MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
On December 7, 1941, 75 years ago, six Japanese aircraft carriers northwest of Hawaii launched 408 aircraft in a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor—360 for the two attack waves and 48 on defensive combat air patrol. The first wave struck U.S. military aircraft at airfields on Oahu, and the second wave attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese navy’s first wave destroyed 188 American aircraft and damaged another 159 on the ground. The second wave sank six ships, including four battleships, and damaged 13 others, including four battleships. More than 2,400 Americans were killed, mostly from the USS Arizona, and 1,170 were wounded. The Japanese navy lost only four midget submarines, 29 aircraft and 24 killed. For now, American naval and air power had ceased to exist on Hawaii.
The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt at a joint session of Congress asked for a declaration of war against Japan. The opening words of that speech—“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan”—are etched in the minds of most Americans of the World War II generation. Only one congressman voted against the declaration of war to keep the vote for war from being unanimous. Thus began the active participation of the United States in the world’s greatest conflict in history.
Throughout 1941, relations between the United States and the empire of Japan had steadily deteriorated. President Roosevelt sought to reach a stop-gap agreement with the Japanese emperor right up to Dec. 6, but Japanese military leaders had little or no interest in a negotiated agreement, despite dissent within their ranks about “the gamble” to attack Pearl Harbor. Japanese naval leaders had begun preparations for the attack as early as late summer 1941.
The Japanese naval leaders’ intent was to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet so that it could not impede the Japanese military’s conquest of Southeast Asia, and permit them to consolidate their gains before the U.S. Navy could replace its lost ships. They also hoped that the attack would undermine American morale and that ultimately the U.S. government would pursue a compromise peace with Japan. However, the Japanese government greatly underestimated American reaction and the peace they sought would come only after a bitter, costly, and lengthy war.
Interestingly, the Japanese navy’s operations plan was very similarly to the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s 1938 Fleet Exercise in Hawaiian waters. This exercise consisted of a surprise air raid on Pearl Harbor by Navy aircraft from aircraft carriers, located in about the same position as the Japanese carriers on the morning of Dec. 7. The Navy aircraft “attacked” Navy and Army airfields on Oahu with “devastating effect,” according to the Pacific Fleet’s after-action report.
The Japanese navy applied the doctrine developed at the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, in the 1930s that “air forces must be employed offensively against the ‘vital centers’ of the enemy.” Accordingly, it was vital that an attacking air force destroy the enemy’s aircraft on the ground during initial operations and achieve air superiority for follow-on attacks.
Some have criticized Admiral Chuchi Nagumo, the commander of the Japanese task force, for not attempting to locate and sink the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers, fortunately absent from Pearl Harbor that morning, or to attack the repair facilities and fuel storage tanks on Oahu. However, Admiral Nagumo believed that his fleet had achieved its objective—it would take two years for the U.S. Pacific Fleet to recover—without major losses. He was not willing to risk his fleet further since he did not know where the American carriers were and Pearl Harbor was now fully alerted.
The failure to destroy the American carriers allowed the United States to strike back with the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, and produce two strategic victories at the battle of Coral Sea in early May and the battle of Midway in early June. Ultimately, these victories started the long way to Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.