The Untold Truth Of The Attack On Pearl Harbor

The island group is located 2,000 miles from the mainland United States. It had served as a resupply spot for the whaling industry in the 19th century, but by 1873 the United States was checking out the real estate with an eye toward a military presence. The Military Times says that General John Schofield reported that the one spot that would be ideal as a major "harbor of refuge" — perfect for a naval installation — "is the harbor of the 'Ewa,' or 'Pearl River.'" By 1898 the United States had annexed Hawaii and, with its Pacific ambitions growing, began to turn Pearl into a major naval base. It started as more of an outpost; it wasn't entirely convenient, since absolutely everything had to be imported. In 1911 the lone channel into the harbor was dredged to allow passage for large ships, and soon an ammunition dump, hospital, and submarine base were added.

Across the ocean, Japan was expanding its imperial reach by invading mainland China. Japan was an island nation with few or no natural resources — for instance, it relied on imports for 90 percent of its oil, says History — and it needed international access to survive and grow. China was an ally of the United States, but when Japan invaded, the U.S. didn't step into the military fight; instead, sanctions were imposed, cutting off Japan's access to things like oil and scrap metal. Surely that would stem Japanese expansion.

Ships were sunk at berths; planes were destroyed on the airfields

And surely the U.S. Pacific Fleet was safe and secure at its berth in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 4,000 miles from Japan. There was no need to invest in extensive defensive structures. An attack? Unthinkable. That was incorrect on all counts. Japan's strategy was to cripple, even eliminate, the U.S. naval presence in the Pacific, leaving the Empire to expand into other countries and lay claim to their natural resources, says Encyclopedia Britannica. The thinking was that a lightning strike against the Pacific Fleet and nearby air bases would keep the United States from interfering.

There was no declaration of war by Japan. There were simply planes and midget submarines, launched from two directions, raining destruction on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. The first bombs struck at about 8 a.m. By 8:10 a.m. the battleship U.S.S. Arizona had exploded and was sinking almost instantaneously. Eyewitness to History quotes Marine Corporal E.C. Nightingale, who said, "Charred bodies were everywhere" as he struggled to abandon ship. The 360 Japanese planes strafed, dropped bombs, and launched torpedoes in an attack lasting about two hours. The effect was devastating. All nine battleships had been either badly damaged or sunk (all but two would eventually be resurrected and restored to duty). Drydocks were damaged, as were airfields. Nearly 20 ships of various sizes were incapacitated or destroyed.

Over 2,400 military and civilians died in the attack

It wasn't just warships. The nearby airfields had their planes carefully lined up together, to make sabotage more difficult and security easier. It also made their destruction easier. The Japanese took out more than 300 planes that day. USA Today reports that the official casualty count is 2,403: 2,008 Navy personnel, 109 Marines, 218 Army service members, and 68 civilians. Nearly half of those deaths occurred on the battleship Arizona. The American forces tried to fight back. According to Walter Lord's Day of Infamy, 11 Japanese planes were shot down by Army pilots — seven of them by just two pilots, Lieutenants Kenneth Taylor and George Welch.

The attack was effective, but the Japanese had missed crucial targets: ammunition depots, repair facilities, fuel storage, and the Navy's aircraft carrier and submarine fleets. These all proved vital in striking back against the Japanese Empire, particularly at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, when U.S. carrier forces effectively destroyed the Japanese fleet.

Japan declared war on the U.S. an hour into the attack. On December 8, President Franklin Roosevelt gave his "Day of Infamy" speech and asked Congress to declare war against Japan: "(W)e will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again." As The Atlantic relates, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. within days, and the U.S. reciprocated. The world was at war.