JAPAN’S SNEAK ATTACK SAVAGES U.S. PACIFIC FLEET

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 an un­pro­voked attack on America’s door­step, the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and its defending Army Air Corps and Marine air­fields dotting 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.

On Decem­ber 1, Tokyo sent Nagumo the coded signal to bomb Pearl Harbor. By the after­noon of Decem­ber 7, 1941—the “Day of Infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roose­velt called the date—the heart of the Amer­i­can Pacific fleet lay burning or settled on the bottom of the har­bor, among them eight great battle­ships. (By sheer good for­tune, the fleet’s air­craft carriers, which soon would play a deci­sive role in turning the tide against Japan at the Battle of Midway the following June, were at sea.) Over 3,500 U.S. sail­ors, Marines, air­men, sol­diers, and civil­ians lay dead, many of them en­tombed for eter­nity in ships such as the USS Ari­zona and USS Utah; another 1,178 were wounded. More than 340 Army and Navy aircraft were destroyed or damaged. On the Japa­nese side, losses were modest: 64 airmen killed, 5 ships sunk, and 29 planes destroyed.

The sur­prise attack seven-and-a-half decades ago began a non­stop on­slaught of Japa­nese con­quests that brought down Ameri­can, British, French, and Dutch flags through­out South­east Asia and the Paci­fic. Yes, Pearl Har­bor was the most devas­ta­ting mili­tary assault in Amer­i­can his­tory and a stun­ning tacti­cal vic­tory for the Japa­nese mili­tarists. But Pearl Harbor also spelled Japan’s doom, just like Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Musso­lini’s decla­ra­tions of war against the U.S. four days later effec­tively spelled their coun­tries’ doom. The aroused U.S., with deep pock­ets of wealth, in­dus­trial power, and pro­spec­tive mili­tary strength, was now allied with tiny em­battled Great Britain against the am­bi­tious and autho­ri­tarian des­pots in Tokyo, Berlin, and Rome. Within three years, U.S. forces were knocking down the doors of Japan’s and Germany’s home fortresses to their nations’ grief.





Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the Day of Infamy

Route of the Japanese Pearl Harbor Striking Force, December 1941

Above: Route of the Japanese Pearl Harbor Striking Force to and from Pearl Harbor (bold black). Routes of U.S. car­riers Enter­prise (red) and Lexing­ton (blue) in early Decem­ber are shown to the west of the Hawaiian Islands. After launching its air and sea attack on Pearl Harbor with over­whelming force, the Japa­nese carrier task force sailed away undetected and virtually unscathed.

Japanese warplanes over Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 USS Arizona, 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. 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.

USS California, December 7, 1941 USS West Virginia, 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. 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 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 February 1942.

USS Pennsylvania, December 7, 1941 USS Nevada, December 7, 1941

Left: Admiral Husband E. Kimmel’s flagship, the battleship USS Penn­syl­vania, can be seen in dry dock behind the wrecked destroyers USS Downes and USS Cassin at the Pearl Harbor Navy 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 Pennsylvania, which lost five men, remained in service.

Right: Hit by six bombs and one torpedo, which killed 60 men, the battle­ship USS Nevada is seen attempting to escape from the har­bor. The crew beached the ship, which returned to service in October 1942.

Hickam Field and destroyed plane, December 7, 1941 Hickam Field and destroyed B-17, December 7, 1941

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, 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