Before 9-11, There Was Pearl Harbor

The day had started like any other Sunday on a ‘cushy’ posting in a tropical paradise.

Breakfast was about to be served in the mess, chapel services were due to commence.

Things were so peaceful that when he looked out the window of Ford Island Command Center in the middle of Pearl Harbor at 7:55am, Lieutenant Commander Logan Ramsey was incensed when he saw a low-flying aircraft.

The impudent pilot had blundered into what was meant to have been a serene color flag raising routine. He demanded a subordinate get “that fellow’s number” so the pilot in question could be summarily chewed out later.

But no sooner had Ramsey uttered this, he noticed an object drop from under the plane. As an explosion rocked a nearby aircraft hanger, Ramsey was jolted into reality. They were under attack.

“Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is NO drill!”

Pearl Harbor battleship row

A photo taken at the beginning of the attack of Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor

The radio man snapped to and disseminated the message, but it had little impact. Japanese planes were now swarming all over Oahu Island and many servicemen were already under attack.


The attack on Pearl Harbor may have come as a bolt out of the blue for sailors, pilots, and marines on the morning of 7 December, 1941, but it looked different to the Japanese.

A diplomatic conflict between them and the US had been building for a number of years, and this was the next logical step.

Expanding into territories throughout Asia formerly controlled by European powers and the Americans, the Japanese were on a mission to build their own empire.

America stood in the way, and was starving them of resources. The Japanese had initiated talks to come to some agreement, but should diplomacy fail, the hawks were ready to take over.

Taking out the US Pacific fleet was meant to deliver terms favourable to Japan at either the negotiating table, or in a short war.

Oahu island attack

The island of Oahu with Pearl Harbor at the bottom, with arrows indicating the direction of the Japanese air attack over the island, ending at Pearl Harbor at the bottom (image: anynobody)

Of course, the possibility of a war with Japan had been considered by American leaders, and specifically by commanders at Pearl Harbor.

Both Admiral Husband (Hubby) Kimmel, commander of naval forces, and Major General Walter Short, the Army commander, had considered war with Japan a distinct possibility. But war planners foresaw a conventional naval battle at sea.

The fleet was thought to be rather impregnable in port, clustered in a protective bay, and surrounded by powerful defensive weapons.

Of course, Japanese espionage was suspected, and Short had even gone so far as to gather his planes together.

Ford Island

A map of the attack zone with Ford Island in the middle surrounded by ships (image: Anynobody)

Saboteurs would have a much harder time getting to them if they were all under lock and key and armed guard in one place.

Unfortunately, Japan had thrown out the rule book, and Short had inadvertently helped their attack succeed.


Contrary to popular belief, the first shots of the Pearl Harbor attack were actually fired by the Americans.

From the deck of the USS Ward, a submarine conning tower was spotted early that morning.

When it failed to either completely surface or engage in radio communication and make itself known, it was attacked.

Tensions were getting high, and standing orders dictated that naval personnel should assume suspicious vessels were hostile, and probably Japanese, unless they advertised themselves as being otherwise.

This sub did not, and got shot through the conning tower before depth-charges were littered across its predicted path.

But any damage done would soon pale in comparison to what the Japanese would unleash.

Japanese attack on pearl harbor

Japanese planes before the attack on an aircraft carrier

The sub was not the only vanguard element of Japan’s force. Above, reconnaissance planes had flown out ahead, their mission to radio back what they found:

“Enemy… at anchor, nine battleships, one heavy cruiser, six light cruisers”.

It was the last chance for the Japanese to abort. Should there be any last minute sign that Japan’s diplomatic efforts to end the trade dispute with America had succeeded, or if there were evidence that the attack could not succeed, perhaps because the Pacific fleet was scattered rather than bottled up in port, they could still call things off.

But the only messages coming through dictated that the attack must proceed, though they also indicated success might be more uncertain.

The ships were all anchored in Pearl Harbor, and not at the much deeper Lahaina where they would be easier to torpedo.

The entire operation was now reliant on new Japanese torpedo technology working in these shallower waters.

Back in the main attack formation, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida was in the lead plane, receiving messages.

Some of the Japanese planes didn't even have radios, and so Fuchida had to relay the plan to following planes with a flare.

Pearl Harbor plane

A replica of a Japanese Val Type 99 bomber aircraft

A single flare meant that torpedo attackers were to engage the ships in port, while two flares signalled the bombers to swoop into action.

Torpedo planes were meant to go first, taking the ships by surprise, with bombers in support afterwards.

But there was a delay, and thinking the message had not been received, Fuchida fired another flare.

This was interpreted instead as a two-flare message, and so the bombers began to break off and head into battle.

Fortunately for Fuchida, the commander of the torpedo section realised what had happened, and led his planes into battle as well.

The die had been cast. Now the battle would unfurl in lock-step with no turning back.

The torpedo planes broke into two groups of 16 and 24.

The bombers moved on Wheeler field, where US aircraft were stationed. If these were destroyed, the Americans would not be able to retaliate.

And because of bureaucracy and miscommunication, there were no ant-aircraft guns protecting the planes that General Short had clumped together to protect from sabotage.

Osprey publishing Pearl Harbor December 7 1941

The first attack wave at Pearl Harbor with Japanese flight paths in red; Ford Island is in the middle of Pearl Harbor (from Pearl Harbor 1941 The Day of Infamy by Carl Smith)

When the Japanese planes came in, unopposed, one American eye-witness said that they were so close “I could see the gold in their teeth”.

The Japanese swept over a multitude of targets, riddling bases, buildings, hangers, aircraft, and personnel with bullets and bombs.

Leaked fuel ignited, aircraft exploded, and then ignited fuel in an adjacent plane which would explode in turn, causing a chain reaction as the whole airfield went up in flames.

Caught completely off guard, American personnel on the ground improvised, using one small plane with it’s weapons as a gun platform.

One marine resorted to loosing rounds from his Colt .45.

The attack was so unanticipated by men on the ground that when one local commander at another airfield heard about the attack on Wheeler field, he thought it was a practical joke… until he too came under fire.

Soon the attack formation was on top of the fleet clustered around Pearl Harbor.

Bombers swooped down and jolted Lt Cmdr Ramsey as they bombed the hangers on Ford Island.

Unlike those at Wheeler Field, Captain Shoemaker rallied his men in time to save undamaged sea planes and pull them out of the way of those “burning like a forest fire”. At least some aircraft would be saved.

Out in the harbor, explosions began to rock the ships, and men poured up from below decks.

In an instant, the USS Utah and Raleigh both rocked from torpedo explosions.

fires pearl harbor

The USS West Virginia ablaze

The Japanese had done their homework, one commander at least recognising Utah as a mere training ship, which led to Raleigh also being selected as an alternative target.

Next the USS Oglala and Helena were under attack, then the Oklahoma, and then California.

In the chaos, the Americans were able to retaliate with twin .50 calibre machine guns, downing one of the Japanese planes.

But their ships kept getting pounded. Slammed by one torpedo after another, the USS Oklahoma began to list and then rolled over.

The Americans turned machine guns on approaching planes, hitting one, but not in time to stop a torpedo being loosed that slammed into the USS Nevada.

By now burning oil blazed across the water, thick smoke filling the sky.

The USS Arizona and Vestal were struck. Fires burned, and when the former’s magazine exploded, the adjacent harbour became littered with debris, body parts, and survivors jumping for their lives.

Pearl Harbor reenactment

A recreation of the battle - a Japanese torpedo bomber can be seen flying overhead

They were the lucky ones. 1,200 were trapped and died below deck. Carl Smith’s Pearl Harbor 1941 Day of Infamy describes the scene:

“Arizona’s explosion knocked men off nearby vessels due to the might of the concussion: the bomb pierced her forward magazine, and the explosion was so powerful that damage control parties aboard nearby Vestal were blown overboard when a fireball erupted skyward”.

Sirens sounded as the Americans scrambled to get planes into the air.

They were largely unsuccessful. Several B-17s that had been en route to the island did arrive at this time, but, low on fuel, crew, and unarmed, they “flew into a turkey shoot”.

The entire island of Oahu was in lockdown. While some civilians in nearby Honolulu wondered if oil tankers had exploded, others must have realised they were under attack.

They were eventually ordered to stay out of school, off the streets (the Japanese had strafed the roads to stop pilots getting to planes), and in their homes.

In his command centre, Admiral Kimmel was struck by a stray bullet that flew through the window.

Knocked backwards, he coolly bent over, picked up the bullet, and said: “It would have been merciful had it killed me”.

The answer to why the Americans had been so effectively ambushed lay in the geography of Pearl Harbor.

The apparently impregnable defences – a huge fleet, coastal guns, and air support – made any sea attack seem suicidal.

Thus, an air attack was the most logical method of assault.

But that was easier said than done. The British had achieved great success with air-dropped torpedoes against the Italians at the Battle of Taranto in 1940.

But the water there had been deep. Pearl Harbor’s 33-foot depth made a straight replication of that operation impossible.

More: 'Pearl Harbor Through Japanese Eyes'

Japanese planners watched in frustration as their dive and high altitude bombers improved their accuracy eventually to more than 80 percent, while torpedo bombing floundered.

wooden rudders water torpedoes

A torpedo aimed at distant American ships (plate by Jim Laurier and Tim Brown from Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941 by Mark Stille)

The problem was that conventional air-delivered torpedoes would sink and get buried in the mud without sufficient depth.

Eventually, modifying them with wooden fins changed the way they fell, hit the water, and then behaved under water.

Before long, practice bombing runs yielded 70 percent accuracy. Pearl Harbor would see both their operational birth and be a crowning achievement.


As the second attack wave commenced, the Americans rallied.

Ships south of Pearl Harbor spotted and rammed a Japenese sub.

While on the island, flight Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor dashed to Haleiwa Field where they’d ordered their P-40 planes to be readied.

They’d awoken to the sounds of attack, and hurtled to the airfield in Taylor’s car.

Pearl Harbor Ben Affleck Josh Hartnett

A P40 airplane, the type flown by some American pilots that day

Soon afterwards, at Ewa Mooring Mast Field, they surprised Japanese formations strafing the ground, taking out two planes each before landing at Wheeler field to refuel and rearm.

(Their brave efforts that day were the basis for the actions of the two lead characters in the Pearl Harbor movie).

They weren’t the only American pilots to get airborne either.

Harry Brown, Bob Rogers, and John Dains also boarded another P-40 and two P-36 aircraft, though Dains was later downed by friendly fire.

On the ground, men furiously manned anti-aircraft guns.

Chief Ordnanceman John William Finn came under heavy fire but said later that “I was so mad I wasn’t scared”, and fired both .30 and .50 cal. machine guns from an exposed position on one airfield.

Chief Ordnanceman John William Finn

Finn returns fire with a heavy machine-gun (plate: Jim Laurier, from Pearl Harbor 1941 The Day of Infamy by Carl Smith)

In the harbour, the dive bombers went to work, pounding the decks of larger ships not already capsized, such as the Raleigh.

Although the Japanese had lost the element of surprise, the Americans were still hamstrung, dealing with the damage from the first attack wave while trying to fend off the second.

Hulking ruins were strewn about, billowing smoke and fire, listing and combustible.

Ships that were undamaged enough fled the scene, getting away from the attack so that they could be salvaged when the US took its inevitable revenge.


The Japanese had executed an amazing military operation of expert precision.

Landing back on their aircraft carriers, they considered the possibility of a third wave assault, but decided it was an unnecessary risk to their planes. The first two waves were thought to have achieved their aims.

They certainly had severely crippled US naval power in the Pacific, but in the event, a third wave might have helped.

The operation was largely a tactical success, but in the longer term an enormous strategic blunder.

US military might have been severely cut down to size, but it would recover.

Instead of the short, favourable war Japan had rolled the dice on, they unleashed on themselves a long, devastating war.

Bockscar fat man

Nagasaki after the second nuclear bomb was dropped

As US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, described it:

“The US-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history”.

Catastrophically brutal for the Japanese leadership, and their people, as it would turn out.

The end of the war brought with it the end of Imperial Japan, and tragically it had taken the firebombing of dozens of cities, and the atomic bombing of two more to bring this about.

Had the planners of the Pearl Harbor attack known it would be a harbinger of such devastation for their country, perhaps it might never have happened at all.

For more on Pearl Harbor, read Pearl Harbor 1941 The Day of Infamy by Carl Smith, or Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941 by Mark Stille. For more on military history, visit Osprey Publishing.

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