December 7, 1941 – The U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by nearly 200 Japanese aircraft in a raid that lasted just over one hour and left nearly 3,000 Americans dead. The next day, the U.S. Congress voted to declare war on Japan.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the Empire of Japan single-mindedly focused on modernizing and developing into a militaristic state bent on exercising dominion over Asia. Part of the philosophy included a belief – similar to that developing in Nazi Germany – that the Japanese race was superior to other Asians, and that their dominance and leadership of all Eastern Asian peoples was inevitable.
In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, and as the decade dragged on the Japanese Imperial army continued to fight the Chinese government for control over Chinese territory. In 1937 Japanese forces captured the city of Nanking and began a three month reign of terror or murder, rape and pillage, graphically (and accurately) known as the “Rape of Nanking.” This, along with similar Japanese atrocities, caused the Western powers, such as the US, England and France, to increase its aid to the beleaguered Chinese government.
When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, France and England’s attentions were diverted westward, leaving the US to try to stop Japan’s reign of terror on its own. In 1940 Japan, by then an ally of Nazi Germany, invaded French Indochina (France’s colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). The US government responded by imposing a embargo on selling certain war materials to Japan. In 1941 tensions between the two countries increased, as the US army built up its forces in the Philippines, and then reached a crisis point in the summer of 1941, when the US stopped all oil shipments to Japan.
The Island nation of Japan was entirely dependent on foreign oil (as well as nearly every other raw material) to power its military, as it possessed no oil reserves of its own. In the second half of 1941 the Japanese and US governments tried to reach a deal, but the US insistence that Japan withdraw from China, but those talks remained fruitless as the Japanese military refused to agree to such a withdrawal. By the end of November, as the two sides were still trading proposals, the Japanese Navy left Japan for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in secret.
Planning for the attack on Pearly Harbor had been in the works since early 1941, when it became clear to Japanese military planners that war with the US was inevitable. US military planners also believed that conflict was inevitable, but most felt that the attack would be on the Philippines. The Japanese aim at Pearl Harbor was twofold: first, to cripple the US fleet long enough to enable Japan to finish its conquest of Indochina as well as the Dutch East Indies and Malaysia, thereby ensuring a steady supply of raw materials for its army; and second, to consolidate and defend its territorial gains before the US navy had a chance to rebuild. The thinking was that by the time the US was able to recover from its losses, the Japanese position in the Pacific would be too secure to be attacked.
The Japanese attack force consisted of six aircraft carriers and over 400 planes. They were joined by a number of midget submarines to serve as advance scouts. The squadron sailed in complete radio silence; as radar at the time was not advanced enough to work over the horizon, there would be no way to detect the presence of the fleet unless they were actually seen. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese fleet approached the Island of Oahu and launched its first wave of aircraft. The first wave of planes was actually detected by the primitive radar station on the Island, but they were believed to be US planes and so no alert was given.
The first wave struck the Island at 7:48 am local time. Torpedo bombers attacked the ships anchored in the harbor, while dive bombers went after the airfields. The Americans were caught completely by surprise. Soldiers and sailors woke up to the sounds of explosions, gunfire and alarms, and raced to their posts as best they could. A second wave of Japanese hit soon thereafter, targeting more ships at anchor and more airfields. After finishing their missions, the planes flew back to their aircraft carriers off the coast.
The entire attack lasted less than 90 minutes, but the effect was devastating. Nearly 2,500 Americans were killed, including dozens of civilians. 18 US ships, including five battleships, were sunk or grounded. Nearly 350 US aircraft were destroyed or damaged. Japanese losses were minimal: only 29 out of 400 planes were shot down, with 55 airmen lost.
It could have been far worse. For one, after the second wave, Japanese commanders urged the Admiral Nagumo, the man in charge of the attack, to reload the planes and launch a third wave of attack to destroy Pearl Harbor’s fuel depot and dry dock facilities. Nagumo decided against such an attack for a number of reasons, and instead ordered the fleet to return to Japan. Had such a third wave been successful, the rebuilding of Pearl harbor would have taken much longer than it actually did, and the Japanese plan of securing the Pacific before the US could have done anything about it might have become reality.
Even more importantly, at the time of the attack all three of the US aircraft carriers in the Pacific – the Lexington, enterprise and Saratoga – were out at sea on maneuvers and so survived the attack unscathed. The survival of these critically important vessels made recovery that much easier; again, if the US had had to rebuild its Pacific fleet from scratch, the time that would have taken would have greatly played to Japan’s advantage.
Following the attack, the state of the world changed at a blistering pace. That same day Japan invaded the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, prompting England to declare war on Japan. The next day, on December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt delivered his famous “Day that will live in infamy” speech to Congress, which granted his request for a declaration of war within an hour. Three days later Japan’s allies in evil, Germany and Italy, declared war on the US.
While Japan won the “battle” of Pearl Harbor, the attack set in motion a cascade of events that would ultimately lead to its downfall. By failing to destroy the fuel and dry docks at Pearl, and by missing the US fleet of aircraft carriers, it took only a few months, rather than years, for the US Pacific fleet to be ready to face the Japanese fleet. In June of 1942 – less than six months after the attack – the US navy delivered a crippling blow to the Japanese navy in the Battle of Midway, one from which the Japanese fleet would never recover. From that point on, Japan was forced to fight an increasingly desperate defensive war as the US navy, marines and army relentlessly pushed them back across the Pacific until, by 1945, Japan’s defeat was inevitable. As one Japanese admiral wistfully noted, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”