On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack from aircraft carriers against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Early that morning, Japanese naval bombers, laden with torpedoes and bombs and escorted by Zero fighters, took off from carriers that had made their way in secrecy and radio silence to launch positions 200 miles north of Hawaii, to execute a strike nearly a year in planning.
Coordinated with other attacks that day against US possessions in the Philippines, Wake, and Guam, and against the British in Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong, the attack on Pearl Harbor was intended to cripple America’s Pacific fleet and impede US interference with planned Japanese conquests of American, British, and Dutch territories.
It was a daring strike that caught the defenders off guard. Starting at 7:48 AM local time, 353 Japanese combat aircraft, in two waves, devastated anchored American vessels. Armed with torpedoes modified for Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, and with bombs designed to pierce thick armor, the attackers sank four battleships and damaged another four. They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and a training ship. It was a lopsided slaughter: for the loss of 29 airplanes, 5 midget submarines, and 64 personnel killed and 1 captured, the Japanese killed more than 2400 Americans and wounded around 1200, sank or beached twelve ships and damaged nine others, while destroying 160 airplanes and damaging 150 more.
However, the Japanese concentrated ignored important infrastructures, such as oil storage facilities, docks, power stations, and other installations whose destruction would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a launchpad for the US war effort in the Pacific. Additionally, there were no US aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day, so America’s carrier arm remained intact. It was that arm of the US Navy which would play the greatest role in frustrating Japanese plans and bringing about Japan’s doom.