It was a quiet Sunday morning. Most of the U.S. Armed Forces personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor Naval Base were pursuing their day-to-day activities, preparing for work or pleasure on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. There was no particular reason to suspect that Dec. 7, 1941 would be the day that the United States would enter World War II — no way of knowing that it would become, as then President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “a date which will live in infamy.”
This ordinary morning wasn’t without its share of unusual activity, however. In the hours before dawn, the U.S. Coast Guard reported a sighting of an unidentified submarine periscope near the entrance to Pearl Harbor, according to an official report by the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Commander-in-Chief which detailed the events of Dec. 7 and the actions taken in the months leading up to the attack.
Upon receiving this notification, Navy destroyer USS Ward (DD-139) quickly sank the intruder. Ward is credited with firing the first American shot of World War II, although at the time, the handling of that unwelcome visitor was considered routine. At 7 a.m., when an Army radar station operator at Opana detected the first attack forces on the horizon, it still wasn’t cause for alarm. According to a Defense Department article published by the Naval History and Heritage Command, it was assumed that these were American forces whose arrival was anticipated that morning.
Lt. Ruth Erickson, a Navy nurse who was stationed at Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor, said that the attack was unexpected — despite the ongoing strategic positioning of American troops in the Pacific, and the knowledge that Japan had been, in her words, “rattling the saber” for some time, according to a transcript provided by the NHHC.
“Two or three of us were sitting in the dining room Sunday morning having a late breakfast and talking over coffee. Suddenly, we heard planes roaring overhead and we said, ‘The fly boys are really busy at Ford Island this morning.’ The island was directly across the channel from the hospital. We didn't think too much about it since the reserves were often there for weekend training,” Erickson said.
And then, disaster.
“We no sooner got those words out when we started to hear noises that were foreign to us,” Erickson said.
The Imperial Japanese Navy, led by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, swooped down upon the U.S. military forces located in and around Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m., executing a meticulously planned surprise attack. In the days preceding the strike, the Japanese had lain in wait under the cover of foggy Tankan Bay, a remote, sparsely populated area located to the north of Japan in the Kuril Islands. Japanese ships and aircraft began their descent toward Hawaii on Nov. 26, crossing the North Pacific and avoiding normal shipping lanes, which enabled them to remain undetected until they were around 200 miles north of Oahu.
In their aim to disable American forces before they could launch fighter aircraft or ships, the Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers focused their attacks on both land and sea. They simultaneously lashed out at U.S. military airfields and the fleet of around 90 ships anchored in Pearl Harbor, raining down bombs and gunfire upon multiple strategic locations, including the Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, the Army Air Corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam, Naval Air Stations Kaneohe Bay and Ford Island. Ford Island was a particularly crucial target for the Japanese, with its prime location at the center of Pearl Harbor. The air station, headquarters to Patrol Wing Two, was home to various military aircraft, including several PBY patrol seaplanes.
Of the U.S. aircraft destroyed by the Japanese strike force, 33 were located on Ford Island at the time of the attack. This bombing prompted the now-famous warning: "Air Raid, Pearl Harbor — this is no drill."
Of the many ships in Pearl Harbor on that day, none were aircraft carriers. At that time, three carriers were actually stationed in the Pacific but they were all located elsewhere during the attack. Admiral Husband Kimmel, then Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, had ordered the USS Enterprise (CV-6) to deliver Marine Corps fighter planes to Wake Island and the carrier was making her way back to Oahu as Pearl Harbor was under fire by the Japanese.
Around the same time, Kimmel had sent the USS Lexington (CV-2) with a task force to deliver 25 scout bombers to Midway Island. The USS Saratoga (CV-3) had gone to the West Coast for repairs and upkeep and she was waiting in San Diego to embark her air group and the Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 221, along with a cargo of miscellaneous aircraft.
The aircraft carriers may have been out of reach, but eight powerful battleships were anchored in Pearl Harbor. “Battleship Row,” located on the southeastern shore of Ford Island, held seven of those ships. Only the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was missing — she was in the drydock across the channel.
The Japanese considered the U.S. battleships their prime target and wasted no time in their swift, merciless attack on Battleship Row.
“I leaped out of my chair and dashed to the nearest window in the corridor. Right then there was a plane flying directly over the top of our quarters, a one-story structure. The Rising Sun under the wing of the plane denoted the enemy. Had I known the pilot, one could almost see his features around his goggles. He was obviously saving his ammunition for the ships. Just down the row, all the ships were sitting there — the [battleships] California, the Arizona, the Oklahoma and others,” Erickson said.
Within minutes, the Japanese forces had wreaked unprecedented havoc.
The USS Oklahoma (BB-37) was struck by a deadly barrage of torpedo attacks, while a lethal combination of torpedoes and bombs was used to devastate the USS West Virginia (BB-48). Both vessels sank within minutes of the beginning of the conflict.
At about 8:10 a.m., the USS Arizona (BB-39) exploded due to an armor piercing bomb which had ignited the ship's forward ammunition magazine. She eventually sank, and a total of 1,177 people lost their lives as a result of the massive explosion and subsequent fire aboard the Arizona. This vast loss of life accounted for nearly half the number of Americans killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The first 30 minutes of the attack also saw the USS California (BB-44), the USS Maryland (BB-46), the USS Tennessee (BB-43), and the USS Nevada (BB-36) sustain varying degrees of damage — the California eventually sank.
Though battleships were the primary focus of the Japanese forces, other ships were not exempt from attacks. The crew of the USS Utah (AG-16) made that unwelcome discovery as they watched the bombing of Ford Island, never imagining that it was anything more than a practice run.
Pharmacist's Mate (PhM) 2nd Class Lee Soucy, a crew member aboard the Utah, who provided a firsthand account of the attack, said that it didn’t occur to him that these were enemy planes, even after he heard the explosions and saw a massive cloud of black smoke emerge from Ford Island. His first thought was that it was, as he put it, a SNAFU.
It was “too incredible, simply beyond imagination,” Soucy said.
As he watched the chaos unfolding, the Utah was suddenly attacked from the port side, and the crew was soon given the order to abandon ship. During the escape efforts, one of the mooring lines snapped, causing the Utah to keel over. Soucy was thrown from the ship, still unaware of just who was behind the bombings. “…after I bobbed up to the surface of the water to get my bearings, I spotted a motor launch with a coxswain [steersman] fishing men out of the water with his boot hook. I started to swim toward the launch. After a few strokes, a hail of bullets hit the water a few feet in front of me in line with the launch. As the strafer [bomber] banked, I noticed the big red insignias on his wing tips. Until then, I really had not known who attacked us. At some point, I had heard someone shout, ‘Where did those Germans come from?’”
There was a short lull in the attack, and then the second wave of 170 Japanese attack planes roared over the harbor at about 8:40 a.m.
Dive bombing, horizontal bombing and fighter machine gun attacks continued over the course of the hour. During the second wave, the Japanese strike force focused on airfields and various Navy Yard targets. They also pursued the badly damaged Nevada, which had been struck by at least one torpedo and several bombs during the first wave of attacks, yet had somehow still gotten underway. As the Nevada valiantly sailed toward the open sea, the Japanese turned their attention in her direction, with the intent to sink the ship and thus block the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The crew of the Nevada foiled this tactic by beaching the ship at Hospital Point, leaving the channel free and open.
The Japanese aircraft began to return to their carriers just before 10 a.m. In only two short hours, they had either sunk or damaged 21 ships, completely destroyed 188 aircraft, and damaged 159 aircraft in various ways. A staggering 2,403 Americans lost their lives in the attack, while yet another 1,178 military personnel and civilians were wounded.
Yet, Sailors had valiantly fought back with whatever weapons they had. Japanese forces were astonished at the quick reaction and intensity of U.S. anti-aircraft fire. That more Japanese aircraft were not shot down had nothing to do with the skill, training or bravery of Sailors and other service members, NHHC said. Rather, U.S. anti-aircraft weapons were inadequate in number and capability, for not only had the Japanese achieved tactical surprise, they achieved technological surprise with aircraft and weapons far better than experts had predicted, a lesson in the danger of underestimating the enemy that resonates to this day.
Among the Sailors recognized with America's highest award for valor was Chief Water Tender Peter Tomich on board the ex-battleship Utah, who sacrificed his life to prevent the boilers from exploding, enabling boiler room crews to escape before the ship capsized. Another was Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill, who cast off the lines as the battleship Nevada got underway, swam through the burning oil to get back on board his ship, where he was killed by Japanese strafing, after being credited with saving the lives of many junior Sailors.
Ensign Francis Flaherty and Seaman First Class J. Richard Ward, on board the battleship Oklahoma, sacrificed their lives to enable turret crews to escape before the ship capsized. On board the battleship California, Chief Radioman Thomas J. Reeves, Machinist's Mate First Class Robert R. Scott and Ensign Herbert C. Jones stayed at their posts at the cost of their lives to keep power and ammunition flowing to the anti-aircraft guns as long as possible.
Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd and Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh on board the battleship Arizona, and Captain Mervyn S. Bennion on board the battleship West Virginia directed the defense of their ships under heavy fire, until the ships were sunk and they were killed.
While damage to the U.S. Pacific Fleet's battle line was extensive, it was not complete. The attack did not damage any American aircraft carriers, which fortunately were absent from the harbor. U.S. aircraft carriers, along with supporting cruisers and destroyers and fleet oilers, proved crucial in the coming months. Further, the Japanese focus on ships and planes spared fuel tank farms, Navy Yard repair facilities, and the submarine base, all of which proved vital for the tactical operations that originated at Pearl Harbor in the ensuing months and played a key role in the Allied victory, NHHC reported.
American ingenuity raised and repaired all but three of the ships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor. Most importantly, the shock and anger that Americans felt in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor united the nation and translated into a collective commitment to victory in World War II, NHHC recorded. The attack also served as a wake-up call to American industry and academia. There was a massive nationwide push to develop and quickly deploy better and more advanced specialized military technologies.
Who was to blame?
Faulted for being unprepared for the attack and devastating loss of life, Kimmel was relieved of command 10 days later. His rank of four stars was reduced to two. He subsequently retired in early 1942. Naval historians agree that the United States was completely unprepared for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at all levels of government. Japanese military forces held clear superiority in training, equipment, experience and planning over the Americans. The extent to which Kimmel himself was to blame for the readiness issues has been at the heart of a debate that continues to this day.
Through the years, several attempts led by the Kimmel family, naval colleagues and the U.S. Senate sought to have Kimmel's four-star rank reinstated along with a full exoneration of his conduct. A 1995 Pentagon study concluded other high-ranking officers were also responsible for the failure at Pearl Harbor. Other contributing factors included a series of bureaucratic blunders, insufficient intelligence and poor communications. A 2000 Senate enquiry issued a lengthy exoneration of Kimmel's conduct but President Bill Clinton did not act on the resolution, nor has any of his successors.
Kimmel died in 1968.
For the United States, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a painful and dramatic entrance into World War II. U.S. naval forces went on to win many battles in the Second World War, including the decisive Battle of Midway, but the loss that America suffered on that fateful December morning will never be forgotten.
For more information, see the Naval History and Heritage Command's website's coverage of Pearl Harbor.
CHIPS senior editor Sharon Anderson contributed to this article.