It seems every time America forgets about the violent past and we overlook those pages written in the blood of our young men and women, we are doomed to learn another costly lesson. In places like Mogadishu or Afghanistan still the oversight of our political leadership or generals too worried about their careers to take decisive action, we see the regrettable results. So it was at Pearl Harbor as the smell of blood was in the air, but the enemy had not made his presence known quite yet.
The enemy slips in
Early Sunday morning on the 7th December 1941 women on the rolling hills of Oahu overlooking the harbor hung laundry on clotheslines and were perplexed at the appearance of unfamiliar aircraft that displayed what American sailors called a "Meatball". The pilots swooped by with a grin that could be seen from inside their cockpits. Boys tossing pitches at each other with baseballs stopped to see a foreign pilot wave at them from inside his perculiar marked airplane, most likely the Mitsubishi "Zero". These weren't the familiar US Navy planes that occasionally filled the skies during practice maneuvers.
As a morning assembly of officers and seamen dressed in formal "Whites" stood on deck at attention as the bugle sounded, alongside them came low level Japanese torpedo bombers lining up for their first targets. Some of the sailors thought that another unanounced aerial exercise was underway until the first explosions rocked the harbor! An intercom system sounded the alarm as sleeping personnel slowly arose woundering what was going on. "This is an attack! Man your battle stations! No shit!"
As Jap Zero fighters began strafing the boardwalk, decks of ships, and Naval personnel caught out in the open, other war planes began targeting airfieds beyond the shipyards such as Hickam Field, the US Marine Base at Kaneohe, Ford Island, and others. Plumes of smoke from high level bombs being dropped obscured the skyline. The Japanese knew they had caught the Americans with their pants down but were amazed how quickly a defensive anti-aircraft umbrella of return fire rose to the skies to meet them.
Of the 19 US war ships damaged or destroyed and of the 2403 fatalities suffered during the less than 1 hour and a half of assault some 1200 men out of that number of the dead were stationed on the USS Arizona where officers and noncommissioned personnel below deck were immediately incinerated by a precise Japanese bomb that had plunged down an exhaust opening, penetrated below deck, and exploded in the magazine (Ammunition Storage) lifting the huge battle wagon nearly out of the water with such a violent explosion that it even fractured the spine of the ship making it unrepairable. The only survivors were a few sailors on deck who were blown off the ship by the concussion some being flung into water covered with burning oil.
Like sitting ducks
Situated among the various airfields were P-40 Warhawks, PBY reconnaissance planes, B-17 Bombers, and a few other models all parked closely together as it would be easier to patrol and defend the airstrips against sabotage attacks, yet this very act assured an easy target for the strafing Zeroes who even shot down several American pilots as they struggled to get aloft in the midst of the fiery battle. Several aircraft were transformed into burning death traps as Japanese flyers made easy work of US aircraft attempting to take off.
The USS Oklahoma attempted to escape out to sea through the deep channel leading out of the harbor, but took so many torpedo hits that the ship listed then capsized on her side with many shipmates trapped below deck. The USS Nevada attempted to get underway as well as her compliment of 40 millimeter anti-aircraft guns flailed away at the dive bombers and torpedo planes but too many direct hits forced control of the ship to fail and the captain ordered the crew to beach her on a sand bar so as not to completely block the sea channel. It was there she was sank.
There has been debate on whether or not a Japanese mini-sub got through the submarine net near the opening to the shipyard. An aerial photo seems to show the spash of a torpedo launch from within the harbor channel but it still remains controversial. Several ships the USS Shaw, USS Helena, and USS Cassin were struck with murderous torpedo and dive bomb hits that sunk them all, but miraculously after being thought unsalvageable were rebuilt and recommissioned to active duty within months.
Left in distress
After one hour and fifteen minutes the two waves of the Japanese attack elements had deployed, unleashed their bombs, and were headed home as fires burned a midships in several battleships, damage control teams attempted to extinguish the fires, and rescue boats recovered those treading water in burning oil slicks, some managing to swim under the floating infernos to escape the terrible blazes. Men who had never fired an anti-aircraft machine gun stayed at their posts, wounded by shrapnel while still firing away at the Japanese warplanes.
Honolulu not left untouched
Honolulu was struck.
There were some civilians in downtown Honolulu hit by shrapnel from some stray bomb explosions in the midst of the carnage. Luckily, most of the city was spared. As the Japanese withdrew in anticipation of refueling, re-arming, and forming up another wave for a third assault, Pearl Harbor smoked and burned as the dead and dying were gathered and brought to an overwhelmed base hospital. Nurses were assigned to pick out those who would be treated and who would die as dwindling medical supplies were rapidly exhausted. One wharf near a brothel was famously stained with the blood of sailors who were cared for by the prostitutes who were housed there.
Finally two aviators succeed
George Welch and Ken Taylor were awarded medals for the Japanese planes they shot down as the second wave withdrew, knocking down 7 enemy aircraft. Each man had been out drinking late the night before, but when the attack began that morning they found a remote airfield that still had 2 intact P-40 Warhawks and finally got airborne to dish out some payback!
Of the 353 Japanese aircraft involved in the sneak attack only 29 were shot down while five Japanese mini subs were sunk. 132 Japanese troops or submariners were killed by Pearl Harbor defenders. With 19 ships on Battle Ship Row sunk or damaged and over 2,400 dead with 1,178 wounded, a terrible price had been paid for unpreparedness. 92 American aircraft were also destroyed in the wake of the attack. Tragically there were three US warplanes shot down by friendly fire while attempting to land hours after the battle as the shell shocked survivors next anticipated an amphibious landing by the Japanese.
It is said, as reported by a witness, that Admiral Husband E. Kimmel ripped both of the chevrons from the shoulders of his uniform once he watched the mayhem unleashed by the attack from outside the officer's quarters. Understandably, after being given vague orders of an impending attack not knowing where or when, the Admiral surrendered his command from that point. Both him and US Army General Short would face charges and be subject to several Congressional investigative panels while also being stripped of their ranks.
An onslaught that continued
The Japanese expected with a string of victories that America would capitulate and sign a treaty. The losses to the Japanese Imperial forces in the coming weeks after Pearl included Wake Island, Guam Marine Barracks, Clark Field at Manila, Hong Kong, Bataan, Corregidor, and Singapore the Japanese swept through a large force of US, British, Canadian, and other allies who, even in large numbers were ill supplied for battle and taken completely by surprise. General Douglas MacArthur was ordered by President Roosevelt to flee Corregidor before it fell, departing in the early morning hours headed for Australia in a small force of only 3 PT Boats who slipped through the Japanese Navy on their way out.
A flicker of light in the darkness?
In the harrowing aftermath, there were actually several bright spots in this defeat that could have made recovery even more difficult and delayed if not causing an unwinnable scenario. Luckily a third wave was ordered to stand down by Admiral Nagumo. He worried that the element of surprise was lost and more aircraft would be shot down in another assault. Not knowing the position of the US Air Craft Carriers also worried him. Against the protests of Commander Fujida ready to lead the third attack, the stand down order and a safe withdrawal was Nagumo's call, and the task force headed back for Japan.
It could have been much worse?
The floating repair docks and dry docks had not been bombed which allowed repair crews much needed time to begin their work. An oil storage facility remained untouched. The officer's headquarters escaped bombing. Although 19 US war ships had been damaged or sunk only 3 could not be repaired and returned to service. Six weeks after the Pearl Harbor tragedy the Jimmy Doolittle Raid using Billy Mitchell B-25's succeeded in bombing the Japanese mainland forcing them to retain vital naval forces to defend their home. It would not be but a few more weeks before US forces began hitting back which surprised the Japanese and after the battle of Coral Sea put an end to the rapid expansion of captured territory by the Japanese Imperial Forces.
By May of 1942, US Carrier Forces defeated the Japanese at Midway Island and in that one decisive engagement, Japan would remain on the defensive for the rest of the war after losing 4 major aircraft carriers who had participated in the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. Vengeance had come swiftly and crushingly after Pearl. However, the legacy of a surprise attack that succeeded against America has forever haunted this nation, and should!