Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941)


Belligerents: USA and Japan

Casualties: 2043 sailors, soldiers and civilians killed, approximately 1000 injured. 4 battleships sunk, 4 battleships damaged, 29 aircraft destroyed, 74 aircraft damaged.


A good starting point can be over ten years prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: the Manchurian Crisis of 1931. Japan invaded Manchuria (in China), and had implemented dynamite along a Chinese railway, which in turn blew up a Japanese train. It was made to look as if the Chinese had done so maliciously, so that the Japanese had a reason to invade. They did so, with little hesitation, and established the puppet-state of Manchukuo.

Over the next decade, Japan continued invading areas of China, and a Japanese attack on the USS Panay on 12 December 1937 helped to turn Western opinion against the Japanese. But how did the invasion of an area of China – before the attack on the USS Panay – spark American interest in Japan and China?

America was particularly unhappy with Japan’s increasingly belligerent attitude towards China. The Japanese government believed that the only way to solve its economic and demographic problems was to expand into China’s territory and take over its import market. Eventually, Japan declared war on China in 1937. In response, the US imposed a number of economic sanctions and trade embargoes on Japan, which only made the Japanese more determined to stand their ground. During the months of negotiations between Tokyo and Washington DC, neither side would budge, making war seem almost inevitable.

The Japanese route to attack Pearl Harbor.

Fearing a Japanese invasion, the US, UK and France assisted China with its loans for war supply contracts, further aggravating the Japanese. In mid-1940, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He also ordered a military build-up in the Philippines, too, in an attempt to discourage Japanese aggression in the Far East.

By July 1941, the US had frozen Japanese assets in the US following the seizure of French Indochina after the Fall of France, thereby imposing a virtual embargo on all trade, including oil. This step made it all but certain that Japan would have to seize oilfields to fulfil its strategic needs, while ejecting the US from the Asian theatre.

On 17 August 1941, Roosevelt warned Japan that American was prepared to take opposing steps if “neighbouring countries” were attacked. Japan was 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.

However, because the Japanese High Command was (mistakenly) certain that any attack on Europe’s Southeast Asian colonies – including Singapore – would bring the US into the war, a devastating preventive strike appeared to be the only way to prevent American naval interference.

The Attack

Pearl Harbor in Hawaii is situated about 2000 miles from the US mainland, and about 4000 miles from Japan, and that was exactly the problem: nobody thought – or expected – the Japanese would start a war with an attack on the distant islands of Hawaii. Instead, American intelligence officials were confident that any Japanese attack would take place in one of the European colonies in the Pacific: the Dutch East Indies, Indochina or Singapore. As a result of the American military leaders not expecting an attack so close to home, Pearl Harbor itself was left relatively undefended. Almost the entire Pacific Fleet was moored around Ford Island in the harbour, and hundreds of aeroplanes were packed onto adjacent airfields. To Japan, Pearl Harbor was an irresistibly easy target.

Japan’s plan was simple: destroy the Pacific Fleet. By doing that, the US would be unable to fight back as Japan’s armed forces would spread across Europe’s South Pacific colonies. After months of tactical planning, Japan launched their attack.

The USS Arizona explodes as a bomb is dropped onto its deck, killing everyone on board.

At 7:48am, on Sunday 7 December 1941, the skies over Pearl Harbor were filled with Japanese planes, and bombs and bullets rained onto the vessels below, moored in the harbour like sitting ducks. At 8:10am, an 1800-lb bomb smashed through the deck of the battleship USS Arizona and landed in its forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded immediately and sank with more than 1000 American men trapped inside. Torpedoes pierced the body of the USS Oklahoma, and it rolled onto its side, sinking, with 400 more Americans onboard.

Remarkably, the devastating surprise attack lasted less than two hours, and every single battleship in Pearl Harbor – USS ArizonaUSS OklahomaUSS CaliforniaUSS MarylandUSS NevadaUSS PennsylvaniaUSS TennesseeUSS Utah and USS West Virginia – had sustained significant damage. All but USS Arizona and USS Utah were eventually salvaged and repaired.

Boats attempting to extinguish the fires raging on a US battleship.

The Impact of the Attack

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had crippled almost twenty American ships, and over three hundred aeroplanes. Airfields were likewise destroyed. 2043 soldiers, sailors and civilians were killed, along with 1000 more injured.

But – thankfully, from an American point of view – Japan had failed to destroy the Pacific Fleet. By the 1940s, battleships were no longer the most important naval vessels in war: aircraft carriers were. As it happened, all of the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were away from Pearl Harbor on 7 December, as some had returned to the mainland USA, and others were delivering planes to troops stationed on Midway and Wake Islands. Additionally, the attack on Pearl Harbor had left the base’s most important onshore facilities undamaged, including oil storage depots, submarine docks, shipyards, and repair shops. As a result, the US Navy was able to rebound fairly quickly from the attack.

Responses to the Attack

The US Ambassador to the UK, John G. Winant, was having dinner with the Prime Minister of the UK, Winston Churchill, when they heard of the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. Winant recalled Churchill’s ‘excitement’ at hearing the news: “Churchill jumped to his feet and started for the door with the announcement: ‘We shall declare war on Japan.’” When Roosevelt telephoned Churchill, his first words to his UK counterpart were “We are all in the same boat now.”

A date that will live in infamy…

Roosevelt addressing Congress the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.

President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the US Congress on Monday 8 December 1941, a day after the attack. He used one of the most widely remembered lines in US history, when he referred to the attack as: “Yesterday – December 7, 1941 – a date 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.” He went on to add that “[I] will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”

For the first time during the years of negotiations with Japan throughout the 1930s, the American people were united in their determination to go to war. Japan’s aim from the attack was (rather naively) to goad the US into dropping the economic sanctions against them: instead, they had pushed America into a global conflict that ultimately resulted in Japan’s first occupation by a foreign power.

Later in the day on 8 December, Congress approved Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan. Three days later, on 11 December 1941, Japan’s allies Germany and Italy declared war against the US. For the second time in three days, Congress reciprocated, declaring war on both Germany and Italy. More than two years after the start of the Second World War, the US had entered the conflict.

The Legacy of Pearl Harbor

The legacy of the Pearl Harbor attack was bringing the US into the Second World War. Quite obviously, the European powers would not have won the war without the assistance of the US. However, there are some negative sides which I wanted to shine a light on: internment camps.

The attack on Pearl Harbor threw the US Pacific Coast, and especially California, into a mass panic, with California being deemed as the next location for a Japanese attack. The Japanese advance across Burma, Malaya and the Philippines not only presented a threat to the European colonies, but also to Australia. It was this rumoured invasion scare which ultimately led to the mass arrest and internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry across the US, but particularly centred in California.

On the same day as the attack, the FBI, assisted with the help of sheriff’s deputies, began rounding up suspected Japanese aliens in Los Angeles County. By 9 December 1941 – a mere two days after the attack – some five hundred issei(Japanese non-citizens) were in federal custody on Terminal Island in Los Angeles Harbor. On 19 February 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the War Department to remove suspicious or possibly dangerous people from military areas.

The incarceration was later – thankfully, and rightly so – deemed to be illegal and racially discriminatory. However, America regained the military initiative in the naval war in the Pacific in the Battles of Coral Sea (May 1942) and Midway (June 1942), and then began the long series of island-hopping campaigns to reconquer Japanese-held territory in the South and Central Pacific.

Ultimately, the US would go on to formally end the Second World War in Japan, with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945). 

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.


Norman Davies, Europe: A History (2014)

Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003)

Philip Jenkins, A Short History of the United States (Fourth Edition) (2012)

Kevin Starr, California: A History (2005)


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