Attack on Pearl Harbor – Awakening The Sleeping Giant

Burning ships at Pearl Harbor.
Burning ships at Pearl Harbor.

It is a fact that the attack on Pearl Harbor is amongst the darkest pages in the history of the United States. It was the moment when the country lost almost the entire pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. There is absolutely no medium that could allow you to comprehend what went down there in the early hours of December 7th. We can, though, paint a mere picture of the devastating time that changed the course of history in America.

Back in the day when WWII began for America.  Unlike what people think, before WWII the US and Japan had signed a commercial treaty that led them to have a prolific trade for a few years.  However, the increasingly aggressive nature of Japanese foreign policy was becoming a matter of concern for the US, eventually leading to the lapse in the trading relationship between the two nations in 1940.

Things Got Worse

Things only went downhill when the US banned the exports of aviation fuel and scrap iron to Japan. Consequently, the Japanese had signed a pact with Italy and Germany which further lead to the belief where the loyalty of the Japanese were beginning to lie.

However, since America was a core source of aviation fuel and scrap iron for Japan, it had to  acquire another source or it could potentially loose its war against China. It was obvious where Japan could get an equally good supply of the required products from – the South East Asian countries.

However, there is another problem and Japanese knew it better than anyone else – an attempt to invade this part of the world could end up in a war with America itself. Japan was stuck. It had to come up with a plan that could stop the US from hindering their way to conquer the much-needed resources to win the war in China.

Early preparations

Kagoshima Bay
Kagoshima Bay

After months of planning, Japanese decided to strike the US in its key naval center – the Pearl Harbor.  What went into their favor was the fact that the entrance to Kagoshima Bay in Japan was almost identical to the one in Pearl Harbor. Japan took almost a year to simulate their attack on Pearl Harbor as it was their best chance to turn the tables in the ongoing war with China. Get America out of the equation, and conquer the oil and mineral hubs of Asia – it was their chance, to win the wars!

Composition of the attack

The attack on Pearl Harbor was divided into three separate waves. Each wave was assigned with a separate task: The first was responsible for taking down all the ships and then military installations across the island, the second cleared any installations missed or still running while the third wave was in charge of taking out any fuel storage tanks present on the island. They wanted to get the job done as swiftly as possible.

“Japanese fleet getting ready”

It was 5:30 in the morning when the first set of  180 fighter and bomber planes got ready to lead the attack. Another set of a staggering 183 aircraft was launched which included fighters and dive-bombers. The question was how to get this massive fleet of 363 planes to Pearl Harbor undetected?

Well, Japan had all that planned for and executed their strategy with extreme professionalism. What they did was just before entering the range of American radars, was that all the planes went to a very low altitude and continued their flight just above the sea level. Since radars only detected flights that were above a certain height, the  Japanese strategy was a complete hit! However, when close to the harbor, radar captured the Japanese activity close to the Oahu, and reported it.

Unfortunately, it was ignored thinking a fleet this large, especially with the security measures intact, was not a possibility. Only if it were not mistaken for a flock of birds, the history of the entire American involvement in WW2 would have been different.

Japanese fleet getting ready
Japanese fleet getting ready

Disaster strikes at Pearl Harbor

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. View looks about east, with the supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm in the right center distance. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Other battleships moored nearby are (from left): Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (torpedoed and listing) alongside Maryland, and California. On the near side of Ford Island, to the left, are light cruisers Detroit and Raleigh, target and training ship Utah and seaplane tender Tangier. Raleigh and Utah have been torpedoed, and Utah is listing sharply to port. Japanese planes are visible in the right center (over Ford Island) and over the Navy Yard at right. Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island.

It was a fine morning on the Island of Hawaii where people were going by their days as per routine. Little did anyone know that the day – December 7th, 1941 was far different from just another day. Little did they know what the fate awaited them.

The route taken by the fleet took them past the eastern side of the island from where it moved in. Furthermore, the United States aircraft and battle ships were grounded that Sunday morning. It was almost as if  luck was entirely with the Japanese that day. At 7:55 am, the famous words ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’ from the Japanese fleet  were sent back to the base happily reporting the fact that Americans have been caught by surprise and the attack has been a great success!

The combination of high-altitude bombers, dive-bombers and torpedoes made sure that none of the major or minor military targets were left intact. Wave after wave, most of the American naval power in the harbor was destroyed, apart from the aircraft carriers, which were, by chance out at sea. The Naval base at Pearl Harbor was no more. It was America’s greatest defeat in the history of this country.

However, the Japanese did not launch their third strike which left the oil storage tanks intact.

America joins the war

Yamamoto at Tokyo Station enroute to take command of the Combined Fleet on August 31, 1939.
Yamamoto at Tokyo Station en route to take command of the Combined Fleet on August 31, 1939.

Having lost most of the Pacific Fleet, over two thousand soldiers, twenty naval vessels, and several airplanes, it was time that the US went into action. With Japan, Italy, and Germany making an alliance, America declared war against Japan and joined WW2. However, after the apparently successful attack, there was something that Isoroku Yamamoto saw which no one else did. Hence, just as he heard the news of the mission’s success, he (supposedly) spoke the words.

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant …”

The rest, as they say, is history!

David Herold

David Herold is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE