A day of infamy that made the victim a superpower.
Name: The Attack on Pearl Harbor (Also known as the Raid on or Battle of Pearl Harbor).
The War: World War II
When: 7 December 1941
Where: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, USA
Forces/Commanders: Close to a hundred major ships and 400 aircraft of the US armed forces under Admirals Husband Kimmel and Walter Short against 55 ships and over 400 aircraft of the Japanese armed forces under Admirals Chuichi Nagumo and Isoroku Yamamoto.
“In all the war I never received a more direct shock…Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked.”
“We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”
-Admiral Hara Tadaichi
“Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The Pacific has always been a contentious area of the world and the inter-war years were no different. You had numerous power blocks in operation: The British and their Empire, the Chinese factions, an isolationist leaning United States and an expansive minded Empire of Japan.
Japan was on the rise at the time. Korea, Manchuria, China, and French Indochina had all been attacked and occupied (partly in some cases). But in order to facilitate the rise of their designed hegemony - the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – Japan needed access to raw materials that there own home islands did not have, most desperately oil and rubber. Of course, there were numerous territories nearby – Malaya and the Dutch East Indies in particular – that had exactly what the Japanese needed.
Japan had no qualms about attacking them, or taking on the British, who were somewhat pre-occupied with their own survival half a world away. No, the barrier to conquest was American.
America saw Japanese expansion as a definite threat. Aside from their presence in the Philippines and various Pacific islands – islands that the Japanese very obviously would have preferred their flag to be flying over – America was committed to maintaining its military power over the ocean as a whole. To that end, the Japanese attacks on their neighbours were met by various boycotts and blockades though the US refused to go as far as banning oil imports, fearing such an act would force a conflict.
With the attacks into French Indochina, the US finally took the fateful step of an oil embargo in July of 1941. From that point, a conflict was inevitable. Both sides had contingencies plans in place for conflict, and now it seemed to be a matter of who had the better one.
The US, due to the mistaken belief that the bases nearer to the American mainland were safe and that the Japanese Navy could not co-ordinate two large-scale operation at the same time, choose to focus their plans on the Philipines whose US garrisons were expected to be the main target of a Japanese attack. These garrisons were to holdout long enough for the American surface fleet to destroy its Japanese counter-part in a decisive battle before beginning a blockade of the home islands. To this end, the Pacific fleet moved its HQ from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Japan was ready to surprise the Americans. Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, recognising that any Japanese plans rested on dominance of the seas, made the plan to attack the American Fleet Headquarters and wipe out the majority of its power in one fell swoop. He drew particular influence from the Battle of Taranto, a British naval victory over Italy in the Mediterranean, in planning how to cripple ships from the air.
This attack would cripple the US’s ability to wage war in the Pacific for a crucial period of time, allowing Japan to attack the targets in East Asia without fear. Moreover, the attack was meant to be a massive blow at American morale, dissuading it from war against them.
The Japanese were not the first, nor the last, nation to underestimate American will.
The Japanese commitment to the Pearl Harbor strike, authorized in early November 1941, consisted of six aircraft carries, numerous submarines (including several midget subs) and over 400 aircraft for the main blow. Departing Japan on November 26th, they undertook an 11 day trip to their positions, north of the Hawaiian islands.
Crucially, and known to the attacking forces, the three American aircraft carriers were not in Pearl Harbor that day, being on patrol elsewhere. The decision to attack regardless was based on the assumption that striking America’s battleships, cruisers and destroyers would be damage enough.
The attack came in two waves. The first, beginning around 7.48 a.m, consisted of over 350 aircraft. Though they were detected on approach, and several patrolling American air craft were engaged, the base was not prepared or forewarned about the attack.
The first targets were the numerous airfields across Oahu Island, especially Wheeler Field, the main Air Force base in the area. From those targets, the assault group flew down the west side of the island to the Naval base proper. The first planes in were the slower moving torpedo bombers, taking advantage of the element of surprise followed by dive bombers and fighters.
The force caught Pearl Harbor completely off guard with only a modicum of resistance - a handful of US fighters and some anti-aircraft fire – to oppose them. The ships in the Harbor were not fully manned, aircraft were layed out wingtip to wingtip, and most of the main guns were not completely stocked with ammo. The Japanese planes were able to drop their ordinance on their targets, strafe the ground at will, and fly off without too much damage.
The second wave came in only a little while later, consisting of just over 170 aircraft. These followed the same pattern as the first, only arriving from the eastern side of the island. Again, they had close to free reign over the Harbor bombing and strafing their targets which included Hickham Field to the south and Fold Island in the middle of the bay.
The attack, from start to finish, lasted little less than an hour and half. 2’386 Americans were killed, just over 50 of them civilians. 18 ships had been sunk or beached.
The California was hit by two bombs and two torpedos: attempts to keep her afloat were abandoned though she would be refloated later. The Utah was hit by a single torpedo and capsized. The West Virginia was battered by over seven torpedos suffering further damage from an out of control oil fire: its commanding officer, Captain Mervyn Bennion, stayed at his post to direct operations despite being mortally wounded by shrapnel fire. The Oklahoma was hit by five torpedos, capsizing in 12 minutes. Bombs sunk the Oglala, a minesweeper, later refloated. The Cassin and Downes caught ablaze from bomb strikes and were abandoned. The Vestal was intentionally beached after heavy damage. So was the Nevada, hit 5 times by heavy bombs.
But the most famous, and deadly, attack was that on the Arizona. A Japanese bomb hit its ammunition magazine almost dead on, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that destroyed the forward section of the ship, sinking her and killing over a thousand crewman.
Numerous other vessals had received heavy damage such as the Shaw, the Honolulu and the Curtiss.
Over half of the American aircraft in the area were destroyed or damaged, most of them on the ground.
Some Midget Submarines had also been involved but most were sunk ro forced to withdraw under fire.
Japanese casualties totalled 64 men. A third strike to hit American fuel and dry dock facilities was proposed but rejected by Admiral Nagumo for fears of risking too much of the strike force.
Why It’s Decisive – Effects On That War
Well, it started it for America. But, more broadly, it made what had been a war characterised by European struggles into a World War, from ocean to ocean.
The Japenese Navy and ground forces got the freedom they needed from attack and were able to begin large-scale invasions of numerous territories: Wake Island, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Papau New Guinea, the Philipines, Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma and others.
The US, after recovering from the shock, began becoming the “arsenal of democracy”. Ships were refloated, hulls were layed, men were enlisted. It would only be a short time before America would once again be a force to be reckoned with, on land, on sea and in the air.
The failure to catch any of the US aircraft carries, something that the admiralty of Japan had accepted, was to prove fatal to the Japanese cause. As the Allies pushed back in east Asia, the Japanese fleet of carriers was rapidly reduced at Midway and at the Philippine Sea. Pearl Harbor was proved to a be a tactical success but a strategic failure.
Two connected ones. First, and most important, was aircraft. The use of planes in combat had increased since World War One and Taranto had shown how effective they could be against ships. But Pearl Harbor was the clear, undeniable sign, that aircraft were now one of the key players in Naval warfare. Those 90 minutes, combined with the Battle of Britain the previous year, left no doubt that these small numble flying machines could have a huge effect in determining engagements and the direction of wars.
The other is the aircraft carrier. The Pacific War would result in the battleship being supplanted by the carrier as the Queen of the waves. Carriers had wrecked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor – ever after, it would be carriers at the forefront of any effort mad by the two sides. The combination of ship and aircraft were now the norm.
Finally, the long-term results of Pearl Harbor, and the failure of “the decisive battle” doctrine (not the same meaning as I apply the term) changed how Naval warfare worked to an extent. There would be plenty of large scale clashes in the years to come but none of them resulted in the complete destruction of the enemy fleet in a single engagement. The doctrine was done.
America, today, is the worlds only superpower. This was not the case on December 6th 1941 nor did it look likely to happen. America was a great power, but it was isolationist and dismissive of the European conflict.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor, all of that changed. America geared up for war, a war in which it rapidly became the main player. From there was born the A-Bomb, the Cold War and the United States’ acceptance of the role as “the leader of the free world”. Ever since, it has been the driving force of world politics.
And of course, the Empire of Japan, itself a great power, was humbled and destroyed, with Japan becoming a democratic state, content with its own islands.
What could have been different? Japan could have been more succesful. The complete destruction of more battleships, hitting the carriers, destroying the dry docks, it all would have contributed to a greater success. Japan would have had even greater freedom in the Pacific to carry out operation. The United States would have taken years, at least two, to really get back into the fight.
Would America have had as much success in such an event? Considering the country’s resolve and its immense resources, I would think that yes, it would, though the death toll would have been higher, the fight more difficult. The creation of the A-Bomb is a dicey issue: Faced with a strong Japan, the United States would have been more than inclined to use it.
And if the attack had been a failure? Perhaps the Americans received advance warning, were able to blunt the assault with a more effective defence? With the Pacific Fleet able to get into action, its likely that Japan’s advances in East Asia would have been heavily contested, though the US was still relatively weak in terms of land forces. Certainly, the war would have worked out in greater favor of the US.
Ironically, this might have resulted in a greater number of casualties. America might have been in a position to invade Japan in 43 or 44 with no A-Bomb as an alternative. Unnerving thought.
In National Consciousness
It is a major moment in the history of the United States, a terrible blow. We have seen a similar situation in recent years with the 9/11 attacks: being ambushed was a shocking strike at the American psyche. It was all so different for them, being the victim of an assault.
Pearl Harbor is seen to mark the beginning of the modern America, the bastion of freedom and democracy, the juggernaut leading the charge against the tyrannical. America comemorates it as such a highly critical moment in the nations development.
The actual Harbor remains a Naval Base, though a memorial as well, a National Historic Landmark. The Arizona and the Utah remain where they sank, perhaps a more effective testament to the men and ships lost than any statue or wall of names.
Japan has mixed views. Many feel that the oil embargo and other conflicts provoked the attack and that the Empire was justified. Most now agree that the attack was either a mistake in the first place, or just not effective enough in its operation. The Japanese state has formally apologised for the attack.
The attack has its place in film, two especially. Tora! Tora! Tora! is generally considered the best depiction, telling the story from both sides, while Michael Bays’ Pearl Harbor, while being immensely expensive and lavishly produced, is better known for its critical failure. Plenty of other films include the attack, along with numerous other works of fiction, from books to video games.
Pearl Harbor is the pivotal point on which the 20th century turned.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.