Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

Just before 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The barrage lasted just two hours, but it was devastating: The Japanese managed to destroy nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight enormous battleships, and almost 200 airplanes. More than 2,000 Americans soldiers and sailors died in the attack, and another 1,000 were wounded. The day after the assault, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan; Congress approved his declaration with just one dissenting vote. Three days later, Japanese allies Germany and Italy also declared war on the United States, and again Congress reciprocated. More than two years into the conflict, America had finally joined World War II.


Captured Japanese photograph taken during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. In the distance, the smoke rises from Hickam Field.


The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise, but Japan and the United States had been edging toward war for decades. The United States was particularly unhappy with Japan’s increasingly belligerent attitude toward China. The Japanese government believed that the only way to solve its economic and demographic problems was to expand into its neighbor’s territory and take over its import market; to this end, Japan had declared war on China in 1937. American officials responded to this aggression with a battery of economic sanctions and trade embargoes. They reasoned that without access to money and goods, and especially essential supplies like oil, Japan would have to rein in its expansionism. Instead, the sanctions made the Japanese more determined to stand their ground. During months of negotiations between Tokyo and Washington, D.C., neither side would budge. It seemed that war was inevitable.

But no one believed that the Japanese would start that war with an attack on American territory. For one thing, it would be terribly inconvenient: Hawaii and Japan were about 4,000 miles apart. For another, American intelligence officials were confident that any Japanese attack would take place in one of the (relatively) nearby European colonies in the South Pacific: the Dutch East Indies, for instance, or Singapore or Indochina. Because American military leaders were not expecting an attack so close to home, the naval facilities at Pearl Harbor were relatively undefended. Almost the entire Pacific Fleet was moored around Ford Island in the harbor, and hundreds of airplanes were squeezed onto adjacent airfields. To the Japanese, Pearl Harbor was an irresistible target.

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The USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in this December 7, 1941 photo.


The Japanese plan was simple: Destroy the Pacific Fleet. That way, the Americans would not be able to fight back as Japan’s armed forces spread across the South Pacific. On December 7, after months of planning and practice, the Japanese launched their attack.

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Japanese pilots get instructions aboard an aircraft carrier before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in this scene from a Japanese newsreel. It was obtained by the U.S. War Department and released to U.S. newsreels.

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The Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku, seen in September of 1941. The Zuikaku would soon sail toward Hawaii, one of six aircraft carriers used in the attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

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Aircraft prepare to launch from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Akagi during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

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This photograph, from a Japanese film later captured by American forces, was taken aboard the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku, just as a Nakajima “Kate” B-5N bomber launched off the deck to attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

At about 8 a.m., Japanese planes filled the sky over Pearl Harbor. Bombs and bullets rained onto the vessels moored below. At 8:10, a 1,800-pound bomb smashed through the deck of the battleship USS Arizona and landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and sank with more than 1,000 men trapped inside. Next, torpedoes pierced the shell of the battleship USS Oklahoma. With 400 sailors aboard, the Oklahoma lost her balance, rolled onto her side and slipped underwater. By the time the attack was over, every battleship in Pearl Harbor–USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia, USS Utah, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee and USS Nevada–had sustained significant damage. (All but USS Arizona and USS Utah were eventually salvaged and repaired.)

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Aerial view of the initial blows struck against American ships, as seen from a Japanese plane over Pearl Harbor.

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Captured Japanese photograph taken during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. In the distance, the smoke rises from Hickam Field.

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Seen from a distance, the Battleship Arizona burns as it sinks in Pearl Harbor after the December 7, 1941 raid by Japanese bombers.

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A Japanese bomber, its diving flaps down, was photographed by a U.S. Navy photographer as the plane approached its Pearl Harbor objective on December 7.

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Japanese aircraft can be seen in the air above Pearl Harbor (top center and upper right) in this captured Japanese photograph taken during the initial moments of the Japanese attack.

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American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

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A wide-angle view of the sky above Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, filled with smoke and anti-aircraft fire on December 7, 1941.

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Officers’ wives, investigating explosions and seeing a smoke pall in distance on December 7, 1941, heard neighbor Mary Naiden, then an Army hostess who took this picture, exclaim “There are red circles on those planes overhead. They are Japanese!” Realizing war had come, the two women, stunned, started toward quarters.

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Aerial photograph, taken by a Japanese pilot, of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese bomber in lower-right foreground.

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Sailors stand among wrecked airplanes at Ford Island Naval Air Station as they watch the explosion of the USS Shaw in the background, during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.

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A U.S. flag flies from the stern of the sunken battleship USS West Virginia after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

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An A6M-2 Zero fighter aboard the Imperial Japanese Navy carrier Akagi during the Pearl Harbor attack mission.

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The USS Shaw burns in Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombers hit the forward portion of the ship with three bombs. The resulting fires proved uncontrollable, and Shaw was ordered abandoned. Soon after, her forward ammunition magazines detonated in a spectacular blast, completely removing her bow.

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The USS California sinks into the mud of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

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A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Two men can be seen on the superstructure, upper center. The mast of the USS Tennessee is beyond the burning West Virginia.

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The forward magazines of USS Arizona explode after she was hit by a Japanese bomb on December 7, 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from on board USS Solace.

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Japanese planes over Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor are shown in this scene from a Japanese newsreel. The film was obtained by the U.S. War Department and later released to U.S. newsreels.

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Sailors at Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe attempt to salvage a burning PBY Catalina in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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The battleships West Virginia and Tennessee burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941.



Oil burns on the waters of Pearl Harbor, near the naval air station, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

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The USS Maryland, a battleship moored inboard of the USS Oklahoma, which capsized, was damaged slightly in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.


A sailor killed by the Japanese air attack at Naval Air Station, Kanoehe Bay. Photographed on December 7, 1941.


The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In all, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor crippled or destroyed 18 American ships and nearly 300 airplanes. Dry docks and airfields were likewise destroyed. Most important, almost 2,500 men were killed and another 1,000 were wounded.

But the Japanese had failed to cripple the Pacific Fleet. By the 1940s, battleships were no longer the most important naval vessel: Aircraft carriers were, and as it happened, all of the Pacific Fleet’s carriers were away from the base on December 7. (Some had returned to the mainland and others were delivering planes to troops on Midway and Wake Islands.) Moreover, the Pearl Harbor assault had left the base’s most vital onshore facilities–oil storage depots, repair shops, shipyards and submarine docks–intact. As a result, the U.S. Navy was able to rebound relatively quickly from the attack.


White House reporters dash for the telephones on December 7, 1941, after they had been told by presidential press secretary Stephen T. Early that Japanese submarines and planes had just bombed the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.


Selling papers on December 7, 1941 at Times Square in New York City, announcing that Japan has attacked U.S. bases in the Pacific. a5claring Japan guilty of a dastardly unprovoked attack, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war, on December 8, 1941. Listening are Vice President Henry Wallace, left, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn.



“Yesterday,” President Roosevelt said on December 8, “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked.” He went on to say, “No matter now long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.” After the Pearl Harbor attack, and for the first time after years of discussion and debate, the American people were united in their determination to go to war. The Japanese had wanted to goad the United States into an agreement to lift the economic sanctions against them; instead, they had pushed their adversary into a global conflict that ultimately resulted in Japan’s first occupation by a foreign power.

On December 8, Congress approved Roosevelt’s declaration of war. Three days later, Japanese allies Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. For the second time, Congress reciprocated. More than two years after the start of the conflict, the United States had entered World War II.


President Roosevelt signs the declaration of war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, at the White House in Washington, District of Columbia, on December 8, 1941.

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Young Japanese Americans, including several Army selectees, gather around a reporter’s car in the Japanese section of San Francisco, on December 8, 1941.


The minelayer USS Oglala lies capsized after being attacked by Japanese aircraft and submarines in the attack on Pearl Harbor.


Heavy damage is seen on the destroyers USS Downes and USS Cassin, stationed at Pearl Harbor, after the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian island on December 7, 1941.


An interior shot of a destroyed aircraft hangar at Wheeler Field, in Hawaii, on December 11, 1941.


In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, eight miles from Pearl Harbor, shrapnel from a Japanese bomb riddled this car and killed three civilians in the attack of December 7, 1941. Two of the victims can be seen in the front seat. The Navy reported there was no nearby military target.


Wreckage of the first Japanese plane shot down during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.


A Japanese midget submarine, part of the attacking force on Pearl Harbor, beached at Bellows Field.


An American seaman looks at the charred corpse of a Japanese flier brought up from the bottom of Pearl Harbor, where he crashed with his burning plane during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 in Hawaii.


A small crowd inspects the damage, both inside and outside, after a Japanese bomb hit the residence of Paul Goo during the Japanese air raid on December 7, 1941.


Unidentified attaches of the Japanese consulate began burning papers, ledgers and other records shortly after Japan went to war against the U.S., on December 7, 1941, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Police later stopped the fire after most of the papers had been destroyed.


This unidentified Japanese man turns to face a visitor at the Japanese Consulate in Chicago, on December 9, 1941. Clad only in underwear, he was startled while in the act of taking papers and files from a cabinet. Confidential papers at the consulate had been burned.


Following Hawaiian tradition, sailors honor men killed during the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Oahu. The casualties had been buried on December 8. This ceremony took place sometime during the following months.


Aerial view showing oil-streaked waters and the dry docks at U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following the Japanese attack, seen on December 10, 1941.


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