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Category: Battles/WW2

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The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour; 7 Dec 1941

"A date which will live in infamy"

Although there was no Australian or New Zealand  participation in this action it is recorded here because it led to the USA entering the war. Had that not happened Australia and New Zealand would probably have fallen to the Japanese. 

If the Japanese had been content to attack British, Dutch, French, Australian & New Zealand  assets in the South West Pacific and leave the USA out of it the US would probably have stayed neutral. Japan would have won. They didn't. They lost.

Pearl Harbor, on the Island of O'ahu, Hawaii, (then a territory of the United States) was attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy, at approximately 8:00 A.M., Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. 

The surprise attack had been conceived by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The strike force of 353 Japanese aircraft was led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida. There had been no formal declaration of war.

Approximately 100 ships of the U.S. Navy were present that morning, consisting of battleships, destroyers, cruisers and various support ships.


3 different quotes showing 3 different attitudes.

  • Japanese Admiral Yamamoto: (before the attack) "If I am told to fight regardless of consequences, I shall run wild considerably for the first 6 months  or a year but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third years".
  • British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (after the attack). "So we had won after all. Yes after Dunkirk: after the Fall of France...after the threat of invasion...we had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; The Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end no man could tell, nor at this moment did I care. Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled and mutilated, safe and victorious".
  • British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (after the attack). "behind them lay a shattered fleet hidden in a pall of fire and smoke; and the vengeance of the United States".
  • US Navy Admiral "Bull" Halsey: (after the attack) "Before we're through with them the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell".

[Map of Pearl Harbor December 7th 1941]

USS Arizona  (BB39)  Battleship

Audio links

CBS radio broadcast

Presidents Address 1

Presidents Address 2

USS West Virginia  (BB48) Battleship
USS California  (BB44) Battleship
USS Oklahoma  (BB37) Battleship
USS Nevada (BB36) Battleship
USS Pennsylvania (BB38) Battleship (in dry dock #1)
USS Tennessee (BB43)   Battleship
USS Maryland (BB46) Battleship
USS Vestal (AR4)  Repair ship
USS Neosho (AO23) Oiler
USS Detroit (CL8) Light cruiser
USS Raleigh (CL7) Light cruiser
USS Utah (AG16)  Target Ship   
USS Tangier (AV8)   Seaplane Tender
  • Two destroyers, the USS Cassin (DD372) and the USS Downes (DD375) were in dry dock #1 (with the USS Pennsylvania) and the destroyer USS Shaw (DD373) was in floating dry dock #2, approximately two hundred yards to the west. 
  • The USS Ogala (CM-4) was moored next to the USS Helena (CL50) near the "1010" dock, Naval Ship yard. Two heavy cruisers, the USS New Orleans (CA32) and the San Francisco (CA38) were in the Navy Yard Repair Basin
  • Over half the U.S. Pacific fleet was out to sea, including the carriers.
  • Simultaneously, nearby Hickam Field was also the victim of the surprise attack by the Japanese.
  • 18 Army Air corps aircraft including bombers and fighters and attack bombers were destroyed or damaged on the ground. A few U.S. fighters struggled into the air against the invaders and gave a good account of themselves.
  • A total of twenty-nine Japanese aircraft were shot down by ground fire and U.S pilots from various military installations on O'ahu.
  • Of the eight battleships damaged during the attack, six returned to service.

Never before had a nation started a war with such colossal victories. Yet in August 1945, this same nation would suffer the most shattering defeat in the history of man, when the first atomic bombs exploded upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was to be the terrible price of Pearl harbour.

Sequence of Events The Road To Pearl Harbor

The attack on the military forces of the U.S. at Pearl Harbor Hawaii did not just happen nor was it a quick reaction to initiatives instituted by President Roosevelt. The Japanese believed that they were being pushed into a corner by Roosevelt and felt that they must act to protect the Empire. Gordon Prange in 'At Dawn We Slept' describes pre-attack events in detail. The description of these events note the mistakes made on each side.


July The Japanese Army invaded North China from Manchuria, eight years of combat with the Chinese began.

December The gunboat USS Panay, while on routine duty in Chinese waters, was attacked by Japanese aircraft. We do not know if the attack was intentional or an accident but Roosevelt looked for ways to punish Japan . Nothing became of this incident because the Japanese government apologized, paid for all damages, and promised to protect American nationals.


October With the continued German military rearmament program and European leadership capitulation at the Munich conference, President Roosevelt asked Congress for $500 Million to increase America's defence forces. This action was done because he believed that Germany was a threat to the U.S. The Japanese saw this build up as a direct threat to their Empire because, the U.S. was the only country in the Pacific which could impede their expansion.


February Japan continues its conquest of China by occupying Hainan Island of the Southern coast. This occupation improved Japans ability to interdict maritime trade routes.

Because the U.S. was the primary military threat in the Pacific, Japan had prepared war plans to deal with this problem, the U.S. had similar war plans aimed at Japan. The Japanese plan was to conduct one large naval battle against the American Navy, destroying it, resulting in the inability of the U.S. to interfere with Japanese expansion through out Asia. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto assumed command of the Japan's Combined Fleet in August of 1939. Having lived in America for several years he knew Americans, the type of people we were, he knew that this war plan was impractical. He needed a new plan which would remove the threat of U.S. intervention from his flank.


January Some time between January and March 1940 Yamamoto devised his plan to destroy the U.S. Navy in Hawaii and demoralize the American people. Prange asks the question 'Why did Yamamoto think that this attack would crush American morale since he knew them?' but he does not answer his own question. No actions were implemented to put the plan in action.

July Trade sanctions followed by a trade embargo were imposed resulting in increased ill-will and additional political problems with Japan. These trade actions were imposed because Roosevelt was attempting to stop Japanese expansion.


January Admiral Yamamoto begins communicating with other Japanese officers, asking them if an attack on Pearl Harbor would be possible. The final outcome of these discussions was the attack was possible but would be difficult.

Secrecy and surprise were the two elements which were most important to the success of this plan. With that said one wonders how secure was the flow of information around the Imperial Naval Staff, because on January 27, 1941 Joseph C. Grew, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, wired Washington that he had learned information that Japan, in the event of trouble with the U.S., was planning a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

No one in Washington believed the information, if someone had believed this information, the Pearl Harbor attack possibly could have been avoided. While many thought that war was possible, no one believed that the Japanese could surprise us.

Most senior American military experts believed that the Japanese would attack Manila in the Philippine Islands. Manila's location threatened the sea lanes of communications as the Japanese military forces moved south. Another thought to location of attack was toward the north into Russia because of the war in Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union.

February As the Japanese were conducting preliminary planning for the attack, Americans were preparing to defend American property. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, Commanding General of the Hawaiian Department prepared Hawaii for attack. Defence of the islands was an Army responsibility though the Navy did play a major role in preparing to repel an attack.

Adm. Kimmel planed on taking his fleet out of the harbor and confronting the enemy at sea.

With this in mind both officers communicated with their seniors in Washington attempting to obtain additional men and equipment to insure a proper defence of all military instillations on Oahu. At this time, war production of the U.S. was still limited resulting with the dispersal of material around the world trying to fill everyone's needs; Britain, Russia, the Philippines and Hawaii.

March Nagao Kita, Honolulu's new Consul General arrives on Oahu with Takeo Yoshikawa, a trained spy. As the military of both countries prepared for possible war, the planners needed information about the opponent.

The U.S. knew that Hawaii was full of Japanese intelligence officers but because of our constitutional rights very little could be done. Untrained agents like Kohichi Seki, the Honolulu consulate's treasurer, traveled around the island noting all types of information about the movement of the fleet. When the attack occurred the Japanese had a very clear picture of Pearl Harbor and where individual ships were moored.

April During the time period U.S. intelligence officers continued to monitor Japanese secret messages.

American scientists had developed a machine, code named 'Magic" which gave U.S. intelligence officers the ability to read Japanese secret message traffic. 'Magic' provided all types of high quality information but because of preconceived ideas in Washington some data was not followed up on and important pieces of the pre-attack puzzle were missed.

Japanese consular traffic was also intercepted which provided additional intelligence. While the U.S. had all the data needed to arrive at a clear picture of Japanese intentions, the Navy had an internal struggle between the Office of Naval Intelligence and the War Plans Division about which department should be the primary collection office. When the War Plans Division was finally designated the first in line for data, all of the Navy's intelligence collection was degraded .

To further complicate this problem the Army had its own Intel office, G-2. At times the Army and the Navy did not talk to each other, again reducing the ability to divine Japan's intentions. Finally, Washington did not communicate all the available information that was received to all commands, at times thinking that such a transmission would result in duplication. All in all the U.S. knew that Japan was going to expand its war but the question remained, where? If U.S. Intelligence people had communicated , preparations for the attack could have been improved,

May Admiral Nomura informed his superiors that he had learned Americans were reading his message traffic. No one in Tokyo believed that their code could have been broken. The code was not changed.

If the Japanese had changed their code, the surprise of the attack would have occurred as it did but would we have been as poorly prepared or could the result been worse? This mistake would have impacted follow on actions through 1942.

July Thought out the summer Yamamoto trained his forces. His staff and the Naval General Staff finalized the planning of the attack: what route to travel on, how much fuel would be required for the trip, what U.S. ships would be in the harbor and where they would be moored.

The Japanese planners also had to coordinate their own requirement of additional military action around Indochina. Which action was more important and which would provide the greatest gain had to be worked out.

November Tokyo sends Saburo Kurusu, an experienced diplomat to Washington as a special envoy to assist Ambassador Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, who continued to seek a diplomatic solution.

Japan wanted the U.S. to agree to its southern expansion diplomatically but if they were unsuccessful, they would go to war.

On the 16th the first units, submarines, involved in the attack departed Japan.

On the 26th the main body, aircraft carriers and escorts, began the transit to Hawaii.

Saturday, December 6 - Washington D.C. - U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt makes a final appeal to the Emperor of Japan for peace. There is no reply. Late this same day, the U.S. code-breaking service begins intercepting a 14-part Japanese message and deciphers the first 13 parts, passing them on to the President and Secretary of State. The Americans believe a Japanese attack is imminent, most likely somewhere in Southeast Asia.

Sunday, December 7 - Washington D.C. - The last part of the Japanese message, stating that diplomatic relations with the U.S. are to be broken off, reaches Washington in the morning and is decoded at approximately 9 a.m. About an hour later, another Japanese message is intercepted. It instructs the Japanese embassy to deliver the main message to the Americans at 1 p.m. The Americans realize this time corresponds with early morning time in Pearl Harbor, which is several hours behind. The U.S. War Department then sends out an alert but uses a commercial telegraph because radio contact with Hawaii is temporarily broken. Delays prevent the alert from arriving at headquarters in Oahu until noontime (Hawaii time) four hours after the attack has already begun.

Sunday, December 7 - Islands of Hawaii, near Oahu - The Japanese attack force under the command of Admiral Nagumo, consisting of six carriers with 423 planes, is about to attack. At 6 a.m., the first attack wave of 183 Japanese planes takes off from the carriers located 230 miles north of Oahu and heads for the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor - At 7:02 a.m., two Army operators at Oahu's northern shore radar station detect the Japanese air attack approaching and contact a junior officer who disregards their reports, thinking they are American B-17 planes which are expected in from the U.S. west coast.

Near Oahu - At 7:15 a.m., a second attack wave of 167 planes takes off from the Japanese carriers and heads for Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor is not on a state on high alert. Senior commanders have concluded, based on available intelligence, there is no reason to believe an attack is imminent. Aircraft are therefore left parked wingtip to wingtip on airfields, anti-aircraft guns are unmanned with many ammunition boxes kept locked in accordance with peacetime regulations. There are also no torpedo nets protecting the fleet anchorage. And since it is Sunday morning, many officers and crewmen are leisurely ashore.

At 7:53 a.m., the first Japanese assault wave, with 51 'Val' dive bombers, 40 'Kate' torpedo bombers, 50 high level bombers and 43 'Zero' fighters, commences the attack with flight commander, Mitsuo Fuchida, sounding the battle cry: "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!).

The Americans are taken completely by surprise. The first attack wave targets airfields and battleships. The second wave targets other ships and shipyard facilities. The air raid lasts until 9:45 a.m. Eight battleships are damaged, with five sunk. Three light cruisers, three destroyers and three smaller vessels are lost along with 188 aircraft. The Japanese lose 27 planes and five midget submarines which attempted to penetrate the inner harbor and launch torpedoes.

Escaping damage from the attack are the prime targets, the three U.S. Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, Lexington, Enterprise and Saratoga, which were not in the port. Also escaping damage are the base fuel tanks.

The casualty list includes 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians killed, with 1,178 wounded. Included are 1,104 men aboard the Battleship USS Arizona killed after a 1,760-pound air bomb penetrated into the forward magazine causing catastrophic explosions.

In Washington, various delays prevent the Japanese diplomats from presenting their war message to Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, until 2:30 p.m. (Washington time) just as the first reports of the air raid at Pearl Harbor are being read by Hull.

News of the "sneak attack" is broadcast to the American public via radio bulletins, with many popular Sunday afternoon entertainment programs being interrupted. The news sends a shockwave across the nation and results in a tremendous influx of young volunteers into the U.S. armed forces. The attack also unites the nation behind the President and effectively ends isolationist sentiment in the country.

Monday, December 8 - The United States and Britain declare war on Japan with President Roosevelt calling December 7, "a date which will live in infamy..."

Thursday, December 11 - Germany and Italy declare war on the United States. The European and Southeast Asian wars have now become a global conflict with the Axis powers; Japan, Germany and Italy, united against America, Britain, France, and their Allies.

Wednesday, December 17 - Admiral Chester W. Nimitz becomes the new commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Both senior commanders at Pearl Harbor; Navy Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, and Army Lt. General Walter C. Short, were relieved of their duties following the attack. Subsequent investigations will fault the men for failing to adopt adequate defense measures.

Post attack notes

  • Of the ships in the Japanese attack fleet only one, a destroyer, survived the war.
  • All bar one of the US battleships damaged or sunk in the attack were recovered and went back to war, fully primed to "get square".
  • The US air-craft carrier fleet was not at Pearl Harbour during the attack so escaped damage. They provided the base for the fight-back.
  • Of the Japanese air-craft carriers that took part in the attack, 4 were sunk at Midway, another 2 were sunk in 1944 and the Japanese battleships were sunk at Guadalcanal. 



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