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The Pearl Harbor Day Page

In Memoriam:

At dawn on Sunday, December 7, 1941, naval aviation forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the United States Pacific Fleet center at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and other military targets. The goal of this attack was to sufficiently cripple the US Fleet so that Japan could then attack and capture the Phillipines and Indo-China and so secure access to the raw materials needed to maintain its position as a global military and economic power. This would enable Japan to further extend the empire to include Australia, New Zealand, and India (the ultimate boundaries planned for the so-called "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere"). The prevailing belief within the Japanese military and political establishment was that eventually, with the then expected German defeat of Great Britain and Soviet Russia, the United States' non-involvement in the European war, and Japan's control of the Pacific, that the world power structure would stabilize into three major spheres of influence:

1.) The Empire of Japan controlling East, Southeast, and South Asia and the entire Pacific Ocean.

2.) The combined powers of Germany and Italy controlling Great Britain, all of Europe, Western and central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

3.) The United States, controlling North and South America.


Admiral Yamamoto

Imperial Admiral Yamamoto, who conceived, designed and promoted the Pearl harbor attack, cautioned against a war with the United States. Having twice held naval attache positions within the Japanese embassy in the U. S. Capitol, he knew well the industrial strength, material wealth and temperament of the United States. Overruled by his superiors, he dedicated his efforts as Commander in Chief of the Imperial Combined Fleet to a successful attack. Upon completion of the attack he is quoted as saying "We have awakened a sleeping giant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve".

Pacific Fleet Crippled

Airfields, port facilities, and warships were attacked and severely damaged. Of the nine Pacific Fleet battleships at Pearl that day, Utah and Arizona were completely destroyed and the Oklahoma was salvaged but considered obsolete and designated for scrap. All other battleships were returned to service.*

Battleship Arizona Destroyed

(Click the picture to see a larger image)

The Arizona was struck by a converted sixteen inch armor penetrating naval shell that was dropped from a high level horizontal bomber. The bomb penetrated between the number one and two turrets, proceeded aft and downward through several decks, and exploded in one of the Arizona's aircraft catapult gunpowder magazines. The resulting fire ignited the main gun magazines where great quantities of gunpowder were stored. The explosion blew out all forward transverse bulkheads and caused the ship to sink to the harbor bottom in a few minutes. The explosion and sinking resulted in the death of over 1100 crew members.*

A Tomb and Memorial

(Click the picture to see a larger image)

The Arizona has been preserved as a tomb for most of the crew and as a memorial to the events of this day. The observation structure in the picture spans the ship's hulk, with Ford island in the background. The memorial is accessed by boats from the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Within the memorial, the first object seen is the ship's bell. In the middle, viewing ports overlook the Arizona. At the far end, a marble wall is inset with bronze letters naming the deceased crew members.

Japanese Goals

The expected result of the attack was to cripple the U. S. Pacific Fleet for a period of up to eighteen months, preventing aggressive action against imperial forces, with the fleet to later be drawn out into a final battle and destroyed. This goal eluded the Japanese as U. S. forces were acting aggressively in the South Pacific within 60 days and the fleet was fully effective within a year. There was never the kind of massive fleet battle that the Japanese hoped for.

A Matter of Chance

The attack was almost a complete tactical success. By a matter of chance, of the three of the Pacific Fleet carriers that would normally be at Pearl that morning, two were at sea on exercises and one was on the U. S. west coast undergoing maintenance. Not knowing the location of these ships that could attack his strike force would cause the tactical commander (Admiral Nagumo) to withdraw before a planned third strike, sparing the Pacific Fleet submarine force, important maintenance facilities and critical fuel supplies. The survival of the repair shops would enable rapid restoration of the fighting capability of the fleet. The carriers would enable the first blow to be struck against the Japanese homeland in the Doolittle raid, would prove to be decisive in the Battle of the Coral Sea, where the Japanese forces were turned back in their thrust toward Australia, and would prove essential to U. S. success in the Battle of Midway Island, where naval aviation forces from U.S. carriers sank four Imperial carriers.

The Turning Point

Midway proved to be the critical turning point in the course of the war in the Pacific. Its loss would have put Hawaii at great risk of invasion and occupation. In Japan's defeat at Midway it was the loss of her experienced pilots, more than the ships and aircraft, which would prove to be a fatal blow to Japan's ability to defend and extend the territory that it had gained.

U. S. Asleep

The Japanese success at Pearl Harbor with trivial losses to themselves can be blamed on the inability of the U. S. political, diplomatic, and military establishments to recognize the capabilities of Japan and the weaknesses in U. S. defense planning as well as a long string of small coincidences and failures that would in any analysis appear to be extremely unlikely to occur in concert. These are well documented in the texts available on this subject.

America Reacts

This sneak attack against Hawaii brought an immediate reaction of unprecedented unity from the American people. Families from every class sent their sons and daughters to war, women joined the industrial work force, and no one was untouched by the effort to bring all of U. S. resources to bear upon the war effort. The U. S. war plans strategy had been "Europe first", but the Japanese attack caused a far greater effort to be directed early on to the pacific than would otherwise have been expected and fueled the will of the U. S. to completely defeat Japan regardless of the cost.

A Catastrophic Error

The attack against Hawaii was in fact the worst possible thing that Japan could have done, given its goal of hegemony in the western Pacific. The war plans of the U. S. had written off the defensiblity of the Phillipines and had projected, baring any direct attack against the Philippines or U. S. possessions, a strictly defensive posture against Japan, with the principle effort being directed to the protection of the western hemisphere (particularly the Caribbean and South America) against Germany and a strictly defensive posture in the Pacific to protect Alaska, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal. The short term goal of the Japanese was to obtain the oil supplies, rubber, and and other strategic materials from the East Indian possessions of the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France. Given the isolationest temperament of the U. S. Congress at the time, it is questionable, even doubtful, that that the United States would have responded directly to the seizure those foreign possessions.

The Roots of War

The roots of the Japanese attack lie deep within cultural and institutional factors within Japan and the U. S. and in the longer term U. S. - Japanese relationship, beginning with the forced opening of Japan for mercantilist purposes by Commodore Perry, and longstanding racist attitudes on the part of both parties. Some modern historical revisionists have attempted to show that an oppressive and bullying U. S. forced Japan into a corner, where it had no choice but to fight. From the Japanese military viewpoint this is correct, since the U. S. had embargoed certain strategic goods (such as oil and scrap metal), and within a few years, Japan would have used up its reserves and been unable to strike. However, this embargo was a response to Japan's cruel and brutal war to seize China for the Empire. Japan later entered into the the Tripartite Agreement, where Japan, Germany, and Italy were bound to mutual support in fighting wars (forming the "Axis" powers). There were a number of political factions within Japan that saw the error in the Tripartate Agreement, believing that it could ultimately lead to a war that it could possibly loose. One reason that these forces were ineffective in stopping this movement toward war is that constitutionally (as a parliamentary democracy), representatives of the Japanese military held seats in any cabinet, and by vacating these seats could bring down any government that it disagreed with. The final result of this was that General Tojo became Prime Minister. The military was thus not under strict civilian political control, but rather the opposite, with the civilian government subject to military dictates. Despite a veneer of democratic institutions, the social structures at the time were essentially feudal, and remnants of these structures can still be found within Japan.

The Effect of the Tripartate Agreement

The Tripartate agreement would actually prove most disasterous for Germany. On December 11, 1941, at the request of Japan, Germany declared war on the United States of America. The German military had developed plans to engage the U. S., but only after sufficient development of its high seas navy, the perfection of long range aircraft and missiles, the expected defeat of the Soviet Union, and (presumably) a successful restaging of the Battle of Britain. The forcing of events by Japan caused Germany to enter the war with insufficient preparation (in other than submarine forces) at a time when a great proportion of available resources were being commited to war against the Soviet Union. The availability of bases in England to the U. S. for long range strategic bombing and for the invasion of Europe would be key to the ultimate defeat of Germany.

The U. S. Victory

As foreseen by Admiral Yamamoto, it was the industrial strength of the United States and the will of her people that was the foundation of the U. S. victory. Japan simply could not replace lost material in the way the U. S. could. In a number of battles, the U. S. did not do well against the Japanese, yet most of these these tactical losses would result in strategic victories for the U. S.

The use of nuclear weapons brought the war to a quick termination at a time when the defeat of Japan was assured, but expected to be at further great cost to both Japan and the Allies. That the projected costs were high was based upon the experience in taking Okinawa. The Samurai culture within the Japanese military (the "Spirit of Bushido"), dictated that dying for the Emperor was a high honor, opposed to the disgrace of any surrender. Surrender may have appeared much more horrible to the Japanese establishment than it proved to be, as they likely expected to be treated as they had treated those they had conquered. Ultimately, the decision to surrender was made by Emperor Hirohito, contrary to the wishes of the Japanese Army, and then only after the offer by the U.S that the institution of the Emperor would remain in place. It is unclear if an earlier offer of this condition would have made unnecessary the use of nuclear weapons - that is one of the great questions of history.

Our Local Memorium

[Beacon_Lighted] In the San Francisco Bay area, the events of this day are memorialized by the illumination of a prewar aircraft beacon atop Mount Diablo. This light was decomissioned on that day as a defensive measure and was obsolete as a navigation aid by the end of the war. It was refurbished in 1962 and is now turned on for only one evening a year. On the evening of December 7th, a few remaining military survivors of the attack will gather with family and friends to memorialize their fallen shipmates and comrades by playing "Taps" and lighting the beacon, which may be seen from many places in the bay area. The public is welcome at these events and are advised to enter the park before 4:00 P.M.

- Leonard G. Barton

Additional Material

*Supporting information for this was drawn from "http://www.wpi.edu/~elmer/navy/arizona.html" (no longer available) and other sources.

A biography of Isoroku Yamamoto can be found in "The Reluctant Admiral" by Hiroyuki Agawa, translated by John Bester, published by Kodansha International Ltd, Copyright 1979. This book explains much of the political structure and events within Japan that lead to the war, with many details unfamiliar to most Americans.

A high level view of the war from the Japanese side is within the diaries of Yamamoto's Chief of Staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki. Here will be found evidence of the intentions of the imperial military establishment to seize Hawaii and to operate in the Indian Ocean. Translated by Masataka Chihaya, this edition contains extensive clarifying notes from the U. S. editors derived from the U. S. military histories. University of Pittsburgh Press, Copyright 1991.

United States war planning and strategy in this period can be found in "Strategy & Command: The first Two Years" by Louis Morten, published by the Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1962.

For a modern (1995) look at the end of the war with Japan in July and August of 1945 see "The Last Great Victory", by Stanly Weintraub, Truman Tally Books/Dutton, New York ISBN 0-525-9367-4.

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