The Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941, A Date That Will Live in Infamy

World War II, Pearl Harbor, 12/7/41
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On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise air attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. After just two hours of bombing more than 2,400 Americans were dead, 21 ships* had either been sunk or damaged, and more than 188 U.S. aircraft destroyed.

The attack at Pearl Harbor so outraged Americans that the U.S. abandoned its policy of isolationism and declared war on Japan the following day—officially bringing the United States into World War II.

Why Attack?

The Japanese were tired of negotiations with the United States. They wanted to continue their expansion within Asia but the United States had placed an extremely restrictive embargo on Japan in the hopes of curbing Japan's aggression. Negotiations to solve their differences had not been going well.

Rather than giving in to U.S. demands, the Japanese decided to launch a surprise attack against the United States in an attempt to destroy the United States' naval power even before an official announcement of war was given.

The Japanese Prepare for Attack

The Japanese practiced and prepared carefully for their attack on Pearl Harbor. They knew their plan was extremely risky. The probability of success depended heavily on complete surprise.

On November 26, 1941, the Japanese attack force, led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, left Etorofu Island in the Kurils (located northeast of Japan) and began its 3,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean. Sneaking six aircraft carriers, nine destroyers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and three submarines across the Pacific Ocean was not an easy task.

Worried that they might be spotted by another ship, the Japanese attack force continually zig-zagged and avoided major shipping lines. After a week and a half at sea, the attack force made it safely to its destination, about 230 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

The Attack

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began. At 6:00 a.m., the Japanese aircraft carriers began launching their planes amid the rough sea. In total, 183 Japanese aircraft took to the air as part of the first wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

At 7:15 a.m., the Japanese aircraft carriers, plagued by even rougher seas, launched 167 additional planes to participate in the second wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The first wave of Japanese planes reached the U.S. Naval Station at Pearl Harbor (located on the south side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu) at 7:55 a.m. on December 7, 1941.

Just before the first bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, leader of the air attack, called out, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" ("Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!"), a coded message which told the entire Japanese navy that they had caught the Americans totally by surprise.

Surprised at Pearl Harbor

Sunday mornings were a time of leisure for many U.S. military personnel at Pearl Harbor. Many were either still asleep, in mess halls eating breakfast, or getting ready for church on the morning of December 7, 1941. They were completely unaware that an attack was imminent.

Then the explosions started. The loud booms, pillars of smoke, and low-flying enemy aircraft shocked many into the realization that this was not a training exercise; Pearl Harbor was really under attack.

Despite the surprise, many acted quickly. Within five minutes of the beginning of the attack, several gunners had reached their anti-aircraft guns and were trying to shoot down the Japanese planes.

At 8:00 a.m., Admiral Husband Kimmel, in charge of Pearl Harbor, sent out a hurried dispatch to all in the U.S. naval fleet, "AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL."

The Attack on Battleship Row

The Japanese had been hoping to catch U.S. aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor, but the aircraft carriers were out to sea that day. The next major important naval target was the battleships.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, there were eight U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor, seven of which were lined up at what was called Battleship Row, and one (the Pennsylvania) was in dry dock for repairs. (The Colorado, the only other battleship of the U.S.'s Pacific fleet, was not at Pearl Harbor that day.)

Since the Japanese attack was a total surprise, many of the first torpedoes and bombs dropped on the unsuspecting ships hit their targets. The damage done was severe. Although the crews on board each battleship worked feverishly to keep their ship afloat, some were destined to sink.

The Seven U.S. Battleships on Battleship Row:

  • Nevada - Just over a half hour after the Nevada was hit by one torpedo, the Nevada got underway and left its berth in Battleship Row to head toward the harbor entrance. The moving ship made an attractive target to the Japanese bombers, who caused enough damage to the Nevada that it was forced to beach itself.
  • Arizona - The Arizona was struck a number of times by bombs. One of these bombs, thought to have hit the forward magazine, caused a massive explosion, which quickly sank the ship. Approximately 1,100 of her crew were killed. A memorial has since been placed over the Arizona's wreckage.
  • Tennessee - The Tennessee was hit by two bombs and was damaged by oil fires after the nearby Arizona exploded. However, it stayed afloat.
  • West Virginia - The West Virginia was hit by up to nine torpedoes and quickly sank.
  • Maryland - The Maryland was hit by two bombs but was not heavily damaged.
  • Oklahoma - The Oklahoma was hit by up to nine torpedoes and then listed so severely that she turned nearly upside down. A large number of her crew remained trapped on board; rescue efforts were only able to save 32 of her crew.
  • California - The California was struck by two torpedoes and hit by a bomb. The flooding grew out of control and the California sank three days later.

Midget Subs

In addition to the air assault on Battleship Row, the Japanese had launched five midget submarines. These midget subs, which were approximately 78 1/2 feet long and 6 feet wide and held only a two-man crew, were to sneak into Pearl Harbor and aid in the attack against the battleships. However, all five of these midget subs were sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Attack on the Airfields

Attacking the U.S. aircraft on Oahu was an essential component of the Japanese attack plan. If the Japanese were successful in destroying a large portion of the U.S. airplanes, then they could proceed unhindered in the skies above Pearl Harbor. Plus, a counter-attack against the Japanese attack force would be much more unlikely.

Thus, some of the first wave of Japanese planes were ordered to target the airfields that surrounded Pearl Harbor.

As the Japanese planes reached the airfields, they found many of the American fighter planes lined up along the airstrips, wingtip to wingtip, making easy targets. The Japanese strafed and bombed the planes, hangers, and other buildings located near the airfields, including dormitories and mess halls.

By the time the U.S. military personnel at the airfields realized what was happening, there was little they could do. The Japanese were extremely successful at destroying most of the U.S. aircraft. A few individuals picked up guns and shot at the invading planes.

A handful of U.S. fighter pilots were able to get their planes off the ground, only to find themselves vastly outnumbered in the air. Still, they were able to shoot down a few Japanese planes.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor Is Over

By 9:45 a.m., just under two hours after the attack had begun, the Japanese planes left Pearl Harbor and headed back to their aircraft carriers. The attack on Pearl Harbor was over.

All Japanese planes had returned to their aircraft carriers by 12:14 p.m. and just an hour later, the Japanese attack force began their long journey homeward.

The Damage Done

In just under two hours, the Japanese had sunk four U.S. battleships (Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and West Virginia). The Nevada was beached and the other three battleships at Pearl Harbor received considerable damage.

Also damaged were three light cruisers, four destroyers, one minelayer, one target ship, and four auxiliaries.

Of the U.S. aircraft, the Japanese managed to destroy 188 and damage an additional 159.

The death toll among Americans was quite high. A total of 2,335 servicemen were killed and 1,143 were wounded. Sixty-eight civilians were also killed and 35 were wounded. Nearly half of the servicemen that were killed were on board the Arizona when it exploded.

All this damage was done by the Japanese, who suffered very few losses themselves -- just 29 aircraft and five midget subs.

The United States Enters World War II

The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor quickly spread throughout the United States. The public was shocked and outraged. They wanted to strike back. It was time to join World War II.

At 12:30 p.m. on the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an address to Congress in which he declared that December 7, 1941, was "a date that will live in infamy." At the end of the speech, Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. With only one dissenting vote (by Representative Jeannette Rankin from Montana), Congress declared war, officially bringing the United States into World War II.

* The 21 ships that were either sunk or damaged include: all eight battleships (Arizona, California, Nevada, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee), three light cruisers (Helena, Honolulu, and Raleigh), three destroyers (Cassin, Downes, and Shaw), one target ship (Utah), and four auxiliaries (Curtiss, Sotoyoma, Vestal, and Floating Drydock Number 2). The destroyer Helm, which was damaged but remained operational, is also included in this count.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Attack on Pearl Harbor." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, August 27). The Attack on Pearl Harbor. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Attack on Pearl Harbor." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).

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