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Attack on Pearl Harbor

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History -- Military history -- List of battles -- World War II

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On the morning of December 7, 1941, planes of the Japanese Navy carried out a surprise assault on the American Navy base and Army air field at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. Eighteen ships were sunk or damaged, and around 2400 Americans lost their lives. The Japanese suffered minimal casualties. This attack has been called the Bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Pearl Harbor but, most commonly, the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor
On March 27, 1941 Japanese spy Takeo Yoshikawa arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii and began to study the United States Naval fleet stationed at Pearl.

The Japanese deployed six aircraft carriers for the attack, Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, Shokaku, Soryu, Zuikaku, with a total of 441 planes, including fighters, torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers, and fighter-bombers. Of these, 55 were lost during the battle.

The Japanese planes bombed the US Army air base at Hickam Field[?] and the ships anchored in Battleship Row. The American battleship USS Arizona was sunk with a loss of 1100 men, nearly half of the American dead. Seven other battleships and twelve other ships were sunk or damaged.

Historical significance

This, like the Battle of Lexington and Concord, was a comparatively minor battle that had history-altering consequences. It drew the United States into World War II and led to the demise of the Japanese Empire and aided in the defeat of Nazi Germany as well. America's ultimate victory in this war and its emergence as a world power has shaped international politics ever since.

Strategic appraisal

The purpose of the attack on Pearl Harbor was to neutralize American naval power in the Pacific. The Japanese wanted license to do as they pleased in the Pacific and Asia, and thought they could get this by eliminating American influence. Specifically, Japan had been embroiled in a war with China which had come to a stalemate after many years of fighting. Japan thought by cutting China off from American (as well as British) aid, China would be weakened, and the stalemate could be broken. Japan also knew that American naval power could not be neutralized indefinitely, but thought that by dealing it a heavy blow at Pearl Harbor, the American Navy could be neutralized long enough for Japan to achieve its objectives in Asia and the Pacific.

In terms of its strategic objectives the attack on Pearl Harbor was, in the short to medium term, a unique and spectacular success which eclipsed the wildest dreams of its planners and has few parallels in the military history of any era. For the next six months, the United States Navy was unable to play any significant role in the Pacific War, and with the US Pacific Fleet out of the picture, Japan was free to to conquer South-East Asia, the entire South West Pacific, and even extend its reach far into the Indian Ocean.

In the longer term, however, the Pearl Harbor attack was an unmitigated strategic disaster for Japan. In the first place, the main Japanese target was the three American aircraft carriers stationed in the Pacific, but these were not in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack and escaped unharmed. With most of the USN battleships out of commission, the Navy had no choice but to put its faith in aircraft carriers and submarines, and these would prove to be the tools with which the USN first stopped and then reversed the Japanese advance.

Furthermore, although the Japanese forces inexplicably did not consider them an important target, the base also had large fuel oil storage facilities and a successful bombing of them could not only have resulted in massive fires that could have devastated the base, but it would have also have crippled much of the Pacific Fleet by robbing them of a major fuel supply and fueling center thousands of miles from the mainland.

Most significantly of all, the Pearl Harbor attack galvanised a divided and half-hearted nation into action as nothing else could have done: overnight, it made the whole of America utterly determined to defeat Japan, and it forever removed any question of a negotiated settlement short of unconditional surrender.

A related question is why Nazi Germany declared war on the United States December 11, 1941 immediately following the Japanese attack. This doubly outraged the American public and allowed the United States to greatly step up its support of the United Kingdom while recovering from the setback in the Pacific.


Despite the perception of this battle as a devastating blow to America, only three ships were permanently lost to the Navy. These were the battleships USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and USS Utah. Five ships that were sunk during the attack were later raised and returned to duty. Of the 22 Japanese ships that took part in the attack, only one was to survive the war.

In addition, despite the debacle, there were American personnel who served with distinction in the incident. The most famous is Doris Miller, an African-American sailor who went above and beyond the call of duty during the attack when he took control of an unattended machine gun and used it in defense of the base. For that, he was awarded the Navy Cross.

The attack has been depicted numerous times on film with the best known examples being:

See also Japanese internment in the United States.

Further reading

  • Gordon W Prange's At dawn we slept (Penguin, 1981) is considered the standard work.

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