“A Date Which Will Live In Infamy”
On December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked American troops at Pearl Harbor, catapulting the US into World War II.
The possibility of war between America and Japan had been a concern since the 1920s and was made worse following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. In the coming years, Japanese expansion into China and attacks on US vessels led America and its Allies to lend their support to China, further damaging relations with Japan. Once the US halted oil exports to Japan, the Japanese saw this as an act of aggression and began planning to invade the Dutch East Indies.
In an attempt to fix relations, the US and Japan held a series of negotiations. However, neither side could agree on terms. Proposals and counter-proposals were sent back and forth. But the Japanese attack fleet, which had begun planning the battle at the start of the year, set out for Pearl Harbor on November 26.
Contrary to their plans, the eventual attack came before a formal declaration of war. The Japanese had sent the 5,000 word “14-part message” in advance of the attack, but it took too long to transcribe and was not delivered in time.
The arriving Japanese fleet consisted of six aircraft carriers, 408 planes, and five submarines, each with its own midget submarine. The midget submarines were launched toward Pearl Harbor around 1:00 am on December 7. An American minesweeper saw the periscope from one of these midget submarines and informed the destroyer Ward. The Ward then sank one of the other midget submarines at 6:45, firing the first American shots in the Pacific War.
Shortly after 6 am, the first Japanese planes departed their aircraft carriers for Pearl Harbor. About an hour later, as they approached Oahu, US Army radars detected the planes. The radar post was still in training mode and its staff new to the technology. Two operators informed their superior of the approaching aircraft, but as they were expecting 12 B-17 bombers to be delivered from California, he told them to ignore it.
Near Oahu, the Japanese shot down several US planes, one of which managed to radio out a warning, though it was hard to understand. Ships in the water also sent out warnings, but they were still being processed by the time the Japanese bombers arrived at Pearl Harbor.
The attack commenced at 7:53 am, with the first ship being struck five minutes later. Japanese torpedo bombers led the first wave, targeting battleships, while dive-bombers went after the air bases on Oahu, including Hickam and Wheeler Fields, as well as the US Army Air Force fighter base. Aboard the ships, US sailors awoke to alarms and explosions but quickly got to their positions to man guns or otherwise protect their ships and crew. On land, men in the barracks had a similar startling awakening, and also rushed to take up arms. A few even managed to get in their planes and fight back in the sky.
About an hour after the attack began, the second wave of about 170 Japanese planes arrived over Pearl Harbor and unleashed more destruction on American ships, aircraft, and hangars. Just 90 minutes after it began, the attack on Pearl Harbor was over. Casualties were high – 2,403 American civilians, Navy, Army, and Marine personnel were killed and another 1,778 were wounded. There were 18 ships sunk or run aground, including five battleships. Though 13 of these ships were eventually repaired and returned to service to fight later in the war. Additionally, 188 of the 390 aircraft were destroyed with another 159 damaged. Japanese losses were much lower – 64 dead, one captured, and 29 planes lost. They considered launching a third wave of attacks but ultimately decided against it. The Japanese did, however, attack the Philippines hours later.
The day after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress and the nation, calling the event “a date which will live in infamy.” He called on Congress to formally declare war on Japan, which it did within an hour. Days later, on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on America, as stipulated in their Tripartite Pact with Japan. The US, in return, declared war on those nations the same day.
Back in Pearl Harbor, rescue teams searched for survivors, then salvage operations began. Navy divers spent 20,000 hours underwater patching holes, moving debris, and pumping water out of ships so they could be re-floated. Within six months, they had five battleships and two cruisers afloat and ready to go back to the mainland for repairs. Not all ships were as easily salvaged. Most notably, the USS Arizona was too badly damaged and could not be removed or returned to service. Some parts were salvaged for other ships, but the bulk of the Arizona remained at the harbor floor. Years later, a memorial was built on the water above the wreckage, paying tribute to all those that fought at Pearl Harbor, and especially those that lost their lives.
Though a devastating blow to the American people, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a victory for the Japanese. While they hit their objectives that day, they did not cripple the American military as they had hoped and did not prevent America from fighting back. One Japanese commander claimed, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.” The American military was lucky in a sense because their aircraft carriers were out to sea that day and therefore did not suffer any damage from the attack. Had they been there, it could have been at least a year before America would strike back against the Japanese. Additionally, while the Japanese targeted some land locations, they did not hit the repair shops or fuel depots, enabling American forces to have a much quicker recovery.
Following the recovery efforts from the attack, several Americans were honored for their bravery. There were 15 Medals of Honor, 15 Navy Crosses, 53 Silver Stars, four Navy and Marine Corps Medals, one Distinguished Flying Cross, four Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, and three Bronze Star Medals.
Click here for more about Pearl Harbor.