December 7, 1941: Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor, America Enters World War II
‘A Date Which Will Live in Infamy’
The morning of December 7, 1941 was another day in paradise for the men and women of the U.S. armed forces stationed at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base on Oahu, Hawaii. By 7:30 am, the air temperature was already a balmy 73 degrees. A sense of leisure was in the air as sailors enjoyed the time away from military duties that Sundays offered. Within the next half hour, the serenity of the island was shattered. Enemy aircraft streaked overhead, marked only by a large red circle. The pilots—who had been training for months for this mission—scanned their surroundings and set their eyes on their target: Battleship Row. The eight ships—the crown of the United States’ Pacific fleet—sat silently in harbor, much to the delight of the oncoming Japanese pilots, who began their attack.
Since the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the relationship between the United States and Japan had significantly deteriorated. Over the course of the ensuing decade, the U.S. imposed embargoes on strategic materials such as oil and froze Japanese assets to deter the Empire of the Rising Sun’s continual aggressions in the Pacific. For many in the American political and military leadership, it became not a question whether violent conflict would erupt between the two nations but rather when. Indeed, throughout the month of November 1941, the two military commanders at Pearl Harbor—Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short—received multiple warnings from Washington, D.C. that conflict with Japan somewhere in the Pacific would very soon be a reality. In response, Kimmel and Short ordered that aircraft be moved out of their hangars at Pearl Harbor and lined up on runways in order to prevent sabotage. Additionally, radar—a new technology that had not yet reached its full capabilities—began operation a few hours a day on the island of Oahu. Such a lackluster response to war warnings can largely be attributed to the fact that American intelligence suspected that the initial Japanese strike would fall on U.S. bases in the remote Pacific such as at the Philippines or Wake Island. The logistical maneuvering it would take to carry out a large-scale attack on Pearl Harbor—nearly 4,000 miles from mainland Japan—seemed ludicrously impossible.
Such beliefs, of course, were immediately drowned out by the wails of the air raid sirens and the repeated message, “Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill” on the morning of what turned out to be perhaps the most momentous day of the entire twentieth century. The Japanese strike force launched attacks from aircraft carriers in two waves. Torpedo and dive bombers attacked hangars and the ships anchored in the harbor while fighters provided strafing runs and air defense. In addition to the eight American battleships, a variety of cruisers, destroyers, and support ships were at Pearl Harbor.
A disaster quickly unfolded for the Americans. Many sailors had been granted leave that day given it was a Sunday. These men were not at their stations as the attack began—a fact that Japanese planners likely expected. Members of the American radar teams did in fact spot blips of a large array of aircraft before the attack. However, when they reported it to their superiors, they were told it was incoming American planes. The American aircraft that were lined up in clusters on runways to prevent sabotage now made easy targets for the Japanese strike force. Of the 402 military aircraft at Pearl Harbor and the surrounding airfields, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged. Only a few American pilots were able to take off—those who did bravely took on the overwhelming swarm of Japanese aircraft and successfully shot a few down. Ships in the harbor valiantly attempted to get under way despite being undermanned, but with little success. The battleship Nevada attempted to lumber its way out of the narrow confines but her captain purposefully scuttled it to avoid blocking the harbor after it suffered multiple bomb hits. All eight of the battleships took some form of damage, and four were sunk. In the most infamous event of the entire attack, a bomb struck the forward magazine of the battleship Arizona, causing a mass explosion that literally ripped the ship apart. Of the nearly 2,500 Americans killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly half were sailors onboard the Arizona. In addition to the battleships, a number of cruisers, destroyers, and other ships were also sunk or severely damaged. In contrast, only 29 Japanese planes were shot down during the raid. The Japanese fleet immediately departed and moved to conduct other missions against British, Dutch, and U.S. holdings in the Pacific, believing that they had achieved the great strike that would incapacitate American naval power in the Pacific for years to come.
On the morning of the attack at Pearl Harbor, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga was in port at San Diego on a mission. The other two carriers in the Pacific fleet were also noticeably absent from Pearl Harbor when the bombs began to fall. Japanese planners thought little of it in the ensuing weeks—naval warfare theory at the time was fixated on the idea of battleships dueling each other from long range with giant guns. Without their battleships, how could the Americans hope to stop the Japanese from dominating in the Pacific? However, within a year and a half, these three carriers would win a huge victory at the Battle of Midway and helped turn the tide in the Pacific in favor of the Americans and made it a carrier war.
The victory at Midway would give morale to an American people already hard at work since December 7, 1941 at mobilizing its entire society for war in one of the greatest human efforts in history. Of the eight battleships damaged at Pearl Harbor, all but the Arizona and Oklahoma were salvaged and returned to battle before the end of the war. In addition, the U.S. produced thousands of ships between 1941-1945 as part of a massive new navy. In the end, rather than striking a crushing blow, the Japanese task force merely awoke a sleeping giant who eagerly sought to avenge its wounds. As for the men and women who fought and died on December 7, 1941—a date that President Franklin Roosevelt declared would “live in infamy”—they will forever be enshrined in the hearts and minds of Americans for their courage and honor on that fateful day.
Joshua Schmid serves as a Program Analyst at the Bill of Rights Institute.
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