Pearl Harbor: Why and How Japan Attacked the U.S.

Why and how Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor

The Pearl Harbor attack was unquestionably the most critical moment for the U.S. in the lead up to World War II. It was an attack that lasted for slightly above two hours. However, in those two-nightmarish hours, the U.S. had to ward off two very malicious waves of attacks from the Japanese Imperial Navy. What did the Japanese seek to achieve in such a brief moment? And what factors triggered this attack on U.S. soil? The article below presents a very balanced account of what happened before, during, and after the Pearl Harbor attack.

The state of affairs before the Pearl Harbor Attack

The 1930s saw the Empire of Japan build up significant military capabilities and strength. As a matter of fact, the Empire was the biggest spender on military hardware and fleets. They did this because they had an ambitious goal of dominating the entire Pacific Rim. Korea was already under their control. Their next target was China. The Americans vehemently opposed Japan’s persistent aggression and provocations against neighboring countries, especially China. However, the Japanese did not cease. They kept poking and belligerently attacking China. Then in 1938, the U.S. delivered its first loan to China. The goal was to shore up the Chinese to properly defend their country against the advancing Japanese. The U.S. also backed out of the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan.

American officials harbored fears that Japan might become an unstoppable empire if it continued at the rate it was moving. Therefore, the U.S., along with its European allies, continuously supported China. In spite of all these, Japan was still able to cease control of China’s coast and North China Plain by 1941. Records show that the two countries had been engaged in several dialogs for close to a decade, but to no avail, nothing concrete was ever agreed upon. A political situation to this impasse dwindled with every passing day.

At the same time, Japan kept making in-roads into Beijing. For example, the Chinese province of Manchuria was firmly in the hands of Japan. Even the most optimistic of diplomats back then knew that war was coming. America responded by gradually reducing its exports to Japan. At first, the sanctions mainly targeted materials used by the Japanese military. The goal was to halt Japan’s military moves. The Japanese Imperial Navy saw this as a blatant provocation from the Americans. Tensions continued to escalate and Japan started preparing to take on the U.S.  To do this, Japan signed a pact with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) in September 1940.  Militarily, Japan embarked on large-scale reconnaissance exercises across the length and breadth of the Pacific.

Why Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor

Over the Atlantic, the Germans were busy pushing east, from Poland all the way to the Soviet Union. Japan felt that it should do the same in the Pacific. There were enough reasons to do so, considering all the embargoes the U.S. was placing on it. The Japanese were super-confident in pushing way up east. Also, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines all seemed like good targets for the Japanese. Therefore, their aggression continued because they felt it was an opportune time. They risked no attack from the Soviets because the Soviets were busily defending Hitler’s march eastward. The Soviets were, therefore, unlikely to strike Japan. Neither was any European country likely to do so. The majority of Europe was scrambling to defend their shores against Hitler. For example, the British, the Dutch and the French were far too stretched to bother about their interests in the Pacific. Other specific reasons as to why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor are:

  1. They lacked resources to fuel their expansion in the Pacific.
  2. They sought to dominate the Pacific and capture all the resources so as to fully conquer China.
  3. The U.S. sanctions and restrictions really antagonized the Japanese. The U.S. had frozen the assets of many Japanese officials. These measures, as well as the embargoes on Japan, were beginning to bite deep into the country.
  4. Pearl Harbor had become the hub of the U.S. Pacific Fleet by 1939. The Japanese saw this as a very ideal target.
  5. Japan also assumed that by neutralizing the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. would be unable to put up any resistance in the Pacific.

Japan Prepares to attack the U. S.

It was all hands on deck for the Japanese as they meticulously hatched up a plan to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet. That made a lot of sense because, with the U.S. fleet gone, the entire Southeast Asia would be up for grasps by the Japanese. The empire began making preparations such as information gathering in and around the Kuril Islands. As at November 26, 1941, the Japanese had started building a sizable force 275 miles north of Hawaii. They had 6 aircraft carriers, 3 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and 2 battleships. All of these were under the command of Vice-Admiral Nagumo Chichi. He used this place as a base to launch what will later become the Pearl Harbor Attack. With their plans, all set, the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, approved the plan on November 6. His final authorization came on December 1. There was pretty much nothing the Emperor could do. He was arm-twisted by several powerful military officers in the country. The Japanese army was the one literally calling the shots now.

More: Isoroku Yamamoto: The Japanese Admiral who planned Pearl Harbor Attack

Did the U.S. see the attack coming?

The U.S. probably did not see it coming directly to Pearl Harbor. They did, however, suspect that Japan was going to attack. Obviously, the particular place was unknown to them. A number of conspiracy theorists believe that Washington knew exactly were the Japanese were aiming at. Whatever the case might have been back then, Washington, along with several military officials, extremely underestimated the resolve and abilities of Japan’s military. Some high-ranking officials thought the Japanese were not even equipped enough to carry out a strike on neighboring Islands such as Guam, let alone Hawaii!

What preparations did the U.S. make prior to the Pearl Harbor Attack?

Ever since World War II broke out in 1939, the U.S. had done everything in its power to stay out of the war. However, this pacifist resolve did not blunt the United States’ preparedness for war. As far back as a decade before the Pearl Harbor Attack, the U.S. military had started bolstering its defenses at some of its vital military installations. The U.S. had a Pacific Fleet placed at Pearl Harbor as early as April 1940. Commanding Pearl Harbor was Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Lieutenant Gen. Walter C. Short.

Also, the army intelligence had issued out numerous warnings of the risk Pearl Harbor faced from being struck. There was the October 16, the November 24 and the 27 warnings. As at when the 27 November war warning was issued, all negotiations between the U.S. and Japan had come to halt. Both countries were now in the process of gathering information and trying to find out how to strike each other. In the U.S., the military intelligence had specifically tasked Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short to embark on several reconnaissance missions. They were asked to take appropriate actions to stall any possible attack on the harbor.

Gen. Short placed fighter planes on Wheeler Field to prevent them from being struck. He installed five mobile radar sets that were operated from 4:00 AM to 7:00 AM. Some historians believe that the actions taken by Kimmel and Gen. Short were not adequate to prepare the base for an attack. Perhaps it was because Short and Kimmel never really believed (based on the information that they were given access to) that Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed by Japan.

What transpired from 27 November to 7 December?

Absolutely nothing happened. Short and Kimmel were both playing doubting Thomases. No significant preparations were made apart from the ones earlier taken. To be fair to them, both of them claimed that there was nothing extra that they could do because the intelligence from Washington was vague.

What was the mood like at Pearl Harbor on December 7?

Pearl Harbor

Why and how Japan attacked the U.S.

It was pretty much the same as the previous 10 days. However, some senior officials got wind that something massive was about to occur. The Japanese ambassador (Kichisaburō Nomura) had also requested a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. The request was made in the early hours of December 7. Although those officials took receipt of the Ambassador’s request early Sunday morning, the U.S. staff took some time to decode the message. At 10:30 AM, the message eventually got to the chief of naval operations. And because the U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall was horseback riding by then, he did not get hold of the message until 11:15 am. At that point, it was too late. The Japanese army had already started bombarding U.S. soil with torpedoes and bombs. The war had begun, and Pearl Harbor was far from prepared. Quite literally, Pearl Harbor was a dock that got taken out like a sitting duck.

What happened during the first wave of attack at Pearl Harbor?

At 7: 55 AM, the Japanese dive-bomber made it to Pearl Harbor. Soon, about 200 Japanese aircraft came into the fray. It only took about 15 minutes for the harbor to get inundated with attacks from the Japanese. Prior to the attack, Short had ordered that the U.S. aircraft be packed at a naval air station on Ford Island, Wheeler, and Hickam fields (investigations later revealed that this act made them easy targets for the Japanese during the first wave of attack). Also, the U.S. planes struggled to quickly get air bond to counter their opponents.

To make matters worse, the fleet at Pearl Harbor had been anchored. This made it difficult for them to spring into action. The ships sat there and took fire from the Japanese. Another factor that came to play was the fact that many of the sailors were out because it was a Sunday. Furthermore, Adm. Kimmel had authorized some military personnel to go on leave during this period. The Japanese needed only 30 minutes to dish out severe damage to the battleships.

U.S. Battleships that got destroyed in the First Wave of Attack

There was a massive explosion that emanated from the USS Arizona battleship. Also, the USS Oklahoma turned upside down and went under after intense bombardment on her. The battleship USS Nevada did get hit once in the first wave, but she was still able to soldier on. As for the USS California, the men were asked to abandon her as she sank. A similar fate befell the USS Utah. All in all, the U.S. Pacific fleet took a significant amount of damages. There was also a bit of fierce resistance that came from U.S. anti-aircraft. But it was too little and too late. The damage had already been done.

Was there a Second wave of Attack on Pearl Harbor?

Yes. It occurred at around 8:05 AM. The second wave could not do as much damage as the first attack. The Americans had started pulling themselves together. Troops got in position. The Japanese lost significantly more men and aircraft in the second wave than they did in the first attack. The second wave ended at about 9:55 AM.

Battleships that got hit in the Second Wave

The USS Nevada battleship that got hit in the first wave was again on the receiving end of Japanese torpedoes and bombs in the second wave. All attempts of her escape proved futile. The ship’s movement was halted. The second wave also saw the USS Pennsylvania burst into flames after several pounding by the Japanese. Several docked destroyers got damaged as well. Some of the second wave attacks were so intense that they cut open the USS Shaw into two.

When did the Pearl Harbor attack stop?

After about two hours of numerous explosions and chaos, the Japanese command felt it had done much damage to the U.S. Pacific fleet. The Pearl Harbor attack ceased a few minutes before 10:00 AM.  The Japanese command did, however, contemplate going for a third attack, but that idea was quickly shut down because the second wave of attack resulted in relatively higher casualties than the first. Or perhaps the Japanese felt that they had done enough damage that would most likely take the Americans years to build any solid reprisal attacks in the Pacific.

Human and military losses to the U.S. at Pearl Harbor

Japan attacked attacks Pearl Harbor

Why and how Japan attacked the U.S.

It was a significant victory for the Japanese army. The U.S. had to lick its wounds. Two battleships were completely ruined (USS Oklahoma and USS Arizona). The battleships that needed massive repair works were 6 in total. The U.S. also lost three cruisers. 3 of the nation’s destroyers were also damaged. The U.S. lost 188 army and navy aircraft. 159 aircraft were damaged as well. A significant number of other minor vessels also went under.

The human cost mounted to about 3,400. That figure includes about 2,300 deaths and 1,143 injuries. There were some 68 civilian deaths as well. 35 civilians sustained varying levels of injuries.

Japan’s losses at Pearl Harbor

In total, the Japanese lost about 60 to 100 men. The lost aircraft figure was in the range of 29 to 60. They also lost five midget submarines, and two fleet submarines were grounded. 29 of its aircraft were completely destroyed while 74 sustained damages.  In the first wave, the Japanese were so efficient. Luckily for them, the U.S. was way unprepared for the first attack. As a result of this, only a few men and planes were lost in the first wave of attack. The second wave was where the majority of their losses came from.

The USS aircraft carriers that luckily missed the attack at Pearl Harbor

The USS Enterprise and the USS Lexington were not at the harbor at the time of the attack. Enterprise was at the Wake Island garrison while Lexington was transporting marine dive-bombers. Enterprise could have been at Pearl Harbor had the weather not been bad. Another third aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga was also not at the harbor during the attack.

How did the U.S. React after Pearl Harbor?

Several military gears and installations were lost for sure after Pearl Harbor. Both air and navy took significant hits. But the U.S. was swift and decisive. The military quickly repaired 6 out of the 8 battleships.  Luckily for the U.S., the oil storage facilities at the harbor were left unscathed. Somehow, the Japanese strangely missed those storage facilities. This negligence or error on the part of Japan would later come back to haunt them.

The U.S. politicians, officials, and Congress all acted in unison. They had a bipartisan voice under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The U.S. could no longer afford to remain aloof while World War II raged on. Therefore, the immediate consequences of Pearl Harbor drew the U.S. into World War II.

The first thing the following day, Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan on 8 December 1941. This was probably less than 24 hours after the Pearl Harbor attack. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) stood in front of Congress and gave a speech that will forever be remembered. He is quoted as saying this very important line:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

FDR’s Noon Speech to Congress, December 8, 1941

The American public wholeheartedly supported a war against Japan; and by extension Japan’s allies: Germany and Italy. There was however a minuscule piece of dissent that came from Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Congresswoman.  She described herself as a pacifist. She believed that war was a terrible thing and that America should just turn the other cheek. The records also show that Jeannette vehemently opposed the U.S. involvement in World War I. With the exclusion of Congresswoman Jeannette; the whole political establishment of the U.S. was fully in favor of striking back at Japan.

If the Japanese were that close to Hawaii, how come no one noticed their massive buildup?

Accounts and investigations revealed that about 4 hours before the attack, some navy officials spotted a Japanese submarine. The officers aboard the USS Ward sprung to action and fired at this submarine. Kimmel received this message exactly 2 and a half hours before the Pearl Harbor attack. However, he had to wait for confirmation. While doing so, the Japanese began their assault on the harbor.

There was also the observation made by U.S. Army private George Elliot. The private saw on his radar system a hoard of planes. He quickly informed his lieutenant. However, the lieutenant turned a blind eye to Elliot’s observation. The lieutenant felt that what Elliot had seen was a set of B-17 bombers belonging to the United States.

The Japanese army also had some very good cloaking technology and skills. They traveled in an area of the Pacific that was least used. All of the above made aerial reconnaissance by the U.S. extremely difficult.

Why did years of negotiation between Japan and the U.S. yield nothing?

The two countries did have several negotiations and talks for close to a decade or so. President Roosevelt even reached out to the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito. The Japanese ambassador, Kichisaburō Nomura had had several meetings with the U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. Nomura tried to persuade his country from going into war with the Americans. However, the Japanese were simply vexed that the U.S. did not halt its support for Nationalists in China. Japan was also power-hungry and needed a constant source of resources to fuel its expansionary efforts. The last straw for them was when the U.S. halted oil shipments to Japan. At that point, neither side was willing to budge. Therefore, the clash was unavoidable.

Could the attack have been prevented by the U.S.?

Yes. Had officials not grossly underestimated the Japanese and their capabilities, the attack on Pearl Harbor would not have been that severe. The entire chain of command had a role to play. Furthermore, Kimmel complained bitterly about his base not being properly resourced. However, the commanders themselves at the base failed to implement an effective radar training program. In retrospect, such a program could have spotted the advancing Japanese.

Also, had Kimmel conducted proper reconnaissance in the northwest, he would have spotted the advancing Japanese fleet. Another mistake of his was positioning the entire fleet anchored at the same place. Some of his men also proceeded to go on leave.

Why did Japan risk attacking the U.S. knowing that the U.S. will be drawn into World War II?

Japan’s operations against say the British and Dutch in the Pacific would certainly not have drawn the U.S. into an all-out war with Japan. Perhaps the U.S. would not even have partaken in World War II.  The Japanese definitely won at Pearl Harbor. They humiliated the U.S. In retrospect, what did this win do to them in the long run?

The Japanese certainly committed huge tactical and strategic mistakes. First, the Japanese failed to take notice of the oil depots and storage facilities during their 2-hour onslaught of the harbor. Had Japan bombed those areas, the U.S. Pacific fleet would have struggled to bounce back in the coming years.

Second, the Pearl Harbor attack shifted the public’s opinion about America’s involvement in the war in Europe. The Americans had never been more united than they were, post-Pearl Harbor attack. They had one sole aim: hit Japan and her allies with the entire might of the United States. It was undoubtedly a huge miscalculation on the part of the Japanese military commanders.

The aftermath of the attack- Investigations, and Questions

The two military men that jointly commanded Pearl Harbor were relieved of their duties. There was also a commission set up by President Roosevelt. It was headed by Justice Owen J. Roberts. The commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts was tasked to investigate the events before, during and after the attack. The report from Justice Roberts placed the majority of the blame squarely on the two-joint commanders at Pearl Harbor: Short and Kimmel.

However, the army had a different view of that of the commission. They believed that the buck should stop at War and Navy departments. They stated that the chief of naval operations, Adm. Harold Stark, could have dispatched the message he received on Sunday quickly to Short and Kimmel at Pearl Harbor. But surprisingly, he failed to do so because he feared that his phone call will be spied on. So he used a telegram. The telegram got there late and interpreting it took a bit of time.

Some say that Washington’s war warnings given Kimmel and Short came with sufficient intelligence to act on. Some also criticized the President for failing to alert the War and Navy department. If Washington was definitely certain that war was about to break out with Japan, why didn’t she communicate properly with Pearl Harbor commanders on the eve of the attack?

The planes were also too exposed at Pearl Harbor some say. The radar training program was not scaled up in due time. In Short’s defense, he claims he had insufficient intelligence from Washington to act on. He also said that he had very little resources to operate with.

There were lots of accusations and counter-accusations that floated to and from Washington, Kimmel, Short, the War and Navy Departments, Congressional committee, and the Roberts Commission.

Was the entire Pearl Harbor attack America’s “Back Door to War”?

Rear Adm. Robert A. Theobald famously stated that the U.S.’ excessive negotiations and talks with Japan were a ploy to tempt the Japanese to strike first. Theobald believed that the Pacific fleet was more or less like bait to the enemy. And the moment Japan attacked, America believed that it would now have legitimate reasons to strike back. This is commonly referred to as the Back Door to War theory.

Other historians claim that Theobald’s assertions are completely false and unsubstantiated. The U.S. did, in fact, have difficulties with the code-breaking the Japanese messages and that the U.S. was simply caught off guard.

Post World War II and the Current Relationship between the U.S. and Japan

Even after the end of World War II, the country still saw a lot of accusations and counter-accusations coming from high-ranking military officials. It was a very tense situation. The good thing is that America knew when to put their differences aside to face the enemy. However, typical of any democratic society, the issue resurfaced after the War for further investigations and public discourse.

Another thing that is worth noting is that after the curtains were drawn on World War II, Japan and the U.S. for decades worked together to form a very strong economic and political bond. Today, the two nations have reconciled their differences and operate under the spirit of tolerance and respect for human rights.

How is Pearl Harbor like today?

Pearl Harbor

How is Pearl Harbor like today

There still exist remnants of the ships that went down. For example, the USS Arizona rests down below Pearl Harbor. It could not be salvaged. Today, the place receives more than one million visitors yearly. There is a memorial dedicated to lives that were lost on that day. These memorials are the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Oklahoma Memorial, and the USS Utah Memorial. In December 2016, there was a historic visit to Pearl Harbor by Shinzo Abe (Japanese Prime Minister). He is so far the only sitting Prime Minister to ever visit Pearl Harbor. In conclusion, we would like to share  the following words Shinzo Abe uttered during his historic visit:

We must never repeat the horrors of war again. This is the solemn vow, we the people of Japan, have taken.