Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor is one of the most well known military installations in the world. On December 7, 1941, Japanese fighter planes attacked the United States Naval base Pearl Harbor killing more than 2300 Americans. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had conceived the surprise attack. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the striking force of 353 Japanese aircraft. There had been no formal declaration of war. There were approximately 100 ships of the United States navy present that morning, and it was known as Battleship Row. Battleship Row consisted of battleships, destroyers, cruisers, and other various support ships. During the attack, more than 50 percent of the United States pacific fleet was out to sea including carriers.
Nearby Hickman Field also fell victim to the surprise attack by the Japanese. 18 Army air corps including bombers, and fighters and attack bombers were destroyed or damaged on the ground during the attack. A few United States fighters struggled into the air against the invaders and gave a good account of themselves. Ground fire and United States pilots from various military installations on the island of Oahu shot down a total of 29 Japanese fighters.
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The road to war between Japan and the United States began in the 1930s when differences over China drove the two nations apart. In 1931 Japan conquered Indonesia, which until then had been part of China. In 1937 Japan began a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to conquer the rest of China. In 1940 the Japanese government allied their country with Nazi Germany in the Axis Alliance, and, in the following year occupied all of Indonesia.
The United States, which had important political and economic interests in East Asia, was alarmed by these Japanese moves. The United States increased military and financial aid to China, created a program of strengthening its military power in the Pacific and cut off the shipment of oil and other raw materials to Japan.
Because Japan was poor in natural recourses its government viewed these steps, especially the embargo on oil, as a threat to the survival of the nation. Japans’ leaders responded by resolving to seize the resources and territories of Southeast Asia, even though that move would certainly result in war with the United States.
The problem with the plan was the danger posed by the United States Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto commander of the Japanese fleet devised a plan to immobilize the United States fleet at the outset of the war with a surprise attack.
The key elements in Yamamoto’s plan were meticulously prepared; the achievement was a surprise and the use of aircraft carriers and naval aviation on an unpredictable scale. In the spring of 1941 Japanese carrier pilots began training in the special tactics called for by the Pearl Harbor attack plan.
In October 1941 the naval general staff gave final approval of Admiral Yamamoto’s plan, which called for the formation of an attack force commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. It centred around six heavy aircraft carriers accompanied by 24 supporting vessels. A separate group of submarines was to sink any American warship, which escaped the Japanese carrier force.
Vice Admiral Nagumo’s fleet assembled in the remote anchorage of Tankan Bay in the Kurile Islands and departed in strictest secrecy for Hawaii on November 26, 1941. The ship’s route crossed the North Pacific and avoided normal shipping lanes. At dawn on December 7, 1941, the task force had approached undetected to a point slightly more than 200 miles north of Oahu. At 6:00 a.m. the six carriers launched the first wave of 181 planes composed of torpedo bombers, dive-bombers, horizontal bombers, and fighters. Even as they winged south, some elements of Unites States forces on Oahu realized that there was something different this Sunday morning.
In the hours before dawn, United States Navy vessels spotted an unidentified submarine periscope near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. It was attacked and reported sunk by the destroyer USS Ward and a patrol plane. At 7:00a.m. An alert operator of an Army radar station at Opana spotted the approaching first wave of the attack force. The officer to whom this report was relayed did not consider them significant enough to take action. The report of the submarine sinking was handled routinely, and the radar sighting was passed off as an approaching group of American planes due to arrive that morning.
The Japanese aircrews achieved complete surprise when they hit American ships and military installations on Oahu shortly after 8:00. They attacked military airfields at the same time they hit the fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. The Navy bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the army air corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler, and Hickman were all bombed and wounded as other elements of the attacking force began their assaults on ships moored in Pearl Harbor. The purpose of simultaneous attacks was to destroy planes before they could rise to intercept the Japanese fighters.
Of the more than 90 ships anchored in Pearl Harbor, the primary targets were the eight battleships. Seven were anchored on Battleship Row along the southeast shore of Ford Island while the USS Pennsylvania stuck in dry dock across the channel. Within the first minutes of the attack, all of the battleships adjacent to Ford Island had been bombed or hit by torpedo runs.
The USS West Virginia sank very fast. The USS Oklahoma capsized and sank. At about 8:10 A.M. the USS Arizona was severely wounded by an armour-piercing bomb, which ignited the ship’s forward ammunition magazine. The resulting explosion and fire killed 1,177 crewmembers, the greatest loss of life on any ship that day and about half the total Americans killed that day. The USS California, USS Maryland, USS Tennessee, and USS Nevada also suffered varying degrees of damage in the first 30 minutes of the raid.
There was a short silence in the fury of the attack at about 8:30 A.M. At that time the USS Nevada, despite its wounds, managed to get underway and move down the channel toward the open ocean. Before it could clear the harbour the second wave of 170 Japanese fighters, launched thirty minutes after the first, appeared over the harbour. They concentrated their attacks on the moving battleship, hoping to sink it in the channel to block the narrow entrance to Pearl Harbor. Following orders from the harbour control tower, the USS Nevada beached itself at hospital point and the channel remained clear.
When the attack ended shortly before 10:00, less than two hours after it began the American force shad paid a fearful price. 21 of the ships of the United States pacific fleet were either sunk or damaged: the battleships USS Arizona, USS California, USS Maryland, USS Nevada, USS Oklahoma, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee, and the USS West Virginia, cruisers USS Helena, USS Honolulu, USS Raleigh, the destroyers USS Cassin, USS Downes, USS Helm, and the USS Shaw; seaplane tender USS Curtis; target ship USS Utah; repair ship USS Vestal; minelayer USS Olga; tug USS Sotoyomo, and floating dry-dock number two.
Aircraft losses were one 188 destroyed and one hundred 59 damaged, and the majority of them were hit before they had a chance to take off. The American fatalities numbered 2403. That figure included 68 civilians, most of them killed by improperly fused anti-aircraft shells landing in Honolulu. There were 1178 military and civilian wounded. Japanese losses were comparatively light, and less than ten percent of the attacking force failed to return to their carriers. Just 29 were damaged or destroyed.
The Japanese success was overwhelming, but it was not complete. They failed to damage any United States aircraft carriers, which by a stroke of luck had been absent from the harbour that day. They neglected to damage any shore side facilities at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, which played an important role in the allied victory in World War II. American technology skill raised and repaired all but three of the ships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor during the first and second waves of the surprise attack.
The USS Arizona was considered too badly damaged to be salvaged; the USS Oklahoma was raised but was considered too old and costly to be worth repairing, and the outdated USS Utah was considered not worth the effort. Most importantly, the shock and anger caused by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor united a divided nation and was translated into a wholehearted commitment to victory in World War II.
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