“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
So said US President, Franklin D Roosevelt in an address to a joint session of the US Congress the day following the surprise attack; This single event was one which shaped world history in both the short and long terms but how did it get to that point and what happened in the prelude to, during and after the attack?
War between Japan and the United States had been a possibility that each nation had been aware of, and planned for, since the 1920s. The relationship between the two countries was cordial enough that they remained trading partners and tensions did not seriously grow until Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
Over the ensuing decade, Japan expanded into China, leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and the Japanese spent considerable effort trying to isolate China and endeavoured to secure enough independent resources to attain victory on the mainland.
From late 1937 onwards, a number of serious Japanese incursions swung Western public opinion sharply against Japan and fearing its potential expansionism, the United States, United Kingdom, and France assisted China with its “loans for war supply” contracts.
In 1940, Japan invaded French Indochina, attempting to stymie the flow of supplies reaching China and in response, the United States halted shipments of airplanes, parts, machine tools, and aviation gasoline to Japan, which the latter perceived as an unfriendly act. The United States did not stop oil exports, however, partly because of the prevailing sentiment in Washington that given Japanese dependence on American oil, such an action was likely to be considered an extreme provocation.
Then, in mid-1940, President Roosevelt moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Hawaii and ordered a military build up in the Philippines, taking both actions in the hope of discouraging Japanese aggression in the Far East. Because the Japanese high command was (mistakenly) certain any attack on the United Kingdom’s Southeast Asian colonies, including Singapore, would bring the U.S. into the war, a devastating pre-emptive strike appeared to be the only way to prevent American naval interference.
The U.S. finally ceased oil exports to Japan in July 1941, following the seizure of French Indochina and after the Fall of France of June 1940, in part because of new American restrictions on domestic oil consumption and as a result of this decision, Japan proceeded with plans to take the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.
On August 17, 1941, Roosevelt warned Japan that America was prepared to take opposing steps if “neighbouring countries” were attacked. The Japanese were now faced with a dilemma – either withdraw from China and lose face, or seize new sources of raw materials in the resource-rich European colonies of Southeast Asia.
Japan and the U.S. remained engaged in negotiations during the latter part of 1941, attempting to improve relations and during the course of these negotiations, Japan offered to withdraw from most of China and Indochina after making peace with the Nationalist government. It also proposed to adopt an independent interpretation of the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy and Japan) and to refrain from trade discrimination, provided all other nations reciprocated. Washington rejected these proposals.
Japanese Prime Minister Konoye then offered to meet with Roosevelt, but the President insisted on reaching an agreement before any meeting. The U.S. ambassador to Japan repeatedly urged Roosevelt to accept the meeting, warning that it was the only way to preserve the conciliatory Konoye government and peace in the Pacific. However, his recommendation was not acted upon. The Konoye government collapsed the following month, when the Japanese military rejected a withdrawal of all troops from China.
Japan’s final proposal, delivered on November 20, offered to withdraw from southern Indochina and to refrain from attacks in Southeast Asia, so long as the United States, United Kingdom, and Netherlands supplied one million gallons of aviation fuel, lifted their sanctions against Japan, and ceased aid to China.
The American counter-proposal of November 26 (November 27 in Japan) however, required Japan to completely evacuate China without conditions and conclude non-aggression pacts with all Pacific powers. On November 26 in Japan, the day before that note’s delivery, the Japanese task force left port for Pearl Harbor and the die had been cast!
Thus, by mid-1941 the United States had virtually severed all economic relations with Japan and was providing material and financial support to China (with whom Japan had been at war since 1937) and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 ensured that the Soviets were no longer a threat to the Japanese on the Asian mainland. The Japanese believed that once the U.S. Pacific Fleet was neutralized, all of Southeast Asia would be open for conquest. What a huge miscalculation that turned out to be!
The Japanese attack had several major aims. First, it intended to destroy important American fleet units, thereby preventing the Pacific Fleet from interfering with Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya and to enable Japan to conquer Southeast Asia without interference. Second, it was hoped to buy time for Japan to consolidate its position and increase its naval strength.
Third, to deliver a blow to America’s ability to mobilize its forces in the Pacific, battleships were chosen as the main targets, since they were the prestige ships of any navy at the time and finally, it was hoped that the attack would undermine American morale such that the U.S. government would drop its demands contrary to Japanese interests and would seek a compromise peace with Japan, again a very significant miscalculation.
Located as it is near the centre of the Pacific Ocean, roughly 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland but over 4,000 miles from Japan, no one believed that the Japanese would start a war with an attack on the distant islands of Hawaii, believing that US bases in the Philippines would be the prime target. Moreover, as American military leaders were not expecting an attack “so close to home”, the naval facilities at Pearl Harbor were only lightly defended.
So, whilst there existed the element of surprise in support of the Japanese attack, striking the Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor also carried two distinct disadvantages: the targeted ships would be in very shallow water, so it would be relatively easy to salvage and possibly repair them, and most of the crews could survive the attack, since many could be on shore leave or would be rescued from the harbor. A further important disadvantage was the absence from Pearl Harbor at the moment of attack of all three of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers (Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga). Despite these concerns, the Japanese Commander, Yamamoto decided to press ahead.
The Japanese plan was simple: Destroy the Pacific Fleet. That way, the Americans would not be able to fight back as Japan’s armed forces spread across the South Pacific. They intended the attack as a pre-emptive action to keep the United States Pacific Fleet from interfering with its planned military actions in Southeast Asia against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States.
The Attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, commenced on a quiet, lazy Sunday morning, December 7 1941 at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time (18:18 GMT) and over the course of seven hours there were also coordinated Japanese attacks on the U.S. held Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island and also on the British Empire colonies in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The base was attacked by 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft (including fighters, level and dive bombers, and torpedo bombers) in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers stationed a few hundred miles out to the west of the Hawaiian islands.
By 8 a.m. Japanese planes filled the sky over Pearl Harbor with bombs and bullets raining down like confetti onto the vessels moored below. It was chaos!
At 8:10 a.m a 1,800-pound bomb smashed through the deck of the battleship USS Arizona and landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and sank with more than 1,000 men trapped inside. Next, torpedoes pierced the shell of the battleship USS Oklahoma. With 400 sailors aboard, the Oklahoma lost her balance, rolled onto her side and slipped under the water.
Less than two hours later, the surprise attack was over, and every battleship in Pearl Harbor—USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia, USS Utah, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee and USS Nevada—had sustained significant damage. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer.
A total of 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,403 American personnel were killed and 1,178 others were wounded although important base installations such as the power station, dry dock, shipyard, maintenance, and fuel and torpedo storage facilities, as well as the submarine piers and headquarters building (also home of the intelligence section) were not attacked. As a result, the U.S. Navy was able to rebound relatively quickly from the attack.
Japanese losses were light: 29 aircraft, five midget submarines lost, and 64 servicemen killed but the Japanese had failed to cripple the Pacific Fleet. By the 1940s, battleships were no longer the most important naval vessel: Aircraft carriers were, and as it happened, all of the Pacific Fleet’s carriers were away from the base on December 7. (Some had returned to the mainland and others were delivering planes to troops on Midway and Wake Islands.)
That said and in the short term, the American naval presence in the Pacific was severely weakened. However, the Japanese had largely ignored the harbour’s infrastructure, and many of the damaged ships were repaired on-site and returned to duty. In addition and certainly of more significance was the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers which escaped unscathed and which would all go on to make significant contributions later in the conflict (one had been scheduled to return the day before the attack, but it was delayed by bad weather).
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of the Pacific war for the U.S., but it did not necessarily mean that the U.S. had become a combatant in the war in Europe. By December 1941, German armies had stalled on the Eastern Front, and it seemed foolhardy for Adolf Hitler to declare war on yet another great power under such circumstances.
The Tripartite Pact only obligated Germany to defend Japan if the latter was attacked, not if it was the aggressor. Nevertheless, Germany declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. Japan announced a declaration of war on the United States the day after the attack (December 8 in Tokyo) and the following day, Congress declared war on Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy each declared war on the U.S. which responded in kind with a declaration of war against each of them. Later that month, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met the U.S. President in Washington D.C. and the two agreed on a “Europe first” policy for the defeat of Axis Powers.
The Japanese had wanted to goad the United States into an agreement to lift the economic sanctions against them; instead, they had pushed their adversary into a global conflict that ultimately resulted in Japan’s first occupation by a foreign power. Indeed, immediately after the attack, the Japanese Commander Yamamoto is reputed to have stated, “I fear we have awoken a sleeping giant”
After the Pearl Harbor attack, and for the first time during years of discussion and debate, the American people were united in their determination to go to war and public opinion immediately shifted to favouring war with Japan, a course that would conclude with Japan’s unconditional surrender less than four years later.
There were numerous historical precedents for the unannounced military action by Japan, but the lack of any formal warning, particularly while peace negotiations were still apparently ongoing, led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”. Equally, because the attack happened without a declaration of war and without explicit warning, the attack on Pearl Harbor was later judged in the Tokyo Trials to be a war crime.
In the final part of his address to Congress on December 8, the President went on to say, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”
Today, as well as remaining a very active US naval base, “Pearl” as it has become affectionately known by many veterans, is now also home to one of the most famous memorials and national war graves anywhere in the world.
Probably the most poignant part of the memorial is the site of the USS Arizona, the remains of which have sat on the bottom since that fateful day and which to the present day, continues to leak machine oil which slowly drifts to the surface like some constant reminder and epitaph to those brave men who lost their lives.
The central memorial now also sits moored laterally across the remains of the Arizona and as one who has had the good fortune to have visited the site, it is certainly a place which any American and indeed any freedom and peace respecting person should pay pilgrimage should they have the chance. We will remember them!