Pearl Harbour Pictures courtesy of JSCSC Library, Crown Copyright
Hawaii had been discovered by Europeans in mid-1700s. They became a US territory in 1900 but were not made a state until 1959. Japan had taken notice of these islands as a potential threat to their expansion in the Pacific. Since the turn of the century, Japan had been expanding and modernising its military forces. This of course had increased its demand for natural resources (steel, oil, gas, raw materials and minerals) and its sires and actually turned south-west and south-east to China, Indo-China and the Pacific Rim. While Russia had traditionally been viewed as a major threat to Japanese interests in Asia, as the years passed, the American and European presence in the area increased to the point at which they became the greater threat.
The Japanese felt that the Europeans were limiting the growth of their empire, and as Japan continued to expand, European resistance coalesced and hardened which in turn supported the Japanese fears of intervention and limitation. In the United States, Congress placed restrictions on business for Japan and then the US Pacific Fleet relocated from its original home on the West Coast to the base at Pearl Harbor. With US fleet now based in Hawaii, the Japanese interest in Hawaii started to grow. as the situation got worse, Japan felt it was being strangled economically and besieged politically. The outbreak of war in Europe between Britain and France on the one hand, and Germany and Italy on the other meant that their attention would now be focused on events on the other side of the world from Japan. The United States did not however enter the war and chose to remain neutral. The Japanese wondered if, in their desire to remain neutral, the Americans would overlook the Japanese expansion in Asia. As the Japanese and American spheres of influence grew, the two countries moved onto a collision course: the former needed to grow, the latter wanted to maintain the status quo. The situation worsened and nationalistic distrust heightened to the point where a confrontation was inevitable.
For many years, the Japanese had believed in a theory called the 'Great All-Out War' with the US Navy. The roots of this originated in their great victories of Port Arthur and Tsushima, where the Japanese Navy had defeated the Russian fleet. The theory posited that the two fleets would sail towards one another (led by battleships) and engage in a sea battle the likes of which had never been seen before. Japanese warships had been thoughtfully designed to better their American counterparts and so give them an edge in the event they should meet in combat. Within the Japanese Navy however, there was a rift between those who still believed in the supremacy of the battleship and held true to the 'Great All-Out War' theory and those that had seen the British success at Taranto and believed that naval air power was now becoming dominant.
In early 1941 Yamamoto began the preparation for the Japanese conquest of the resource-rich areas of Asia. This was called the Southern Operation and one of its components comprised an attack on Pearl Harbor. The plans were clear; if the negotiations had not succeeded by the 23rd November 1941, a military solution would be sought. A code, tied to weather forecasts was devised and legations notified. If the weather report mentioned 'east wind, rain', it meant that the negotiations had broken down, the code machines in the United States were to be destroyed, and the attack on Hawaii was to commence. The Japanese Navy had detailed plans of Pearl Harbor has the naval base was in plain view of the city, and visitors could take aerial sightseeing trips over it. Espionage became a matter of merely looking, recording and keeping track of naval movements. And within a few months, operatives at the Japanese embassy had a complete record of all the vessels stationed at Pearl Harbor, their schedules, which were under repair or being overhauled, which had left for duty at sea and the disposition of combat aircraft.
The military plan consisted of three phases. Phase one was the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, wherein lies the US Pacific Fleet and extend the perimeter of Japan's sphere of influence to include Wake Island, the Gilberts, the northern Solomons, most of New Guinea (which would constitute a threat to Australia), Java, Sumatra, Malaya, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines and Borneo. Phase two was to strengthen military dispositions on the perimeter and Phase 3 was to defend the new perimeter against external threats. Simultaneous attacks were to destroy the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, and occupy the Philippines and Malaya. From there are the army would thrust towards Java, as well as invading Wake Island, Thailand, Guam and Hong Kong.
The plan of attack on Pearl Harbor called for a concentrated assault using a combination of dive bombers, high altitude bombing and torpedo attacks. The crews began training and while their proficiency in dive bombing and high altitude bombing improved, the proficiency of the crews who manned the torpedo bombers did not improve, the reason being that the harbour was too shallow for conventional torpedoes. United States knew of the successful British torpedo attack at Taranto but did not put out torpedo nets in Pearl Harbor as they accepted that, as the Japanese had found out, the harbour was too shallow for conventional torpedoes. As Japan had identified bombing and torpedo runs as the most effective way to neutralise the US Pacific Fleet, a solution had to be found to the problem of their Model II torpedoes penetrating too deeply into the water and becoming stuck in the mud. Generally, the pilots were dropping torpedoes, which hit the water and sank to a depth of 20 metres. Practice was gradually improving this level, but the pilots could not achieve a requirement of 10 metres, as set out by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida and Commander Minoru Genda. In despair, they studied the situation and eventually came up with a clever but simple solution - the bombers would use torpedoes with added wooden fins. The fins would give the torpedo additional stability and enough extra buoyancy to successfully drop from an aircraft into shallow water. The modified torpedoes sunk to only 12 metres on average and operated on a straight and narrow course, which was a bonus.
Once the Japanese had fitted wooden fins and began practising with them, their proficiency rose dramatically. The Japanese had broken Pearl Harbor into five distinct areas: A (between Ford Island and the Navy Yard); B (the northwest part of Ford Island); C (East Loch); D (Middle Loch) and E (West Loch). Area A was subdivided into five additional areas: the docks north-west of the Navy Yard, the area mooring pillars, the area Navy Yard repair dock, the docks and the remaining area.
In early December the Japanese knew that Oklahoma, Nevada, Enterprise, two heavy cruisers and 12 destroyers had left Pearl Harbor, while five battleships, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, 12 destroyers and a seaplane tender had entered the base. There seemed to be no unusual activity, which indicated that the United States was preparing for an attack and shore leaves had been granted as usual. Oklahoma and Nevada eventually arrived back in the harbour, while Lexington and five cruisers departed. The total number of ships reported to be at Pearl, were eight battleships, three light cruisers, 16 destroyers and four Honolulu class light cruisers. Reports indicated that there were no balloons up, no blackout in force, no torpedo nets deployed and no flight patrols in evidence. Each part of the attacking task force had responsibility for specific areas and targets.
As the deadline for the completion of negotiations approached, Japanese naval vessels slipped out of their anchorages in small groups to rendezvous at Tankan Bay in Etorofu (in the Kurile Islands). If the negotiations were unsuccessful, they would sail on 26th November following a northerly route to avoid accidental sightings, refuel on 3rd December and then proceed towards Pearl Harbor with a destroyer screen which had orders to sink any vessels, to keep this attack a secret at any cost. Dummy transmissions would be kept up from near the Japanese mainland in order to Allied intelligence that the feet were still in Japanese waters.
The task force sailed on 26th November as planned, while maintaining radio silence. Admiral I Yamamoto sent Vice Admiral C Nagumo the coded message 'Niitaka yama nobore' (Climb Mount Niitaka) to say that the attacks would go forward as planned. Nagumo received a telegram on 2nd December 1941 that told him to open a top secret envelope, the contents of which told him that the Japanese empire had decided to go to war against United States, Britain and Holland. The date was set for 8th December (7th December, Pearl Harbor time). As the fleet headed for Pearl Harbor, the Japanese task force waited for an amendment, a retraction of the order or an encounter which would warn the Americans, but nothing happened. In the early hours of Sunday 7th December 1941 the first planes started to take off from the Japanese carriers. The events that would follow would change the course of the Second World War.
Two Japanese seaplanes were launched from cruisers among the task force and proceeded to wing their way towards Lahaina and to Pearl Harbor to report on the target areas and the conditions they found there, in effect, breaking radio silence. Their mission was in fact the last chance for the Japanese Navy to abort the planned attack if it was deemed necessary.
As dawn broke on a fair Sunday, the Japanese task force swung to port and headed into the 14-knot wind. The carrier's increased speed to around 24 knots and started to make preparations to launch the first wave. Meanwhile, south of Pearl Harbor, 18 SBDs took off from the carrier USS Enterprise on a routine scouting mission that would take them to Ford Island. Although the crews were aware of the worsening relations between United States and Japan, the mission seemed routine and they planned to arrive in time for breakfast. The Enterprise lay some 200 miles south of Oahu and was heading home. Over 200 miles north of Oahu, the planes of the first wave from the Japanese carriers took off, formed up into a V formation and headed south-south-east towards their primary target of the Pearl Harbor naval base.
The crew of the USS Antares spotted what they thought was a submarine and notified the USS Ward at around 0630 hours. A PBY was launched from Oahu and when Ward arrived on seen, the duty officer, Lieutenant Outerbridge, saw what appeared to be a submarine's conning tower breaking the surface. As the vessel did not surface or attempt to communicate, Outerbridge followed standing orders and assumed the unidentified vessel was hostile. The Ward opened fire at 0645 hours and hit the conning tower with one round. The PBY joined the attack and the Ward fired depth charges along its projected course. The submarine did not resurface and at 0653 the Ward sent a coded signal to the 14th Naval District headquarters to say that they had engaged a submarine. At 0706 hours the Ward dropped more depth charges and spotted a black oil slick on the surface.
Hawaiian radio stations often broadcast music all night when aircraft were expected to be flying in from the United States mainland. This was one such night. The signal broadcast by the station was loud and clear to the approaching Japanese aircraft who used it as a directional locater. Just after 0700 hours, privates Lockhard and Elliott who were manning the mobile US army radar post at Opana saw were a blip on the screen which represented a sizable force of unidentifiable aircraft. They wondered where they could be from and whether the radar stations equipment was operating correctly as such a blip represented a force of over 50 aircraft. At 0710 hours, Elliott notified headquarters at Fort Shafter and discussed the sighting with Lieutenant Tyler. By this time the blip was 72 miles out and closing. At 0715 hours the duty officers of the 14th Naval District and Admiral Kimmel received outer bridge's message which had been delayed in decoding. Just over 200 miles north of Oahu, the second wave of Japanese attack aircraft started to take off (168 in all). Lieutenant Tyler decided that the blip was probably the B-17s which were scheduled to arrive from mainland. He told them that things were OK and to shutdown the radar station. Uneasy about this, the two privates continue to monitor the blips approach. The time was 0720 hours.
At 0730 hours Washington time, the final instalment of the 14-part message was deciphered in Washington and sent to Admiral Stark. Bratton had assembled the entire message, when a short intercept arrived from Togo to Ambassador Nomura instructing him to submit the Japanese Government's reply at 1pm on the 7th, his time. Bratton tries to reach General George C Marshall but was unable to do so until 1030 hours Washington time. Krone casually noted that, with the time difference, it would be 0730 hours in Pearl Harbor. Marshall's telegram to Short arrived in Honolulu but was not identified as a priority message and was given to RCA Messenger Tadao Fuchikami at 0733 hours to deliver in the normal course of his morning rounds.
At 0738 hours a reconnaissance 'Jake' from the Chikuma sent a visual confirmation that the main US fleet was in Pearl Harbor as well as weather conditions over the target. A second reconnaissance plane reported that no enemy ships were in the Lahaina and proceeded to sweep wide to the south in an attempt to catch the American carriers, but did not fly far enough and the Enterprise remained undiscovered. By 0739 hours Elliott and Lockhard had lost a large blip in the radar blind zone caused by the hills to the south of the radar station. 10 minutes later Commander Fuchida commanding the first wave with 183 aircraft, gave the signal for his pilots to deploy into attack formation by firing a single shot from his flare gun, which was intended to signify that the torpedo bombers were to attack. Then Fuchida wondered if Suganami had missed the signal and fired another flare. This was misunderstood by Takahashi who thought that the dive-bombers would strike first. Murata had observed both shots and saw Takahashi's plane move into attack formation. He realised that a misunderstanding had occurred, but because it could not be rectified he ordered his torpedo group into the attack. Four minutes later at 0753 hours Fuchida radioed the task force on a broad band with a code word 'Tora Tora Tora' (Tiger Tiger Tiger) indicating that their approach had been a success and the US forces at Pearl Harbor had been caught by surprise.
At 0748 hours, Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station came under attack and shortly thereafter, Wheeler Field, Bellows Field, Hickam Field and Ewa Marine Air Corps Station were hit. Torpedo bombers began their runs against Battleship Row and more bombers hit Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station. On this particular Sunday morning, everything at the naval base and the surrounding installations was business as usual with chapel services having been planned, mess halls and galleries laying out breakfast, launches to and from the shore been readied and watches been changed. At 0755 hours, Lieutenant Commander Logan Ramsey stood at the Ford Island command centre watching the colour guard hoist the flag. A plane buzzed them and dropped an object which exploded in a hangar. Ramsey ran to the command centre and ordered the radioman to send a signal that read 'Air Raid. Pearl Harbor. This is no drill'.
Japanese torpedo bombers dived, levelled and dropped their deadly cargoes into the water. Torpedo wakes streaked across the harbour towards moored vessels. Surprise was complete and confusion reigned everywhere. Crews were awakened to the sound of General Quarters but torpedoes and bombs had begun already to find their targets. West of Ford Island, Utah and Raleigh reeled under torpedo hits as did Oklahoma on Battleship Row. East of Ford Island both the USS Helena and USS Oglala were hit by torpedoes while the USS Vestal took two bomb hits but a torpedo that was fired at the ship went deep going under the keel and instead hit the USS Arizona, blowing the bottom out of the ship. The Arizona was then hit by a bomb in the forward magazine and the resultant fireball was so powerful as to knock a number of sailors off the deck of the Vestal. The USS Oklahoma received multiple torpedo hits and started to list badly as Commander J L Kenworthy gave the order to abandon ship. The USS California, which was moored nearby received a torpedo impact that rocked the ship.
The attacks continued relentlessly. Arizona received another bomb hit and sank trapping over a thousand sailors beneath decks, while the Oklahoma was hit by a fourth torpedo and capsized. Neosho, which was unloading high octane aviation fuel, made preparations to get underway as if she was hit, she would devastate vessels that were moored nearby, including, Tennessee, West Virginia and Maryland. Gradually more and more warships began to get under way. Utah sank. Unarmed B-17s arrived from the United States, as did the SBDs from the USS Enterprise. Many were attacked by Japanese aircraft or hit by anti-aircraft fire. Meanwhile, Nevada had been hit by a torpedo and had started to list to port despite putting up a spirited defence. The crew managed to get her underway however, and she started to limp towards the harbour entrance. A second torpedo struck California.
By this time the airbase at Hickam Field had been badly damaged from air attack with two-thirds of its aircraft being destroyed or put out of action. Back in the harbour, West Virginia was struck twice and started to list to port and then promptly received a bomb hit which set her No. 3 turret ablaze. Captain Bennion was mortally wounded by shrapnel and was tended by Lieutenant Commander Johnson and Mess Attendant Dorian Miller (who happened to be Fleet Boxing Champion). Bennion died moments later and Miller manned an anti-aircraft machine gun as West Virginia received another hit. Admiral Kimmel who had seen the attacks go in from his home, sent a message to the Pacific Fleet and Washington DC stating that hostilities had opened with Japan through an air raid on the naval base.
The USS Helm had struggled free, exited the harbour and attempted to engage a Japanese submarine without success. KGMB sent out a third call for military personnel to report for duty. Rumours abounded in Honolulu with many fearing invasion. Neosho cleared Battleship Row and sought refuge in near Merry's Point in the Southeast Loch. The USS Monaghan and USS Curtiss left West Loch and headed for the harbour entrance. As they did so, the second Japanese wave arrived.
Nevada continued to make for the open sea, as did the Monaghan and the Curtiss. Both ships tried to engage a submarine that had been spotted in the vicinity and managed to damage it, forcing it to the surface at which point the Monaghan rammed the sub along its side and dropped depth charges on the spot. The sub surfaced and took hits from Curtiss' 5in and 0.5in guns. The Monaghan immediately dropped two depth charges which lifted the ship's stern out of the water but blew the bow off the sub. Curtis and Monaghan were joined by the USS Blue who began patrolling and engaged an unidentified contact with depth charges. Aircraft of the second wave hit Bellows Field (4th Fighter Unit) causing more mayhem and destruction to the 44th Squadron who was based there and then Kaneohe. Airbase personnel who had begun to move undamaged aircraft away from burning hangers and to fight fires had to run for their lives as the aircraft of the second wave came in.
Wheeler Field had been a primary target for the first wave and as the aircraft of the second wave came in they found the skies full of their colleagues. Many turned to finding alternative targets including the Marine Air Corps Station at Ewa Field. This too had already been attacked but the second wave completed the task and devastated the airfield's facilities, as well as leaving many of the Wildcats, scout bombers and utility aircraft burning. Both Hickam Field and Ford Island were hit again and dive-bombers of the second wave started to seek out targets that had survived the first wave, particularly the capital ships in the harbour.
The USS Pennsylvania was hit by a bomb, as was the USS Cassin and USS Downes who both caught fire with Cassin suffering an explosion in her magazine which caused her to roll against Downes. The USS Shaw was also hit a number of times. The USS Maryland continued to try and struggle free of the Oklahoma, which had capsized and burning oil was floating toward California. The USS Raleigh was badly damaged by two successive hits aft and threatened to capsize. Argonne, Vestal and Oglala were all in trouble, Vestal eventually having to beach in a coral reef at Aiea and Oglala eventually capsizing and settling on the port side. Honolulu was badly damaged and started taking in water. The USS St Louis however had only moderate damage and managed to get underway and escape the harbour before engaging a Japanese submarine which it sank.
The Japanese could be pleased with the damage and devastation they had wrought, with the exception that they had missed out on destroying the Oil Storage facilities near Pearl Harbor NAS and the Naval Yard. Fuchida flew over the Naval Base to study the results of the attack and to round up stragglers. After the last aircraft had left he turned and headed for the fleet. Governor Poindexter issued a state of emergency for all the islands and surviving US aircraft took off to hunt for the Japanese fleet, which they were unable to find. Small boats and US Navy PT boats joined in picking up survivors around the harbour. The first Japanese wave started landing at 1000 hours while the second wave finished touching down at 1300 hours. Fuchida and Nagumo discussed the option of sending the third wave, but Nagumo decided that they had done well enough and that the American defence would be fully alert and so declined to send he third wave. At 1330 hours Akagi sent a message for the task force to withdraw. Finally, at 1145 hours, Fuchikami delivered the message from Washington to General Short's headquarters but it had yet to be decoded and would not be seen by Short until later that afternoon, far too late to be of use.
The direct result of the attack was that the battleship was no longer viewed as the decisive weapon in naval warfare - its day had come and gone much as the horse cavalry had done. Its place had been taken by the aircraft carrier and the complement of fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo bombers that it carried. The United States was no longer neutral, but an active participant. Chances are it would have entered the Second World War eventually anyway (whether in time to help the UK is another matter), probably coming into conflict with Japan sooner or later. Yamamoto was correct when he stated the attack would awake a sleeping giant in that it unified the American people against a common enemy. The Japanese were right however in guessing that the United States was the biggest threat to their expansion. The USA would have eventually entered the Second World War but the attack on Pearl Harbor would mean that they would enter it while it was only some two years old and there was time enough to help Britain and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. In terms of the Pacific War it would take three long years and a great deal of blood and sacrifice on both sides before the Allies earned their final victory when the unconditional surrender of Japan was signed at 0903 hours, 2nd September 1945 aboard the USS Missouri. Pearl Harbor became an icon Americans could rally to, in much the same way as earlier generations had rallied to such calls as 'Remember the Alamo'.