Hitokappu Bay, 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. Fifty-seven-year-old Adm. Iso­ruku Yama­moto, since 1939 com­mander-in-chief of the Im­perial Japa­nese Navy’s Com­bined Fleet (Rengō Kantai), had chosen Kagoshima for its topographical similarity to Oahu.

Now on this date, November 26, 1941, all six of Japan’s first-line air­craft carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Hiryū, and Sōryū—steamed into his­tory when they left the Japa­nese Kurile Islands (annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945) under the com­mand of 54‑year-old Vice Admiral Chūi­chi Nagu­mo. With 441 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 (Kidō Butai) also included two fast battle­ships, three cruisers, nine destroyers, 23 sub­marines, and four midget sub­marines, with eight tankers to fuel the ships during their passage along a seldom-used route of the Pacific Ocean.

The Pearl Harbor Striking Force was posi­tioning itself to carry out the sur­prise attack when, on Decem­ber 2, it received the fate­ful sig­nal (“Climb Mount Niitaka”) 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 time frame 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 (prin­ci­pally Ford Island Naval Air Station, Wheeler, and Hickam Fields) at Pearl Harbor was a stun­ning tacti­cal vic­tory for Japa­nese mili­ta­rists. The master stroke removed 88 per­cent of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s battle­ships (60 per­cent of the U.S. Navy’s capital ships) from com­bat ser­vice in a single morning. But the attack, wherein 21 ships were sunk or crippled (all but three of the ships were salvaged and returned to war­time service), 250 or so Army and Navy air­craft damaged or destroyed (mostly on the ground), and 3,500 indi­vid­uals killed or wounded—tragic as it was—also spelled Hiro­hito’s and the mili­ta­rists’ doom—as well as Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Musso­lini’s, whose coun­tries declared war against the United States four days later out of respect for their Japanese treaty partner. In all three cases, the leaders of Imperi­alist Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fas­cist Italy grossly under­esti­mated the capa­city of the Amer­i­can people—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: This postwar U.S. map is derived from an orig­i­nal Japa­nese map that uses Tokyo time to chart the move­ment of the Japa­nese Pearl Harbor Striking Force to and from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (bold black). The Japa­nese strike force set out on Novem­ber 26 (Novem­ber 25 in the U.S.) before the Roose­velt admin­is­tra­tion and Japa­nese envoys in Washing­ton, D.C., had con­cluded their discussions on avoiding war. Depicted later on the orig­i­nal Japa­nese map are the routes of U.S. air­craft carriers Enter­prise (red) and Lexing­ton (blue) in early Decem­ber to the west of the Hawaiian Islands (right bottom corner). Had the two Amer­i­can carriers been caught in Japa­nese cross­hairs north of the Hawaiian Islands, their resting place might have been in waters too deep for salvage operations.

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

Left: In January 1941 Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto (1884–1943), a recog­nized leading expert in mili­tary avi­a­tion, out­lined a surprise attack plan similar to that of the Royal Navy’s spec­tac­ular Novem­ber 11, 1940, all-aircraft, ship-to-ship naval attack on the Ital­ian fleet at Taranto, Italy. Though he played no part in Japan’s deci­sion to go to war with the U.S. and indeed admired America—he briefly studied at Harvard Uni­ver­sity, was a pro­fi­cient English speaker, and spent two years in Wash­ing­ton as a naval attaché—Yama­moto believed only a pre­emptive strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor could win the time his coun­try needed to take over the rich mineral resources of British Malaya, Borneo, 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. might, Yama­moto hoped with crossed fingers, accept a truce in the Pacific War, adding, “the out­come must be decided on the first day.” In April 1941 Yama­moto ordered plans drawn up for “Opera­tion Z,” the com­bined air and naval attack on Pearl Harbor, confiding to a staff officer, “If we fail, we’d better give up the war.” As pay­back for Japan’s Decem­ber 7, 1941, sneak attack, Adm. Chester Nimitz, U.S. com­mander in the Pacific, autho­rized the aerial oper­a­tion (Oper­a­tion Ven­geance) that shot down Yama­moto’s twin-engine G4M Betty naval bomber over the Japa­nese-held island of Bougain­ville in the South Pacific on April 18, 1943.

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.”

Pearl Harbor Striking Force: Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, 1887–1944Pearl Harbor Striking Force: Captain 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 (Daiichi Kōkū Kantai), the Japa­nese Navy’s main air­craft car­rier force, largely owing to his seniority. Fifty-three, heavy-set, and gray-haired, Nagumo 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. Nagumo’s greatest mis­take on that fate­ful Sun­day morning in Decem­ber, as Yama­moto later recalled, was not to order 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, famously breaking radio silence with the code phrase for the surprise attack “Tora! tora! tora!” (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!). Working under Vice Admiral Nagumo, Fuchida was respon­sible for coor­di­nating the entire aerial strike of fighter air­craft and high-altitude, dive, and torpedo bombers from all six Japa­nese flat­tops. 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

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