By Randy Saunders
50th Space Wing Historian
At 7:55 a.m. Dec 7, 1941, 183 Japanese aircraft including dive bombers, torpedo bombers, “zero” fighters, and high altitude bombers attacked the United States military garrisons at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, catching U.S. military installations and the country by surprise. The radio call “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) confirmed to Japanese task force commander, Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, that surprise had been achieved. A second wave of 163 Japanese aircraft followed about an hour later. When the attack was over, 2,403 people were killed, including 73 civilians. Nearly half of those casualties occurred on the battleship USS Arizona, which was struck by an armor piercing bomb that penetrated the ammunition hold. The Arizona exploded, split in two, and sank in minutes, trapping many of the sailors and Marines onboard. Another 1,178 people were wounded.
For nearly a decade, previous to this attack, the Japanese empire had acted to increase its domination in the Pacific. On Sept. 19, 1931, the Kwantung Army of the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria. By 1937 this incursion had escalated into the second Sino-Japanese war, which officially began with the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937 and lasted until the end of World War II. Military action in that conflict was not limited to Japan and China. In December 1937, Japanese aircraft attacked and sank the USS Panay in the Yangtze River leading to increased tensions between the U.S. and Japan.
During much of this period, and especially in 1940-1941, the Japanese and U.S. governments negotiated in a U.S. led attempt to decrease tensions and find a peaceful resolution to the escalating conflict in the East, even as Japan signed an alliance with Germany in 1940. In 1940, the U.S. imposed sanctions and eventually a trade embargo against Japan halting shipments of critical materials, especially oil. Japan’s ultimate goal remained to remove western powers from the Pacific and establish itself as the dominant political and military power.
Such an endeavor required various natural resources, which Japan lacked. Through its imperialist excursions, Japan continued to extend its reach in an effort to find the raw materials denied by the trade embargo and sanctions. Japan’s military leadership was aware of the United States’ potential threat to their ideas of expansion and regional dominance. Knowing that time was critical, in January 1941, the Japanese military conceived the plan to attack Pearl Harbor and launched an aggressive pilot training program. Meanwhile, Japan’s diplomatic corps continued their negotiations with the U.S.
Throughout the summer of 1941, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto trained his attack groups. And, while U.S. intelligence agencies had cracked the Japanese code and intercepted its diplomatic messages, there was no information pointing to an imminent attack or to a likely or probable target.
On Nov. 16th, Japanese submarines left their home ports bound for Hawaii. The main battle group followed ten days later, while negotiations between Washington and Tokyo continued. On November 27th, the U.S. made what became its final diplomatic offer to the Government of Japan. Military leadership in Washington also issued a “war warning” to Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in Chief U.S. Fleet and Pacific Fleet, and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, Commander, U.S. Army Pacific (Hawaiian Department). The warning identified a possible Japanese attack on an American target in the Pacific. This broad warning provided no actionable intelligence.
Japan’s response to the United States’ offer, sent to the Japanese ambassador in Washington, included a 14-part message to be delivered to the U.S. at precisely 1 p.m. The timing of the message delivery was meant to present the U.S. with a declaration of hostilities prior to the first bombs falling on Pearl Harbor, though it was not meant to give the U.S. an opportunity to prepare defenses. However, the Japanese ambassador was delayed in his transcription of the final part of the message and did not gain his audience with Secretary of State Cordell Hull until 2:30 p.m. EST, just as the first reports of the attack arrived in Washington, D.C. On Dec. 8, 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for a war declaration, referring to the previous day as “a date which will live in infamy!” Congress passed its war resolution against Japan and also against Germany and Italy. With this resolution the U.S. formally entered World War II.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was tactically successful as it delayed the United States’ ability to respond militarily to Japanese expansion in the region. However, Admiral Yamamoto’s concerns that Japan could not prevail in an extended war with the U.S. proved prescient as the U.S. Navy and Marines launched an “island-hopping” strategy and by mid 1942 had begun to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.
The attack on Pearl Harbor provided the drive for the United States to enter into World War II, the most broad-reaching and destructive conflict in history. Our remembrance of this date provides an opportunity to honor those lives lost in the attacks and in the greater war in the Pacific, European, and North African theaters of operations. Marking this date also reminds us of the necessity of vigilance against potential threats and of the need for well-trained and equipped armed forces to defend our great nation. The men and women, whose sacrifices during World War II granted freedom from tyranny and oppression for countless millions, are truly members of the greatest generation. Their actions serve as examples to all of us.