Attack at Pearl Harbor

attack-on-pearl-harborUnder veteran commander Chuichi Nagumo (1887–1944), the Japanese task force dropped anchor 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Pearl Harbor at about 6 AM Hawaiian time on December 7. For the next hour and 15 minutes, the Japanese carriers launched a total of 360 planes in three waves, all converging on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where Pearl Harbor is located. At the U.S. naval base, sailors were enjoying a quiet Sunday morning. Although the United States had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and knew an attack was likely imminent, no extreme precautions had been taken to protect the base. Radar was a relatively new technology at the time, and few of the Americans on radar duty that morning knew how to properly interpret the various blips that began appearing on their screens.

There were 96 ships of all types in port on December 7, including all U.S. Pacific fleet battleships. The battleships, anchored together along what was called Battleship Row, would be the primary targets for the Japanese air crews. Other Japanese planes were assigned to attack nearby Wheeler Army Air Field to prevent U.S. planes from launching a counterattack. At Wheeler, the U.S. aircraft had been parked closely together, wingtip to wingtip, to make them easier to guard against possible saboteurs. Unfortunately, this formation also made the planes an easy target for the attacking Japanese.

The first bombs began falling at 7:55 AM local time. After the initial shock and confusion, U.S. sailors and Marines began to return fire with anti-aircraft guns aboard ships and on shore. At the airfield, most of the U.S. planes were quickly destroyed on the ground. However, 12 pilots of the 15th Pursuit Group managed to get airborne and engage the Japanese attackers.

By 10 AM the attack was over. The number of American casualties on the ground and in the harbor was shocking. The Japanese sank or severely damaged eighteen ships, including all eight battleships anchored on Battleship Row, three cruisers, and three destroyers. At Wheeler Air Field, 161 U.S. planes were destroyed and another 102 were significantly damaged. More than 3,500 Americans, including soldiers, sailors, Marines, and civilians, were killed or wounded. Japanese losses, by contrast, were light. Almost 30 planes were shot down or crashed, killing 55aviators. The Japanese also lost five midget submarines.

It was a decisive victory for the Japanese navy, but it was not enough to make Americans sue for peace, as Yamamoto had hoped. Fortunately for the Americans, all four of the Pacific fleet aircraft carriers were at sea on December 7 and escaped destruction. In addition, the Japanese had failed to destroy the oil supplies and repair facilities at Pearl Harbor, leaving the United States with just enough strength to strike back.

“Japan Launches a Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor: December 7, 1941.” Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History. Ed. Jennifer Stock. Vol. 6: North America. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. World History in Context. Web.

Learn more about the attack on Pearl Harbor and hear a first-person account »


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