The words “Pearl Harbor” evoke images and emotions only rivaled in American history by “The Alamo,” and “9-11.” As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it in the wake of the surprise attack, December 7, 1941 is “a day that will live in infamy.” Here’s WATM’s brief look at how it went down.
The Japanese task force was comprised of six carriers — Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, Hiryū, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku — carrying a total of 408 airplanes (360 bombers, 48 fighters).
The attack on Pearl Harbor came in two waves. The first wave of 183 planes (six failed to launch because of maintenance issues) crossed into American airspace on December 7, 1941 at 7:48 local time. Ironically and tragically, as the first wave approached Oahu, it was detected by the U.S. Army SCR-270 radar at Opana Point near Oahu’s northern tip. The operators reported a target, but their superior, a newly assigned officer at the thinly manned Intercept Center, presumed it was the scheduled arrival of six B-17 bombers from California.
The Japanese fighters shot down several American airplanes on the way in.
The first wave bombers were supposed to take out ‘capital ships’ — aircraft carriers (famously not in port) and battleships, while the Zeros strafed Ford Field in an effort to keep American fighters from launching.
The famous message, “Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is not drill,” was sent from the headquarters of Patrol Wing Two, the first senior Hawaiian command to respond.
Despite this low alert status, many American military personnel responded effectively during the attack. Ensign Joe Taussig Jr., aboard the USS Nevada, commanded the ship’s antiaircraft guns and was severely wounded, but continued to be on post. Lt. Commander F. J. Thomas commanded Nevada in the captain’s absence and got her under way until the ship was grounded at 9:10 a.m. One of the destroyers, USS Aylwin, got underway with only four officers aboard, all ensigns, none with more than a year’s sea duty; she operated at sea for 36 hours before her commanding officer managed to get back aboard. Captain Mervyn Bennion, commanding the USS West Virginia, led his men until he was cut down by fragments from a bomb which hit USS Tennessee, moored alongside.
The second wave of 171 planes (four others didn’t get airborne) came shortly after the first had egressed and focused on the airfields at Hickham, Kanehoe, and Ford (right in the middle of Pearl Harbor), taking out hangars and strafing airplanes on flight lines. The second wave also went after the battleships that had survived the first wave.
In total, 2,403 Americans died and 1,178 were wounded. Eighteen ships were sunk or run aground, including five battleships. All of the Americans killed or wounded during the attack were non-combatants, given the fact there was no state of war when the attack occurred. (The attack was later ruled a war crime because occurred without a declaration of war from Japan.)
In the wake of the attack, 15 Medals of Honor, 51 Navy Crosses, 53 Silver Stars, four Navy and Marine Corps Medals, one Distinguished Flying Cross, four Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, and three Bronze Star Medals were awarded to the American servicemen who distinguished themselves in combat at Pearl Harbor.
The following day President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, and Congress obliged an hour later.
On December 11, Germany and Italy — honoring their treaty with Japan — declared war on the U.S., so Congress issued a declaration of war on them in return.
The United States was now fully involved in World War II.