Kurile Islands, Northern Japan · November 26, 1941

For several months the airmen of Japan’s First Naval Air Fleet had trained for an attack on the main base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on the Hawai­ian is­land of Oahu. Squadrons of naval planes flew low over the city of Kago­shima on the southwestern tip of the Japanese island of Kyūshū—Kago­shima lay in the shadow of the Sakura­jima volcano—making dummy runs against target vessels in the bay. Adm. Iso­ruku Yama­moto, since 1939 com­mander-in-chief of the Im­perial Japa­nese Navy’s Com­bined Fleet, had chosen Ka­goshi­ma for its topographical similarity to Oahu.

Now on this date in 1941 all six of Japan’s first-line air­craft carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Hiryū, and Sōryū—sailed into his­tory when they left the Kurile Islands in North­ern Japan under the com­mand of Vice Admiral Chūi­chi Nagu­mo. With over 420 em­barked planes, the flat­tops con­sti­tuted the then most power­ful carrier task force ever assembled. (By Octo­ber 1944 all six enemy flat­tops lay on the ocean bottom, cour­tesy of the U.S. Navy.) The Japa­nese Pearl Harbor Striking Force also in­cluded fast battle­ships, cruisers, destroyers, and sub­marines, with tankers to fuel the ships during their passage across the Pacific Ocean.

The Pearl Harbor Striking Force was posi­tioning it­self to carry out the sur­prise attack when, on Decem­ber 1, it received the sig­nal to bomb Pearl Harbor, which its carrier planes did on Decem­ber 7, 1941, a date which, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt told the U.S. Con­gress and the world the next day, “will live in in­famy.” When Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) asked Chief of Army General Staff Hajime Sugi­yama about Japan’s pros­pects in a war against the U.S., he was assured that the war would be over in three months. Hiro­hito shot back that Sugi­yama’s esti­mated time­frame for vic­tory in the Sino-Japa­nese War, begin in 1937, never materialized.

In any event, the sneak attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet and nearby airfields at Pearl Harbor was a stun­ning tacti­cal vic­tory for Japa­nese mili­ta­rists, but it also spelled their doom—as well as Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Musso­lini’s, whose coun­tries declared war against the U.S. four days later out of respect for their Axis treaty part­ner. In all three cases, the leaders of Imperi­alist Japan, Nazi Ger­many, and Fas­cist Italy grossly under­esti­mated the capa­city of Ameri­cans—grim faced and deter­mined—to avenge them­selves on those who had brought an unprovoked war to their shores.

Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

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. air­craft carriers Enter­prise (red) and Lexing­ton (blue) in early Decem­ber are shown to the west of the Hawaiian Islands (right bottom corner).

Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, 1884–1943General of the Army George Marshall, 1880–1959

Left: In January 1941 Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto (1884–1943) outlined a surprise attack plan similar to that of the Royal Navy’s Novem­ber 11, 1940, attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, Italy. Yama­moto believed a pre­emptive strike on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor could win the time his coun­try needed to take over the rich mineral resources of British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies (espe­cially its oil­fields in what is today’s Indo­nesia), and the U.S. Philip­pines. All these foreign holdings now found them­selves inside Japan’s so-called Greater East Asia Co-Pros­per­ity Sphere, uni­laterally launched on June 29, 1940. Faced with a mili­tary “fait accom­pli,” the U.S., Yama­moto hoped, might accept a truce, adding, “the out­come must be decided on the first day.” In April 1941 he ordered plans drawn up for “Opera­tion Z,” the attack on Pearl Harbor, confiding to a staff officer, “If we fail, we’d better give up the war.”

Right: George Marshall (1880–1959), Chief of Staff of the Army since Septem­ber 1939, had visited Oahu in 1940 and con­si­dered Hawaii “the strongest for­tress in the world.” In May 1941 he reported to Presi­dent Roose­velt that “enemy car­riers and escorts and trans­ports will begin to come under air attack at a distance of 750 miles” should it come to that. He con­cluded that “a major attack against Oahu is considered impractical.”

Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, 1887–1944Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, 1902–1976

Left: On April 10, 1941, Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (1887–1944) was appointed Com­mander-in-Chief of the First Air Fleet, the Japa­nese Navy’s main air­craft car­rier force, largely owing to his seniority. (He had gradu­ated from the Imperial Japa­nese Naval Academy in 1908.) A strong advo­cate of com­bining sea and air power but a cau­tious man, Nagumo was opposed to Adm. Yama­moto’s plan to attack the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. His greatest mis­take on that fateful Sunday morning in December was to call off a third strike by his car­rier planes, which might have destroyed not only the fuel oil stor­age and repair facili­ties, there­by rendering the most impor­tant U.S. naval base in the Pacific use­less, but the sub­marine base and intel­li­gence sta­tion. Nagumo’s missing these tar­gets of opportunities contributed to his nation’s eventual defeat.

Right: Mitsuo Fuchida (1902–1976) was a Japa­nese cap­tain in the Imperial Japa­nese Navy Air Service and a bomber avi­ator in the Japa­nese Navy before and during World War II. He is perhaps best known for leading the first air wave attacks on Pearl Harbor on Decem­ber 7, 1941. Working under Vice Admiral Nagumo, Fuchida was respon­sible for coor­di­nating the en­tire aerial attack. He missed being killed or wounded by one day when the atomic mush­room cloud destroyed Hiro­shima on August 6, 1945. In 1949 he con­verted to Chris­tianity, became a mis­sion­ary, moved to the U.S., and met many of his former enemies, including ex-President Harry S. Truman, Presi­dent Dwight D. Eisen­hower, and Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, William Halsey, and Raymond Spruance.

Japanese and U.S. Naval Preparations on Eve of December 7, 1941