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The Attack on Pearl Harbor: The First Wave

The Attack on Pearl Harbor: The First Wave

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Though blindsided by the attack, Pearl Harbor fighters made a valiant effort to combat the first wave of Japanese planes.

Debunking Top Pearl Harbor Myths

By Amanda Carona

In the 70+ years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, people have assigned memories and meanings to the iconic images of the raid that are emblazoned in our national memory. But with the passage of time, memories and meanings can start to shift and blur. The story is so detailed, sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between fact and fiction. That is how myths and legends are born, and Pearl Harbor has its share.
Here are some of the myths most frequently associated with the events of December 7, 1941.

Myth: The Japanese fired the first shot in the war with the United States.

Fact: On December 7, 1941, the Japanese sent five midget subs to attempt to enter Pearl Harbor and wreak havoc on the ships there. One of these midget subs was spotted at 6:37 a.m. by the destroyer USS Ward (DD-139), which was on patrol that morning. The Ward promptly dropped depth charges, fired at the sub, and reportedly sank it. So, it was the Americans who fired the first shot in the war between the United States and Japan. (Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, did not receive a call about the Ward incident until 7:40 a.m., just 15 short minutes before the attack began.)

Myth: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto believed that if the Pearl Harbor attack succeeded, Japan would ultimately win the war.

Fact: Yamamoto, who was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor, believed that although Japan’s navy was strong, American military capabilities were much greater. Yamamoto’s hope for the Pearl Harbor raid was that it would cripple US forces in the Pacific long enough for Japan to seize the resource-rich islands in the southern Pacific without having to battle against intervening US forces. Japan grossly underestimated the Americans’ ability to bounce back, however. By June 1942, Japanese forces were already on the defensive.

Myth: The approach of the Japanese planes was reported from the Opana Radar Station to Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, but he decided not to act upon the warning.

Fact: When Privates George Elliot and Joseph Lockard noticed a fleet of aircraft approaching from the north on their radar equipment on Opana Ridge, they immediately called the information center at Fort Shafter. Lieutenant Kermit Tyler received the call. Knowing a flight of B-17s was due in from the mainland that morning, Tyler replied, “Don’t worry about it.” Kimmel never received the radar report. (The B-17s did fly in at 8:15 that morning, straight into the attack. Most crash-landed on Ford Island.)

Myth: The battleships in Pearl Harbor were always the primary targets of the Japanese attack.

Fact: When planning for the raid began in July 1941, the Japanese knew the era of the battleship was giving way to the era of the aircraft carrier. Consequently, they focused their planned attack on the US aircraft carriers that were supposed to be in Pearl Harbor on December 7: Lexington (CV-2), Enterprise (CV-6), and Saratoga (CV-3), all home-ported at Pearl Harbor with the Pacific Fleet. Fortunately for the United States, the Lexington was on her way to Midway Island, the Saratoga was in San Diego, and the Enterprise was returning from Wake Island. All three escaped damage on the day of infamy.

Myth: All ten Japanese sailors manning the five midget submarines launched on December 7 perished in the attack.

Fact: The Japanese midget submarines were launched from mother subs several miles off the island of Oahu and tasked with wreaking havoc in the harbor. These tiny, battery-powered craft were manned by two submariners each. All but one was lost in the attack. The remaining midget sub lost control and power early in the attack. Her crewmen, Ensign Sakamaki and Petty Officer 2nd Class Inagaki tried to destroy their disabled sub by lighting a fuse, but were unsuccessful. Inagaki was swept out to sea, while Sakamaki was captured by the 298th Infantry Regiment. Sakamaki became the first prisoner of war.

Myth: The Japanese planned only two waves of attack, one for the airfields and one for the ships in the harbor.

Fact: There were actually three waves of attack planned for the morning of December 7, 1941. The first wave, at 7:55 a.m., consisted of 183 planes—Kates (B5N torpedo-bombers) to attack the battleships with bombs and torpedoes, and Vals (D3A dive-bombers) and Zeroes (A6M fighters) to attack the air bases. The second wave, arriving at 8:54 a.m., consisted of 167 planes (Kates, Vals, and Zeroes) that focused their attack on the airbases. The third wave was designed to destroy Pearl Harbor’s fuel storage, maintenance, and dry dock facilities. It was cancelled because US forces began mounting a significant defense, and Admiral Chūichi Nagumo believed more Japanese aircraft would be lost, now that the element of surprise was gone.

Myth: The USS Arizona is a decommissioned ship.

Fact: In December 1942, when salvage operations at Pearl Harbor were coming to a close, the USS Arizona was taken off the Naval Vessel Register. But she was symbolically recommissioned on March 7, 1950, when the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet began the tradition of raising the colors over the sunken ship.

Myth: The USS Arizona Memorial’s 21 openings represent a 21-gun salute to the men who died aboard the Arizona.

Fact: Architect Alfred Preis designed the openings in the Arizona Memorial specifically to lessen the structure’s weight. The memorial spans the hulk and does not touch the ship in any place, so it had to be carefully designed and constructed. Preis did include symbolic elements in his design, and the shape of the openings is symbolic it represents marines standing at eternal parade rest, watching over those entombed below. The number of openings, however, represents nothing.

Amanda Carona is a historian based in Honolulu, Hawaii. This article originally appeared in Pearl Harbor Stories, a special issue from America in WWII. [Pearl Harbor Stories is sold out, replaced by updated special issue Pearl Harbor Remembered. To order, click here.] To get more articles like this one, subscribe to America in WWII magazine.

How 'the first Pearl Harbor' convinced the Japanese they could pull off a similar attack on the US

By early spring 1941, Japanese military strategists were hard at work planning their blitz into Southeast Asia. The planners, especially Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, knew this expansion was only possible if Western countries, particularly the US, were unable to resist.

Japan needed to ensure the US Navy's Pacific Fleet could not interfere. Japanese officials decided on a surprise attack on US Navy ships at Pearl Harbor, knocking them out and buying time for to achieve their other objectives.

Though ambitious, Yamamoto had good reason to believe the attack would succeed: A little over a year earlier, the British conducted a similar attack on the Italian navy at the port of Taranto.

The British operation — the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history — crippled Italy's navy and proved that torpedo attacks on ships in port were possible.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor: The First Wave - HISTORY


When World War II came to America's Hawaiian Islands shortly before 8 a.m on 7 December 1941, it was a quiet Sunday morning. America was not yet at war, and most civilian residents of Hawaii were preparing for church or other peaceful Sunday pursuits. Peacetime Sunday routine prevailed at the United States Navy base at Pearl Harbor, and the normal bustle of a huge naval base was absent. Many officers and enlisted men were on shore leave. The guns of the eight battleships and sixty-two other warships in the harbor were unmanned when the first wave of Japanese aircraft struck without warning. The Japanese attack had not been preceded by a formal declaration of war against the United States.The battleships were not protected by anti-torpedo nets, and their anti-aircraft ammunition boxes were locked.

"Battleship Row" by Stan Stokes

This dramatic image captures the moment when a Japanese "Kate" torpedo bomber launches its deadly torpedo at battleship USS West Virginia.

Permission to illustrate the Pearl Harbor section of the Pacific War Web-site with this superb painting was generously given by internationally recognised and award-winning American artist Stan Stokes . A range of his fine aviation and marine art can be viewed on-line at The Stokes Collection .

The battleships were the primary targets of the Japanese torpedo bombers. USS West Virginia (launched 1921) and USS Oklahoma (launched 1914) were each hit by several torpedoes. The former settled upright on the shallow bed of Pearl Harbor with her superstructure above water. Oklahoma capsized. USS California (launched 1919) took two torpedo hits and sank upright with her superstructure above water. USS Nevada (launched 1914) was hit by one torpedo. It was then the turn of the high altitude bombers with their armour piercing bombs to attack the battleships. A bomb penetrated the hull of the battleship USS Arizona (launched 1915) and ignited the forward battery magazine. The enormous explosion blew the battleship's hull apart and over one thousand American seamen were killed. USS Tennessee (launched 1919) was anchored inboard of West Virginia and survived the initial torpedo attack. Two armour-piercing bombs struck Tennessee but caused only minor damage.

The USS Arizona explodes after a Japanese bomb has penetrated its forward magazine. 1,175 officers and men died when their ship was ripped apart by the blast. The torn hull still rests on the bed of Pearl Harbor and is now the site of a national war memorial.

On Our Scope

As the first attack wave of Japanese bombers and fighters passed over northern Oahu, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida faced a critical decision. Should he fire one signal flare, indicating his aircraft would use the “surprise” attack plan, or two, signaling the “no surprise” plan? To armchair admirals, the answer is obvious however, the first-wave commander fired two flares.

Why he did so and the consequences of his actions are the subject of the lead article in our 75th anniversary commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attack. The author of “Commander Fuchida’s Decision,” retired Navy Commander Alan Zimm, won the U.S. Naval Institute’s 1999 Arleigh Burke Essay Contest for his piece “Human Centric Warfare” and is a member of the Strike Systems Analysis Group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

While working on a presentation years ago, he sought to compare the accuracy of precision weapons with bomber hit rates at Pearl Harbor. Despite the mountain of books written about the attack, the figures were elusive. Zimm went back to the original sources, computed the numbers, and, as he told me, found they were “much less than one would expect from the accolades given to the attack by historians.” Further research and analysis resulted in his book Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions and his article in this issue.

Over the past dozen years, Mitsuo Fuchida has become one of the most controversial figures in Pacific war historiography. His accounts of his actions and key events at Pearl Harbor and Midway were gospel, repeated in highly respected books—such as Gordon Prange’s At Dawn We Slept—and on the big screen in Tora! Tora! Tora! and Midway. Zimm’s article as well as its sidebar, “A Pattern of Behavior,” focus on some of Fuchida’s questionable claims.

The former naval aviator told his war tales in numerous interviews in his 1955 Naval Institute book Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan and in articles—including the lead piece in the September 1952 issue of Proceedings. How did Fuchida explain firing two flares in the Proceedings article? With some added details and without the graphic language, his explanation is the same as in Zimm’s article. Fuchida concludes with a controversial post-attack scene on board the carrier Akagi, which Zimm touches on in his sidebar.

How Women During the Attacks on Pearl Harbor Inspired Women Across the Country

Two of the women of Pearl Harbor

Before the start of World War II, there was much controversy over the place of women in the armed forces. The US military believed that women were more suited to non-combat roles such as nurses, mechanics, drivers, and telegraphers. In Honolulu, servicewomen were living through tense times, and the country felt on the brink of war. But they were making the best of their situation stationed in Pearl Harbor, which was just as beautiful then as it is today.

At approximately 6:00 in the morning on December 7, 1941, Japanese Zeros were approaching. Using a radio station from Honolulu as a guidance beacon, the commander of the Japanese air formation moved in for the first wave of attacks.

Radar was a relatively new technology, but mobile radar stations in Hawaii had been activated a month before the attacks. A radar operator on duty noticed what appreared to be 50 or more inbound aircraft and headed directly for Oahu, and notified the information center.

The Japanese planes were mistaken for a group of B-17s traveling from California to Hawaii on their way to the Philippines. The officer at the radar network hub in Fort Shafter told the radar operator, “Don’t worry about it.”

The commander of the air raids gave the order to attack just before 8:00 a.m. The Japanese aircraft moved in and bombed the Army Air Forces’ Wheeler Field, just north of Pearl Harbor. Neatly parked wingtip to wingtip, most U.S. planes were destroyed during the attack.

About 10 minutes later, the armor-piercing bomb that struck the USS Arizona was dropped, resulting in more than 1000 casualties. The first wave of the attacks subsided, and there were countless injured soldiers who required immediate medical care.

Few of the women stationed at Pearl Harbor as nurses had yet to see the true realities of war. For many, this was the first exposure to any combat scenario. From enjoying the nightlife of Honolulu on a Saturday night like any other, to waking up and experiencing the chaos and hysteria of the bloodbath, everyone’s lives were turned upside down.

An hour after the bombing of the USS Arizona, the second wave of dive-bombers approached. Meeting heavy resistance from US anti-aircraft weapons, the Japanese pilots forced their way through, crashing into the battleship Pennsylvania and nearly destroying numerous other ships. Several ships were damaged, and the USS Arizona, USS Utah , and USS Oklahoma were total losses.

Around 10:30, nearly three hours after the strike on the USS Arizona, the wounded began to arrive onshore to be treated. The nurses were confronted with horrifying images of hundreds of badly burned bodies. The nurses worked tirelessly under tremendous pressure to help the mortally wounded, although for some, the only treatment they were able to give was a heavy dose of morphine to numb the pain.

Elizabeth McIntosh (right), a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin at the time of the attacks, wrote a disturbing account of her experiences that day. The newspaper refused to publish the article due to its graphic nature. An excerpt from her account:

”In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand.”

The women who held everything together that infamous morning proved that women are capable of much more than they were thought to be. Four days after the attack, the Bureau of the Budget stopped objecting to the expansion of female military divisions, and plans to create a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps picked up speed.

If you want to learn more about the role women played during the attacks, there is a breadth of information available at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. These museums are a must-visit stop for families looking to educate their young ones, and for anyone interested in this chapter in women’s history.

You can explore a submarine, take a ferry to pay your respects at a memorial for a sunken battleship, and take a tour of a similar-class U.S. Navy battleship, with build-in time for lunch. It’s always recommended to do some research before going on a tour, and to save time and energy it’s a good idea to combine multiple sites at once. Remember to book your tickets in advance to enjoy a stress-free day and secure access to every Pearl Harbor historic site on the day of your visit.

Historian reflects on anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

Wednesday marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, a day when 2,403 Americans were killed and the U.S. was drawn into World War II.

In a statement, President Barack Obama said he joined all Americans in remembering those who gave their lives that day and in honoring their families. Later this month, Obama will visit Pearl Harbor along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will be the first Japanese leader to visit the site since the end of World War II. Obama visited Hiroshima earlier this year.

William Fowler, Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern, reflected on Pearl Harbor both as a historian and as the son and nephew of World War II veterans. His father, four uncles, and an aunt all served in—and returned from—the war. Fowler called Pearl Harbor “a defining moment for them and for their generation.”

“I grew up in a family where Pearl Harbor and the war were living memories,” he said. “They never bragged about their service, it was something that they simply did. They knew that that they had been involved in a noble crusade against forces that threatened them and all that they believed in.”

From a military history perspective, Fowler noted that Pearl Harbor came at a time when naval strategy placed great emphasis on battleships. “They were the intended target at Pearl Harbor and the Japanese attack decimated the American Pacific battleship fleet,” he said. “What were not present at Pearl Harbor were American aircraft carriers. The importance of the carrier became apparent in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea—the first sea battle to be undertaken by ships that never saw one another—it was an air battle conducted by carriers.”

The battle was the first air-sea battle in history, one in which aircraft were launched by ships at sea.

Fowler explained that while that Coral Sea battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese, it halted their advance. Both sides’ carriers sustained damage, but the Japanese were left without the planes to cover the ground attack of Port Moresby. One month later at Midway the American carriers achieved a decisive victory. “It is a truism in military history that you are always fighting the last war,” he said. “That was certainly true for the Japanese at Pearl Harbor who underestimated the emerging power of air at sea.”

An ill-prepared America

President Roosevelt declares war on Japan following the attack at Pearl Harbor. © With war so widely expected, why was America so woefully ill-prepared? Rumours that began in the war are still hanging around, well past their sell-by date, fuelled only by revisionist historians and conspiracy cranks. They claim Roosevelt was itching for war with Japan but was constrained by US neutrality, so needed a solid reason to fight. Hence they accuse him of suppressing prior knowledge of the attack, or of provoking it to enable America to enter the war by the back door. Some even say that the attack on Pearl Harbor was deliberately engineered by a crypto-communist president guilty of high treason.

In 1941 America was not ready for war.

It doesn't add up. In 1941 America was not ready for war. With US forces queuing for arms alongside Britain and Russia, Roosevelt knew he needed more time to build America's military capacity. If war was to come, he wanted Japan to be seen to be the aggressor, but Roosevelt was in no hurry.

Furthermore, he saw Germany as America's main enemy. This 'Europe first' strategy was affirmed with Churchill at the Arcadia conference in late December 1941. Roosevelt had already pushed neutrality to the limit and had assigned warships to accompany convoys in the Atlantic. War with Germany was only a matter of time: why choose to fight another with Japan? Even when European conflict came, it did so only on Hitler's invitation after he gratuitously declared war.

They’re Killing My Boys: The History of Hickam Field and the Attacks of 7 December 1941

When considering the 7 December 1941 attack on the U.S. military forces on Oahu, the sinking battleships of the devastated Pacific Fleet are the first images that may come to mind. The Pearl Harbor Tactical Studies Series examines the island’s airfields as part of the larger attack and brings them into greater context. “They’re Killing My Boys” is the third book of the well-researched series, detailing the founding of the base, the individuals stationed there, and capturing the strategic significance of the aerodrome. It is incredibly sourced and brings together far-flung images, records, and recollections of the day – some published for the first time.

The collaborative efforts of authors J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John F. Di Virgilio have produced a synthesis of both U.S. and Japanese primary source records, interviews, and other great research done by recognized experts such as Dr. Gordon W. Prange. Through this lens, the authors articulate the morning attack of December 7th moment-by-moment stitching together both the Japanese attack plan and subsequent bomb reports, with those of the American defenders. Drawing on archive of 151 individual interviews and seven by the authors of Japanese veterans the book is nearly narrated by those who were there, or part of the attack. A comprehensive array of images, graphics, and flight information tables bring the story to life visually.

A matter-of-fact history starts with the need for a new air base on Oahu to replace the Army airfield on Ford Island and is then colorfully illustrated, albeit in black and white, with stories and images of the new base as it was constructed. The logic behind the airfield architecture and building-by-building backstory is developed for the reader. Then, personal stories from those of all-ranks stationed there fill in the body and bring the story to life. From new enlistees receiving their basic training, overcrowded living conditions, or the off-post pursuits of the pre-war Soldiers the story develops with the reader always keenly aware of the foreboding future.

The strategic importance of Hickam Field is established early in the book and reinforced through a parallel storyline of war preparations. By 1941, the nearly complete airbase became a vital part of the plan to reinforce General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines with the latest bombers – the Boeing B-17 – to deter Japanese aggression. The high-level oversight and reassignment of some of Hickam’s new aircraft and those being prepared stateside set the strategic stage before late 1941. The B-17 backstory of brand-new aircraft, their outfitting at the Sacramento Air Depot, and long-distance delivery that arrived just as the Japanese attack starts ties together the events on Oahu and national preparations around tensions in the Pacific.

The chronology of the Japanese attack is established starting with Japanese primary source records, describing the attack force from shōtai (small aviation units) to carriers and attack waves. The formations, bomb runs, strike reports, and known impact patterns are compared with event sequenced photographs from a great number of archives. In their systematic matching of attack aircraft to bombs dropped on targets, the authors identify an instance where the documentary and photographic evidence for the first attack wave misalign and suggest the appropriate assignment through their analysis.

Overall, this is an interesting read focused on one airfield adjacent to greater Pearl Harbor. The insights and details of those who served and survived there give the book a human touch. Any reader seeking to understand more of how the Army and its Air Corps were involved in preparations in the Pacific, or those who want to examine formation and strike tactics of the Japanese would benefit from this book.

Lt. Col. Michael D. Miller, USAF, is an Assistant Professor at the Joint Forces Staff College.

They’re Killing My Boys: The History of Hickam Field and the Attacks of 7 December 1941 (J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman and John F. Di Virgilio, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2019)

The Attack on Pearl Harbor:

November 26, 1941

Vice Admiral Nagumo’s fleet departed Tankran Bay inside the Kurile Islands for Pearl Harbor in secrecy. Vice Admiral Nagumo, as well as the Japanese attack pressure, was 200 miles north of Oahu by the start of December 7.

December 7, 1941

The U.S. Minesweeper Condor spots something in water within the entrance of Pearl Harbor during petrol less than 2 miles. The officer in the deck spots a periscope in the sub just fifty yards in the port bow.

A blinker message “Sighted submerged submarine on a westerly course, speed 9 knots2” was transmitted by the Condor for the destroyer Ward.

A preliminary attack wave heads south to Pearl Harbor when Commander Mitsuo Fuchida leads Japan an air attack at 6:00 AM. Torpedo planes, high-level bombers, dive-bombers, and fighters included in the initial attack wave. Japanese pilots reconfirm their navigation after using a Honolulu radio station’s music just like a guiding beam. Another attack wave comparable to the size of the first attack was introduced in the carriers’ hangar decks and sent off to Oahu’s southern shore 2.

The soldiers were commanded to open fire by the captain in the Ward, Lt. William W. Outerbridge. The initial shot misses but the second strikes the submarine, sinking it.

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida orders his telegraph operator to tap Tora, Tora, Tora: Attack, surprise achieved, when the initial wave in the Japanese aircraft attack arrives on Oahu. In addition to the individuals on Ford Island that started the attack, dive-bombers started hitting airfields around 7:55. The goal of the synchronized attacks was to destroy the American planes before they may rise to intercept Japan 3.

The battleships around Ford Island and “Battleship Row” were targeted. The attack damaged and sank several ships besides Ford Island within a couple of minutes. The USS West Virginia, USS Oklahoma, and USS Arizona all sank but the USS Arizona suffered heavy loss. The forward ammunition magazine of the ship was ignited when an armor-piercing blast hit it. The USS California, USS Nevada, USS Tennessee, and USS Maryland all suffered damage and 1,177 crewmen lost their existence around the Arizona alone.

The second wave of 78 dive-bombers, 35 fighters, and 54 high-altitude bombers attacked the battleship Pennsylvania and bombed three destroyers within the Navy yard dry pier. The USS Nevada was also targeted.

The Japanese planes started going to the aircraft carriers after the attacks finished and started hitting gasoline tankers as well as other facilities which will later help America to win World War II. Japanese commanders deemed the attack a success and made another strike at 1 pm. Over 2,400 military personnel and 68 civilians were killed in the attacks and over 1,100 military personnel and civilians were wounded. 188 aircrafts were destroyed and 159 were damaged and 21 ships were sunk or damaged inside the off-shore fleet. Japanese lose only 29 plans, 5 midget subs and 65 servicemen were killed or wounded. President Roosevelt addressed Congress on December 7, 1941, and The United States officially entered in to World War II.

Watch the video: Pearl Harbor-The Battle (July 2022).


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