The Pearl Harbor Attack Essay, 7 December 1941
Ships Present at Pearl Harbor, 0800 7 December 1941
Action Reports for commands and ships at Pearl Harbor
Cryptologic Histories relating to the Pearl Harbor Attack
Related Web Sites on the Pearl Harbor Attack
The road to war between Japan and the United States began in the 1930s when differences over China drove the two
nations apart. In 1931 Japan conquered Manchuria, which until then had been part of China. In 1937 Japan began a
long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to conquer the rest of China. In 1940, the Japanese government allied their
country with Nazi Germany in the Axis Alliance, and, in the following year, occupied all of Indochina.
The United States, which had important political and economic interests in East Asia, was alarmed by these Japanese
The U.S. increased military and financial aid to China, embarked on a program of strengthening its military
power in the Pacific, and cut off the shipment of oil and other raw materials to Japan.
Because Japan was poor in natural resources, its government viewed these steps, especially the embargo on oil as a
threat to the nation’s survival. Japan’s leaders responded by resolving to seize the resource-rich territories of Southeast
Asia, even though that move would certainly result in war with the United States.
The problem with the plan was the danger posed by the U.
S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoroku
Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, devised a plan to immobilize the U.S. fleet at the outset of the war with
The key elements in Yamamoto’s plans were meticulous preparation, the achievement of surprise, and the use of
aircraft carriers and naval aviation on an unprecedented scale. In the spring of 1941, Japanese carrier pilots began
training in the special tactics called for by the Pearl Harbor attack plan.
In October 1941 the naval general staff gave final approval to Yamamoto’s plan, which called for the formation of an
attack force commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. It centered around six heavy aircraft carriers
accompanied by 24 supporting vessels. A separate group of submarines was to sink any American warships which
Nagumo’s fleet assembled in the remote anchorage of Tankan Bay in the Kurile Islands and departed in strictest
secrecy for Hawaii on 26 November 1941. The ships’ route crossed the North Pacific and avoided normal shipping
lanes. At dawn 7 December 1941, the task force had approached undetected to a point slightly more than 200 miles
At 6:00 a.m.
, the six carriers launched a first wave of 181 planes composed of torpedo bombers, dive bombers,
horizontal bombers and fighters. Even as they winged south, some elements of U.S. forces on Oahu realized there was
something different about this Sunday morning.
In the hours before dawn, U.S.
Navy vessels spotted an unidentified submarine periscope near the entrance to Pearl
Harbor. It was attacked and reported sunk by the destroyer USS Ward (DD-139) and a patrol plane. At 7:00 a.m.,
an alert operator of an Army radar station at Opana spotted the approaching first wave of the attack force. The
officers to whom those reports were relayed did not consider them significant enough to take action.
The report of the
submarine sinking was handled routinely, and the radar sighting was passed off as an approaching group of American
The Japanese aircrews achieved complete surprise when they hit American ships and military installations on Oahu
shortly before 8:00 a.m. They attacked military airfields at the same time they hit the fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor.
The Navy air bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the Army Air Corps fields at
Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam were all bombed and strafed as other elements of the attacking force began their
assaults on the ships moored in Pearl Harbor. The purpose of the simultaneous attacks was to destroy the American
planes before they could rise to intercept the Japanese.
Of the more than 90 ships at anchor in Pearl Harbor, the primary targets were the eight battleships anchored there.
seven were moored on Battleship Row along the southeast shore of Ford Island while the USS Pennsylvania
(BB-38) lay in drydock across the channel. Within the first minutes of the attack all the battleships adjacent to Ford
Island had taken bomb and or torpedo hits. The USS West Virginia (BB-48) sank quickly. The USS Oklahoma
(BB-37) turned .