemen managed to inflict some
damage on the attacking Japanese, downing 27 planes and
killing 64 Japanese air and seamen. In addition, the Japanese
lost five two-man midget submarines, which had been deployed
to penetrate the harbor minutes before the attack. Only one of
the mini-subs was able to enter the harbor; it fired two
torpedoes, but did no damage.
Everything World War II