Pearl Harbor, Hawaii • December 7, 1941
On this date in 1941, a quiet Sunday morning on the Hawaiian island of Oahu just before 8 o’clock, Japan staged a devious, vicious, unprovoked air and naval attack on America’s doorstep, the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and its defending Army Air Corps and Marine airfields that dotted the harbor perimeter. Twelve days earlier, on November 26, over 30 vessels of the Japanese First Air Fleet, among them six aircraft carriers with over 420 embarked planes, left Japanese waters on a 3,400‑mile journey for a point 250 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. The most powerful carrier task force yet assembled sailed into history under the command of 58-year-old Vice Adm. Chūichi Nagumo.
Japan’s spectacular success in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor eviscerated the U.S. Pacific Fleet, removing 60 percent of the U.S. Navy’s capital ships from combat service in a single morning. By the afternoon of December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy” as an enraged President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, eight great battleships lay burning or settled on the harbor bottom along with 11 cruisers, destroyers, and other ships sunk or damaged. (By sheer good fortune, the fleet’s aircraft carriers, which soon would play a decisive role in turning the tide against Japan at Midway the following June, were at sea.) More than 340 Army and Navy aircraft were destroyed or damaged. The Japanese assault on Pearl caused injuries and deaths to over 3,600 U.S. sailors, Marines, airmen, soldiers, and civilians, many of them entombed for eternity in ships such as the USS Arizona and USS Utah; another 1,178 were wounded. On the Japanese side, losses were modest: 64 airmen killed, 5 ships sunk, and 29 planes destroyed.
Japanese leaders envisioned a rapid and victorious conclusion of hostilities after inflicting catastrophic losses on America’s Pacific fleet and seizing with relative ease U.S., British, and Dutch holdings in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The four-month string of tactical naval and ground victories dissuaded an initially cautious and conservative Emperor Hirohito (posthumously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) from looking to end the Asia Pacific war through a combination of diplomacy, third-party mediation, and military successes to military successes instead, which suited the Japanese Imperial Navy just fine.
However with Japan’s disastrous naval defeat at the Battle of Midway (June 3–7, 1942), what initially appeared as a temporary setback turned into the beginning of a long retreat for Hirohito’s navy and its carrier aviation. Of Adm. Nagumo’s six aircraft carriers that participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, four were sunk at Midway, the fifth, Shōkaku, in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19–20, 1944), and finally Zuikaku in the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23–26, 1944), along with 25 other Japanese front-line warships. After the Battle of Leyte Gulf ended the offensive capability of Japan’s once-feared First Mobile Fleet (Dai-Ichi Kidō Kantai), American sailors began mocking the entire Japanese Combined Fleet as the “immobile fleet.” It seemed to many observers to be a righteous comeuppance to what had been the second most powerful navy in the Pacific Theater in World War II and the third largest navy in the world after the U.S. and Royal navies.
Day of Infamy: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941
Left: Photograph from a Japanese plane of Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row at the beginning of the attack. The explosion in the center is a torpedo strike on the USS Oklahoma. Two attacking Japanese planes can barely be seen—one over the USS Neosho, a fleet oiler, and one over the Naval Yard. Of eight battleships in the harbor, the attack destroyed the USS Arizona, sank the USS California and the USS West Virginia at their moorings, and caused the USS Oklahoma to capsize. The USS Nevada was forced to beach and three were damaged but remained afloat: USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee, and USS Maryland. Additionally, the attack severely damaged nine other warships, destroyed 188 aircraft, and killed 2,335 U.S. servicemen and 68 civilians. The greatest loss of life occurred aboard the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177 sailors and Marines; just 335 men survived the attack.
Right: Hit by an armor-piercing bomb, the forward magazines of the USS Arizona exploded, sending the battleship to the harbor bottom just 14 minutes after the Japanese attack began. The supporting structure of the forward tripod mast collapsed after the magazine exploded. The ship burned for two days. Today the sunken Arizona is a war memorial that commemorates the “initial defeat and ultimate victory” of all lives lost on December 7, 1941.
Left: The battleship USS California is seen slowly sinking alongside Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, as a result of bomb and torpedo damage that killed 100 sailors. The battleship was able to open fire on the first of the two waves of Japanese naval aircraft. The destroyer USS Shaw burns in the floating dry dock in the left distance. The battleship USS Nevada is beached in the left-center distance, having lost 60 men in the attack. The California, rebuilt at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state, returned to service in January 1944, the Shaw in June 1942, and the Nevada in October 1942.
Right: The battleship USS West Virginia took two aerial bombs, both duds, and seven torpedo hits, one of which may have come from a Japanese midget submarine. Sailors in a motor launch are pictured rescuing a survivor from the water alongside the sunken ship during or shortly after the attack, which killed 106 men. The West Virginia returned to service in July 1944. The battleship USS Tennessee, which lost five seamen in the attack, is visible behind the West Virginia. The Tennessee returned to service in February 1942, rejoining the fleet in June.
Left: Admiral Husband E. Kimmel’s flagship, the World War I era battleship USS Pennsylvania, can be seen in dry dock behind the wrecked destroyers USS Downes and USS Cassin at the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard soon after the end of the Japanese air attack. The Cassin capsized against the Downes. The torpedo-damaged cruiser USS Helena can be seen in the right distance beyond the crane. In the center distance is the capsized Oklahoma with the USS Maryland alongside. The smoke is from the sunken and burning Arizona, out of view behind the Pennsylvania. The California is partially visible at the extreme left. The moderately damaged Pennsylvania, which lost five men while fending off enemy aircraft with antiaircraft fire, underwent repairs in San Francisco’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard and returned to active service in March 1942, briefly patrolling off the California coast.
Right: Hit by six bombs and one torpedo, which killed 60 men, the World War I battleship USS Nevada is seen attempting to escape from the harbor. The crew beached the ship, which, after repairs and extensive modernization at the Puget Sound Naval Yard, returned to service in October 1942.
Left: Japanese aircrews bombed and strafed Navy air bases at Kaneohe Bay and Ford Island, in the center of Pearl Harbor; Army Air Corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler, and Hickam (shown here); and the Ewa Marine airfield. A total of 188 aircraft were destroyed and 159 damaged.
Right: A destroyed U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress rests near a hangar at Hickam Field, December 7, 1941. Flown from California to Hickam en route to Del Monte Field on the Philippine island of Mindanao, it arrived during the attack. On its final approach, the aircraft’s magnesium flare box was hit by Japanese strafing and ignited. The burning plane separated upon landing. The crew survived the crash.
Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight,” U.S. Government World War II Propaganda Series