Pearl Harbor Attack

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Pearl Harbor Attack

December 7, 1941, was called a “day which will live in infamy” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). On that day, Japan conducted a surprise attack on the U.S. naval fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii . Though the United States had avoided participating militarily in World War II (1939–45) up to that point, the attack destroyed the U.S. fleet and provoked the United States to enter the war.

The importance of Pearl Harbor

The United States has a naval base on the south coast of the Hawaiian Island of Oahu at Pearl Harbor. In 1887, before Hawaii was an American territory, the Hawaiian government granted the United States exclusive rights to use this area as a naval fueling and repair station.

Gradually over the years, the United States expanded Pearl Harbor to include naval, military, and aircraft bases. The bases had ammunition dumps, machine shops, radio towers, fuel oil storage facilities, and bar racks for the military and naval personnel stationed there. By 1941, Pearl Harbor was large enough to accommodate the entire U.S. fleet in the Pacific Ocean. It served as an important defense post for Hawaii and for the west coast of the United States.

Tensions with Japan

Throughout the 1930s, Japan pursued an aggressive policy of expansion into China. In pursuit of natural materials for its industries, Japan seized Manchuria, on China's eastern seaboard. Eventually it moved to attack the mainland of China, and by 1939 Japan had gained power over much of it.

As the Western world was distracted by German aggression in Europe, Japan began to consider further attacks. With the signing of the Tripartite Pact in September 1940, Japan officially became part of the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy. By summer 1941, Japan had gained power in Indochina, and was threatening to take Thailand, Russia's Siberian provinces, the British bastion of Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.

As Japan extended its influence in Asia, the United States was unwilling to oppose Japan by force. The United States wanted to avoid military conflict in Asia and was more concerned with the threat of Germany in Europe. Trying to avoid a two-ocean war, the United States instead attempted both diplomatic talks and economic sanctions in Japan. It imposed an embargo on shipping aviation fuel to Japan in August 1940, followed by similar restrictions on the export of scrap iron and steel in September.

On October 18, 1941, an even more militant Japanese government took power. At this time, diplomatic efforts between the two countries began to fail. The United States's economic sanctions were forcing Japan to choose peace or war within a year, when its oil reserves would be depleted.

Meanwhile U.S. intelligence gathered bits of evidence that the Japanese were planning a surprise attack against the United States. While there were few specific details about the plan, it was known that Japan would attack when diplomatic efforts failed. On November 10, 1941, the Japanese presented a final proposal to the United States. The United States felt it was unacceptable and on November 26 made an alternative offer. Japan rejected it, and diplomacy came to an end.

Japanese military actions

Evidence suggests that the Japanese had expected diplomatic efforts to fail. Though talks lasted through 1941, early that year the Japanese began tactical preparation for an attack on Pearl Harbor. Pilots began training for the attack by September. To cope with the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, Japan devised wooden torpedoes and new methods for their delivery. Abundant intelligence was gathered about the movements of the U.S. Pacific fleet, and extensive measures were taken to preserve secrecy.

In early November, while final negotiations continued with the United States, a special task force of thirty-one Japanese vessels gathered in the southern Kurile Islands northeast of Japan. Six aircraft carriers carried 432 airplanes. Their movements continued to a place 275 miles north of Pearl Harbor, where they awaited final orders. On December 2, the plan was confirmed and the fleet advanced.

December 7, 1941

At 7:55 am on December 7, the first wave of Japanese bombers began to attack U.S. airfields and the Pacific fleet, particularly battleships, anchored in the harbor. Another wave came at 8:50AM with attacks on the harbor, airfields, and shore installations. The Americans fought courageously, but they were tragically unprepared. Virtually the entire U.S. Pacific fleet of ninety-four vessels, including eight battleships, was concentrated at Pearl Harbor at the time. The unprepared state of the troops, airplanes, and antiaircraft guns made effective defense nearly impossible.

The resulting destruction crippled the Pacific fleet. Casualties were 2,403 dead and 1,178 wounded. Three battleships sank, another cap-sized, and four more were damaged. Several smaller warships also sank, and others were seriously crippled. Almost all combat aircraft were damaged or destroyed. Three carriers of the Pacific fleet were not in the harbor that day and were spared.


President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress the next day. Roosevelt asked for recognition of a state of war, which Congress granted with only one dissenting vote. Declarations of war from Germany and Italy followed quickly. World War II was now a reality for Americans. The United States was confronted with the war on two oceans that it had so hoped to avoid.

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Pearl Harbor Attack

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