Dec 7th – On this day in 1941 Japanese naval forces launched a carrier-based air attack against U.S. Navy and Army installations, ships, and aircraft based on or near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The surprise attack resulted in numerous ships sunk or damaged and over 2,400 deaths of military members and U.S. citizens.
Prelude to the Attack. Difficulties between the United States and Japan began in the 1930s and continued into 1941. The Japanese was expanding its empire in Asia the United States was viewed as a roadblock to these expansion efforts. The U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor was a danger to Japanese plans for the seizure of the resource-rich territories of Southeast Asia – so the Japanese decided to immobilize the U.S. fleet at the start of the war.
Surprise Attack. Early on Dec 7th Japanese planes from six aircraft carriers launched the first wave of 181 planes – torpedo bombers, horizontal bombers, dive bombers, and fighters. A second wave of aircraft continued the attack. The Japanese achieved complete surprise (despite early sightings of miniature submarines and incoming aircraft) when they hit naval bases and army installations in Hawaii.
Damage to Fleet. The attack, lasting about two hours, sunk or damaged twenty-one ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Over 188 aircraft were destroyed with 159 aircraft damaged. American dead, including civilians, totaled 2,403. Over a thousand American military members and civilians were wounded.
Japanese Losses. The attacking force suffered light losses. Only twenty-nine planes failed to return to the carriers. No Japanese ships were lost although a miniature submarine was lost.
Not a Complete Success. The Japanese failed to sink or damage any aircraft carriers. Two were out of port delivering planes to Wake and Midway Islands. All but three of the sunk or damaged ships were raised and repaired and pressed into service in the ensuring war. Most important, the surprise attack united the country and helped enter the United States into World War II against Japan, Germany, and their allies.
Learn more about the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor from the Naval History and Heritage Command: