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The Attack On Pearl Harbor


The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack against the United States' naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by the Japanese navy, on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, resulting in the United States becoming involved in World War II. It was intended as a preventive action to remove the US Pacific Fleet as a factor in the war Japan was about to wage against Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Pearl Harbor on 30 October 1941

At 03:42, Hawaiian Time, hours before commanding Admiral Chuichi Nagumo began launching strike aircraft, the minesweeper USS Condor spotted a midget submarine outside the harbor entrance and alerted destroyer USS Ward. Ward was initially unsuccessful in locating the target. Hours later, Ward fired America's first shots in the Pacific theater of WWII when she attacked and sank a midget submarine, perhaps the same one, at 06:37. Five midget submarines had been assigned to torpedo U.S. ships after the bombing started. None of these returned, and only four have since been found. Of the ten sailors aboard, nine died; the only survivor, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured, becoming the first Japanese prisoner of war.

Aboard a Japanese carrier before the attack on Pearl Harbor, crew members cheer departing pilots.

First Wave
The first attack wave launched north of Oʻahu, commanded by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida.
  • 1st Group - targets: battleships and aircraft carriers, (50 Nakajima B5Ns armed with 800 kg armor piercing bombs, in four sections. 40 B5Ns armed with Type 91 torpedoes, also in four sections).
  • 2nd Group - targets: Ford Island and Wheeler Field, (55 Aichi D3As armed with 249 kg general purpose bombs).
  • 3rd Group - targets: aircraft at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Barber’s Point, Kaneohe, (45 A6Ms for air control and strafing. Each of the aerial waves started with the bombers and ended with the fighters to deter pursuit).
Zeroes preparing to take off from Shokaku for Pearl Harbor

Several U.S. aircraft were shot down as the first wave approached land; one at least radioed a somewhat incoherent warning. Other warnings from ships off the harbor entrance were still being processed, or awaiting confirmation, when the planes began bombing and strafing. Nevertheless, it is not clear any warnings would have had much effect even if they had been interpreted correctly and much more promptly. The air portion of the attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time (3:18 a.m. December 8 Japanese Standard Time, as kept by ships of the Kido Butai), with the attack on Kaneohe. A total of 353 Japanese planes in two waves reached Oʻahu. Slow, vulnerable torpedo bombers led the first wave, exploiting the first moments of surprise to attack the most important ships present (the battleships), while dive bombers attacked U.S. air bases across Oʻahu, starting with Hickam Field, the largest, and Wheeler Field, the main U.S. Army Air Corps fighter base. The 171 planes in the second wave attacked the Air Corps' Bellows Field near Kaneohe on the windward side of the island, and Ford Island. The only air opposition came from a handful of P-36 Hawks and P-40 Warhawks.
Bombers preparing to take off

Men aboard U.S. ships awoke to the sounds of alarms, bombs exploding, and gunfire prompting bleary eyed men into dressing as they ran to General Quarters stations. (The famous message, "Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is not drill.", was sent from the headquarters of Patrol Wing Two, the first senior Hawaiian command to respond.) The defenders were very unprepared. Ammunition lockers were locked, aircraft parked wingtip to wingtip in the open to deter sabotage, guns unmanned (none of the Navy's 5"/38 AA and only a quarter of its machine guns, and only four of 31 Army batteries got in action). Despite this and low alert status, many American military personnel responded effectively during the battle.

B-17 after the attack on Hickam Field

Second WaveThe second wave consisted of 54 B5Ns, 81 D3As, and 36 A6Ms, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki.
  • 1st Group - 54 B5Ns armed with 249 kg and 54 kg general purpose bombs, (27 B5Ns — aircraft and hangars on Kaneohe, Ford Island, and Barbers Point,27 B5N - hangars and aircraft on Hickam Field).
  • 2nd Group - targets: aircraft carriers and cruisers, (81 D3As armed with 249 kg general purpose bombs, in four sections).
  • 3rd Group - targets: aircraft at Ford Island, Hickham Field, Wheeler Field, Barber’s Point, Kaneohe, (36 A6Ms for defense and strafing).
USS West Virginia took two aerial bombs and seven torpedo hits; of the seven at least five were from aircraft and one from a midget submarine

The second wave was divided into three groups. One was tasked to attack Kāneʻohe, the rest Pearl Harbor proper. The separate sections arrived at the attack point almost simultaneously, from several directions. Ninety minutes after it began, the attack was over. 2,386 Americans died (55 were civilians, most killed by unexploded American anti-aircraft shells landing in civilian areas), a further 1,139 wounded. Eighteen ships were sunk, including five battleships.

A photo taken from a Japanese plane during the attack shows vulnerable American battleships

Of the American fatalities, nearly half of the total were due to the explosion of USS Arizona's forward magazine after it was hit by a modified 40 cm (16in) shell. Already damaged by a torpedo and on fire forward, Nevada attempted to exit the harbor. She was targeted by many Japanese bombers as she got under way, sustaining more hits from 113 kg bombs as she was deliberately beached to avoid blocking the harbor entrance. USS California was hit by two bombs and two torpedoes. The crew might have kept her afloat, but were ordered to abandon ship just as they were raising power for the pumps. Burning oil from Arizona and West Virginia drifted down on her, and probably made the situation look worse than it was. The disarmed target ship USS Utah was holed twice by torpedoes. USS West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes, the seventh tearing away her rudder. USS Oklahoma was hit by four torpedoes, the last two above her belt armor, which caused her to capsize. USS Maryland was hit by two of the converted 40 cm shells, but neither caused serious damage.

USS California sinking

Although the Japanese concentrated on battleships (the largest vessels present), they did not ignore other targets. The light cruiser USS Helena was torpedoed, and the concussion from the blast capsized the neighboring minelayer USS Oglala. Two destroyers in dry dock were destroyed when bombs penetrated their fuel bunkers. The leaking fuel caught fire; flooding the dry dock in an effort to fight fire made the burning oil rise, and so the ships were burned out. The light cruiser USS Raleigh was holed by a torpedo. The light cruiser USS Honolulu was damaged but remained in service. The destroyer USS Cassin capsized, and destroyer USS Downes was heavily damaged. The repair vessel USS Vestal, moored alongside Arizona, was heavily damaged and beached. The seaplane tender USS Curtiss was also damaged. USS Shaw was badly damaged when two bombs penetrated her forward magazine.

The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese air raid

Of the 402 American aircraft in Hawaii, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged, 155 of them on the ground. Almost none were actually ready to take off to defend the base. Of 33 PBYs in Hawaii, 24 were destroyed, and six others damaged beyond repair. (The three on patrol returned undamaged.) Friendly fire brought down several U.S. planes on top of that, including some from an inbound flight from USS Enterprise. Japanese attacks on barracks killed additional personnel.

Hangar in Ford Island burns

Fifty-five Japanese airmen and nine submariners were killed in the action. Of Japan's 414 available planes, 29 were lost during the battle (nine in the first attack wave, 20 in the second), with another 74 damaged by antiaircraft fire from the ground.

USS Arizona sinking during the attack
Overall, nine ships of the U.S. fleet were sunk and twenty-one ships were severely damaged. Three of the twenty-one would be irreparable. The overall death toll reached 2,350, including 68 civilians, and 1,178 injured. Of the military personnel lost at Pearl Harbor, 1,177 were from the Arizona.
USS Pennsylvania, behind the wreckage of the USS Downes and USS Cassin.

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