The Devastating Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor

The Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a stunning blow to the United States. As the site of the US Pacific fleet, the garrison was completely caught off guard and unprepared for the attack.

Japan’s attack happened in a flash and was over in an instant. When the dust settled, thousands of servicemen were killed and dozens of ships damaged or sunk.

The lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor was decades in the making. Japan began its ascent to world power status with the Meiji Restoration in the late 20th century. After a shocking victory over the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Western nations were forced to reckon with the emerging Japanese power.

Tensions between the United States and Japan were inevitable. The resource-poor Japanese sought to emulate the Western powers and expand their sphere of influence with colonies in Eastern Asia.

Japan and the Western nations increasingly squabbled over their share of East Asian colonies, markets, and natural resources. This came to a head in 1931 when the Japanese attacked the Manchuria region of China.

The US responded with the Stimson Doctrine; a policy in support of Chinese sovereignty and denouncing Japanese aggression. However, the doctrine was ineffective due to the failure to enact any impactful material consequences on Japan.

As Japan further acted upon its imperial ambitions, the US increasingly enacted more forceful economic sanctions and embargoes. As much as 70% of all Japanese trade was cut off, and 90% of its oil supply was cut off by late 1941.

The escalating moves would soon erupt into war between the two nations, beginning with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Japan’s Plan to Attack Pearl Harbor

To Japan, war with the United States was inevitable. It was also a war Japan knew it could not win in the long run. The size differences and industrial capacity of the two countries were incomparable with the US holding a major advantage.

The mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor was Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Yamamoto was Harvard-educated, fluent in English, and had traveled extensively around the United States to learn American customs and norms.

Yamamoto had great respect for America and knew the latent power it wielded. To his superiors, he consistently warned against war with the United States, knowing on level ground they could not win. He would remark:

“Anyone who has seen the auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with America.”

Nevertheless, Yamamoto followed his orders and planned the eventual attack on the United States. He knew that in order to have any shot at victory over the US, Japan must cripple the US Navy, place the US on the defensive, and utilize the time it took for the US to recover to entrench themselves on the resource-rich East Asian territories held by the Western powers.

Yamamoto chose to attack Pearl Harbor – the location housing the US Pacific Fleet. Better yet, a surprise attack could catch the US off-guard and potentially prove to be a “knock-out” blow and eliminate the US naval threat.

Aerial view of Pearl Harbor just before attack

While later admitting the plan was “conceived in desperation,” Yamamoto had high hopes that success could lead to lower American morale and eventual peace terms on a more level playing field. 

When Was Pearl Harbor Attacked?

Yamamoto’s master plan to attack Pearl Harbor was to take place at dawn on December 7, 1941. The Japanese strike force consisted of 353 aircraft flying off their 4 heavy aircraft carriers. Included was a mix of torpedo, level, and dive bombers as well as fighters, each to serve their own purpose.

The Japanese intended for their declaration of war on the United States to reach them 30 minutes before the attack so as not to break articles from the Hague Convention. Due to delays, the US did not receive the declaration until after the attack was in progress.

There is scholarly debate as to whether this was the Japanese intent, so as to not ruin their element of surprise. In some interpretations, the letter did not even consist of a declaration of war, just an end to negotiations.

Nevertheless, the attack on Pearl Harbor proceeded with the first Japanese planes arriving at 7:55am. At the same time, Japan launched invasions of Malaya which would eventually lead to the critical Battle of Singapore.

A radar operator on the Hawaiian island of Oahu actually spotted the incoming Japanese planes, though a superior mistook them for American bombers. This mistake would prove costly. The entire attack at Pearl Harbor only lasted one hour and fifteen minutes.

Explosion of the USS Shaw

In that time the Japanese inflicted a critical blow to the US Pacific Fleet, catching the naval base completely off guard over two separate waves of attack. The results would be shocking.

How Many People Died at Pearl Harbor?

In the attack there were 2,335 US servicemen killed as well as 68 civilians, bringing the total dead at Pearl Harbor to 2,403. The US Navy bore the brunt of the carnage with 2,008 dead. The Army and Marines had 218 and 109 men killed, respectively.

Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor Casualties by Service chart

In addition there were another 1,178 wounded, bringing the total casualties to 3,581. The primary objective of the Japanese was to destroy as many US carriers and battleships as possible, hence the lopsided casualties by service.

The vast majority of the casualties came from the sinking of one ship: the USS Arizona. At the beginning of the attack the USS Arizona was hit by four armor-piercing bombs, the last of which exploded in a powder magazine, exploding the ship. It sank within 15 minutes of the attack, killing 1,177 of its crew members.

The USS Oklahoma was also a large loss. After getting hit by 5 torpedo bombs it capsized, killing 429 sailors.

A vast majority of those killed at Pearl Harbor were junior enlisted personnel. Officers lived in houses on the mainland, so those on the ships at those early hours were mainly enlisted servicemen.

In all, 8 battleships were sunk or severely damaged with numerous other naval ships such as cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliaries damaged or sunk as well. In addition, almost half the aircraft on the island were destroyed, with another third critically damaged. Most never even made it off the ground.

In the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese lost only 29 aircraft and 129 men were killed. After the second wave, the attackers considered their mission a success and returned back to Japan due to low fuel reserves.

How Pearl Harbor Changed America

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a resounding victory for the Japanese. Yamamoto was worshipped back in Japan for formulating the plan against the Americans.

In reality, while Pearl Harbor was a significant tactical victory it would ultimately prove to be an enormous strategic mistake.

In a stroke of luck for the United States, their 3 Pacific aircraft carriers were all out at sea and not present during the attack. Carriers would ultimately be the decisive ships of the Pacific theatre and with the US carrier fleet intact they could respond more quickly.

Just six months later, two of these three carriers would be used in the critical Battle of Midway.

In addition in their attempt to cripple the American fleet, the Japanese failed to destroy critical infrastructure at Pearl Harbor. With this infrastructure in place, the US was able to quickly repair nearly all the damaged ships and return them to service quicker than Japan thought possible.

Amazingly only two ships (Arizona and Oklahoma) were permanently destroyed and taken out of service.

In addition, the attack united America in its resolve to finally enter World War II. After the “date which will live in infamy” the nation transformed literally overnight from isolationist to over 97% supporting entering the war. Young men rushed to enlist in the military seeking vengeance against the Japanese.

The United States would soon ramp up its wartime economy and prove Yamamoto correct that Japan stood no chance against the United States once its industry reached full capacity.

The attack on Pearl Harbor would eventually lead to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The attack meant to secure Japan’s future ultimately would lead to the end of the rising sun.

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