During the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, fighter planes from Japan sneaked up on the American soldiers stationed there and launched a surprise attack. The Japanese had been planning this for months, and they managed to travel almost 500 miles to reach Pearl Harbor completely undetected. The attack was devastating, causing the deaths of more than 2,400 members of the American armed forces and injuring even more. The attack was a turning point in history and pushed the United States into World War II.
As World War II began, Japan wanted to conquer Southeast Asia and much of China as quickly as possible in order to secure raw materials, particularly oil, for its empire. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a crucial part of this plan, as the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet was stationed there. Japan hoped that attacking Pearl Harbor would weaken the U.S. Navy and keep the U.S. out of the war. Japan sought to establish itself as a world power and saw the attack on Pearl Harbor as an opportunity to do so in a fast and decisive manner.
Why Pearl Harbor?
Pearl Harbor, located on Oahu Island, was established as a United States Navy deep-water naval base. Not only was it a receiving point for American ships carrying people and supplies to Hawaii, but it also served as the main base for the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War I and was considered one of the most important military posts in the country after that war concluded. As World War II began, even as the United States remained officially neutral, Pearl Harbor became a significant naval base and was considered necessary to protect American shipping interests.
How Did it All Begin?
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the commander of Japan’s naval forces, and he sought to take over countries in southeastern Asia to secure their oil supplies for Japan’s military vehicles and naval fleet. Inspired by the British book The Great Pacific War, Yamamoto was convinced of the viability of such a strategy after witnessing the British air attack on Taranto, Italy, in November 1940.
In December 1940, Japan’s ambassador warned President Franklin Roosevelt that unless the United States ceased its support of China and Russia, Tokyo would not be able to guarantee its help in the war. The United States received some indications of a potential attack but lacked a centralized system for gathering and analyzing such information. On Dec. 7, 1941, a Japanese fleet of 31 warships carrying fighter planes and bombers approached the Hawaiian Islands, and that morning, radar operators on Oahu spotted incoming aircraft, but they were told by their supervisor not to worry, as it was likely a flight of U.S. bombers.
Attack on Pearl Harbor
At 7:55 a.m., more than 350 planes began to bomb the base at Pearl Harbor. The attack lasted an hour and 15 minutes. The Japanese had intended to deliver a declaration of war before the attack, but the message was delayed, making it a sneak attack. Despite being caught by surprise, two American lieutenants, Kenneth M. Taylor and George Welch, raced to their aircraft in the tuxedos they had worn to a party and helped shoot down seven Japanese planes. The Japanese attack resulted in the sinking or damaging of 19 U.S. naval vessels, the destruction of 188 aircraft, and the loss of 2,400 lives.
The USS Arizona
The USS Arizona was a mighty battleship of the Pacific Fleet that met its end as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the attack, the USS Arizona was struck by multiple bombs, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that claimed the lives of 1,177 crew members. The ship sank rapidly to the bottom of the harbor and remains there today as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the attack. The wreck of the USS Arizona serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by American service members in the defense of their country and a testament to the bravery and courage of those who served on that fateful day.
The U.S. Answers Back
The United States responded to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor with a declaration of war against Japan the next day. President Roosevelt delivered a powerful speech to Congress, calling Dec. 7 “a date which will live in infamy,” and he rallied the nation behind the war effort. The attack sparked a wave of nationalism, as American citizens put aside their differences and came together to support the war effort through volunteering, enlisting in the military, and buying war bonds. The country rapidly transitioned from a peacetime economy to a wartime one, as factories retooled to produce weapons and other supplies for the military. America’s entry into World War II marked a significant turning point in the conflict, as its resources and manpower played a major role in the eventual Allied victory in both the European and Pacific theaters of war.
Pearl Harbor Today
Pearl Harbor is now a popular tourist destination, attracting millions of visitors every year. The Pearl Harbor National Memorial, located at the site of the sunken battleship, serves as a testament to the bravery of those who lost their lives in the attack. The memorial and its surrounding area, including the USS Missouri and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, offer a poignant and educational experience for those who visit Hawaii. The harbor itself is still a functioning U.S. military port, home to the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The events of Dec. 7, 1941, are remembered annually with ceremonies and moments of silence, ensuring that the legacy of Pearl Harbor will continue to be remembered for generations to come.
Additional Reading on Pearl Harbor and WWII
- The History of World War II
- Timeline of World War II
- World War II Dates and Timeline
- World War II and the American Red Cross
- Beginning of World War II
- How the Attack on Pearl Harbor Changed Hawaii, World War II, and the USO
- U.S. Marines at Pearl Harbor
- World War II: Pearl Harbor
- Without Pearl Harbor, a Different World?
- Eielson Reflects on Pearl Harbor, World War II Legacy
- See Colorized Photos of a Peaceful Pearl Harbor in the Months Before War
- How Pearl Harbor Became the Nation’s Chief Pacific Outpost