Pearl Harbor, Attack on

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Pearl Harbor, Attack on (1941).The Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Navy's base at Pearl Harbor and on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, destroyed much of the American Pacific Fleet and brought the United States into World War II. What President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a “day which will live in infamy” led Congress to declare war on Japan on 8 December.

The attack followed the decision of the government of Premier Hideki Tojo that the Roosevelt administration would not abandon China and Southeast Asia to the Japanese military nor continue to supply Tokyo with oil and other vital supplies. Thus, while negotiating with Washington, Tokyo also planned a major Japanese offensive into British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and the American Philippines.

The major opposing naval force in the Pacific would be the U.S. Navy, which had moved to its forward base at Pearl Harbor in May 1940. As part of the Japanese of fensive, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Combined Japanese Fleet, devised a secret plan for a preemptive air strike against the American fleet in order to give Japan time to fortify its newly conquered territories.

It was an extremely risky gamble—projecting a naval task force composed of six of Japan's nine aircraft carriers 3,400 miles across the northern Pacific without discovery or major loss. The strike force, commanded by Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, was composed of two fleet carriers, two converted carriers, and two light carriers, along with two battleships, and a number of cruisers, destroyers, and support ships.

Between 10 and 18 November, Nagumo's ships left separately from Kure Naval Base, assembling 22 November by the Kurile Islands. The force departed on 26 November. To avoid detection, it followed a storm front and maintained strict radio silence, while Tokyo used signals deception from other sites to disguise the true location of the carriers. Consequently, although the U.S. Navy was monitoring Japanese naval radio traffic (they did not break the naval code until 1942), naval intelligence did not know where Japanese carriers were but knew that they had gone on radio silence on earlier deployments.

The United States had secretly broken the Japanese diplomatic codes in a system called MAGIC, and the few authorities in Washington who were informed of them understood that relations between the two countries had reached a final crisis as the Japanese envoys received Tokyo's last negotiation offer and were told to destroy their code machines and deliver the proposal to the secretary of state on Sunday morning, 7 December. Americans saw Japanese naval vessels and troops ships headed south in the China Sea. But while recognizing that war might be imminent, Washington and Pacific commanders did not know whether this would include an attack on American territories; if it did, they assumed it would be on the Philippines. So did the two American commanders on Oahu, Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Lt. Gen. Walter Short, U.S. Army commander in Hawaii. Both considered sabotage from among the sizable Japanese population to be the main threat in Hawaii.

On 7 December, Nagumo's force arrived 275 miles northwest of Oahu, and at 6:00 A.M. it launched the first attack wave, consisting of 49 bombers, 40 torpedo planes, 51 dive‐bombers, and 43 fighter aircraft; this was followed by a second wave of 54 bombers, 78 dive‐bombers, and 36 fighters. The first wave arrived over Pearl Harbor at 7:55 A.M. (1:20 P.M. in Washington, D.C.), and the attack continued until 9:45 A.M.

While Japanese fighters strafed the Army Air Corps' planes at Hickman Field, the torpedo planes and dive‐bombers attacked the navy ships. Along Battleship Row, the Arizona, the California, and the West Virginia were sunk; the Oklahoma capsized; the Nevada was grounded; and the three others were damaged. (The Japanese had secretly developed aerial torpedoes that could operate in such shallow water and bombs that could penetrate deck armor.) In all, the Japanese attack sank or disabled nineteen ships, including all eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers, and several support vessels. At the airfields, 164 planes were destroyed and 128 damaged. Among American sailors, Marines, and soldiers, casualties were 2,335 killed, along with 68 civilians, and 1,178 persons wounded.

Yamamoto's plan called for a third wave to destroy the repair facilities as well as the storage tanks containing 4.5 million gallons of fuel oil. But despite losing only twenty‐nine planes, Nagumo feared a counterattack and turned for home.

News of the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor shocked Americans, ended the prewar isolationist‐interventionist debate, and unified the country. Yamamoto had misjudged the effect on a previously divided public. His attack, which was an extraordinary tactical success, failed in its larger military goal of destroying the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Although the battleships were damaged, Nagumo's failure to destroy the repair yards enabled the Americans eventually to return six of the eight battleships and all but one of the other vessels to active duty (the wreckage of the Arizona remains there today as a monument). The fuel reserves enabled the remainder of the fleet to continue to operate, and failure to destroy the submarine base allowed submarines to play a major role in the Pacific War.

Equally important, the two aircraft carriers normally based at Pearl Harbor—the Lexington and the Enterprise—were undamaged. Escorted by heavy cruisers and destroyers, they were out delivering planes to Midway and Wake Islands.

Later on 7 December (8 December, Far Eastern Time), the Japanese launched assaults on British forces in Hong Kong and in the Malay peninsula, and U.S. forces on Midway Island, Guam, and the Philippines, where the Japanese also caught American planes on the ground.

The Pearl Harbor attack led to eight investigations between 22 December 1941 and 15 July 1946, to establish responsibility for the disaster. On 24 January 1942, a presidential commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts attributed the effectiveness of the Japanese attack to the failure of the military commanders in Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, to institute adequate defense measures; it found them guilty of “dereliction of duty.”

The Roberts Commission concluded that there had been enough advance warnings for the local commanders to have been on the alert instead of maintaining Sunday routine. Among these were reports to Kimmel in March and August 1941 from the Army Air Corps' commanders and the naval aviation commander in Hawaii indicating the possibility of a Japanese naval air attack from that direction and on a Sunday morning (reports that Kimmel filed away). In addition, as the crisis with Japan had mounted, Washington, on 27 November, notified Kimmel and Short, and all other Pacific commanders, that the Japanese ships and troops were moving south and that war was imminent (although the Hawaii commanders assumed on their own that this meant they should be alert to sabotage). More directly, about 4:00 A.M. on 7 December, the American destroyer Ward spotted a Japanese midget submarine trying to enter Pearl Harbor, although it did not report the sighting until it sank the submarine at 6:40 A.M., and even then the army was not informed. Finally, at 7:10 A.M., the new Opana radar station on Oahu picked up a large blip approaching from the northwest, but the control center concluded erroneously that it was a flight of B‐17 bomber aircraft due in that morning from the mainland, even though those American planes would be arriving from the northeast.

Kimmel was relieved of his command and succeeded on 17 December by Adm. Chester Nimitz, and both Kimmel and Short were forced into retirement. During the war, the army and navy held several inquiries. Some held the two local commanders derelict in their duty; others concluded that they were simply guilty of errors of judgment. But all left some questions unanswered, and the controversy continued.

After the war, a joint committee of Republicans and Democrats from both houses of Congress held an investigation from 15 November 1945 to 15 July 1946, which obtained additional testimony and previously classified information about the deciphering of the Japanese diplomatic codes and monitoring of naval radio traffic. In the committee's final report, the minority Republicans tended to criticize the Roosevelt administration, the service secretaries, and Gen. George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, for misjudgments, interservice rivalry, and poor communication; the majority Democrats blamed Kimmel and Short, although for errors of judgment rather than dereliction of duty. Like its predecessors, the congressional inquiry failed to resolve who was ultimately responsible. Kimmel and Short were never court‐martialed. Short died soon after the investigation; Kimmel lived until 1968.

Although new evidence continues to emerge, particularly about intelligence gathering by the United States and the Allies, no credible evidence has been produced to support the conspiracy thesis of a few writers that Roosevelt had foreknowledge of the attack and “allowed” it to occur so that he could take the United States into World War II. Nor have the president and his subordinates ever been shown to have been guilty of misconduct. No solid evidence has yet emerged to support a recent allegation that British intelligence was reading the Japanese naval code JN25 in 1941 and that, therefore, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill knew of the impending attack.

The overwhelming scholarly opinion from the American perspective views the Pearl Harbor attack as an unforeseen tragedy. Scholars have stressed the difficulty in extracting in advance the relevant information from masses of intelligence data. Most accounts also note the communication problems caused by interservice and interdepartmental rivalries. Recent evidence has added the FBI, which unfortunately downgraded information from a British double agent, Dusko Popov, who reported that Berlin had asked him in 1941 to obtain detailed information about Pearl Harbor. Nor was information supplied to Kimmel and Short about the reports of spies at the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu transmitting detailed information about ship deployments at Pearl Harbor.

Many scholars also emphasize the distortion of the interpretation of data caused by preexisting perspectives in December 1941; the American underestimation of the Japanese operational ability; and the overriding belief that the targets of Japanese attack were in the western Pacific and Southeast Asia. Indeed, these were the main targets of Japanese expansionism.
[See also Intelligence, Military and Political; Isolationism; World War II, U.S. Naval Operations in: The Pacific; World War II: Changing Interpretations.]


Congressional Record, U.S. Congress, Hearings and Reports, Vols. 87–104, 1941–58.
Robert A. Theobald , The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, 1954.
Husband E. Kimmel , Admiral Kimmel's Story, 1955.
Gwen Teraski , Bridge to the Sun, 1957.
Roberta Wohlstetter , Pearl Harbor, Warning and Decision, 1962.
Ladislas Farago , The Broken Seal, 1967.
David Kahn , The Codebreakers, 1967.
H. Agawa , The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy, 1979.
John Toland , Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, 1982.
Gordon W. Prange,, with Donald Goldstein, and and Katherine V. Dillon , December 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor, 1984.
Edwin T. Layton,, Roger Pineau,, and and John Costello , And I Was There, 1985.
Hilary Couroy and Harry Wray, eds., Pearl Harbor Reexamined: Prologue to the Pacific War, 1990.
Gordon W. Prange,, with Donald Goldstein, and and Katherine V. Dillon , At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor, 1991.
Gordon W. Prange,, with Donald Goldstein, and and Katherine V. Dillon , Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, 1991.
Henry C. Clausen and and Bruce Lee , Pearl Harbor: Final Judgment, 1992.
Donald Goldstein and and Katherine V. Dillon , The Pearl Harbor Papers, 1993.
Edward L. Beach , Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor, 1995.

Donald M. Goldstein

Pearl Harbor

views updated May 21 2018

Pearl Harbor


In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans had become strongly isolationist, many believing that Americas involvement in World War I (19141918) had been a political mistake. Moreover, the Great Depression focused peoples attention on the economy. Against this backdrop, the U.S. Congress had passed neutrality acts in 1935 and 1936. The tipping point that rallied public opinion toward involvement in World War II (19391945) came on December 7, 1941.

The Japanese leadership had sought to drive U.S. and U.K. forces out of Asia. To Japan, the attack on Pearl Harbor was seen as merely a strategic necessitypart of the grand strategy to secure the Pacific for oil shipments to fuel the empires efforts to dominate Asia. However, as history has shown, the plan backfired.

In the attack, 21 American ships were sunk or badly damaged, 188 planes were lost, and 155 planes were damaged. In addition, 2,403 American lives were lost and 1,178 persons injured. Fortunately for the U.S. Navy, no aircraft carriers were in port. While the attack produced a substantial military loss, the main effect of the attack was to crystallize Americans public opinion against the Axis Powers. On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan.

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had battled with Congress to expand American support for Englands struggle against Germany. But once Americans saw themselves as victims, resistance to entering the war melted away. German führer Adolf Hitlers declaration of war against the United States on December 11, 1941, provided the linkage necessary to associate pro-war sentiment generated by Pearl Harbor to Germany, and the United States declared war on Germany and Italy on the same day.

Public sentiment toward Japanese Americans was low prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor, as evidenced by the 1924 Immigration Act that halted Japanese immigration. The attack on Pearl Harbor sparked war hysteria. In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. These people were removed from their homes along the West Coast and relocated to inland camps.

President Roosevelt declared December 7 a date that will live in infamy. As a term, Pearl Harbor has come to represent foreign treachery, the perils of U.S. isolationism, and of potential vulnerability of American military forces. The specter of Pearl Harbor helped to fuel the nuclear arms race between the United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the twentieth century. But Pearl Harbor also constrained U.S. power. Robert Kennedy persuaded his brother, President John F. Kennedy, not to execute a surprise air strike against Cuba during the 1962 Missile Crisis because it would appear to the world as Pearl Harbor in reverse.

In Japan, the attack is sometimes viewed as the mistake that awoke a sleeping giant. Others associate it with a dishonorable period of aggression in the nations history.

Though Pearl Harbor happened more than sixty years ago, the incident carries a great deal of weight in American political rhetoric. Political analysts and media personnel compared the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, to Pearl Harbor. While similar in some respects, the Pearl Harbor analogy, along with other thinly veiled language such as axis of evil, permitted President George W. Bush to build support for the War on Terror by framing it in terms reminiscent of World War II.

SEE ALSO Hitler, Adolf; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; World War II


Jespersen, T. Christopher. 2005. Analogies at War: Vietnam, the Bush Administrations War in Iraq, and the Search for a Usable Past. Pacific Historical Review 74 (3): 411426.

Prange, Gordon W. 1991. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: Penguin.

Todd L. Belt

Pearl Harbor

views updated May 09 2018


PEARL HARBOR is located on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and the supporting

army forts and airfields grew in strategic importance during the 1930s as diplomatic relations with Japan deteriorated. On 7 December 1941, Pearl Harbor entered into history as the location of the infamous surprise attack by the Japanese navy on the United States.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto selected Commander Minoru Genda to develop the plan to destroy the U.S. fleet and give Japan time to conquer the Philippine Islands, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo commanded the First Air Fleet, consisting of six aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku) carrying 400 Kate torpedo bombers, Val dive-bombers, and Zero fighters.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet was under the command of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. Major General Walter C. Short commanded U.S. Army forces, which consisted of the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division, Coast Artillery batteries, and the U.S. Army Air Forces in Hawaii.

The U.S. Army and Navy intelligence services had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, and messages had been sent to both commanders that the Japanese might be planning offensive military operations in the Pacific. Even so there was no warning specifically indicating that the American forces in Hawaii were a target. These warnings would result in many years of charges and countercharges about who was "at fault" for the disaster that occurred.

The Pacific Fleet's primary striking power was in its three aircraft carriers (Lexington, Saratoga, and Enterprise) and eight battleships (Pennsylvania, Arizona, Maryland, Tennessee, West Virginia, California, Oklahoma, and Nevada). On the morning of 7 December the Saratoga was undergoing refitting in California, and the Lexington and Enterprise, with their escorts of fast cruisers and destroyers, were returning from delivering Marine Corps Wildcat fighters to the islands of Midway and Wake.

The initial contact with the Japanese came when the destroyer Ward sighted and fired upon one of five mini-submarines that were attempting to penetrate the harbor in order to attack the battleships in coordination with the aerial assault. At dawn, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of Japanese aircraft, consisting of 133 torpedo, dive, and horizontal bombers and Zeros. Although radar operators located at Opana Point detected the flight, their commander interpreted the signals they received as an indication that a flight of B-17 bombers was arriving as planned from California.

The air forces defending Oahu consisted of ninety-nine P-40 and thirty-nine P-36 fighters, along with twelve B-17, thirty-three obsolete B-18, and six A-20 bombers. The bombers were stationed at Hickam Airfield, next to Pearl Harbor, while the fighters were at Wheeler Field with four squadrons dispersed for training at Bellows and Haleiwa fields. The navy had sixty-nine PBY flying boats stationed at Kaneohe.

The Japanese struck Wheeler Field at 7:52 a.m., destroying most of the fighters that were lined up in the center of the airfield as protection against sabotage. The main force of torpedo, dive, and horizontal bombers struck the battleships anchored alongside Ford Island at 7:55. The initial torpedo runs ripped out the sides of the West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Utah. Two later runs capsized and sank the California. Meanwhile, a bomb detonated in the forward ammunition magazine of the Arizona, destroying the ship and killing approximately 1,200 of her crew. Dive and horizontal bombers struck the California, Maryland, and Tennessee, with the Maryland sinking on an even keel. Other bombers and fighters then attacked the aircraft at Ford Island, Hickam Field, and Kaneohe. Less than a dozen P-40s and P-36s from Haleiwa and Bellows fields managed to take off to defend Oahu. Their pilots shot down thirteen Japanese aircraft.

The 170 aircraft of the second wave arrived over Pearl Harbor at 8:55 a.m. The dive-bombers focused on the Nevada as it started to leave the harbor. Receiving multiple bomb and torpedo hits, the ship's captain beached her rather than risk being sunk in the channel entrance. Other bombers struck the Pennsylvania, which had escaped damage during the first wave, and the cruisers and destroyers, which had until then been ignored. Other elements of the Japanese force struck Ewa, Bellows, and Wheeler fields, destroying the remaining aircraft there.

The Japanese lost twenty-nine aircraft, five mini-submarines, and sixty-five personnel. Declining to launch a third strike to destroy the harbor's oil storage tanks, submarines, and maintenance facilities, Admiral Nagumo turned his force back to Japan after the second wave returned shortly after noon.

Approximately 2,500 American sailors and soldiers died in the attack. Another 1,176 were wounded. Every aircraft was either destroyed or damaged, but not all were damaged beyond repair. Of the ninety-four warships in the harbor, all eight battleships were sunk or severely damaged. Two destroyers were sunk, and several other destroyers and cruisers were damaged.

In the aftermath of the attack, Admiral Kimmel and Major General Short were both relieved of command and forced into early retirement because of their lack of judgment, especially in light of the warnings they had received. The argument over who was "really responsible" for the debacle, however, continues.


Clausen, Henry C., and Bruce Lee. Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement. New York: Crown, 1992.

Lord, Walter. Day of Infamy. New York: Henry Holt, 1957; 60th anniversary ed., 2001.

Prange, Gordon W., with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. 60th anniversary ed., New York: Penguin, 2001.

Prange, Gordon W., with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. December 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Frank R.Shirer

See alsoWorld War II ; World War II, Air War Against Japan ; World War II, Navy in ; andvol. 9:War against Japan .

Pearl Harbor

views updated Jun 27 2018

Pearl Harbor ★★ 2001 (PG-13)

Director Bay has also done “The Rock” and “Armageddon” so he knows his way around big-budget, action-packed event movies. The problem, besides his usual difficulties with characterization and sublety, is that we have to wade through the trite romantic triangle between U.S. Army Air aviator Hartnett, flyboy Affleck, and Navy nurse Beckinsale before we get to the well-done spectacle of the bombing on December 7, 1941, as well as the subsequent U.S. raid on Tokyo led by James Doolittle (Baldwin). It's probably quicker, and more enjoyable, to skip to the attack sequence between a rented double feature of “From Here to Eternity” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” 183m/C VHS, DVD . US Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dan Aykroyd, Mako, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, William Lee Scott, Colm Feore, Michael Shannon, Peter Firth, Jennifer Garner, Catherine Kellner, Jaime (James) King, Scott Wilson, William Fichtner, Ewen Bremner, Leland Orser, Graham Beckel, Tomas Arana, Guy Torry, Brian Haley, Tony Curran, Kim Coates, Glenn Morshower, John Fujioka, Tim Choate, John Diehl, Ted McGinley, Raphael Sbarge; D: Michael Bay; W: Randall Wallace; C: John Schwartzman; M: Hans Zimmer.

Pearl Harbor

views updated May 29 2018

Pearl Harbor US naval base in Hawaii. On December 7, 1941, a Japanese naval taskforce, which approached within range of the islands unobserved, attacked Pearl Harbor, headquarters of the US Pacific fleet. The Japanese assault killed c.2400 people and destroyed or damaged c.300 aircraft and 18 ships. The attack provoked US entry into World War II.

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