Early on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941—a day that President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed would “live in infamy”—Japanese fighter pilots attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This surprise attack, which Japan undertook without a declaration of war, provoked the United States to end its neutral stance on World War II and join the Allies (Great Britain and the Soviet Union).
In early 1941, the Japanese government began a two-pronged strategy. Japanese diplomats in Washington, D.C., entered into negotiations regarding Japan’s desire for expansion in Asia; at the same time, the Japanese Navy was directed to develop plans for an attack on the Americans should the negotiations fail (which they did). Under the direction of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese outlined an attack on Pearl Harbor that would disable the U.S. fleet, while Japanese forces simultaneously launched invasions into Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.
At dawn on December 7, a Japanese task force was positioned 275 miles north of Hawaii. The first wave of 51 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers, and 43 escorting fighters took off without incident. As they approached Hawaii, they were detected on U.S. radar screens, but because the technology was new and the technicians poorly trained, the technicians were unable to read the size of the approaching force. They assumed it was a flight of B-17 bombers arriving from the U.S. mainland. Therefore, the Japanese were able to launch their attack with no warning given at the target. Just before 8:00 a.m. local time, when flight leader Mitsuo Fuchida saw the U.S. ships completely open to attack, he signaled the code words for success: “tora, tora, tora” (“tiger, tiger, tiger”).
Not until the bombs began to fall did the Americans respond. As “battle stations” sounded on the parked ships, the sailors operated whatever guns they could reach. There was little they could do as the attacking aircraft scored hits immediately. Four of the docked battleships were hit by torpedoes in the first five minutes, as the dive bombers and fighters attacked from above. Japanese fighter aircraft strafed U.S. aircraft parked at the half-dozen airfields on the island of Oahu. Only 38 U.S. aircraft were able to get airborne and engage the attackers, and 10 of those were shot down.
The first attack went on for 25 minutes and was followed by a second wave at 8:45 a.m. The second wave was less successful, suffered more casualties, and did little more than add finishing touches to the already battered U.S. ships. In all, the Japanese lost only 29 planes and 55 aircrew; they had expected to lose half their force. It was as complete a surprise attack as possible.
Pearl Harbor was the worst naval disaster in U.S. history, with more than 2,000 casualties, dozens of aircraft destroyed, and 16 ships damaged or destroyed (eight battleships, three destroyers, and three cruisers were disabled, and two battleships—the USS Oklahoma and the USS Arizona—were sunk). Moreover, the outrage of Americans was palpable after the attack. While Americans had previously been divided over whether to enter World War II or maintain a policy of isolationism, Japan’s surprise attack effectively ended the debate. On December 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared before Congress, where he called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy” and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. Congress complied; Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States on December 11.
John E. Findling and Frank W. Thackeray, Editors
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