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Published October 4, 2019

It looked like the start of an average Sunday morning on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Some were getting ready for breakfast, others were getting ready for church. Still more, since it was December, were writing Christmas letters to their family. Then, in an attack which could and perhaps should have been clearly foreseen, the course of history was changed.

Many American veterans of the Second World War say the same thing about their entry to that conflict; before the 7th of December 1941, they didn’t know where the heck Pearl Harbor was. That’s hardly surprising; it’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a Hawaiian island about two thousand miles from the US mainland.

However, after that date – which president Franklin D Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy”, Pearl Harbor became a familiar rallying call for all Americans, a name which evoked outrage and encouraged many to make a complete about-turn in their attitudes to the war.

Pearl Harbor itself is a sort of clam-shell shaped lagoon harbour, close to Honolulu on the south coast of the island of Oahu. It offers a convenient stopping point for ships crossing the Pacific, and by the  time the US naval station was established there in 1899 it had already been in use as a coaling and repair station for a few years.

The harbor was,  by nature, almost perfect for this purpose – all they had to do was deepen the entrance, so that the big ships could get in, and they had a secure harbour. Over the years, more infrastructure was added, including dry dock facilities, so that it had everything the Pacific Fleet needed.

In 1941, in addition to the harbour, the US Navy had three naval airfields on Oahu: Ford Island, in the middle of the harbour itself, Kaneohe Bay, on a peninsula on the eastern side of the island, and the Ewa Marine Corps Station, west of the harbour entrance.

There was also a large army presence on Oahu to back up the fleet; they had air bases at Wheeler Field, in the centre of the island, where the main barracks was also located, Hickam Field, east of the harbor entrance and effectively mirroring the Ewa station, and Bellows Field, on the south-east coast.

All this combined to create the confidence with which General George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff in Washington, called Oahu, “The strongest fortress in the world.”

View of Pearl Harbor in October 1941. Battleship Row lies to the left of Ford Island, centre. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The 7th of December, 1941, was a Sunday, and many expected it to be a typically relaxing day.

Walter J. Mycka, on the USS Maryland, recalled that, “Everyone had awakened, gotten dressed, eaten, and were lounging around. I was lying on my bunk reading the Sunday paper, when I dozed off.”

Lou Nockold, on the USS Honolulu, had slept topside the night before. On awakening, he’d gone to the mess hall for breakfast, then to his division’s living compartment. “[I] was waiting in line, next in line as a matter of fact, to use the flat iron to press my white uniform, so I could go ashore and got down to Waikiki and see what dollies were around.”

On the USS Dobbin, Louis H. Fraley was reading the comics in the newspaper and waiting for a launch to take him ashore to visit friends; Edward Dvorak, at Hickam Field, had just had a shower; Robert E Baird had got up early and had just left Hickam Field with a buddy for a bicycle ride.

None of them were prepared for what was coming.

At around 6:30 in the morning, from aircraft carriers north of Oahu, a Japanese force of 183 planes was launched, including fighters, dive bombers, standard bombers and torpedo bombers. They spread out as they flew south, each with their own targets. Another wave of aircraft left 45 minutes later, at 7:15; another 171 planes.

The airfields were hit first. 

Kaneohe Bay was targeted by fighter planes which quickly took out the moored patrol planes, then the aircraft waiting at the ramp. However, one man in particular put up a formidable response; Chief Aviation Ordnance Man John Finn. He was off-base when the attack began, but rushed there and set up a machine gun position which he manned for two hours. Once the enemy was finally gone, it was found that he had a bullet in his foot and twenty one shrapnel wounds – he gained a Medal of Honour for his actions, and would later tell National Geographic, “I was so hopping mad; I wanted to shoot every damned plane out of the sky.”

At Hickam Airfield, dive bombers took out hangars, mess halls and other buildings. In one instant, a group of 21 trainee pilots were killed. After the buildings, the planes were targeted – and they were easy targets, lined up wingtip to wingtip. Once one was hit, fire spread quickly to the rest. 

Aircraft burning in the wake of the attack. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Baird, on his bike, said, “We at first did not recognize the planes as that of the Rising Sun. We thought it might be our own Navy on maneuvers blowing up some obsolete ships.”

Carl Drechsler was standing outside his hangar when someone shouted that there was an air raid. A moment later, he was blind and on fire. Although he was saved, and regained his sight, it took Drechsler ten months in recovery before he could return to duty.

At Wheeler Airfield, Mechanic Leon De Keyser recalled rushing out with other airmen to see what was going on. There was a flash and two men beside him fell down, dead.

“They were just shredded,” he recalled. 

Engineer James Cotter recalled, “We had to break into our supply room to get our machine guns. We got ‘em, went up on the roof, and as these Japanese planes would dive over Wheeler Field to drop their bombs they’d pull out and we’d try to shoot them. Well, pretty soon they were shooting at us. Discretion was the better part of valour. We got off the roof.”

Ted LeBaron, at Ford Island, ran to the hangar as soon as he heard the first explosion, but the attack came so quickly that almost all of the aircraft were burnt beyond use before he got there. 

Bellows Field was not a priority target – none of the first wave attacked here, but since the planes there were neither fuelled nor armed, they were still unable to stage much of a defense. Only three pilots attempted to take off; one was shot down before he could get in his plane, and the other two were brought down shortly after take-off.

Almost a hundred torpedo and bomber planes headed straight for Pearl Harbor itself. 

Peter Limon was a radioman on the seaplane tender Swan, making his way to his post after a good breakfast – one of the perks of being on duty while two-thirds of the ship’s crew were ashore.

“I looked back, I’m on the ladder, munching on an apple, I looked at this airplane that looked awfully strange. I didn’t know what to think of it. And he was gliding by and there was one of the rear seatmen looked at me and he moved his machine guns towards me. I looked at him, and he looked at me, and he looked like an Eskimo. I didn’t realise the Japanese… all their flying people had furs, so he looked exactly like an Eskimo. I couldn’t imagine, well he ‘s not one of ours. And I, at that point, I didn’t realise who it was.”

It soon became clear – as soon as they dropped a torpedo. “They couldn’t miss the battleships because they were moored two, two, two and two, they were real sitting targets.”

This was what they called Battleship Row – along one side of Ford Island, the battleships were moored together; USS California was at the front, then the USS Maryland, with USS Oklahoma to her port, then the USS Tennessee and USS West Virginia, then the USS Arizona, with a repair ship, the Vestal, moored beside her, and behind them the USS Nevada.

Fraley, on the Dobbin north of Ford Island, recalled, “We heard lots of planes and my first thought was ‘That’s a lot of planes for war game maneuvers!’ I saw the sun reflect off a “Rising Sun” emblem and recognized the shape of the plane. One plane aimed toward us. We could see the pilot’s leather hat, white scarf, and glasses. He had a huge toothy grin as he put us in his sights, pulled the trigger, and his gun jammed. We had been defenseless. Near us were washtubs of potatoes. We picked up potatoes and threw them at him in our frustration and anger.”

On the Honolulu, Nockold thought it was another drill until he got topside.

“I looked back over the stern of the ship, and I saw a plane coming right straight at me. And that plane exploded right in front of my eyes. The USS Bagley, one of our destroyers, that was just around the corner of the pier from us, had one heck of a good gunner, because he opened fire and that plane just disintegrated right in front of my eyes. And the realisation hit me, this is no drill.”

Aboard the Bagley, Seaman Carl Otto recalled that he was sitting on a gun mount eating an egg sandwich when he first saw an incoming plane. The pilot waved to him – and dropped a torpedo. 

“When it hit… I think it was the Tennessee, that’s when we knew we were in deep trouble.”

His job was as a powder man – before the gun could fire, he had to pack it with a powder charge, and another man had to load the shell before the gunner could fire.

Otto said of the attack, “I didn’t see any chaos at all. I was too busy doing my job… When it was over, brass shell casings were littered all over the deck. I don’t know if we hit anything, but we did plenty of shooting.”

Chief Gunner’s Mate Harry Skinner was able to react quickly enough to fire at the third torpedo plane to pass over and take down the fourth; in total the Bagley’s gunners took down six Japanese planes.

Although keen to take action against their new enemy, many of the American forces found there were obstacles in their way.

Nockold recalled, “We found… padlocks where all the ammunition hoists and on the gun locker where the firing keys for the five inch guns were located. And the gunnery officer was ashore with the keys… we grabbed a big marlin spike and a hammer and we destroyed the locks and opened things up and got ammunition up to the guns.”

The tight formation of the ships, all moored close together, also caused issues. Nockold explained, “We were very restricted at the beginning, because the USS St Louis was tied up alongside and outboard of us, and our five inch gun that I was on was right next to the St Louis, so we had to wait for her to get out of the way. We had a very narrow arc that was clear where we could fire. We fired a few rounds. I doubt we did any damage to the Japanese planes.”

While the American forces had great difficulty in firing without pointing their guns at their own side, the Japanese had pretty much free range at their targets, having already taken out the aircraft that were supposed to defend the fleet.

In planning their attack, the Japanese had prioritised their targets carefully; they were looking for the American aircraft carriers, but none of them were in the harbour, so they went first for the next-highest value targets, the battleships.

Torpedo attack on Battleship Row, from a Japanese plane. The Nevada is at the bottom left of the image. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There were eight battleships present that day; as mentioned earlier, most were moored up together in two lines at Battleship Row. The Pennsylvania was the only exception, as it was in Dry Dock #1.

The California, moored on its own at the front, was hit by two torpedoes at about 8:05 am. Her naval log read: “Reported two torpedoes struck port side, frame 100, making 40 ft. long hole extending from first seam below armor belt to bilge keel.”

Because it had been readied for inspection, all the watertight doors inside were open, and flooding quickly spread through the ship. She started to list, and go down by the stern, but the men aboard continued to fight, pumping water and manning the guns. She was hit by another torpedo about fifteen minutes later, then at 8:40 reported that she’d been “Shaken by 4 near bomb hits and splintered considerably by fragments.” At 9am another bomb hit started a fire aboard; the men fought the fire as well as the Japanese until ten am, when a spreading oil fire on the surface of the water around them forced Captain Bunkley to issue the order to abandon ship. Of her crew, 98 men were reported killed and 61 wounded.

Behind the California, the Oklahoma was the next outboard ship. She was struck by three torpedoes early on in the attack; her naval logs said: 

“OKLAHOMA (0750 or 0753) struck by 3 torpedoes on port side frames 25, 35-40 and 1L5. Ship heeled to port 45  meanwhile A. A. Batteries manned and G. Q. executed. Rapid heeling of ship and oil and water on decks rendered service to guns ineffective.”

The third torpedo struck at approximately 8am, and penetrated the hull. She quickly capsized, taking further hits even as she keeled over. It would later be recorded that 429 of her men and officers were killed or missing. Many of the survivors clambered up to the neighbouring battleship, the Maryland, to man her batteries and continue the fight.

The West Virginia was moored astern of Oklahoma; she too took a number of torpedo hits.

At 7:56, she reported: “Two heavy shocks felt on hull of W. VA. Apparently forward and on port side. Ship began to list rapidly to port. Another third heavy shock felt to port.”

The Tennessee, moored inboard of the West Virginia, reported at 7:58 “WEST VIRGINIA’s quarterdeck and planes on fire… WEST VIRGINIA has pretty bad fire below Signal Bridge.” Rescue teams were sent to the West Virginia, even as the attack continued; Rigel’s logs recorded at 8:15, “One rescue boat was struck by bomb and sunk. Crew thrown into water.”

In total, the West Virginia is thought to have been struck by seven torpedoes and two bombs; through prompt efforts at damage control from her officers, she didn’t capsize, but instead sank upright, while fires continued to blaze on the top decks which remained above water. 

Rescue ships approach the West Virginia. The Tennessee is in the background. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Adone “Cal” Calderone was one of the men sent below decks to counterflood the West Virginia and keep her level. He later recalled looking up, as he worked the valves, to see water coming in through a hatch above him. 

“Well, this is it. We were trapped…We were trained about going under water. Take two deep breaths and go under. You hold that as long as you can, then let the air out. Then you have about 10 seconds left. Then you die.”

Those two breaths – combined with adrenaline – lasted just long enough for Calderone to swim up through an air vent and get out. Others would not be so lucky; casualties on the West Virginia numbered 106.

The USS Arizona was targeted by ten torpedo bombers equipped with armour piercing bombs. Three bombs were near misses – one so close that some thought the ship had been torpedoed – and four hit the ship. The last, striking at 8:06, hit somewhere near the magazines at the front of the ship, triggering a huge explosion seconds later. The force of the explosion was so great that the blast knocked men off the deck of the repair ship Vestal, scattered debris over Ford Island and started fires which would burn for two days.

1,177 crew members were killed, including Rear Admiral Kidd, making him the first flag officer killed in the Pacific war, Captain Valkenburgh, and the ship’s entire band. This was the only time an entire American military band has died in action. The casualties aboard Arizona alone accounted for almost half the total death toll of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The explosion on the Arizona. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Petty Officer First Class Joe George was on the Vestal, right next to the Arizona which was now burning fiercely. Although he was ordered to cut the line between the two ships, he could see six sailors trapped in the control tower on the Arizona’s main mast. He threw them a line, and they were all able to climb across to safety, although one would die later from the injuries he had sustained. The Vestal, although damaged and on fire from the Arizona’s explosion, was able to get underway, but ended up beached nearby.

Sterling Cale, a pharmacist’s mate, was one of the men who had raced to the rescue when the attack began, reaching the Oklahoma just after it rolled over. When the Arizona exploded, he was in the oil-slicked water, attempting to rescue crew from the capsized ship.

“In four hours, I picked up about 45 people. Some were dead, some were badly burned, some were just tired. We would get them in a boat going by.”

He would later return as part of a detail to remove the dead from the Arizona. His team found about 107 identifiable bodies, and more that would remain unknown. He also remembered seeing ashes blowing across the deck – and realising that they were human. The fire had burned so intensely that it turned them into ashes, and melted ID tags and guns.

From the Honolulu, Lou Nockold was able to observe the subsiding chaos.

“We realised that there were no more planes in the area and I looked back over the stern of the ship and I saw the Arizona was just nothing but smoke and fire coming out of it. And I saw, strangest looking red thing in the water. It was huge and looked kind of like a big red whale laying there in the water, and I couldn’t figure out what in the world it was, but we found out that it was the bottom of the USS Oklahoma that had capsized. Then the second wave came in shortly after that.”

The USS Nevada was the only battleship that was able to get underway, since she hadn’t had anything else moored alongside her. She was hit by a torpedo early in the attack, but that damage was initially controlled.

However, as the second wave of aircraft came in, the Nevada became a prime target; she was trying to make her way out through the channel to leave the harbour, and if sunk there she could have created an obstruction. She wasn’t big enough to block the entire channel, but it would have made navigation harder.  She was hit by several bombs, one of which exploded near the gasoline tank and started severe fires. Fortunately, the crew had been in the process of replacing all their projectiles and powder charges, so their magazines were empty – averting an explosion like that on the Arizona.

In the absence of the Captain and the Executive Officer, who were ashore that morning, command of the Nevada fell to more junior officers. Ensign Joe Taussig was the Officer of the Deck that morning. He was severely wounded during the attack while directing anti-aircraft gunfire; his leg was shattered, and he is said to have discovered his left foot tucked under his armpit and remarked, “That’s a hell of a place for a foot to be.” Then, he ignored his injury and stayed at his post until dragged away by the crew. He returned to duty three days after having his leg amputated. 

Meanwhile, the severely damaged ship was beached off Hospital Point so that she wouldn’t cause an obstruction.

During the attack, 60 of Nevada’s men were killed and 109 wounded. 

The remaining battleships – Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania – were relatively lightly damaged in comparison. Maryland and Tennessee had been moored inboard, with the Oklahoma and West Virginia protecting them on one side and Ford Island on the other. Each took two bomb hits; Maryland was damaged, her magazines flooded, but she remained afloat. The bombs which hit the Tennessee failed to explode, but damaged some of her guns and sent shrapnel flying, some of which killed the captain of the neighbouring West Virginia. However, they were still in danger, as the water was covered in oil and fires continued to blaze around them.

The Cassin, Downes and Pennsylvania in Dry Dock #1 after the attack. The Cassin keeled over to lean against the Downes. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Pennsylvania had been in dry dock, with three of her four propellors removed for refit. Her crew was able to man her anti-aircraft guns while the Japanese unsuccessfully tried to torpedo the dry dock. 

The dry dock also held two destroyers, the Cassin and the Downes; a bomb strike which either hit the Downes or exploded between the two destroyers started a fire which quickly spread to the Cassin and the Pennsylvania. The dry dock was flooded to try to control the fire, but oil rose with the water. Torpedoes and other ammunition aboard the destroyers exploded, and the two destroyers were abandoned. 

The Pennsylvania had 15 crew reported killed, 14 missing, and 38 wounded. 

The USS Utah, a target and training ship, was moored on the opposite side of Ford Island to the battleships. Because she had started life as a battleship, she apparently had enough of a resemblance to be targeted by the attackers; six torpedoes were sent in her direction, two of which hit and sank her, while another struck and damaged the nearby cruiser Raleigh. 

The USS Oglala, flagship of the commander of minecraft for the Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet, was also targeted; possibly because her silhouette, combined with the light cruiser Helena which was moored inboard of her, looked like a battleship. A torpedo detonated between the two ships. Oglala was able to move clear of Helena, but capsized shortly thereafter; Helena remained afloat, albeit damaged. However, while none of the men on Oglala were killed, Helena’s crew lost 26 in the initial attack and five who died later from their injuries. 

The entire attack was over less than two hours after the first bombs fell. Jack Hammett, who was at the time working at the Navy Hospital in Pearl Harbor, said later,

“I think what people don’t realise that, as many people as we lost there, we lost close to 2500 people dead, over 1100 and some wounded, and those are serious battle wounds, and we lost the 18 ships altogether and several hundred planes, but it happened in one hour and fifty minutes. And that’s what’s hard to understand, that you could have that much carnage in such a short period of time. So widespread, so organised.”

Although the Japanese aircraft had gone, the tension had not. Lou Nockold recalled,

“After the attack was over, of course, we remained on general quarters for quite a long period of time, till well after noon, then we reverted to what we call Condition II watches. SO half the crew was on watch at the time and the other half was at liberty to do what they had to do as far as maintaining the ship. That evening was probably the worst, because we heard rumours that the Japanese were landing at Barber’s Point, that they were going to storm Waikiki Beach, and things of that nature. We were just scared as hell.”

William Carr, at the Schofield Barracks, recalled,

“I sat all night long with my back up against a building, with my rifle with a fixed bayonet, because we expected them to come on up the road to Schofield any minute.”

They didn’t; the Japanese had brought no landing forces with them.

Tension was so high that when friendly aircraft came in from the carrier USS Enterprise that evening, they were fired upon. Hammett treated one of those pilots, and remembered him asking, “Why’d you shoot me?” before he died.

The final death toll came to 2,335 military personnel, plus 68 civilians. Another 1,403 were injured. Eighteen ships were sunk or run aground; however few would be classes as totally lost.

The Arizona was the only ship* that was never raised. Today, a memorial is anchored above her. She remains a watery graveyard, not only for the men who died upon her, but also for a number of men who survived. At their request, more than forty survivors have since been interred there, to rest with their former crewmates.

(* Active ship – after an unsuccessful attempt to raise the Utah, she too was left in the water, as she was considered to have no military value. Like the Arizona, she is also considered a war grave.)

The Oklahoma was able to be righted and salvaged, but was too badly damaged to return to duty.

The Oklahoma being salvaged. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cassin and Downes, the two destroyers in dry dock, were initially thought to be total losses, but material was salvaged from them, and they were rebuilt around that salvaged material. Given the same names and hull numbers, they were officially the same ships.

There were still horrors from the attack to be discovered. Men on duty near the wreck of the West Virginia in the days after the attack heard rhythmic banging coming from beneath the water. There were men still trapped inside; alive, in small pockets of air.

Six months later, when the West Virginia was finally brought up to the surface, the bodies of around seventy men were found inside.

Three of them, identified as Ronald Endicott, Clifford Olds, and Louis “Buddy” Costin, were found in an airtight store room, where they had had access to drinking water and emergency rations.

With them was a calendar; sixteen days, from December the 7th, had been crossed off in red pencil.

It’s hard to imagine what those men went through. Trapped below decks, they probably didn’t even know exactly what had happened to the ship, who had attacked them.

It’s likely that they held out hope of rescue right til the end. Unfortunately, it was impossible. There was so much oil in the water that using a blowtorch to cut into the hull risked fire and explosions, besides which, cutting any hole in the hull would likely flood any remaining air pockets before the men inside could be saved.

Although a few family members did know the truth – told by friends or relatives in the service – they didn’t speak of it openly. The brothers of Costin and Olds knew; neither told their parents, wanting to save them the grief.

Endicott and Costin were laid to rest in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu; Olds was buried in his home town. The gravestones of all three recorded the date of their death as December the 7th.

What makes Pearl Harbor a disaster rather than just another military action in a wider conflict is not just the fact that it was a surprise attack – it was that there was very little reason for the Americans to be surprised.The two most senior men at Pearl Harbor were Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, and Lieutenant General Walter Short, head of the Hawaiian Department of the American Army.

Kimmel was responsible for the Pacific Fleet; Short was responsible for their defense. Unfortunately, neither had taken the precautions that hindsight would show were needed.

Short had disregarded the possibility of an air attack, thinking that the force involved would be spotted and intercepted well before it could reach Hawaii. He thought that the biggest threat was the possibility of sabotage by the large Japanese population of the islands. This was why so many of the army’s aircraft had been gathered up close together. It made them easy to guard – but also easy to target and difficult to mobilise. 

The Japanese population of Oahu did make it easy for a key man in the Japanese plan to carry out his role. Takeo Yoshikawa was an intelligence officer who arrived in Hawaii in March of 1941, and spent months touring the island, even going out in a glass-bottomed boat to see the harbour. It was all perfectly legal, so long as he didn’t trespass. He sent detailed reports back to Japan, using a special code which had been designated “Purple”.

The Purple code had actually been cracked by American codebreakers in August 1940, and Yoshikawa’s reports were being read, but Kimmel and Short had apparently not been informed of these incriminating intercepts. They hadn’t even been told of a message in September 1941, sent to the Japanese Consulate, requesting a grid showing the locations of the ships in Pearl Harbor.

Yoshikawa also uncovered Kimmel’s key mistake – a set routine whereby the fleet went out on a Monday or Tuesday, and were back by the Saturday or Sunday. They were predictable enough for the Japanese to choose a date for the attack with some confidence.

There’s a list of warnings which should, in hindsight, have been heeded, although few were clearly and specifically about Pearl Harbor.

On the 3rd of November, American ambassador Joseph Grew in Tokyo warned Washington that Japan could make war at any time in a “dramatic and dangerous” way.

Admiral Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, warned Kimmel of a surprise attack on Guam or the Philippines – which was actually carried out in concert with the attack on Pearl Harbor – which should really have alerted Kimmel to a need for readiness.

On November 28th 1941, a telegram was sent to both Short and Kimmel which read, in part, 

“Prior to hostile Japanese action you are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary but these measures should be carried out so as not, repeat not, to alarm civil population or disclose intent.”

Kimmel received another message around the same time from the Navy department – this one was even clearer. 

“This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.”

On the night of the 30th November, Japan changed their naval service calls. Combined with a reduction in signal traffic, analysts at Washington took this to mean that the Japanese fleet had put to sea with purpose. It’s not clear whether this intelligence was passed to Kimmel or Short.

Kimmel did, however, get another message on the 3rd of December, telling him that Japanese embassies around the world had received orders to destroy their codes, ciphers and secret documents. Kimmel filed the message, apparently oblivious to the heavy clue that this meant war was imminent.

Meanwhile, Kichisaburo Nomura, the Japanese ambassador to the USA, was still apparently in negotiations, until the morning of the 6th of December. Then he began to receive the first parts of a long diplomatic note which he was instructed to present to the American State Department at precisely 1:00pm local time on the 7th.

It came in fourteen parts – which were intercepted, decoded and translated as they arrived by American intelligence. All but the last part had been passed to the President late on the evening of the 6th, but they, and Nomura, were left waiting for the last part.

When that arrived, Nomura’s staff were slow to decode and type it, so it wasn’t until 2:20 pm that he handed it to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull. By then, the attack on Pearl Harbor was all but over.

The note said that the Japanese government, “cannot but consider that it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations.” It did not, in so many words, declare a state of war – but that was the intention. Nomura was supposed to present it half an hour before the attack began, in order to comply with the Hague Convention prohibition on attacks against neutral parties.

USS Arizona Memorial. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Closer to Pearl Harbor, there were more definite warnings.

Just before 4am on the 7th, the coastal minesweeper Condor was patrolling the waters around the harbor entrance when they spotted a periscope. They alerted the destroyer Ward, which started a search for the submarine attached to said periscope.

At about 6:37, the Ward located the sub, fired on it, and dropped depth charges. A slick of oil rising to the surface told them their attack was probably successful.

Captain William Outerbridge reported the attack back to the harbour:

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

No action was taken. In addition, because the Condor and another minesweeper had finished their patrol, the nets across the entrance to the harbor had been dropped to allow them to re-enter. Other midget submarines deployed by the Japanese probably entered the harbour at this time.

Both Kimmel and Short would lose their positions as a result of these oversights, although in 1999 – many years after both of them died – the Senate would clear them of any wrongdoing.

Admiral Kimmel seemed to realise this immediately. On the day of the attack, he got to his office at five minutes past eight. As he stood near a window watching the unfolding tragedy, a bullet smashed through the glass and hit him in the chest. He told the Pacific Fleet Communications Officer, Commander Maurice Curtis, “It would have been merciful had it killed me.”

American propaganda poster. Source: Wikimedia Commons

From the Japanese point of view, the attack on Pearl Harbor initially seemed to be a success. When Mitsuo Fuchida, leading the first attack wave, made his historic radio call, “TORA! TORA! TORA!”, the prearranged signal that indicated they had indeed taken the Americans by surprise, it seemed that they had achieved an almost impossible goal. Just to get there, their fleet had sailed four thousand miles across the Pacific in complete secrecy, and they inflicted terrible losses on the Americans at a relatively small cost to their own side. 

However, they had actually failed on several counts – enough to make the attack, in the end, a disaster for them, too.

Firstly, they had failed to take out the American aircraft carriers, because none of them had been in Pearl Harbor that morning. The aircraft carriers would play a vital part in the war between the US and Japan; without them, the Americans would not have been able to mobilise air strikes in Japanese territory.

Secondly, while they inflicted serious damage on the Pacific Fleet, it was not irreparable; only three ships were a total loss; all the rest could and would return to duty. The number of human casualties, while great, was not a severe impediment for the Americans, as the outrage over Pearl Harbor ensured a flood of new recruits. 

Thirdly, they had failed to target vital infrastructure at Pearl Harbor that would have impeded the Fleet’s resurgence – fuel and torpedo storage, repair and maintenance facilities. Admiral Chester W Nimitz, who became commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet ten days after Pearl Harbor, later said that, had those structures been attacked, “operations in the Pacific would have been postponed for more than a year”, potentially extending the war by another two years.

Finally, they had been wrong about how America would respond to the attack. It had been hoped that their overwhelming first strike – of which Pearl Harbor was actually only one part – would undermine American morale. They were already reluctant to join the war; this, it was hoped, would encourage them to seek a compromise with the Japanese Empire.

Instead, it infuriated the American people, and swept away the isolationist stance that had, thus far, prevented them from stepping in. “Remember Pearl Harbor” became a rallying call, used in propaganda posters and even songs. Instead of putting America out of the war, they had pulled the behemoth into action – and triggered a chain of events that would eventually lead to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Sources, References and Further Reading

Some of the survivor accounts quoted here are from the documentary “Pearl Harbor: A Day of Infamy” (2001) – currently available on Amazon Prime.


Online Sources:

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