At 7:55am on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor, the westernmost port of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The final toll: 2,403 Americans were killed, 1,178 wounded, 3 warships destroyed, 21 ships badly damaged, and 169 aircraft lost. The Japanese lost only 64 men, 3 mini-submarines and 29 planes in the attack. Fortunately for the U.S., three aircraft carriers were not in port and the Japanese failed to destroy Hawaii oil tanks. [Source: National Geographic, December 1991]
The Commander of the United States Pacific fleet, Adm. Husband E. Kimel, called raid "one of the most brilliantly planned and executed attacks ever achieved at the start of a war." Kimmel and Gn. Walter C. Short, commander of the Army forces on the islands, were charged with "dereliction of duty" for not preparing American forces for the attack.
The objective if the offensive was not to annihilate the entire American Pacific Fleet in a single attack as is often claimed but rather to discourage the United States from interfering with Japanese expansion into Asia by demonstrating that the Japanese were a force to be reckoned with.
Books and Films About Pearl Harbor
Book: Day of Infamy (1957) by Walter Lord, Tora! Tora! Tora! and At Dawn We Slept (1981) both by Gordon W. Prange; Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath by John Toland; Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal by VAdm. Homer N. Wallin (1968); December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World by Craig Shirley.
Films: Pearl Harbor (2001), a Disney film produced by Jerry Buckheimer, directed by Michael Bay (director of The Rock and Armageddon) staring Josh Harnet and Ben Afleck, with John Voight as FDR, special affects by George Lucas's Industrial Light + Magic. At $145 million it was one of the costliest films ever made. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) is regarded as much more accurate historically and has fewer Hollywood embellishments.
Preparation of the Pearl Harbor Attack
Japanese pilots trained tirelessly on the island of Kyushu near the city of Kagoshima which had a shallow bay and was surrounded by mountains just like at Pearl Harbor. Japanese used different colored shells to enable gunners to correct their aim.
One of the biggest problems the Japanese had to be overcome in an attack of Pearl Harbor was the shallowness of the harbor. It had an average depth of or only 40 feet, too shallow for an ordinary plane-dropped torpedo which drops to a depth of over 100 feet before rising to the surface. To overcome this problem the Japanese outfit their torpedoes with wooden stabilizers and dropped by planes only 60 feet above the water. These torpedoes dived only 35 feet below the surface before rising to the surface.
A 1941 U.S. military report called Oahu the world's strongest fortress. Another report from 1937 called the port "a perfectly marvelous target for...hostile torpedo planes.
Japan Fleet Heads for Pearl Harbor
On November 26, 1941 the Hawaii Operation Strike Force---six carriers, two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers and eight tankers for refueling---left the Kurile Islands in northern Japan for Oahu. The ships traveled for 10 days across the northern Pacific through heavy seas far from regular shipping lanes and under strict radio silence to avoid detection (the sending keys had even been removed from the radio operator's radio). Not long after the Hawaii Operation Strike Force left the Kurile Islands the Southern Operation Strike Force left for the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
Under the cover of rain and fog, the Japanese carriers were able to approach within 200 miles of Hawaii. A fleet of submarines also headed to Pearl Harbor, ready to torpedo any U.S. ship that attempted flee from the harbor into the open seas. Around 7:00am U.S. codebreakers deciphered a message from Tokyo to the Japanese Embassy in Washington that ordered negotiations with the United States be broken off at 1:00pm (7:30am in Hawaii), a move that was one step short of declaring war.
At 6:30am, Hawaii time, as message from Washington was sent to for forces in Hawaii to "be on alert' because Japan had issued "what amounts to an ultimatum." Because of static in the atmosphere the message didn’t arrive in Hawaii until 7:30am and was treated as regular telegram and delivered by a motorcycle messenger on his regular rounds. The message was delivered to the commanding general's office at 11:45am, almost four hours after the attack began. He didn't read it until 3:00pm.
Japanese Mini-Submarine, First Casualty of Pearl Harbor
The first casualty of the attack was a Japanese midget submarine sunk with depth charges by the destroyer Ward near the entrance to Pearl Harbor at 7:45am. A tug boat had spotted the telescope of the minisub about 7:10 and alerted the Ward, which sunk the mini-sub, killing the two Japanese on board. A report filed by the tugboat and the Ward failed to work their way up the chain of command before the attack had begun.
Tetsu Joko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, In 1941, “ten young sailors boarded five mini-submarines after undergoing secret training and took part in Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The Kohyoteki (Type A) submarines were 23.9 meters long and 1.85 meters wide, and equipped with two torpedoes. They each carried two crewmen. None of the submarines returned to the Imperial Japanese Navy fleet and nine of the sailors died. The other was taken prisoner. [Source: Daily Yomiuri, December 2011]
“Following the attack, Japanese media gave extensive coverage to the dead sailors, calling them "the nine war gods." They became a symbol for boosting public morale during the war. "My aunt heard one sailor muttering, 'They're training us to die,'" Keiko Yamamoto, a resident of the Mitsukue Bay area of Shikoku, where the sailors were trained. [Ibid]
Japanese Planes Head for Pearl Harbor: American Radar Observes The But Nothing is Done
On the voyage to Hawaii. Lt. Commander Tadkazu Yoshioka worked out the attack signals. Because the bombers were outfit with telegraphs rather than microphones he chose the easy to recognize Morse-style signals: to (..-..) and ra (...). To was to signal the attack and to ra was to indicate the attack was a surprise. The message was tapped three times to make sure it was received. The fact that tora means "tiger" in Japanese, Yoshioka later said, was coincidental.
On December 2, Yamamoto sent the fleet the massage: Climb Mount Niitake 1208. The message, which named the highest mountain in Japan-controlled Formosa, gave the go ahead for the attack and ordered it take place on December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii) from a position 235 miles north of Oahu. On December 5, U.S. intelligence received information that the Japanese fleet had left port and was out at sea. Roosevelt's staff guessed it was heading south to Malaysia. At 11:00pm a Japanese submarine raised its periscope and saw the skyline of Honolulu.
At dawn on December 7, an air fleet of 350 planes began taking off in two waves from six aircraft carriers. Between 7:02 and 7:39am, a newly-installed U.S. radar system tracked the planes as they approached from the north. One Army private said he saw "something completely out of the ordinary"---a mass of blips that he estimated was "probably more than 50 aircraft"--- and reported what he saw by phone to his superior officer. The officer told the private "don't worry about it," they were a squadron of B-17s scheduled to arrive from California in the morning. The United States had five radar stations in Hawaii at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack but they had not developed a reliable method for distinguishing between hostile and friendly blips on the radar screen. Most of the radar stations operated between 4:00am and 7:00am. On the morning of December 7 several station reported echos more than a hundred miles off shore. At 7:00am all but one dutifully closed down.
The first report of a Japanese plane by the U.S. military was made at 7:51am by Radio operator Dwayne L. Eskridge. He told National Geographic he heard some low-flying planes, tapped out "standby" in Morse code, and ran to the top of his two-story building. "I could clearly see airplanes with a red ball on each wing. I could see the pilots in the planes. I ran down stairs and sent a message that we were being bombed by Japanese planes. Then I went into the vault and got the only weapon I could find---a .45 pistol---and I ran back up to the roof and fired off a whole clip." At 7:55am, just as the first bombs were dropped, a Japanese plane passed over a baseball field and the tail gunner on the plane waved his hand to warn the kids below to take cover before the bombs began falling.
Japanese Planes Attack Pearl Harbor
The first wave of 183 Japanese planes took of in 15 minutes, beginning around 6:30am, from aircraft carriers north Oahu. The force included 40 torpedo bombers and 49 high-altitude bombers. These planes headed for Battleship Row, an area in Pearl Harbor where many large U.S. warships were docked. Each torpedo and high-altitude bomber carried a single extremely powerful bomb. The remaining planes, other bombers and Zeros, attacked the airfields.
At 7:49am on Sunday morning, when the first Japanese planes were sighted at Pearl Harbor, there was no aircraft fire, no alert and all the ships sitting in their moorings made no effort to escape. Flight leader Iyozu Fuchida ordered his radio man to tap out to to to, followed a few minutes late by to ra, to ro, to ra (surprise achieved).
The first targets were the airfields. The objects was knock out the Americans planes while they were on the ground so the Japanese planes could run their missions unmolested. Bombers dived in from an altitude 12,000 feet and attacked Wheeler and Hickam air bases, taking out planes all lined up in nice, neat rows so they would be easier to guard from sabotage. One 550-bomb plowed through the roof of a 3,200 man barracks complex at Hickam, exploding in the dining room and killing 35 men having breakfast.
There were 130 vessels in Pearl harbor. After the airfields had been dealt with, Japanese bombers and torpedo planes then set their sights on the battleships. The bombers carried 1,760-pound projectiles made for 16-inch battleship guns converted into an areal bomb. The mission of the Zero fighters initially was to protect the bombers from enemy attacks but since there were virtually no U.S. planes in the sky, the Zeros were free to strafe anything that moved on the ground with their machine guns.
After dropping their payloads the planes regrouped at about 8:30am for the flight back to their aircraft carriers. The entire first wave attack took less than 40 minutes. The second wave of 167 planes struck airfields and ships again. Their main mission was to strike the remaining battleships and attack cruisers and destroyers. This wave took only 35 minutes
Although most of the planes in the first wave escaped unscathed, 24 dive bombers and six fighters in the second wave shot down. Japanese pilots did not wear parachutes. They were trained to "self bomb" their planes if they were hit. One Japanese pilot told National Geographic that his friend was in a plane that had been strafed. "I could see that gasoline was leaking from his plane," he said. "He waved and pointed down and turned back" to dive his plane into Kaneohe air base."
Of the approximately 400 U.S. military aircraft in Hawaii only a forth were able to fly after the attack.
The pilots on the Japanese carriers argued for a third wave. Many targets were yet to be hit. The oil tanks and most ship repair facilities were skipped over, a decision that would later came back to haunt Japan. Over 4½ million barrels of oil and high-octane gasoline, which were needed to keep the ships going, was untouched.
Japanese View of the Attack on Pearl Harbor
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the first wave of the air attack, wrote: "One hour and forty minutes after leaving the carriers I knew that we should be nearing our goal. Small openings in the thick cloud cover afforded occasional glimpses of the ocean, as I strained my eyes for the first sight of land. Suddenly a long white line of breaking surf appeared directly beneath my plane. It was the northern shore of Oahu. [Source: Midway, the Battle that Doomed Japan by Mitsuo Fuchida and Okumiya Masatake, 1955]
“Veering right toward the west coast of the island, we could see that the sky over Pearl Harbor was clear. Presently the harbor itself became visible across the central Oahu plain, a film of morning mist hovering over it. I peered intently through my binoculars at the ships riding peacefully at anchor. One by one I counted them. Yes, the battleships were there all right, eight of them! But our last lingering hope of finding any carriers present was now gone. Not one was to be seen. [Ibid]
“It was 0749 when I ordered my radioman to send the command, 'Attack!' He immediately began tapping out the pre-arranged code signal: 'TO, TO, TO...' Leading the whole group, Lieutenant Commander Murata's torpedo bombers headed downward to launch their torpedoes, while Lieutenant Commander Itayay's fighters raced forward to sweep enemy fighters from the air. Takahashi's dive-bomber group had climbed for altitude and was out of sight. My bombers, meanwhile, made a circuit toward Barbers Point to keep pace with the attack schedule. No enemy fighters were in the air, nor were there any gun flashes from the ground. [Ibid]
“The effectiveness of our attack was now certain, and a message, 'Surprise attack successful!' was accordingly sent to Akagi [Flagship of the Japanese attack fleet] at 0753. The message was received by the carrier and duly relayed to the homeland, ... The attack was opened with the first bomb falling on Wheeler Field, followed shortly by dive-bombing attacks upon Hickam Field and the bases at Ford Island. Fearful that smoke from these attacks might obscure his targets, Lieutenant Commander Murata cut short his group's approach toward the battleships anchored east of Ford Island and released torpedoes. A series of white waterspouts soon rose in the harbor. [Ibid]
“Lieutenant Commander Itaya's fighters, meanwhile, had full command of the air over Pearl Harbor. About four enemy fighters which took off were promptly shot down. By 0800 there were no enemy planes in the air, and our fighters began strafing the airfields. My level-bombing group had entered on its bombing run toward the battleships moored to the cast of Ford Island. On reaching an altitude of 3,000 meters, I had the sighting bomber take position in front of my plane. [Ibid]
“As we closed in, enemy antiaircraft fire began to concentrate on us. Dark gray puffs burst all around. Most of them came from ships' batteries, but land batteries were also active. Suddenly my plane bounced as if struck by a club. When I looked back to see what had happened, the radioman said: 'The fuselage is holed and the rudder wire damaged.' We were fortunate that the plane was still under control, for it was imperative to fly a steady course as we approached the target. Now it was nearly time for 'Ready to release,' and I concentrated my attention on the lead plane to note the instant his bomb was dropped. Suddenly a cloud came between the bombsight and the target, and just as I was thinking that we had already overshot, the lead plane banked slightly and turned right toward Honolulu. We had missed the release point because of the cloud and would have to try again. [Ibid]
“While my group circled for another attempt, others made their runs, some trying as many as three before succeeding. We were about to begin our second bombing run when there was a colossal explosion in battleship row. A huge column of dark red smoke rose to 1000 meters. It must have been the explosion of a ship's powder magazine. [This was the Battleship Arizona] The shock wave was felt even in my plane, several miles away from the harbor. [Ibid]
“We began our run and met with fierce antiaircraft concentrations. This time the lead bomber was successful, and the other planes of the group followed suit promptly upon seeing the leader's bombs fall. I immediately lay flat on the cockpit floor and slid open a peephole cover in order to observe the fall of the bombs. I watched four bombs plummet toward the earth. The target - two battleships moored side by side - lay ahead. The bombs became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared. I held my breath until two tiny puffs of smoke flashed suddenly on the ship to the left, and I shouted, 'Two hits!' [Ibid]
“When an armor-piercing bomb with a time fuse hits the target, the result is almost unnoticeable from a great altitude. On the other hand, those which miss are quite obvious because they leave concentric waves to ripple out from the point of contact, and I saw two of these below. I presumed that it was battleship Maryland we had hit.' [Ibid]
“As the bombers completed their runs they headed north to return to the carriers. Pearl Harbor and the air bases had been pretty well wrecked by the fierce strafings and bombings. The imposing naval array of an hour before was gone. Antiaircraft fire had become greatly intensified, but in my continued observations I saw no enemy fighter planes. Our command of the air was unchallenged." As the first wave of the attack made its way back to its carriers, Commander Fuchida remained over the target in order to assess damage and to observe the second wave attack. He returned to his carrier after the second wave successfully completed its mission. [Ibid]
Japanese Strikes on American Battleships
About 100 ships, roughly half of the Pacific fleet were in Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th. Moored to their berth on Battleship Row on the eastern side of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor were seven battleships: the California, the Oklahoma, the Maryland, the West Virginia, the Tennessee, the Arizona, and the Nevada.
Two torpedoes struck the California, at least five hit the Oklahoma, seven hit the West Virginia and one hit the Nevada. Two hit the Utah, even though it had been decommissioned and was used for target practice. One Japanese pilot who flew over Pearl Harbor later recalled, "I was just looking for a ship to attack, and when the Maryland hadn't been hit yet. When my bomb hit, I was thinking, 'I did it!'
The Nevada was crippled and on fire but fortunately had its boilers fired up and was able to get underway in 40 minutes. She picked up survivors from other ships and was near the entrance to the harbor when the second wave arrived. Japanese planes swarmed around the Nevada and five bombs struck her almost simultaneously. To avoid blocking the harbor, the battleship was purposely run aground at Hospital Point.
One witness wrote in Time: “I watched as one of the battleships, perhaps the Arizona, went up in flames, soon blackened by huge funnels of clouds, shooting skyward. The West Virginia and California started to explode in a chain reaction. I soon heard the rat-tat-tat of machine guns and squads of planes starting to dive bomb the destroyers and cruisers nearest shore.”
“I saw a large plane fly low over the water from the direction of Honolulu into Battleship Row and drop a torpedo toward the middle of the ships. The plane then turned towards Asia...hugging the surface of the water to avoid antiaircraft fire. As the plane flew a few hundred feet over my head, I saw the pilot with a canvas helmet and large goggles over his eyes looking down at me.
The three primary Japanese targets---the three American aircraft carriers---were not in port. One was in San Diego and two others were delivering planes to Wake and Midway islands. The battleships Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma were lost but the other ships for the most part were repairable and in the months that followed they were salvaged and sent back out to sea. One survivor on the USS Maryland told AP in 2010 that he fired shots at a Japanese plane while standing in the blood of shipmate hit by shrapnel. “My teeth was chattering like I was freezing to death, and it was 84 degrees...It was awful frightful.”
Torpedoes Hit the West Virginia
A total of 106 men died in the sinking of the West Virginia. Dick Fiske, a seaman on the West Virginia, told National Geographic, "We saw the dive bombers coming in, and we thought they were army planes. Just another exercise. A friend of mine said, 'Let's go over to the port side and watch them dropping torpedoes on us.' We saw three planes come in, about 15 feet above the water. They dropped torpedoes. My friend tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Now all you're going to hear is a little thud when it hits the ship.'"
"The next thing I remember was a hellacious loud noise," Fiske said, "and a wall of water that looked like 50-foot wave came across the deck and washed us both to the other side of the ship. Six more torpedoes hit us. A bomb came down, and hit the Tennessee. A large piece of shrapnel took most of the captain's stomach. We started carrying him down, and he was still giving orders when he died."
Adolph Czerwneka, a 22-year-old radioman on the West Virginia at the time of the attack, wrote in Newsweek, "I was in the petty officer's washroom...stark naked, laundering uniforms...A torpedo hit the ship...I rushed to my battle station on the transmitter room---no shoes on, nothing...Torpedoes were hitting the ship and paint chips were spraying off the bulkheads. A radioman kept sweeping up the chips after each explosions. The ship began listing to port. Then the lights went out. All this only took about 30 minutes. The order came to abandon ship. I helped a couple of injured engineers up the companionway."
The Arizona blew up just as I got on deck. The explosion knocked me flat under the aft turret. There was oil and fire everywhere. Most of it slid down the port deck and into the water. An empty motor launch floated by. I climbed in and got the engine going. I picked up a couple of guys....We began fishing survivors from the water...Japanese torpedo planes were flying right over us, strafing and dropping more torpedoes. One pilot was so close I could see a big smile on his face. Boy, was I angry!"
"When I got to the receiving station, civilian women were there making up bandages. That's when I realized I was almost naked, and had been naked most of the day. The thing that impressed me most...was that in the midst of all the surprise and confusion and destruction, everybody was just doing their jobs."
Not everyone got out so easily. John Garcia, a 16-year-old pipefitter, recalled: "We spent about a month cutting the superstructure of the West Virginia, tilting back on its hull. About three hundred men were cut out of there still alive by the eighteenth day. It took two weeks to get all the fires out." [Source: Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey, Avon Books, 1987]
Torpedoes Hit the Oklahoma
The Oklahoma rolled over from its torpedo hits, entombing 429 men. Flight leader Jinichi Goto scored the first hit on the Oklahoma with a torpedo released only 60 feet above the water. "Anti-aircraft fire was heavy" he told National Geographic, and I "was shocked to see the row of battleships in front of my eyes." He flew towards his targets diagonally, "not knowing which was the bow and which was the stern,"
George DeLong, a 19-year-old seaman, was playing cards three levels below the main deck when his ship the Oklahoma was hit. "My bunk was above the four emergency steering wheels. A mate yelled: 'Man your battle stations and set water-tight conditions.'" The watertight door was then slammed shut, trapping eight men inside.
"The ship shuddered," DeLong recalled. "She started to list to port. Furniture and equipment in the compartment started crashing around the deck. I climbed back up to my bunk and held on to my bunk stanchion....After more explosions, the ship leaned and went over. Its masts stuck in the shallows, keeping the hull from going under. But the lights went and water rushed in through the air vent."
"I realized my head was where my feet had been. By the time the ship settled down and we let go of all the things we were holding on to, we knew that the ship had tuned over." They plugged the air vent with a mattress and game board but waters still trickled in. On the afternoon of December 8, rescuers with pneumatic drills drove through the double hull of the Oklahoma and saved DeLong and 32 other men.
Sinking of the Arizona at Pearl Harbor
At 8:10am, while a Marine color guard prepared to raise the American flag, a 1,760-pound projectile dropped from a high-altitude bomber pierced the forward deck of the Arizona , igniting more than a million pounds of gunpowder. The massive explosion sent tons of debris flying into the air. A column of reddish black smoke rose thousands of feet into the air.
The explosion was so powerful, according to one sailor, the ship jumped "at least 15 or 20 feet upward in the water and sort of broke in two.” It also rocked the Japanese planes in the sky and put out fires on other ships by sucking in huge amounts of oxygen. Some of the Japanese planes that attacked Pearl Harbor were outfit with modified 16-inch battleship shells. One of these is believed to have sunk the Arizona.
p>The Arizona sunk in nine minutes and 1,177 of the 1,514 men on board were killed---nearly half of the military and civilian deaths during the Pearl Harbor attack. Only 100 bodies were recovered, the rest went down with the ship or were incinerated. All that was left of one admiral was his Naval Academy ring which was fused to the steel on one of the Arizona's towers.
Eyewitness Account of the Sinking of the Arizona at Pearl Harbor
Marine Corporal E.C. Nightingale, who was aboard the Arizona when it has hit, wrote:"At approximately eight o'clock on the morning of December 7, 1941, I was leaving the breakfast table when the ship's siren for air defense sounded. Having no anti-aircraft battle station, I paid little attention to it. Suddenly I heard an explosion. I ran to the port door leading to the quarterdeck and saw a bomb strike a barge of some sort alongside the NEVADA, or in that vicinity. The marine color guard came in at this point saying we were being attacked. I could distinctly hear machine gun fire. I believe at this point our anti-aircraft battery opened up. [Source: Eyewitness to History.com]
"We stood around awaiting orders of some kind. General Quarters sounded and I started for my battle station in secondary aft. As I passed through casement nine I noted the gun was manned and being trained out. The men seemed extremely calm and collected. I reached the boat deck and our anti-aircraft guns were in full action, firing very rapidly. I was about three quarters of the way to the first platform on the mast when it seemed as though a bomb struck our quarterdeck. I could hear shrapnel or fragments whistling past me. As soon as I reached the first platform, I saw Second Lieutenant Simonson lying on his back with blood on his shirt front. I bent over him and taking him by the shoulders asked if there was anything I could do. He was dead, or so nearly so that speech was impossible. Seeing there was nothing I could do for the Lieutenant, I continued to my battle station. [Ibid]
"When I arrived in secondary aft I reported to Major Shapley that Mr. Simonson had been hit and there was nothing to be done for him. There was a lot of talking going on and I shouted for silence which came immediately. I had only been there a short time when a terrible explosion caused the ship to shake violently. I looked at the boat deck and everything seemed aflame forward of the mainmast. I reported to the Major that the ship was aflame, which was rather needless, and after looking about, the Major ordered us to leave. [Ibid]
"I was the last man to leave secondary aft because I looked around and there was no one left. I followed the Major down the port side of the tripod mast. The railings, as we ascended, were very hot and as we reached the boat deck I noted that it was torn up and burned. The bodies of the dead were thick, and badly burned men were heading for the quarterdeck, only to fall apparently dead or badly wounded. The Major and I went between No. 3 and No. 4 turret to the starboard side and found Lieutenant Commander Fuqua ordering the men over the side and assisting the wounded. He seemed exceptionally calm and the Major stopped and they talked for a moment. Charred bodies were everywhere. [Ibid]
"I made my way to the quay and started to remove my shoes when I suddenly found myself in the water. I think the concussion of a bomb threw me in. I started swimming for the pipe line which was about one hundred and fifty feet away. I was about half way when my strength gave out entirely. My clothes and shockedcondition sapped my strength, and I was about to go under when Major Shapley started to swim by, and seeing my distress, grasped my shirt and told me to hang to his shoulders while he swam in. [Ibid]
"We were perhaps twenty-five feet from the pipe line when the Major's strength gave out and I saw he was floundering, so I loosened my grip on him and told him to make it alone. He stopped and grabbed me by the shirt and refused to let go. I would have drowned but for the Major. We finally reached the beach where a marine directed us to a bomb shelter, where I was given dry clothes and a place to rest." [Ibid]
Americans Fight Back at Pearl Harbor
Ray Emory, a sailor on the cruiser the Honolulu, told National Geographic he had to break open his locked ammunition with a wrench to get ammo for his anti-aircraft gun. "I saw a plane go by, then another," he recalled. "We started firing. A lot of people will tell you they saw the whole thing, but if you're firing a machine gun, you get tunnel vision."
At Kaneohe Naval Air Station, ground crews pulled machines and ammunition from parked planes and grabbed pistols and shotguns. John Finn, a ground-crew chief, told National Geographic, "I was so hopping mad; I wanted to shoot every damned plane out of the sky." Finn kept shooting as the planes and his body "stopped a lot of shrapnel," taking shots to chest, arms, foot and stomach. For his efforts Finn received the esteemed Medal of Honor for "extra-ordinary heroism."
Describing one Japanese bomber that was coming straight at him, Finn said, "All our planes were burning. And then this plane comes down and disappears in the smoke. I said to myself, When he gets out of that smoke, I'm going to let him have it. I swung my gun around to the center of that smoke, and the guy came barreling out it. I was shooting right down his propellers hub. I got off maybe eight rounds. I think he came to get me." The plane flee over his head and slammed into a hillside.
A few American pilots got their planes into the air during the Pearl Harbor attack. P-40 pilot Kenneth Taylor told National Geographic, "As I was rearming at Wheeler, the second wave suddenly came up the valley. I turned on the grassy field and took off right in the middle of their line---the P-40 was very good at dogfighting...We had absolutely n trouble finding plenty of targets. We caught up with them at Ewa, a Marine base. They were in a strafing lineup, and George and I merely got into line.” Taylor and his friend George are credited with shooting down six Japanese planes.
Civilians at Pearl Harbor Remember
John Garcia, a 16-year-old pipefitter, recalled: "Around 8:00am. my grandmother woke me. She informed me that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. "I said they are just practicing." She said, no, it was real...I went out to the porch and I could see the anti-aircraft fire up in the sky. I just said, 'Oh boy.'" [Source: The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985]
Garcia went to the dry dock where he worked. "An officer asked me to go into the Pennsylvania and try to get the fires out. A bomb had penetrated the marine deck, and that was three decks below. Under that was the magazines: ammunition, powder and shells. I said, 'There ain't no way I'm gonna go down there.' It could blow up any minute. I was young and sixteen, on a stipend of sixty-two cents an hour...I was asked by some other officers to go into the water and get sailors out that had been blown off the ships. Some were unconscious, some were dead. So I spent the rest of the day swimming inside the harbor, along with some other Hawaiians. I bought out I don't know how many bodies and how many were alive and how many were dead." [Ibid]
Mary Anne Ramsey, the daughter of a U.S. officer, told National Geographic: "I remember the sound of exploding bombs and the whine of planes---the fragments of exploding ships and great billows of black smoke everywhere. We were gripped by shock, fear and anger. Every newcomer to the shelter was deluged with questions like, 'Have they gotten the Panama Canal yet?'"
Wounded, Dead and Friendly Fire at Pearl Harbor
"Then our wounded arrived---ome with filthy black oil covering shredded flesh," Ramsey said. "We placed them on mattresses and gave cigarettes to those who wanted to smoke, even holding them for the ones who could not use their hands. We tried to reassure them. With the first sailor, so horribly burned, personal fear left me; he brought me the tragedy of the day."
Dorothy Young, a nurse at Tripler Army Hospital, said the staff was so overwhelmed with dead and wounded they didn't know where to start. "We gave them morphine," she said. "Put the mark on their foreheads. M for morphine. They were coming at us in trucks---not ambulances. Trucks. The trucks kept backing up and delivering them. Bodies, most of them. Bodies."
Among the dead were John Adams, his father, and a friend who were hit by shrapnel from errant five-inch American navy shells five miles from Pearl Harbor. John Garcia, the 16-year-old pipefitter, recalled: "Some of sailors were shooting five-inch guns at the Japanese planes. You just can not shoot down a plane with a five-inch gun. They were landing in Honolulu, the unexploded naval shells. They have a ten-mile range. They hurt and killed a lot of people in the city...When I came back after the third day, they told me that a shell had hit the house of my girl. We had been going together for three years. Her house was a few blocks from my place. At the time they said it was a Japanese bomb. Later we learned it was an American shell. She was killed. She was preparing for church at the time.” [Source: Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey, Avon Books, 1987]
Honolulu Hospitals after the Pearl Harbor Attack
Elizabeth P. McIntosh was working as a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, She wrote in the Washington Post; “For seven ghastly, confused days, we have been at war. To the women of Hawaii, it has meant a total disruption of home life, a sudden acclimation to blackout nights, terrifying rumors, fear of the unknown as planes drone overhead and lorries shriek through the streets. [Source: Elizabeth P. McIntosh, Washington Post, December 6, 2012*]
“I reported for work immediately on Sunday morning when the first news — Oahu is being attacked — crackled over the radio, sandwiched in a church program. Like the rest of Hawaii, I refused to believe it. All along the sunny road to town were people just coming out of church, dogs lazy in the driveways, mynas in noisy convention. Then, from the neighborhood called Punchbowl, I saw a formation of black planes diving straight into the ocean off Pearl Harbor. The blue sky was punctured with anti-aircraft smoke puffs. Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound, almost over my shoulder, and below, down on School Street. I saw a rooftop fly into the air like a pasteboard movie set.*
“For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.*
“The vision of death became reality when I was assigned to cover the emergency room of the hospital. The first victims of the Japanese-American war were brought there on that bright Sunday morning. Bombs were still dropping over the city as ambulances screamed off into the heart of the destruction. The drivers were blood-sodden when they returned, with stories of streets ripped up, houses burned, twisted shrapnel and charred bodies of children. In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand. *
“Firefighters from the Hickam Air Force Base carried the victims in. The men had a red T marked on their foreheads, mute testimony of the efficiency of first-aiders in giving tetanus shots to ward off lockjaw. The body of a man with a monogrammed shirt, H. A.D., was marked DOA (dead on arrival), trundled off to make room for victims who were still breathing. There was blood and the fear of death — and death itself — in the emergency room as doctors calmly continued to treat the victims of this new war. Interns were taping up windows to prevent them from crashing into the emergency area as bombs fell and the dead and wounded continued to arrive. I had never known that blood could be so bright red.” *
Honolulu after Pearl Harbor
Elizabeth P. McIntosh wrote in the Washington Post; “Returning to the city, I felt a mounting sense of fear as Honolulu began to realize that more was in the air than an Army alert. I went to a bombed store on King Street, where I often, in times past, stopped for a Coke at the cool drug counter. Seven little stores, including my drugstore, had nearly completely burned down. Charred, ripply walls, as high as the first story, alone remained to give any hint of where the store had been. At the smashed soda fountain was a half-eaten chocolate sundae. Scorched bonbons were scattered on the sidewalk. There were odd pieces lying in the wreckage, half-burned Christmas cards, on one, the words “Hark the Herald” still visible. There were twisted bedsprings, half-burned mattresses, cans of food, a child’s blackened bicycle, a lunch box, a green raveled sweater, a Bang-Up comic book, ripped awnings. [Source: Elizabeth P. McIntosh, Washington Post, December 6, 2012*]
“That Sunday after dusk there was the all-night horror of attack in the dark. Sirens shrieking, sharp, crackling police reports and the tension of a city wrapped in fear... I ran out of notepaper and reached down and picked up a charred batch of writing paper, still wet from a fire hose. There was, too, the irony of Christmas tinsel, cellophane, decorations. A burned doll, with moving eyes, singed curls and straw bonnet, like a miniature corpse, lay in the wreckage. *
“Then, in the nightmare of Monday and Tuesday, there was the struggle to keep normal when planes zoomed overhead and guns cracked out at an unseen enemy. There was blackout and suspicion riding the back of wild rumors:Parachutists in the hills! Poison in your food! Starvation and death were all that was left in a tourist bureau paradise. I talked with evacuees. From Hickam, a nurse who had dropped to the floor in the hospital kitchen as machine gun bullets dotted a neat row of holes directly above her; from Schofield, a woman who wanted me to send word to her sweetheart “somewhere in Honolulu” that she was still alive; from Pearl Harbor, a nurse who wanted scraps of paper and pencil stubs to give to the boys in the hospital who had last messages they wanted sent home; a little girl named Theda who had a big doll named Nancy and who told me in a quiet voice that “Daddy was killed at Hickam.” *
“At the office there were frantic calls from all sorts of women — housewives, stenographers, debutantes — wanting to know what they could do during the day, when husbands and brothers were away and there was nothing left but to listen to the radio and imagine that all hell had broken out on another part of the island. It was then that I realized how important women can be in a war-torn world. There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do. *
“I discovered that when I visited the Red Cross centers, canteens, evacuee districts, the motor corps headquarters. There is great organization in Honolulu, mapped out thoughtfully and competently by women who have had experience in World War I, who have looked ahead and foreseen the carnage of the past seven days and planned. *
Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;
Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated November 2016