To conclude our series of WW2 battle maps we look at a date that will live in Infamy, December 7th 1941, the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
By late 1941 the Second World War had spread globally. Commonwealth forces were fighting in the deserts of North Africa; Axis forces were concluding Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union; and the often forgotten war in China had been raging for 4 years. US President Franklin D Roosevelt had turned America into the arsenal of democracy. His lend-lease program was supplying the Soviets, France, Britain and China with vast amounts of resources. But the American populace were against getting directly involved in another global conflict, the attack on Pearl Harbor would change that.
The seizure of French Indochina by the Japanese in 1940 had blocked the main route of American supplies to China. In response to this, and increasing atrocities on the Chinese population, the US imposed an embargo upon Japan. Cutting off 90% of Japan’s oil imports, alongside other resources vital to their war machine. With now limited reserves, the conquest of European colonial possessions in South-East Asia was paramount.
War between the US and Japan had been anticipated by both sides since the 1920’s. The relocation of the Pacific Fleet to Hawaii in early 1941 was hoped to intimidate the Japanese. Instead it presented them with a golden opportunity. Since the relocation, Admiral Yamamoto had been planning a first strike against the US at Pearl Harbor. It was hoped that destroying the Pacific Fleet would prevent a response to Japan seizing the US controlled Philippines, and bring about a favourable peace treaty. The assumption being that as soon as the Philippines were attacked, the Pacific Fleet would sail out in support. However, US plans were in fact to retreat to California and await reinforcements.
The Carriers Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, Hiryū, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku set sail for Hawaii on the 26th of November 1941. They travelled under strict radio silence. In the early hours of December 7th, Japanese midget submarines were the first to approach Pearl Harbor. The destroyer USS Ward, detected and sank a midget sub in the first American shots of WW2 at 0637.
At 0755 on the 7th of December 1941, 183 Japanese aircraft began the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Slow, vulnerable torpedo bombers led the first wave, exploiting the first moments of surprise to attack the most important ships present. Dive bombers struck air bases across the island. An armour piercing bomb penetrated the deck of the battleship, USS Arizona, and detonated in a powder magazine. The cataclysmic explosion killed 1,177 of the 1,512 men aboard. A second wave of 170 aircraft struck an hour and a half later. With orders to strike cruisers and further airfields.
The base was only alerted when the attacking planes began bombing and strafing. Men awoke to the sound of alarms, explosions and gunfire. Ammunition was locked away and anti-aircraft guns were unmanned. Despite this low alert state many servicemen responded effectively during the attack. Mess Attendant Third Class, Doris Miller, aboard the USS West Virginia helped move his wounded Captain whilst under fire. Despite not being trained in its use, he manned an anti-aircraft gun until all ammunition was spent. He then carried wounded sailors from the lower decks and undoubtedly saved many lives. He was the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism. Eight USAAF pilots were able to get airborne and six shot down at least one Japanese plane.
Within two hours of the first planes appearing over Pearl Harbor, over 300 planes and 18 US warships were destroyed or damaged. 2,335 personnel were killed and a further 1,143 were wounded.
Attacks across the Pacific
Hours after the first bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked the U.S. held Philippines, Guam and Wake Island. The British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, alongside the Dutch East Indies, were also attacked. Over the coming months all would fall to the Japanese.
Three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Royal Navy battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse, were sunk. This left the Japanese unchallenged in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve – Admiral Yamamoto (quote is from the film Tora! Tora! Tora! There is no evidence he said this at the time of the attack.)
The very next day, the 8th of December, US President Franklin D Roosevelt addressed congress. He declared the 7th of December as “a date that will live in infamy”. Congress soon voted in favour of declaring war upon Japan. Declarations against Germany and Italy would soon follow.
Although tactically successful, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a strategic failure. Of the 8 Battleships sunk or damaged, only 2 would not return to service. The damage done to the base itself was minimal and ship recovery started immediately. Critically, there were no American aircraft carriers present, as the Japanese had hoped. The 3 carriers of the Pacific Fleet all escaped damage and would play a decisive role in the coming Pacific Campaign.
Japanese confidence in a quick decisive victory meant that they failed to target the navy repair yards, oil tank farms, and submarine base. The subsequent American submarine campaign would cripple the Japanese economy. It is estimated that in 1942, imports to Japan were cut in half by submarine raiding. Only 6 months later 4 of the 6 carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor would be sunk during the Battle of Midway.
The attack brought the United States of America directly into the Second World War, echoing the sinking of the Lusitania from the First World War. This reinforced the Allies and is considered a major factor altering the outcome of the Second World War.