The History of the Attack on Pearl Harbor

By Team

Video and information provided by Pearl Harbor Tours.

On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Japanese air forces launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval base Pearl Harbor, located off the south shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

While the attack lasted just under two hours the result was devastating:

After 7 months of strategic planning by Yamamoto Isoroku,Commander Mitsuo Fuchida of the Imperial Japanese Air Service, Japan sent 360 Japanese dive bombers over 4,000 miles of ocean to launch their attack.

In two waves of assault, the Japanese military rained down bombs and bullets over Pearl Harbor and surrounding US military bases on Oahu, including airfields at Hickam, Wheeler, Bellows, Ewa, Schoefield Barracks, and Kaneohe; the first attack consisting of 183 fighters, bombers and torpedo bombers, and the second,170 fighter planes.

At 8:10 am, a 1,800-pound bomb smashed through the deck of the battleship USS Arizona and landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and sank with more than 1,000 men trapped inside. Next, torpedoes pierced the shell of the battleship USS Oklahoma. With 400 sailors aboard, the Oklahoma lost her balance, rolled onto her side and slipped underwater.

By the time the attack was over, every battleship in Pearl Harbor–USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia, USS Utah, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee and USS Nevada–had sustained significant damage. (All but USS Arizona and USS Utah were eventually salvaged and repaired.)

The most serious casualty was the USS Arizona. Enduring one torpedo and eight bombs, 1,177 men were killed on the Arizona alone.

In all, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor crippled or destroyed nearly 20 American ships and more than 300 airplanes. Dry docks and airfields were likewise destroyed. The total American casualties where 2,395 deaths, including 54 civilians.

“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”

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On that day, which President Rosevelt pronounced as the “date which will live in infamy,” he went on to say, “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. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”

The attack at Pearl Harbor played a paramount role in both the United States and Japan’s participation in the second World War. The attack initiated the United States’ entry into WWII, two years after the war began.

In a full-circle chain of events, the war concluded with the U.S. authorizing the atomic bomb strike on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945.

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor?

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Japan depended on the United States for natural and industrial resources. Once resources were cut off a year earlier, contention with Japan grew steadily. Japan’s lack of resources resulted in a motive to attack America’s Pacific Fleet to prevent American interference in its plan to access the “Southern Resource Area” in South-east Asia.

Why Was the Attack on Pearl Harbor a Surprise?

In 1941, diplomatic tension grew between the U.S. and Japan, due to Japan’s increasingly aggressive position toward U.S. allies and America’s withdrawn supply of resources to Japan a year before. American officials believed this could lead to Japanese military action and warned military commanders throughout the Pacific, including Hawaii. However, most believed Japan would seize oil rich British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. The prospect of an assault on Hawaii, across 4000 miles of ocean, seemed remote.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is still questioned by historians, some criticizing the intelligence of the U.S. military and their lack of action toward warnings, while others suspect the attack may have been manipulated by the American government to ‘persuade’ an isolationist public into supporting a desire to get involved in a war assisting the Allies in Europe.

In the end, Admiral Husband Kimmel (the naval commander at Pearl Harbor) and General Walter Short (head of the army at Pearl Harbor) were held responsible by the American government, both men passing away with dishonor in the eyes of the Military.

Did Japan Succeed in Their Mission?

While the primary incentive for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was to cripple the US Pacific Fleet, allowing Japan enough time to seize the resource areas from the “Southern Resource Area,” Japan’s main result was “awaking a sleeping giant.”

Emperor Hirohito, the 124th Emperor wanted to expand Japan’s territory as many of it’s European neighbors had done. However, Admiral Yamamoto caught sight of how the war would unfold.He compared fighting the United States to “fighting the whole world.”

Yamamoto told his political superiors: “If you insist that we really do it, you may trust us for the perfect execution of a breath-taking show of naval victories for the first half-year or full year. But if the war should be prolonged into a second or third year, I am not confident at all.”

The war did carry on for several years thereafter, and ultimately ended with U.S. bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.

Though Japan’s attack could not be characterized as a success, the event was entirely devastating and monumental for the nation’s participation in WWII.

United States Enters WWII

On December 8th, the morning after the attack, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress to declare war upon Japan. Once Japan’s allies caught wind, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. The U.S. government responded in kind.

WWII Ends With Attack on Japan

In 1945, President Harry S. Truman and fellow allies of the time issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum for Japan to surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” When Japan refused,Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima, destroying over 60 percent of the developed city and killing between 70,000 and 80,000.

When Japan continued to refuse the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, the United States released a second atomic bomb attack upon the city of Nagasaki, Japan on the morning of August 9, 1945.

On August 14, 1945 Japanese surrendered. But the surrender documents were only signed on September 2nd 1945, upon the deck of the USS Missouri, officially marking the end of the war. This day would later be known as V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day.

Pearl Harbor Day

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To this day, the United States honors the lives lost at Pearl Harbor each December 7th as a day of remembrance.

To honor Pearl Harbor day, many Americans fly the American flag outside their homes and Government buildings raise the flag to half-mast to honor the lives lost. Other activities include: wreath-laying ceremonies; keynote speeches by those associated with the event; luncheons; media stories on survivors’ recollections of the Pearl Harbor attack; and school activities to educate students about the attack on Pearl Harbor in relation to World War II history.

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