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Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941

Catching the United States military by surprise, the Japanese bombed the naval base located at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A devastating blow to a powerful naval force, this act of aggression angered the citizens of the United States, uniting the American public to support their entrance into World War II.

Japanese forces, led by Vice-Admiral Nagumo, were able to sneak up within 450 kilometers North of Pearl Harbor unnoticed using signal deception and strict radio silence. Their strike force consisted of 19 naval ships, including 6 carriers, 2 battleships, and 2 cruisers. Nagumo also had 16 I-type submarines and 5 midget submarines standing by to neutralize any American ships not destroyed by the air assault

Pearl Harbor was ready for an attack by sabotage, but not prepared for any full scale assault. A final war warning issued to all commanders in the army and navy on November 27 was not heeded because Pearl Harbor was not mentioned as a possible target. Only 1 in 4 machine guns were manned, no main or 5 inch batteries were manned, ready ammo was not readily accessible, and 1/3 of the ship captains were ashore.

The first wave of Japanese fighters were picked up on radar around 7 in the morning, but was mistaken as a flight of American B-17 bombers that were expected to fly near Pearl Harbor. At 7:55 am, the signal tower telephoned Rear Admiral Kimmel, the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, warning him, "Enemy air raid - not drill." It was too late. The first wave of Japanese planes came out of the cloudy skies and bombed and strafed the battle fleet and airfields for thirty minutes. This wave consisted of 49 bombers, 40 torpedo bombers, 51 dive-bombers, and 36 fighters. After fifteen minutes of peaceful skies, a second wave of high altitude bombers attacked the harbor. A wave of dive-bombers accompanied the high altitude bombers and attacked at 9:15 until the Japanese pulled back at 9:45. The second wave consisted of 54 bombers, 78 dive-bombers, and 36 fighters. Overall, Japan used 351 planes in the aerial assault. In the turmoil and confusion that ensued, the US Navy and Air Corps sent their ships and planes out to search for the Japanese carriers to the Southwest in the wrong direction.

The US had 70 warships, including 8 battleships and 24 auxiliaries, stationed at Pearl Harbor while the heavy cruisers were at sea with the carriers. During the air assault, the Japanese sank 6 battleships and damaged the other two. Other losses included 3 destroyers, 3 light cruisers, 4 other vessels. The Japanese planes also destroyed 164 planes and damaged 128. 2403 servicemen and civilians were killed while another 1178 were wounded. The Japanese lost 29 aircraft, 5 midget submarines, and an I-type submarine.

The following day, President Roosevelt addressed Congress, "Yesterday, December 7, 1941–a date which will live in infamy–-the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." Congress then declared war on Japan, marking the entrance of the US into World War II. In accordance with their alliance with Japan, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States four days later.

Despite the great losses of the US Pacific Fleet, the losses could have been much greater. Fleet Admiral Nimitz wrote, "as bad as our losses were at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941–-they could have been devastatingly worse–-had the Japanese returned for more strikes against our naval installations, surface oil storage and our submarine base installations. Such attacks could have been made with impunity as we had little left to oppose them." Japanese superiority in the Pacific combined with their element of surprise could have given them an even greater victory if they had continued their assault on Pearl Harbor. 

Later on, the attack on Pearl Harbor proved more beneficial to the United States. It served to unite a nation against Japan and her allies. Similar to the Alamo, battle cries of, "Remember Pearl Harbor", began appearing throughout the American public. Prior to the attack, the American people were divided in their feelings toward the Japanese. Following the attack, the American people united which allowed for a great miracle of production to occur. The United States was now ready for war against the Axis powers.


Pearl Harbor Anchorage : Layout of ship placement in harbor.

Time Line of Events : December 7, 1941.


Collier's Encyclopedia , Volume 18; P.F. Collier, Inc.; New York, 1993.

Day of Infamy ; Walter Lord; Henry Holt & Company; New York, 1957.

Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal; Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN(retired); United States Government Printing Office, 1968.

The Oxford Companion to World War II ; Oxford University Press; New York, 1995.


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