Pearl Harbor Attack
The Day That Will Live In Infamy – Why Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor
The Day That Will Live In Infamy – Why Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor
It was a sunny Sunday morning when, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Air Force launched planes from 6 Japanese aircraft carriers North of Oahu, Hawai’i. Their primary goal was to destroy the US Fleet which was anchored and vulnerable at Pearl Harbor. Their attack, although it damaged many US planes and ships, was not strategically successful for the Japanese, and did little to help achieve their long-term war goals. Learn some facts about Pearl Harbor
Starting just minutes before 8:00 in the morning and lasting nearly 2 hours, many of the battleships anchored on battleship row, several other navy service vessels in the harbor – as well as hundreds of planes parked “tip-to-tip” on the 8 airfields across Oahu were damaged or destroyed. Luckily the civilian population and historic sites in Honolulu were largely spared.
This single act caused public opinion to change from an “America First”, isolationist mentality to a fully committed international ally, ready to show it’s industrial might. The next day President Franklin Roosevelt asked congress for a Declaration of War and within days Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. World War 2 had become truly global.
The Japanese Navy had the largest number of aircraft carriers of any fleet at the time. Most navies throughout the world were using their small aircraft carriers for fleet reconnaissance, not so much as an offensive tool.
The British attack on Taranto changed all that. A single aircraft carrier, the Illustrious, launched 24 planes at the port over two days, crippling the Italian Navy and forcing them to retreat to more protected harbors. It showed the world that no harbor was safe and planes launched from aircraft carriers had effectively ended the age of the battleship.
The Japanese high command learned from this and other techniques they observed the allies using across Europe, such as large scale bombing runs involving hundreds of planes. What the Japanese started in modern warfare would become the United States’ naval strategy throughout the Pacific war – combining multiple aircraft carriers into a force that could launch a large scale attack anywhere in the Pacific.
The United States realized that tensions were high… high enough with Japan to cause war to break out in the Pacific. When the Japanese fleet’s radio traffic went silent, it alarmed the British & Dutch who expected an attack on their colonies in Southeast Asia. In November, shortly before the attack, on Pearl Harbor, the US intercepted a Japanese message which US code breakers were able to translate that warned the peace negotiations were expected to “break down”.
Before and during the war, every nation, on both sides, had their intelligence services working on code breaking and gaining inside information via spies or were utilizing new technologies like radar to give them more accurate information to plan their strategies. Since March of 1941, Japanese spies had been recording fleet movements in Pearl Harbor and in September they started mapping Oahu’s airfield locations. The US knew about this type of espionage as it was common across the world. Unfortunately, the discovery of these activities did not positively identify where an attack would occur and so it was not considered information worthy of taking action upon. Most assumed that Pearl Harbor was not an easy target, being so far from Japan, so therefore not a likely target. Concerns were directed more towards the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies.
US Intelligence officials were not aware of several things that made Pearl Harbor a viable target for the Japanese. There is a lot of conspiracy on this topic regarding whether or not the government knew about the Japanese plan beforehand and why they would let an unprovoked, large scale attack occur. There are comparisons made to the tragic events on 9/11 in this regard. The truth is that neither the military nor civilians thought it was likely to occur so no one took the threat seriously. The Japanese had been planning their attack based upon this information:
While the Japanese fleet was enroute to Hawai’i they were still waiting for official permission to begin the attack. Although the US had broken Japanese codes, they were still unsure of what some of the messaging really meant. The Winds Code is one of those.
Japanese radio was broadcasted internationally and was picked up by ships at sea. They would listen for certain phrases contained in the weather reports. These included phrases like “east wind, rain” or “west wind, clear”. The suspicion within US intelligence was that they stood for countries and actions being ordered. When a certain phrase was broadcasted it was understood that Japanese forces were being given orders. Exactly what was being said became the subject of much discussion.
A major figure in this was Edwin Layton. He was a champion code breaker, fluent in Japanese and in charge of intelligence for the entire Pacific arena. He was sure that Washington was keeping information from them so they could make better decisions on the ground in Hawai’i. This was true to a certain extent although it was never on purpose. Washington told base commanders across the Pacific to prepare, although left it up to them to decide how best to do that. The information being provided to Pearl Harbor’s base command did not indicate that a threat to Hawai’i was imminent.
Great Britain, France and Netherlands were barely holding onto their colonies in Southeast Asia. Those areas contained much of the resources that Japan needed, so it was logical that they sent their fleet out to capture those areas.
The US did not think the Japanese could launch multiple campaigns at once. The US expected only one attack. The belief was that Japan was suffering. The prolonged war with China and the US embargo that started in 1940 which halted gasoline, tools and airplane equipment was taking its toll. The US thought that stopping oil shipments in July 1941 and moving the US fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor would reduce Japanese aggression.
Japan needed to secure new supplies for the empire and Southeast Asia was the nearest option available. The allied forces were well aware of the Japanese intentions. It was not a secret. What was a secret was their strategy for achieving those objectives. Going after the US fleet at Pearl Harbor was considered counterproductive unless the fleet could be disabled long enough for the Japanese to secure their island positions and supply routes. Once secured, they hoped that the US would negotiate for peace instead of taking additional heavy casualties and making the resource commitments that would be required to break the defensive line Japan created in that time.
The Japanese commanders knew there was great risk in “waking up” America’s industrial might and patriotic fervor with a direct attack. President Roosevelt was worried that the public would not respond to calls for help from allies or demand a full declaration of war, unless an attack took place on US soil. The Philippines, a US protectorate, was seen as too far away and not part of the US public’s “America First” policies. The US public, tired of the death and destruction of fighting on foreign soils during WWI, was against going to war at all – especially another foreign war. Even the famed aviator, Charles Lindbergh, was a leading advocate for the “America First” movement and felt the US should remain out of the wars in Europe and Asia. Indeed, the Japanese completely misread the American public’s sentiment when they made their move on that fateful day that will live in infamy.
The Japanese launched planes from outside of the US’s radar detection and with no noticeable resistance and still hidden from the US Naval fleet and Army’s view, the Japanese went after their goals across the Pacific. These included:
Japan was able to partially achieve their goals, and although they touted the attack as a great success, it’s benefit to them was short lived as they failed to achieve the primary goals of the attack which were to break the US morale and destroy the entire Pacific Fleet. After the attack all the Pacific fleet battleships, except for 2, were re-floated quickly and American citizens were ready to sacrifice. They volunteered in droves after 15 sailors and 1 marine received medals of honor for the day of the attack, 11 of them awarded posthumously.
The focus of the attack was to cripple the backbone of the pacific fleet with the main targets being the aircraft carriers and battleships, which at the time, projected the US military’s strength across the Pacific. Of the 8 battleships in port that day, only Arizona and Oklahoma were a total loss. Most were re-floated and repaired by mid 1942, less than 6 months later.
Arizona – BB-39 – Sunk Total Loss
Oklahoma – BB-37 – Sunk Total Loss
Nevada – BB36 – Seriously Damaged & Beached at Hospital Point
Tennessee – BB43 – Repaired by Feb 1942
The ability to repair and reactivate those ships quickly after the attack on Pearl Harbor was due to the fact the Japanese did not destroy the maintenance or repair facilities in the harbor – a gross and soon-to-be costly oversight in their planning.
The attacks that were carried out beginning on December 7, 1941 did succeed in many ways for the Japanese, although there were many distinct challenges created by trying to sink a fleet in a shallow harbor. US ships would be re-floated quickly and repairs made while sailors who were not trapped or killed were easily rescued. The quick repair time allowed the US to rebound from the attack within 6 months, cutting down the amount of time Japan thought it had bought itself to consolidate their positions in Southeast Asia. The Japanese also failed to hit Pearl Harbor on a day when the all important aircraft carriers were in port. The USS Enterprise was south of Kauai and USS Lexington was ½ way between Midway Island and Hawai’i while the USS Saratoga was in San Diego. Missing an opportunity to eliminate these vessels would come to haunt the Japanese Navy during the Battle of Midway just 6 months later.
Admiral Nimitz commented that we were lucky that the fleet was in harbor. If we were surprised out at sea, then we would have lost the battleships forever and many more lives would have been lost.
The reaction was not as Japan had intended. The American reaction to Pearl Harbor allowed the US to enter World War 2 firmly with near unanimous public support. The American industrial might was unleashed on Germany & Italy as well when they declared war on the US only four days after the attack.
Over 75 years later, Pearl Harbor is still the main Naval port in the Pacific. Strategic military importance has only increased, as was seen with the recent false alarm over an incoming missile attack. Residents of Hawai’i took it seriously, as Oahu holds a considerable amount of military equipment and would be a likely target in the future.
The US Navy continues to utilize the port and pays respect each time a ship sails past the USS Arizona Memorial. It’s not just the US Navy but other ships do as well even when flying under foreign flags. Everyone remembers Pearl Harbor.
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