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December 7,1941 Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii

Aerial photograph, looking east, with Hickam Army Air Field in center and Honolulu beyond, 13 October 1941.
The Pearl Harbor Navy Yard is in the left-center, and Ford Island is at the far left.

Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland.

NHHC Photograph.

The road to war between Japan and the United States began in the 1930s when differences over China drove the two nations apart. In 1931 Japan conquered Manchuria, which until then had been part of China. In 1937 Japan began a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to conquer the rest of China. In 1940, the Japanese government allied their country with Nazi Germany in the Axis Alliance, and, in the following year, occupied all of Indochina.

The United States, which had important political and economic interests in East Asia, was alarmed by these Japanese moves. The U.S. increased military and financial aid to China, embarked on a program of strengthening its military power in the Pacific, and cut off the shipment of oil and other raw materials to Japan.

Because Japan was poor in natural resources, its government viewed these steps, especially the embargo on oil as a threat to the nation's survival. Japan's leaders responded by resolving to seize the resource-rich territories of Southeast Asia, even though that move would certainly result in war with the United States.

The problem with the plan was the danger posed by the U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, devised a plan to immobilize the U.S. fleet at the outset of the war with a surprise attack.

The key elements in Yamamoto's plans were meticulous preparation, the achievement of surprise, and the use of aircraft carriers and naval aviation on an unprecedented scale. In the spring of 1941, Japanese carrier pilots began training in the special tactics called for by the Pearl Harbor attack plan.

In October 1941 the naval general staff gave final approval to Yamamoto's plan, which called for the formation of an attack force commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. It centered around six heavy aircraft carriers accompanied by 24 supporting vessels. A separate group of submarines was to sink any American warships which escaped the Japanese carrier force.

Nagumo's fleet assembled in the remote anchorage of Tankan Bay in the Kurile Islands and departed in strictest secrecy for Hawaii on 26 November 1941. The ships' route crossed the North Pacific and avoided normal shipping lanes. At dawn 7 December 1941, the Japanese task force had approached undetected to a point slightly more than 200 miles north of Oahu. At this time the U.S. carriers were not at Pearl Harbor. On 28 November, Admiral Kimmel sent USS Enterprise under Rear Admiral Willliam Halsey to deliver Marine Corps fighter planes to Wake Island. On 4 December Enterprisedelivered the aircraft and on December 7 the task force was on its way back to Pearl Harbor. On 5 December, Admiral Kimmel sent the USS Lexington with a task force under Rear Admiral Newton to deliver 25 scout bombers to Midway Island. The last Pacific carrier, USS Saratoga, had left Pearl Harbor for upkeep and repairs on the West Coast.

At 6:00 a.m. on 7 December, the six Japanese carriers launched a first wave of 181 planes composed of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, horizontal bombers and fighters. Even as they winged south, some elements of U.S. forces on Oahu realized there was something different about this Sunday morning.

In the hours before dawn, U.S. Navy vessels spotted an unidentified submarine periscope near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. It was attacked and reported sunk by the destroyer USS Ward (DD-139) and a patrol plane. At 7:00 a.m., an alert operator of an Army radar station at Opana spotted the approaching first wave of the attack force. The officers to whom those reports were relayed did not consider them significant enough to take action. The report of the submarine sinking was handled routinely, and the radar sighting was passed off as an approaching group of American planes due to arrive that morning.

The Japanese aircrews achieved complete surprise when they hit American ships and military installations on Oahu shortly before 8:00 a.m. They attacked military airfields at the same time they hit the fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor. The Navy air bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the Army Air Corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam were all bombed and strafed as other elements of the attacking force began their assaults on the ships moored in Pearl Harbor. The purpose of the simultaneous attacks was to destroy the American planes before they could rise to intercept the Japanese.

View looking up "Battleship Row" on 7 December 1941, after the Japanese attack.
USS Arizona (BB-39) is in the center, burning furiously. To the left of her are USS Tennessee (BB-43) and the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48).

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, NHHC Collection

Of the more than 90 ships at anchor in Pearl Harbor, the primary targets were the eight battleships anchored there. seven were moored on Battleship Row along the southeast shore of Ford Island while the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) lay in drydock across the channel. Within the first minutes of the attack all the battleships adjacent to Ford Island had taken bomb and or torpedo hits. The USS West Virginia (BB-48) sank quickly. The USS Oklahoma(BB-37) turned turtle and sank. At about 8:10 a.m., the USS Arizona(BB-39) was mortally wounded by an armorpiercing bomb which ignited the ship's forward ammunition magazine. The resulting explosion and fire killed 1,177 crewmen, the greatest loss of life on any ship that day and about half the total number of Americans killed. The USS California (BB-44), USS Maryland (BB-46), USS Tennessee (BB-43) and USS Nevada (BB-36) also suffered varying degrees of damage in the first half hour of the raid.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. View looks about east, with the supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm in the right center distance.
A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Other battleships moored nearby are (from left): Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (torpedoed and listing) alongside Maryland, and California.
On the near side of Ford Island, to the left, are light cruisers Detroit and Raleigh, target and training ship Utah and seaplane tender Tangier. Raleigh and Utah have been torpedoed, and Utah is listing sharply to port.
Japanese planes are visible in the right center (over Ford Island) and over the Navy Yard at right.
Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

There was a short lull in the fury of the attack at about 8:30 a.m. At that time the USS Nevada (BB-36), despite her wounds, managed to get underway and move down the channel toward the open sea. Before she could clear the harbor, a second wave of 170 Japanese planes, launched 30 minutes after the first, appeared over the harbor. They concentrated their attacks on the moving battleship, hoping to sink her in the channel and block the narrow entrance to Pearl Harbor. On orders from the harbor control tower, the USS Nevada (BB-36) beached herself at Hospital Point and the channel remained clear.


When the attack ended shortly before 10:00 a.m., less than two hours after it began, the American forces has paid a fearful price. Twenty-one ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged: the battleships USS Arizona (BB-39), USS California(BB-44), USS Maryland (BB-46), USS Nevada (BB-36), USS Oklahoma (BB-37), USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), USS Tennessee (BB-43) and USS West Virginia (BB-48); cruisers USS Helena (CL-50), USS Honolulu (CL-48) and USS Raleigh (CL-7); the destroyers USS Cassin(DD-372), USS Downes (DD-375), USS Helm (DD-388) and USS Shaw (DD-373); seaplane tender USS Curtiss(AV-4); target ship (ex-battleship) USS Utah (AG-16); repair ship USS Vestal (AR-4); minelayer USS Oglala (CM-4); tug USS Sotoyomo (YT-9); and Floating Drydock Number 2. Aircraft losses were 188 destroyed and 159 damaged, the majority hit before the had a chance to take off. American dead numbered 2,403. That figure included 68 civilians, most of them killed by improperly fused anti-aircraft shells landing in Honolulu. There were 1,178 military and civilian wounded.

Japanese losses were comparatively light. Twenty-nine planes, less than 10 percent of the attacking force, failed to return to their carriers.

The Japanese success was overwhelming, but it was not complete. They failed to damage any American aircraft carriers, which by a stroke of luck, had been absent from the harbor. They neglected to damage the shoreside facilities at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, which played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II. American technological skill raised and repaired all but three of the ships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor (the USS Arizona(BB-39) considered too badly damaged to be salvaged, the USS Oklahoma(BB-37) raised and considered too old to be worth repairing, and the obsolete USS Utah (AG-16) considered not worth the effort). Most importantly, the shock and anger caused by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor united a divided nation and was translated into a wholehearted commitment to victory in World War II.


Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941
Japanese Forces in the Pearl Harbor Attack

The Pearl Harbor naval base was recognized by both the Japanese and the United States Navies as a potential target for hostile carrier air power. The U.S. Navy had even explored the issue during some of its interwar "Fleet Problems". However, its distance from Japan and shallow harbor, the certainty that Japan's navy would have many other pressing needs for its aircraft carriers in the event of war, and a belief that intelligence would provide warning persuaded senior U.S. officers that the prospect of an attack on Pearl Harbor could be safely discounted.


During the interwar period, the Japanese had reached similar conclusions. However, their pressing need for secure flanks during the planned offensive into Southeast Asia and the East Indies spurred the dynamic commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to revisit the issue. His staff found that the assault was feasible, given the greater capabilities of newer aircraft types, modifications to aerial torpedoes, a high level of communications security and a reasonable level of good luck. Japan's feelings of desperation helped Yamamoto persuade the Naval high command and Government to undertake the venture should war become inevitable, as appeared increasingly likely during October and November 1941.

Japanese naval aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier (reportedly Shokaku) to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. Plane in the foreground is a "Zero" Fighter.
This is probably the launch of the second attack wave.
The original photograph was captured on Attu in 1943.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives Collection

All six of Japan's first-line aircraft carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku, were assigned to the mission. With over 420 embarked planes, these ships constituted by far the most powerful carrier task force ever assembled. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, an experienced, cautious officer, would command the operation. His Pearl Harbor Striking Force also included fast battleships, cruisers and destroyers, with tankers to fuel the ships during their passage across the Pacific. An Advance Expeditionary Force of large submarines, five of them carrying midget submarines, was sent to scout around Hawaii, dispatch the midgets into Pearl Harbor to attack ships there, and torpedo American warships that might escape to sea.

Under the greatest secrecy, Nagumo took his ships to sea on 26 November 1941, with orders to abort the mission if he was discovered, or should diplomacy work an unanticipated miracle. Before dawn on the 7th of December, undiscovered and with diplomatic prospects firmly at an end, the Pearl Harbor Striking Force was less than three-hundred miles north of Pearl Harbor. A first attack wave of over 180 aircraft, including torpedo planes, high-level bombers, dive bombers and fighters, was launched in the darkness and flew off to the south. When first group had taken off, a second attack wave of similar size, but with more dive bombers and no torpedo planes, was brought up from the carriers' hangar decks and sent off into the emerging morning light. Near Oahu's southern shore, the five midget submarines had already cast loose from their "mother" subs and were trying to make their way into Pearl Harbor's narrow entrance channel.

Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941
Carrier Locations

On 7 December 1941, the three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were USS Enterprise (CV-6), USS Lexington (CV-2), and USS Saratoga (CV-3).

Enterprise: On 28 November 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel sent TF-8, consisting of Enterprise, the heavy cruisers Northampton (CA-26), Chester (CA-27), and Salt Lake City (CA-24) and nine destroyers under Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., to ferry 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211 to Wake Island. Upon completion of the mission on 4 December, TF-8 set course to return to Pearl Harbor. Dawn on 7 December 1941 found TF-8 about 215 miles west of Oahu.

Lexington: On 5 December 1941, TF-12, formed around Lexington, under the command of Rear Admiral John H. Newton, sailed from Pearl to ferry 18 Vought SB2U-3 Vindicators of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 231 to Midway Island. Dawn on 7 December 1941 found Lexington, heavy cruisers Chicago (CA-29), Portland (CA-33), and Astoria (CA-34), and five destroyers about 500 miles southeast of Midway. The outbreak of hostilities resulted in cancellation of the mission and VMSB-231 was retained on board [they would ultimately fly to Midway from Hickam Field on 21 December].

Saratoga: The Saratoga, having recently completed an overhaul at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, reached NAS San Diego [North Island] late in the forenoon watch on 7 December. She was to embark her air group, as well as Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 221 and a cargo of miscellaneous airplanes to ferry to Pearl Harbor.

Yorktown (CV-5), Ranger (CV-4) and Wasp (CV-7), along with the aircraft escort vessel Long Island (AVG-1), were in the Atlantic Fleet; Hornet (CV-8), commissioned in late October 1941, had yet to carry out her shakedown. Yorktown would be the first Atlantic Fleet carrier to be transferred to the Pacific, sailing on 16 December 1941.


Ships Present at Pearl Harbor, 0800 7 December 1941

The commissioned U.S. Navy ships and non-commissioned district craft (both self-propelled and non-self-propelled) in the list below are sorted by type and hull number. Pearl Harbor is defined as the area inside the nets guarding the harbor entrance.

Ships marked with an asterisk (*) were within twelve miles of the island of Oahu but were not actually within Pearl Harbor proper. Locations of those ships are indicated. Ships marked with a number symbol (#) were sunk or destroyed during the Pearl Harbor attack. All of these were later raised and rebuilt except for Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah. Oklahoma was raised but not rebuilt.

The U.S. carriers were not at Pearl Harbor. On 28 November, Admiral Kimmel sent USS Enterprise under Rear Admiral Willliam Halsey to deliver Marine Corps fighter planes to Wake Island. On 4 December Enterprise delivered the aircraft and on December 7 the task force was on its way back to Pearl Harbor. On 5 December, Admiral Kimmel sent the USS Lexington with a task force under Rear Admiral Newton to deliver 25 scout bombers to Midway Island. The last Pacific carrier, USS Saratoga, had left Pearl Harbor for upkeep and repairs on the West Coast.
Battleships (BB) Pennsylvania (BB-38) (in Dry Dock No.1)
# Arizona (BB-39)
Nevada (BB-36)
# Oklahoma (BB-37)
Tennessee (BB-43)
# California (BB-44)
Maryland (BB-46)
# West Virginia (BB-48)
Heavy Cruisers (CA) New Orleans (CA-32)
San Francisco (CA-38)
Light Cruisers (CL) Raleigh (CL-7)
Detroit (CL-8)
Phoenix (CL-46)
Honolulu (CL-48)
St. Louis (CL-49)
Helena (CL-50)
Destroyers (DD) Allen (DD-66)
Schley (DD-103)
Chew (DD-106)
* Ward (DD-139) (patrolling Channel entrance to Pearl Harbor)
Dewey (DD-349)
Farragut (DD-348)
Hull (DD-350)
MacDonough (DD-351)
Worden (DD-352)
Dale (DD-353)
Monaghan (DD-354) (preparing to get underway to aid Ward)
Aylwin (DD-355)
Selfridge (DD-357)
Phelps (DD-360)
Cummings (DD-365)
Reid (DD-369)
Case (DD-370)
Conyngham (DD-371)
Cassin (DD-372) (in Dry Dock No.1)
Shaw (DD-373) (in floating drydock YFD 2)
Tucker (DD-374)
Downes (DD-375) (in Dry Dock No.1)
Bagley (DD-386)
Blue (DD-387)
Helm (DD-388) (underway, nearing West Loch)
Mugford (DD-389)
Ralph Talbot (DD-390)
Henley (DD-391)
Patterson (DD-392)
Jarvis (DD-393)
Submarines (SS) Narwhal (SS-167)
Dolphin (SS-169)
Cachalot (SS-170)
Tautog (SS-199)
Minelayer (CM) # Oglala (CM-4)
Minesweepers (AM) Turkey (AM-13)
Bobolink (AM-20)
Rail (AM-26)
Tern (AM-31)
Grebe (AM-43)
Vireo (AM-52)
Coastal Minesweepers (AMc)
Cockatoo (AMc-8)
Crossbill (AMc-9)
Condor (AMc-14)
Reedbird (AMc-30)
Light Minelayers (DM)
Gamble (DM-15)
Ramsay (DM-16)
Montgomery (DM-17)
Breese (DM-18)
Tracy (DM-19)
Preble (DM-20)
Sicard (DM-21)
Pruitt (DM-22)
High Speed Minesweepers (DMS)
Zane (DMS-14)
Wasmuth (DMS-15)
Trever (DMS-16)
Perry (DMS-17)
Gunboat (PG) Sacramento (PG-19)
Destroyer Tenders (AD)
Dobbin (AD-3)
Whitney (AD-4)
Seaplane Tenders (AV) Curtiss (AV-4)
Tangier (AV-8)
Seaplane Tenders (Small) (AVP)
Avocet (AVP-4)
Swan (AVP-7) (on Marine Railway)
Seaplane Tenders (Destroyer) (AVD)
Hulbert (AVD-6)
Thornton (AVD-11)
Ammunition Ship (AE) Pyro (AE-1) (at Naval Ammunition Depot, West Loch)
Oilers (AO) Ramapo (AO-12)
Neosho (AO-23)
Repair Ships (AR)
Medusa (AR-1)
Vestal (AR-4)
Base Repair Ship (ARb)
Rigel (ARb-1)

Submarine Tender (AS)
Pelias (AS-14)
Submarine Rescue Ship (ASR)
Widgeon (ASR-1)
Hospital Ship (AH) Solace (AH-5)
Cargo Ship (AK) * Vega (AK-17) (at Honolulu)
General-Stores-Issue Ships (AKS)
Castor (AKS-1)
* Antares (AKS-3) (at Pearl Harbor entrance)
Ocean-going Tugs (AT)
Ontario (AT-13)
Sunnadin (AT-28)
* Keosanqua (AT-38) (at Pearl Harbor entrance)
* Navajo (AT-64) (12 miles outside Pearl Harbor entrance)
Miscellaneous Auxiliaries (AG)
# Utah (AG-16)
Argonne (AG-31)
Sumner (AG-32)

Motor Torpedo Boats (PT)
PT 21
PT 22
PT 23
PT 24
PT 25
PT 26 (on pier, Navy Yard)
PT-27 (on board Ramapo)
PT 28 (on pier, Navy Yard)
PT 29 (on board Ramapo)
PT 30 (on board Ramapo)
PT 42 (on board Ramapo)

District Craft

Harbor Tugs (YT)
YT 5
Sotoyomo (YT 9) (in YFD 2 with Shaw)
YT 119
Osceola (YT 129)
YT 130
YT 142
Hoga (YT 146)
YT 152
YT 153 (underway in channel)

Motor Tug (YMT)

Torpedo Testing Barge (YTT)

Net Tenders (YN)
Ash (YN 2)
Cinchona (YN 7)
Cockenoe (YN 47) (Honolulu Harbor)
Marin (YN 53)
Wapello (YN 56)

District Patrol Vessel (YP)
YP 109

Floating Drydock (YFD)
YFD 2 (with Shaw and Sotoyomo docked)

Salvage Pontoons (YSP)
YSP 11
YSP 12
YSP 13
YSP 14
YSP 15
YSP 16
YSP 17
YSP 18
YSP 19
YSP 20

Floating Workshops (YR)
YR 20
YR 22 (alongside Cachalot)

Miscellaneous (Unclassified) (IX)
Cheng Ho (IX 52)

Gate Vessel (YNg)
YNg 17

Garbage Lighters (YG)
YG 15
YG 17
YG 21

Ferryboat (YFB)
Nihoa (YFB 19)

Fuel Oil Barges (YO)
YO 30
YO 43
YO 44

Seaplane Wrecking Derrick (YSD)
Ex-Baltimore (CM 1)

Covered Lighters (YF)
YF 240
YF 241

Open Lighters (YC)
YC 429
YC 470
YC 473
YC 477
YC 651
YC 699

Pontoon Storage Barges (YPK)

Submarine Rescue Chamber (YRC)
Ash Lighter (YA)
YA 66

Water Barge (YW)
YW 10

Credit: United States Navy