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Pearl Harbor

Attack on Pearl Harbor

The populace knew war was coming, they just did not know when and when it did it was a complete surprise.  The next day the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would call it "A date which will live in infamy".  It all began on Sunday morning December 7, 1941.

The place was Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in the then Territory of Hawaii.   The home base for the US Navy Pacific Fleet contains Ford Island in the center of the harbor on which numerous docks were located including Battleship Row.  This expansive military complex also included Hickam Field that housed elements of the US Army Air Forces bombardment and pursuit groups.

At 7:48 AM, the Japanese surprise air attack began, launched from a floatilla of six aircraft carriers protected by nine destroyers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, nine destroyers, submarines and other supporting vessels.  Aboard the carriers were over 400 aircraft.  The attack force was led by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo under the overall command of Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto the commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet.  While the target and objective of the attack are attributed to Yamamoto, the responsibility for the planning and tactical implementation fell to Captain Minoru Genda a veteran of many Japanese victories to date.

Japanese Objective

The reasons for the Japanese attack were numerous; crippling the US Navy while they could finish their Pacific conquests and consolidate their positions would appear to most to be at the top of the list.  The missions' objective therefore was to damage as many ships as possible with the US aircraft carriers being the grand prize.  Until 1941 a countries' naval power was measured by its battleships that fired heavy shells over 20 miles.   However, as evidenced by the German blitzkrieg of Poland in 1939 Europe using tanks and aircraft, military doctrine was shifting to a strategy of another type of mobility and this relied heavily on aircraft.  In the Pacific with the navy required as troop transport, it became logical that the employment of aircraft and thus aircraft carriers would evolve as the striking force before regular army landings.   The attack on Pearl would be the culmination of strategy developed over a number of years by the Japanese as the majority of the terrain of their war theater was ocean.  While most of their Axis-ally Germany fought on contiguous land mass, Japan fought on both land and sea; but the tactics of mobility had replaced trench warfare and battleship engagements as the new method of conquest.

First Wave

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began. At 6:00 a.m., with 183 aircraft taking off from their carriers led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida. This included three groups and objectives.  In group 1, referred to as Kate Bombers were 50 Nakajima B5N bombers armed with armor piercing bombs targeting the battleships and aircraft carriers. Then 40 more B5Ns armed with torpedoes (Type 91) specially designed for the shallow waters of the Harbor.  Group 2 encompassed 54 Aichi D3A, Val, dive bombers with GP bombs targeting the facilities on Ford Island and Wheeler Army Air Field which is adjacent to Schofield Barracks on a plateau in the center of the island of Oahu.  Wheeler was home to a number of pursuit squadron aircraft including the 15th Pursuit Group, assigned to the Hawaiian Air Force Command.  Group 3 was comprised of 45 Mitsubishi A6M, Zeke, fighters that were tasked with air cover and target strafing at Ford Island's facilities and Naval Air Station, the Army Air Forces' Hickam and Wheeler Fields, Barber's Point and Kaneohe.  Hickam was home to the Army Air Forces at Pearl and Barber's Point and Kaneohe were Naval Air Stations situated on the northeast coast and southwest coast of the island respectively.

As the first wave of Japanese attackers approached Oahu from the North, a new radar installation on Opana Point on the northern tip of the island detected inbound aircraft. However, they mistakenly identified them as a flight of B-17s inbound that morning from California. The B-17s were on their way to Clark Field in the Philippines to buttress the 19th Bombardment Group that had been deployed to Clark beginning in September of 1941. They were stopping in Hawaii to refuel as they island hopped across the Pacific to their destination. The flight would be caught in the air without ammunition, some would divert to other air fields such as Bellows, others would attempt to land at Hickam.  Some would crash on landing because of lack of fuel others from fire from the Jap fighters.

Second Wave

Led by Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki the second wave consisting of three groups totaling 171 planes took off for Hawaii.  In group one 54 B5Ns with general purpose bombs (GP) went after the aircraft and hangars at Kaneohe, Ford Island, Barbers Point and Hickam.  Group two, 81 D3As to the harbor targeting aircraft carriers and cruisers.  Group three contained 36 Zekes (A6Ms) that were to fly cover for group one and strafe targets of opportunity.

Unfortunately for the Japanese and conversely for the US, the American aircraft carriers were not at Pearl on December 7.  The USS Enterprise, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga were out to the west of Hawaii at this time.  The carriers lack of presence on this day may have been a strong determining factor in Nagumo's cancelling the third wave attack.


The 5th Bombardment Group, stationed at Hickam Field lost a number of B-17s and B-18s in the attack. Men from their photo group captured many shots of the damage and are in the collection of the Army Air Corps Library and Museum. You can view many of these pictures of Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field.

The Japanese did not obtain Yamamoto's ultimate goal, the carriers' destruction, but nevertheless a large amount of damage was done by the attack.  In the battle that lasted approximately 90 minutes, the US lost four battleships, sunk in the harbor (USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia), 3 more were damaged (USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee) and one was grounded (USS Nevada). An assortment of cruisers, destroyers and other ships were sunk or damaged.   On the aviation side of the ledger, there were over 400 planes on Hawaii spread among all the airfields.  188 were destroyed 155 of which were on the ground and nearly 160 damaged including the B-17's that were arriving from California that morning. Personnel losses were 2335 soldiers killed, 1143 wounded. Civilian losses were 68 killed and 35 wounded.

Besides the stated damages there were numerous other items that were destroyed: vehicles, buildings, hangars, barracks, equipment, runways and other essential items.  

At the time the attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized a nation that sacrificed and worked with one goal that of victory and the unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany.  The Japanese may have missed out on the carriers on December 7,  but the industrial might of the US would hardly notice the losses of the ship and aircraft of that day as the next few years their production would replace those losses many times over.   It would take nearly four years but final victory would belong to America and her Allies.

Questions of Command and Strategy

As the years have past and all of the major players are deceased there still remain questions.

First and the easiest most oft question asked was and is why did Nagumo cancel the third wave attack.  He would have thought that he would gain no more tactical advantages with another since his objectives were not in port. But that is a lazy way of side stepping the real questions that should be posed.

Why did the Japanese attack when they did is a lot more thought provoking and warrants more strategic as well as tactical decision making.

They could have consumed all the areas of the Pacific Rim and just surrounded the Philippines,  keeping them from getting reinforcements and supply.  Would they have been able to setup a blockade? Would the US have breached that line causing the first shots to have been made as the US entered "their territory" sans permission? The political climate in the US at this time may have made that highly unlikely.

Would the US have given up the Philippines in exchange for not entering a full blown war?

Would the ire of the republic been as strong for a sole attack and invasion on the Philippines versus a Sunday morning sneak attack on Hawaii, much closer to home?  What if the Japanese had attacked on Saturday the 6th or Monday the 8th?

They realized that if they attacked the Philippines, a Territory, it was a direct attack on the US, so they launched a land invasion for a total victory.   They successfully completed this mission.  All previous invasions were complete with land conquering as their objective.

So why did they not invade Hawaii ?  In hindsight this was probably their largest mistake and a departure from all previous campaigns.   If they had been able to capture Hawaii they would have controlled all of the Pacific and all American offensives would have to have been launched from the West Coast.   That is a long way for a strike force to travel during the 1940's.

They deviated from pattern.  They did not finish the job or even contemplate doing so.  For a moment let's say for arguments sake that all three carriers were in port on Dec. 7 and got sunk.  The resupply and buildup of forces on Hawaii would have still continued.

Now let's go back to the timing issue; if the Japanese did not believe that they had the ability to strike and invade the Philippines and Hawaii simultaneously while continuing their ground campaign in China and Burma, then why do so in 1941.  Why not wait until 1942 or later to build up more forces?  The US was not going to attack or declare war on Japan unless their own territory or forces were attacked first.   If it was a matter of forces, why not bypass the Philippines and go straight for Hawaii?  There can be a multitude of arguments for this case.  The Philippines was not a threat but Hawaii controlled the Central Pacific.

Did the Japanese mistake the objective?  It was not the carriers, it should have been the Hawaiian Islands.

But history unfolded as it did and the industrial might and determination of the citizens of the United States would avenge the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.


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