13. Japanese Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorably characterized December 7th, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy“, referring to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Early that morning, Japanese airplanes, laden with bombs and torpedoes and escorted by fighters, took off from carriers that had made their way in secrecy to launch positions 200 miles north of Hawaii.
The attack was intended to cripple America’s Pacific fleet and impede US interference with planned Japanese conquests of American, British, and Dutch territories. It was coordinated with other attacks that day against American possessions in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake, and against the British in Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong.
The Pearl Harbor attack caught the defenders off guard and wreaked havoc. Starting at 7:48AM local time, 353 Japanese airplanes, in two waves, devastated anchored American vessels. Armed with bombs designed to pierce thick armor and torpedoes modified for Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, the Japanese sank four battleships and damaged another four. They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and a training ship. The Japanese lost 29 airplanes, 5 midget submarines, 64 killed, and 1 captured. In exchange, they killed more than 2400 Americans, wounded around 1200, sank or beached twelve ships, damaged nine others, destroyed 160 airplanes, and damaged 150 more.
However, the attackers concentrated on ships and planes, but ignored important infrastructure such as docks, power stations, and oil storage facilities. Had such vital installations been destroyed, it would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a base for the ensuing American war effort in the Pacific. Moreover, there were no American aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day, so that arm of the US Navy remained intact. American carriers would end up playing the greatest role in thwarting Japanese plans and bringing about Japan’s doom.