Pearl Harbor

Just before Morning Colors aboard the ships of the US Pacific Fleet, a massive wave of Japanese carrier borne fighters, dive bombers, horizontal bombers, and torpedo bombers struck heart of the fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the airfields and other installations across the island of Oahu.

A spoiling attack to deny the US the ability to stop Japanese thrusts in the western Pacific, it was one of the most one sided victories in naval history.

  • USS Arizona- sunk, with terrible loss of life
  • USS Oklahoma- sunk
  • USS West Virginia- sunk
  • USS California- sunk
  • USS Nevada- damaged and beached
  • USS Tennessee- damaged
  • USS Maryland- damaged
  • USS Pennsylvania- damaged
  • USS Utah- sunk
  • USS Helena- damaged
  • USS Raleigh- damaged
  • USS Honolulu- damaged
  • USS Cassin- effectively destroyed
  • USS Downes- effectively destroyed
  • USS Shaw- damaged
  • USS Oglala- damaged
  • USS Vestal- damaged
  • USS Curtis- damaged

The US had a combined Army, Navy and Marine strength of approximately 390 aircraft on the island that day. Of these, 188 were destroyed, and a further 159 damaged.

Two thousand, four hundred and three Americans were killed the attack, and one thousand, one hundred seventy eight wounded.

The Japanese lost 29 planes, five midget subs, and 65 men.

It was a stunning tactical victory. It was a massive strategic blunder.

Nothing could be more guaranteed to cause the American people to shed their natural isolationist inclination, and steel themselves for the hard fighting ahead in the Pacific.

Rommel once said that the Americans knew less of war than anyone, but learned faster than everyone. Nowhere was that more true than in the US Navy in the Pacific.

The heart of the fleet lay bleeding black oil on the floor of the harbor. But of the ships lost that day, only USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and USS Utah were total losses. The others would be refloated or repaired, refurbished, and all would fight their way west.

The fleet on December 7, 1941 was a sleepy peacetime force. But the survivors of that ghastly attack learned their lessons well. They would become the core of the professionals who would lead drafted landlubbers to form the mightiest host ever to sail the waves, leading to victory in Tokyo Bay.

8 thoughts on “Pearl Harbor”

  1. From Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”:

    One of his aides later crawled into his office—in the nauseatingly craven posture that minions adopt when they are about to make you really, really unhappy—and told him that there had been a mix-up in the embassy in Washington and that the diplomats there had not gotten around to delivering the declaration of war until well after the American Pacific Fleet had gone to the bottom.

    To those Army fuckheads, this is nothing—just a typo, happens all the time. Isoroku Yamamoto has given up on trying to make them understand that the Americans are grudge-holders on a level that is inconceivable to the Nipponese, who learn to swallow their pride before they learn to swallow solid food. Even if he could get Tojo and his mob of shabby, ignorant thugs to comprehend how pissed off the Americans are, they’d laugh it off. What’re they going to do about it? Throw a pie in your face, like the Three Stooges? Ha, ha, ha! Pass the sake and bring me another comfort girl!

    Fiction, but close enough to the truth, as Japan only got the 6 months Yamamoto promised them.

  2. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is fiction, but good fiction.

    The weekend prior to December 7th there had been a defense practice alert by the Hawaiian Army command, with Navy and Marine Corps participation. All CAP was available, AA and Coastal Defense guns were manned, and most of the fleet out of the harbor.

    The fleet was continuing very hard drilling on the CINCPAC plan to go to the Mandates. Our war plans were a sweep into the Japanese mandates. The great book War Plan Orange refers. We would have gotten stomped.

    The fleet was very tired on Dec. 7th. The ships and men had been exercised hard in the previous weeks at sea in support of our war plans. Yet we shot down appreciable numbers of Japanese planes from a total surprise. Twice as many were lost on the second raid than lost on the first wave.

    2) The IJN was very selective in their pilots. As you know, pilot quality in combat correlates closely with flight hours. 75% of IJN pilots had more hours (and much more combat time from China) than USN pilots in December 1941. Yet they trained only 100-150 pilots per year. The pilots lost at Pearl were 50% of their years’ input, and irreplaceable in the long run. Pilot loss was why Nagumo left. There are several chapters in At Dawn We Slept on this.

    The Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions (2011) by Alan Zimm is a very interesting corrective to the myth of Japanese planning / pilot excellence. I only have one major disagreement with his conclusions. He says the fleet would have been OK with an unsurprised sortie into the IJN attack. I disagree. He quotes the material condition (from zone inspections — remember those?) of BBs as being poor, yet he asserts that this was not a factor in survivability. I disagree. Those stuffing boxes were and are important for ship’s survivability.

    I’ve said we were lucky as well. An unsurprised sortie for Pearl Harbor into the teeth of the 6 CVs of the Japanese fleet would have been a disaster. I’ve gamed it out about 80 times on the Australian wargame Carriers at War and other wargames. Normally we loose all the BBs, the two CVs in the area, and some of the CAs and CLs in the task forces, for possibly damage on a carrier or two. Many times the Japanese are untouched except for 100-150 aircraft lost.

    1. You obliquely raise an interesting point. The Japanese were also prepared to attack the fleet at Lahaina Roads. If the fleet had been attacked there, the sunken ships could not have been salvaged. As it was, raising the ships from Pearl Harbor was a major undertaking, but relatively straightforward.

    2. I can’t remember who it was that suggested (Read it in the Book “Zero” IIRC) a plan to produce 120,000 pilots. The plan was shot down as the powers that were didn’t think the war would last near long enough to do so.

    3. Saburo Sakai’s bio by Martin Caiden, “Samurai”, covers Japanese naval pilot training quite well.

      “I’ve said we were lucky as well.”

      I agree. I have thought for a while that we were actually lucky the Japanese decided to attack our ships in port instead of sinking them in the open ocean.

      ” Yet we shot down appreciable numbers of Japanese planes from a total surprise.”

      I attribute that to the fragility of Japanese aircraft rather than any US prowess .

  3. The West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania were all present less than 3 years later when they blasted the Southern Force into scrap at the Battle of Surigo Straight. And the WeeVee was present in Tokyo Bay as part of the force present at the surrender…5 bandsmen from the WeeVee’s band joined the band of the Mighty Mo for the occasion.

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