The Endless Historical Errors Made in the Pearl Harbor Movie

Few Americans and few around the world can forget the date of December 7th. On that day in 1941, Japanese soldiers conducted an incredible air attack on the American military stationed in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, striking ships, planes, and military bases. B

ecause of this, the United States was thrust into World War II, joining others in the fight against Germany, against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime, and against Japan. This tragic, impactful day became part of Hollywood’s moviemaking history in 2001, when the film Pearl Harbor, directed by Michael Bay, was released. It meant to depict all that took place on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, and how it forever altered the lives of those there that December morning.

Movies are often romantic in nature, but when the film Pearl Harbor burst into theaters around the world, viewers received more than an engaging, romanticized take on the terrible events of that December day. The film, as critics were quick to point out upon its release, is riddled with factual and historical errors.

Though a captivating story according to so many moviegoers, history lovers will find that it’s nearly impossible to sit through Pearl Harbor without noticing one of its many mistakes or misrepresentations. Dramatic in its nature, Pearl Harbor is certainly meant to be an artistic retelling of the events of the Pearl Harbor attack. However, despite the film’s box office success, millions of dollars in viewings, and Academy Award nominations, flaws exist that make it one of the most inaccurate portrayals of a historical event in filmmaking history.

These are among the most obvious, the most historically inaccurate facts featured in this mega-motion picture film that present inaccurate depictions of all that took place during the actual events of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Unauthorized Eagle Squadron Members

In Pearl Harbor, Ben Affleck’s character joins the Eagle Squadron. However, active-duty members of the U.S. Air Force weren’t allowed to join this squadron; civilians, though, were able to do so by becoming members of the Royal Air Force, or RAF. In an even further error, the filmmakers chose to adorn Affleck’s Spitfire plane with “RF”, the insignia of the N. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, although he was flying a British plane.
Early Era Crop Dusters

In one of the film’s childhood scenes, a Stearman biplane crop duster appears in what is meant to be the year 1923. However, these special aircraft weren’t in use in the U.S. until a year later in 1924, when they first operated as commercial planes for cotton-dusting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture waited even longer to put the Stearman biplane crop duster to use, marking its first historical appearance in 1926.

Incorrectly Timed Events

One of the most obvious and crucial errors in the film is seen when Admiral Kimmel is notified that an enemy submarine was under attack. During the actual events that took place at Pearl Harbor, Kimmel wasn’t notified until hours after the attack ended. He instead heard of what was taking place only once the Japanese bombs had already fallen into the harbor.

Inaccurate Hospital Attacks

Although the film depicts Japanese bombers purposely aiming for hospitals and medical professionals during the attack, the enemy aircraft, in fact, didn’t deliberately aim for crucial medical centers like the hospital.

Though the Japanese did hit the hospital, they killed only one member of the hospital’s staff – he was shot while attempting to cross the navy yard.

A Misrepresented Doolittle Raid

In the film, Jimmy Doolittle and his fellow raiders launched 624 miles off the coast of Japan from the USS Hornet; they did so after being seen by Japanese patrol boats. In reality, however, Doolittle and his team had to launch 650 miles away from Japan’s coast and were spotted by merely one patrol boat.

Additionally, these men were not responsible for just bombing Tokyo, as depicted in the movie; they bombed Tokyo and three other industrial centers of Japan.

Those Cigarettes Were Fakes

Did you notice characters smoking Marlboro Lights in the film, and Dan Aykroyd wearing rimless glasses? Neither of these items were available in the 1940s. Marlboro Lights didn’t appear in the U.S. (or anywhere else) until 1972, almost 30 years after the Pearl Harbor attack; those rimless glasses were also an impossibility, as nylon was rationed during World War II and are typically used to hold eyeglass lenses in place in frameless models.

Those were the Wrong Hawkeyes

Pay close attention during the control tower scene; you’ll spot E-2 Hawkeyes flying in the background. Though these airplanes did exist and were used in the U.S., they weren’t around in 1941. The E-2 Hawkeyes didn’t fly until the 1960s.

Advanced Radios Proved Too Effective

Captivated by the film’s Hawaiian soldiers listening to radio conversation among the Doolittle team of raiders? That entire scene was impossible in 1941, as there was no way planes on different routes, observing radio silence, would produce any noise at all.

Communication between two planes occurs via low-power, short-range radio, meaning a state halfway across the world would never be able to communicate with those raiding soldiers in Japan.

Korean War Cars Appear

Take the time to stare at the Jeep that appears on the golf course in Pearl Harbor, when the commander is notified that the base is under attack.

Though Jeeps existed during World War II, the exact Jeeps that appear in the film are not of the right time period; they’re Korean War vehicles, the M-38.

The Wrong Aircraft Weaponry

In the film version of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the planes were equipped with P-40s. However, the models seen were P-40Ks, P-40Ms, and P-40Ns – not the P-40Bs or P-40Cs that were used during the actual attack.

You can see the visible difference in the film, as the plane-mounted guns in the film feature three guns on each plane wing; the more accurate, and actually used guns were mounted two to a plane wing, with two extras attached to the engine.

War Ships Missing their War Paint

Typically, in times of war, a nation’s ships were painted gray in an effort to help them camouflage against the colors of the oceans they sailed. However, in Pearl Harbor, the Queen Mary appears in all her colored glory, decorated in red, black, and white rather than gray.

Because the Queen Mary was an English ship, arriving from Britain, who had been part of the war for two years, she should have been painted gray long before appearing in the film’s events.

A Long, Wet Voyage

When Danny and Rafe, the characters portrayed by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, leave Florida for Tokyo, they climb aboard a DC-3 to travel 2,400 miles. This, however, would prove particularly damp and difficult if it had actually occurred; the DC-3 was only able to travel 1,600 miles, almost half the distance the characters did. Instead, they would have taken a ship, a seaplane, or a stripped-down bomber plane in order to travel such a length.

A lot of artistic license was taken throughout the filming and portrayal of the December 7th Pearl Harbor attack in the movie of the same name.

Every one of these mistakes, no matter how small or how large, played a role in creating a movie environment that does not accurately reflect just what happened on that day of the Pearl Harbor attack, or in the months that followed and brought America into war.

Heather Fishel

Heather Fishel is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE