The Japanese attack

The Pearl Harbor attack was a surprise military attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii Territory, on Sunday, 7th December 1941, shortly before 8:00 a.m.

The United States was a neutral country at the time, and the attack resulted in the country's official entry into the Second World War the following day. 

With the entry of the United States, the course of the war would be irrecoverably altered.

Aerial shot of the attack on Pearl Harbour, 7th December 1941. photograph taken from a Japanese plane at the beginning of the attack. The explosion at the center is a torpedo striking USS West Virginia (BB-48), two attacking planes can be seen: one over USS Neosho (AO-23), and one over the Naval Yard.

DC Colorized photos / U.S. Naval History and Heritage and Command Photograph: NH 50936


Germany crushed France in what historians refer to as the Fall of France in June 1940. As a German ally, Japan demanded that the new Vichy French (a puppet government controlled by Nazi Germany) allow Japanese troops to occupy French Indochina colonies.

The Vichy French agreed because they did not want to fight Japan - they neither had the resources nor the support of their Nazi overlords.

This enabled Japan to deploy aircraft over Southern China, effectively cutting off American support that was previously routed through French Indochina to China.

Map of French Indochina.

This was unacceptable to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who immediately froze all of Japan's assets in the United States. He also halted all oil and metal exports to Japan in the hopes of bringing the Japanese war machine to a halt.

It also exacerbated the Japanese economy's difficulties. Roosevelt expected all of this to finally bring Japan to the negotiating table and bring the war in China to an end. Now facing the prospect of dwindling oil supplies forcing their military to grind to a halt,

Japan felt compelled to act…

US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt


Naval Station Pearl Harbor

Naval Station Pearl Harbor is a United States naval base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was established in 1908 and expanded steadily and continuously between 1908 and 1919. Ford Island, located in the heart of Pearl Harbor, was purchased in 1917 for joint Army and Navy use in the development of military aviation in the Pacific. As the Imperial Japanese military pursued its war with China, the United States began to take defensive measures in response to Japan's intentions. 

As part of a drill, the US Navy staged a mock attack on the Pearl Harbor base on February 1, 1933. In an ominous foreshadowing of events to come, the attack was deemed a "success," while the defence was deemed a "failure."

Operation Z

During planning, the Japanese military leadership referred to the attack as Operation Hawaii, Operation AI, and Operation Z.

The attack was planned as a preventative measure by the Japanese.

The goal was to keep the US Pacific Fleet from interfering with military plans in Southeast Asia against the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States overseas territories. 

MAp showing the location of the ships and port facilities at Pearl Harbour on the morning of 7 December 1941.

Japan prepared extensively for the attack. Scale models of Pearl Harbor and its facilities, as well as the ships present, were included. Spies in Hawaii provided geographical data as well as current information on the ships in the harbour. The Japanese also planned to use the American airfields on the island. Beginning in April 1941, pilots and other officers used these models and information to become acquainted with their targets and to practise the attack.

For seven hours, Japan launched coordinated attacks on US-held Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island, as well as the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Japanese bomber pilots receive their orders on board an aircraft carrier prior to commencing their mission of bombing Pearl Harbor.

Keystone/Getty Images

Crewmen gathering on the deck of flagship Akagi in November 1941 at Hittokappu Bay, Kuriles, prior to the attack.

DC Colorized photos /

Yamamoto's gamble

Despite his involvement in the planning, Admiral Yamamoto was deeply concerned about war with the United States.

He had attended Harvard University and even worked as a Japanese military attache in Washington, D.C. He'd seen for himself the vast difference in industrial capacity between Japan and the United States at the time.

As a result, he warned his fellow officers and the Japanese government that the attack on Pearl Harbor would only provide Japan with six months of naval victory. If the United States did not make peace within six months, Japan would be overwhelmed.

 Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet

The Japanese approach

The Japanese First Air Fleet made a great effort to preserve secrecy. Most importantly, they avoided using radios while travelling from Japan to Hawaii. This prevented the United States from picking up any radio transmissions that might have given the Japanese away. While this meant that the fleet had no contact with Japan during their journey, contact between the fleet's ships was maintained.

Instead of radio, they communicated at sea using signal flags or a combination of spotlights and Morse Code.

Aside from radio silence, the First Air Fleet approached Hawaii from behind a storm front. The USN's patrol planes were unable to fly over and locate the First Air Fleet as a result.

Japanese aircraft launching from the Akagi carrier on 7th December 1941.

Colorized Pics of the Attack on Pearl Harbor. (Image heavy) - Naval Battles - World of Warships official forum

Scout planes were sent ahead of the attack by the First Air Fleet. They flew over Pearl Harbor before sunrise, and several people saw them. However, there was no no-fly zone over Pearl Harbor at the time, and civilians flew over the base on a regular basis to take in the sights. As a result, no one paid attention to the planes flying overhead.

The Japanese then broke radio silence, informing Admiral Nagumo of the presence of the US Pacific Fleet. They also informed the admiral that no American aircraft carriers were present at Pearl Harbor.

Despite the absence of the aircraft carriers, Admiral Nagumo decided to press on with the attack.

Japanese planes used during the Pearl Harbour attack: 

Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter

Middle: Aichi D3A Type 99 Carrier Bomber "Val"

Bottom: Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” Type 97-3 Torpedo Bomber

The first shots in the defence of the USA

The Ward was on patrol at the entrance to Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941, when the cargo ship Antares (AG-10) notified it to the presence of a Japanese midget submarine attempting to infiltrate the port entrance.

The Ward fired her number three deck gun before dropping depth charges and sinking the submarine.

Despite his efforts to highlight that there could be no mistake, Outerbridge's radio transmissions were dismissed by senior officials at naval headquarters, prompting him to transmit a second report with more precise detail:

"We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area."

William W. Outerbridge, captain of the destroyer USS Ward.

NH 102296 Lieutenant Commander William W. Outerbridge, USN (

This occurred only 70 minutes before Japanese naval and air forces launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. The Ward's crew's action was thus the first naval engagement by US forces against the Japanese in the Second World War, and the gun that fired the first shot was put as a memorial at the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul, Minnesota. 

The sunken midget submarine was discovered in August 2002 in 1,300 feet (400 m) of water just outside Pearl Harbor.

Outerbridge was later awarded the Naval Cross for his actions.

The destroyer USS Ward which attacked a Japanese midget submarine spotted at Pearl Harbor - the first shots fired by the USA in the Second World War.

Public domain

A close shave

While teaching a pupil flying an Interstate Cadet, a tiny single-engine trainer, over Honolulu, a 22-year-old civilian flight instructor named Cornelia Fort happened to be in the air.

She noticed the glimmer of a jet in the distance as they turned and returned to the city airstrip. It appeared to be moving quickly and directly for them.

She seized the stick and scrambled up quickly, passing the plane so closely that the windows of the tiny Cadet trembled.

22-Year old civilian flight instructor, Cornelia Fort, who was airborne over Honolulu at the time of the attack and witnessed bombs being dropped. She was later one of 1,074 women to fly for the Army Air Forces in the war.

A Pearl Harbor Disappearance May Finally Have Been Solved | History| Smithsonian Magazine

She noticed a Japanese fighter by looking down. She later recalled that she had seen "something detach itself from a plane and come glistening down" off to the west. "My heart turned over convulsively when the bomb exploded in the middle of the Harbor."

While a warplane strafed the runway, Fort and her pupil landed at the airport and sprinted to the terminal. She later wrote in her logbook, "Flight interrupted by Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Battleship Killer

Torpedoes were the only sure way to sink battleships. The mine effect of the warhead's explosion could rip a battleship's side open, especially if it struck below the armour belt. At the time, Japan's Type 97 Modification 2 (not Model 2) aerial torpedo (koku gyorai) was unquestionably the best in the world. It weighed 1,840 pounds and had a 610-pound warhead with a 450-pound explosive charge. This was far more powerful than any of the Pearl Harbor bombs. Most importantly, it was dependable, having been rigorously tested and developed since 1931.

A Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” with a Type 97 torpedo underneath.

Map showing the direction of the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbour.

First Wave

  • 1st Group (targets: battleships and aircraft carriers)
  • 49 Nakajima B5N Kate bombers armed with 800 kg (1760 lb) armor-piercing bombs, organized in four sections (1 failed to launch)
  • 40 B5N bombers armed with Type 91 torpedoes, also in four sections
  • 2nd Group – (targets: Ford Island and Wheeler Field)
  • 51 Aichi D3A Val dive bombers armed with 550 lb (249 kg) general-purpose bombs (3 failed to launch)
  • 3rd Group – (targets: aircraft at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Barber's Point, Kaneohe)
  • 43 Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" fighters for air control and strafing.

An aerial view of "Battleship Row" at Pearl Harbour, photographed from a Japanese aircraft, during the early part of the horizontal bombing attack on the moored ships.

Ships seen are (L-R): USS Nevada; USS Arizona with USS Vestal moored outboard; USS Tennessee with USS West Virginia moored outboard; USS Maryland with USS Oklahoma moored outboard; and USS Neosho, only partially visible at the extreme right. A bomb had just hit Arizona near the stern, but she has not yet received the bomb that detonated her forward magazines. West Virginia and Oklahoma are gushing oil from their many torpedo hits and are listing to port. Oklahoma's port deck edge is already under water. Nevada has also been torpedoed. 

Official U.S. Navy photograph/U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation

The US Army SCR-270 radar at Opana Point on the island's northern point picked up the first Japanese wave as it neared Oahu.

Joseph Lockard, a radar operator, and his colleague, Private George Elliot, were the first to detect the incoming Japanese planes on their radar screen that morning.

At around 7:02 a.m., Lockard and Elliot spotted a large group of planes flying in from the north. Initially, they thought it might be a flight of American B-17 bombers, but as the planes got closer, they realized they were Japanese.

Lockard immediately called the information into the Information Center at Fort Shafter, but the officer who answered the phone dismissed the report, assuming it was a group of American planes scheduled to arrive that morning.

Lockard and Elliot continued to track the planes on their radar screen and watched as they approached Pearl Harbor. Lockard tried to call Fort Shafter again to warn them, but the phone line was busy.

By the time they were able to get through, it was too late - the attack was already underway.

Several US aircraft were encountered and shot down as the initial wave of planes reached Oahu. At least one of them radioed an incoherent warning before being downed. When the Japanese air assault started at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time, other alerts from ships off the harbour entrance were still being processed or awaited confirmation.

Joseph Lockard, a radar operator, was one of the first to detect the approaching Japanese aircraft. 

s6J0gXy.jpg (2952×4374) (

The US defences had run out of time. In two waves, 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft (including fighters and level, dive, and torpedo bombers) launched from six aircraft carriers attacked the base. The surprise nature of their attack found the navy base unprepared, and the Japanese planes were able to inflict devastating damage.

The forward magazines of the U.S. Navy battleship USS Arizona explode shortly after 08:00 hrs during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, The bombs and subsequent explosion killed 1,177 of the 1,512 crewmen on board at the time, approximately half of the lives lost during the attack.

U.S. Navy - Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-K-13513 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

The Japanese bombers score a direct hit. The detonation of the destroyer USS Shaw (DD-373)'s forward magazines. She was in floating drydock YFD-2 that morning.

DC Colorized Photo

The first Japanese wave was headed by sluggish, defenceless torpedo bombers, who took advantage of the first shock to strike the most significant ships there (the battleships).

At 7:55 AM, the first Japanese dive-bomber flew over Pearl Harbor (local time).

It was a part of the first wave of roughly 200 aircraft, which included included fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes. The base's numerous airfields came under fierce attack in less than 30 minutes.

The American military aircraft were crammed close together at the Naval Air Station on Ford Island and the nearby Wheeler and Hickam fields as a result of Short's anti-sabotage tactics, and many of them were destroyed on the ground by Japanese strafing.

The U.S. Navy battleship USS California slowly sinking alongside Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as a result of bomb and torpedo damage, 7 December 1941. The destroyer USS Shaw is burning in the floating dry dock YFD-2 in the left distance. The battleship USS Nevada is beached in the left-centre distance.

Official U.S. Navy photograph 80-G-32456

A significant attack was launched simultaneously on Kimmel's fleet. Because they were not fully manned and it was Sunday morning (a time picked by the Japanese for maximum surprise), the ships anchored in the harbour presented excellent targets for the Japanese bombers.

The first 30 minutes of the assault were when the battleships sustained the majority of their damage. There was a huge explosion that destroyed the battleship USS Arizona. The USS West Virginia, loaded with bombs and torpedoes, sank to the bottom of the harbour on an even keel.

Part of the hull of the capsized USS Oklahoma is seen at right as the battleship USS West Virginia, center, begins to sink after suffering heavy damage, while the USS Maryland, left, is still afloat in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.

Navy via AP

After being struck by four torpedoes in the space of five minutes, the USS Oklahoma entirely capsized, its bottom and propeller rising above the harbor's waters.

The Pacific Battle Force's flagship, the USS California, was torpedoed and forced to be abandoned as it slowly sank in shallow water.

The USS Utah, a target ship, was also sunk. Almost no ship escaped damage. The antiaircraft crews aboard the various warships reacted rather quickly, and army soldiers fired with what they had, but the attack's force was not greatly diminished or hampered by these spirited displays of defence.

This aerial photograph taken by a Japanese pilot shows the perspective of the attackers. In the lower right hand corner, a Japanese bomber sweeps in for a strafing run.

30 Chilling Photos From The Attack On Pearl Harbor (

Targeting the airfields

The Vals of the first wave had different targets than the Vals of the second wave. Vals from the first wave attacked Ford Island and Wheeler Field.

The airfield on Ford Island was the closest to Pearl Harbor, and planes from there could respond to the Japanese the fastest. As a result, they became a high-priority target.

Wheeler Field, on the other hand, was Hawaii's largest airfield. Naturally, this made it a top priority for the Japanese.

The smaller airfields in Hawaii were targeted by Zeros. This allowed the Vals to focus on the most important targets, though many Zeros assisted in the assault on Ford Island and Wheeler Field. Zeros targeted airfields such as Barber's Point, Hickam Field, and Kaneohe.

The military barracks at Hickam Field, Hawaii, were ablaze following the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. A battered American flag flies in the foreground.

U.S. Air Force photo released Nov. 29 1951

At Wheeler Field in particular the destruction was terrible. On the ground, there were 126 aircraft; 42 of them were completely destroyed, 41 were damaged, and only 43 were still operable.

Only 6 American aircraft took to the air to fend off the invaders of this initial assault. Over 180 aeroplanes were destroyed in all.

The Vals of the second wave were more interested in warships than airships. Instead, Kates armed with heavy bombs finished off the airfields already attacked by the Vals of the first wave.

The Vals dive-bombed any ship left over from the first wave's attacks, with the help of the Zeros.

Destroyed US Army aircraft at Wheeler Field, Oahu, after the Japanese attack, Dec 1941. Note P-40 parts in the pile,

The Japanese, did on the other hand, miss one airfield, which is surprising given their attention to detail when planning their attack. Haleiwa Fighter Strip was a small airfield for emergency landings. Because of its insignificance, Japan ignored it when planning the attack.
This meant that planes from Haleiwa, such as P-40 Warhawks piloted by George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, were able to fight in the air. Welch shot down four planes, and Taylor shot down two. Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

US Army Air Corps pilots, Kenneth Taylor and George Welch, who managed to get airborne in P-40 Warhawks during the attack on Pearl Harbor and shoot down six Japanese planes.

Heroes of Pearl Harbor: George Welch and Kenneth Taylor - HISTORY

Second Wave

  • 1st Group – 54 B5Ns armed with 550 lb (249 kg) and 132 lb (60 kg) general-purpose bombs[88]
  • 27 B5Ns – aircraft and hangars on Kaneohe, Ford Island, and Barbers Point
  • 27 B5Ns – hangars and aircraft on Hickam Field
  • 2nd Group (targets: aircraft carriers and cruisers)
  • 78 D3As armed with 550 lb (249 kg) general-purpose bombs, in four sections (3 aborted)
  • 3rd Group – (targets: aircraft at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Barber's Point, Kaneohe)
  • 35 A6Ms for defense and strafing

The second wave of the attack started around 8:50 AM. Though less effective than the previous, it nonetheless caused significant damage.

Despite taking a torpedo hit during the initial wave, the battleship USS Nevada had more space to manoeuvre than the other moored capital ships due to its location at the end of Battleship Row. The second wave struck as it was attempting to escape out of the harbour. It was grounded at the head of the channel after being hit by seven or eight bombs.

Bombs also smashed into the battleship USS Pennsylvania, setting it ablaze and wrecking the two destroyers - the Cassin and Downes - that were stationed nearby.

There was a huge explosion that cut the destroyer USS Shaw in half, sending smoke and flames billowing into the air.

Their job seemingly done; the Japanese withdrew shortly after 9:00 AM.

The USS Pennsylvania (background) and destroyers USS Downes and USS Cassin (foreground) after the Japanese attack..

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941, Downes was in drydock with Cassin and Pennsylvania. The three came under heavy attack and a 250 Kg. bomb landed between the two destroyers, starting raging fires fed by oil from a ruptured fuel tank. Despite heavy strafing, the crews of the two destroyers got their batteries into action, driving off further attacks by Japanese planes.

GettyImages-543495259.jpg (4480×3600) (

Battleship Row

Battleship Row was a line of eight battleships that were moored on the eastern side of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941.

This was the primary target of the Japanese attack, and five of the battleships were either sunk or heavily damaged.

The ships in the row were the USS Arizona, USS Nevada, USS Tennessee, USS West Virginia, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS Maryland, and USS Pennsylvania.

During the attack, all eight US Navy battleships present were hit, and four were sunk. (With the exception of the USS Arizona, all were repaired, and six were returned to service and continued to fight in the war.)

Three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer were also sunk or damaged by the Japanese.

The battleship USS California shrouded in smoke after being hit by Japanese torpedoes during the attack.

Rare and Incredible Color Photographs of the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 ~ Vintage Everyday

USS West Virginia on fire after being hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Ten key facts

Death and destruction

Over 180 US planes were destroyed. Unfortunately, instead of keeping their planes inside armoured hangars, the Americans lined them up on the runways. They reasoned that by doing so, patrols would have an easier time protecting them from saboteurs. Unfortunately, this meant that when the attack began, the Japanese planes could simply shoot them up in the open, as they were lined up in straight lines on the ground.

Women fire fighters direct a hose after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour. (Note: tjere are claims that this photo may have been taken at a later date during a training exercise. I await further clarification.)

Three Lions/Getty Images

Additionally, to keep saboteurs at bay, anti-aircraft (AA) guns were kept locked up inside armouries. Ammunition was also kept separate to keep saboteurs at bay. However, when the attack occurred, the AA guns and ammunition had to be removed from storage. As a result, the Americans' ability to fight back against the attacking Japanese was hampered.

Tragically, 2,403 Americans died and 1,178 were injured in the attack.

However, power plants, dry docks, shipyards, maintenance, and fuel and torpedo storage facilities, as well as submarine docks and headquarters buildings (which also served as intelligence headquarters), were not attacked. This was a missed opportunity for the Japanese.

The Japanese suffered only minor losses: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines were lost, and 64 soldiers were killed. The commander of one of the submarines, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured.

The shattered wreckage of American planes, bombed by the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbor, are left strewn on Hickam Field airfield.

A wider plan

The attack on Pearl Harbor was only one part of a larger scheme. The plan called for an attack on what the Imperial Japanese Navy's called the 'Southern Resource Area', which included all of Southeast Asia.

After the US Navy was rendered ineffective by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan would launch a full-scale invasion of the region. Taking the Philippines would deprive the United States and the rest of the Allies of naval and air bases to use against Japan.

Fires at Cavite Navy Yard, Philippines, resulting from the 10th December, 1941, Japanese air raid.

Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

The same logic applied to the neighbouring American islands of Wake and Guam. Taking British Malaya secures Japan's metal needs, while taking the Dutch East Indies secures Japan's oil needs.

British Burma would provide more oil and metal, while French Indochina secured Japanese demand for rubber.

The Japanese also expected those territories to supply food for their country's fleet and armies.

While the attack on Pearl Harbour was underway, for seven hours, Japan launched coordinated attacks on US-held Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island, as well as the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

War is declared

Front page of a 1941 US newspaper about the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour.

Eye-Stock / Alamy

The day after the Japanese attack in Hawaii's Pearl Harbour, young men line up to volunteer at a Navy Recruiting station in Boston, Massachusetts.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Japan declared war on the United States and the British Empire on that day (8 December Tokyo time), but the declaration was not sent until the next day.

The British government declared war on Japan immediately after learning that their territory had also been attacked, and the United States Congress declared war on Japan the next day (8th December).

Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11, despite having no official obligation to do so under the Tripartite Pact with Japan.

The United States responded by declaring war on Germany and Italy.

The clenched fist is a recurring motif in poster art, symbolising irrepressible strength and determination. Here it dominates the poster, driving home the simple but dramatic message of outrage at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. This brought America into the war and thereafter served as an emotive rallying cry.

Bernard Perlin /

The day after the attacks, and following evacuation orders for Japanese living in America, the owner of this shop in Oakland, California, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, put this notice across his shop front.

Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

The number of American servicemen who received the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

A war crime

There are numerous historical precedents for Japan's undeclared military action, but without an official warning (required by Part III of the Hague Convention of 1907), especially while peace talks were still ongoing, prompting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare. "A date that will live in infamy," 7th December 1941.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was later declared a war crime at the Tokyo Trials because it occurred without a declaration of war and without clear warning.

Pearl Harbor today

The Pearl Harbor Memorial Museum is located at the site of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The museum honours the memory of the 2,403 Americans who died that day and serves as a tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought in the Second World War.

The museum features exhibits and displays that highlight the events leading up to the attack, the attack itself, and its aftermath. Visitors can see artifacts such as a USS Arizona which is now a war grave and the iconic "black tears" that still leak from the wreckage. The museum also offers guided tours and educational programs for visitors.

Pearl Harbor today: the site of memorials and exhibits dedicated to educating visitors about the events - and remembering the victims of - the Japanese attack on the 7th December 1941.

Home - Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

Further reading



DC Colorized Photo

U.S. Naval History and Heritage and Command


Bernard Perlin

Raymond R. Panko

Three Lions/Getty Images

Navy via AP

Eye-Stock / Alamy

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

30 Chilling Photos From The Attack On Pearl Harbor (