December 7, 2021, will mark the 80th anniversary of the “date which will live in infamy”—the attack on naval base Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan. Situated adjacent to the city of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Pearl Harbor was the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The surprise attack shocked the American people and rallied many to the cause of war. We’ve put together a list of facts that are essential to understanding one of the most consequential days in American history.
Both the US and Japan were interested in islands around the Pacific long before World War II.
By the early 20th century, both the United States and Japan were working to establish themselves as major world powers. Once the United States had expanded its territory all the way to the west coast, it began to eye islands both nearby and far out into the Pacific as future territories. By the turn of the century, the US had annexed the territories of Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. In order to protect its interests in the Pacific, Congress created one of the first American naval bases in the region in 1908 at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Japan had been making an effort to modernize and to establish itself as a major player on the world’s stage, and its military efforts proved to be very successful at doing just that. By the eve of World War I, Japan had defeated both the Russian and Chinese empires in war and had annexed Korea and Formosa—modern-day Taiwan. Japan’s rapid expansion, especially its defeat of two powerful empires, had thoroughly spooked leaders in the West, including the United States.
Tensions had been rising between the US and Japan for years.
When the Great Depression hit, Japan once again had its eyes on expansion. Both the Asian continent and the Pacific islands were rich in resources that the Japanese islands did not have. As the territorial threat Japan posed became more clear, the US moved more of its naval forces to the Pacific.
Like other countries at the time, the desperation and upheaval of the 1930s created a nationalistic fervor in Japan. The country became more militaristic, which led to more aggressive land grabs, including its invasion of China in the late 30s. The most violent episode of the invasion came in 1937, when Japanese soldiers spent six weeks committing mass murder and mass rape in the capital city of Nanjing. It is estimated that anywhere between 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese people were killed.
In response to the Nanjing Massacre, the US offered aid to China and instituted trade embargoes against Japan. American leaders had hoped that the sanctions would dissuade Japan from continuing to expand, but it did just the opposite. Japan was more motivated than ever to stand its ground, and more of its citizens were strongly convinced that Western countries, especially the US, should not interfere in Asian affairs.
The US expected an attack, just not on Pearl Harbor.
On September 27, 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, allying itself with the fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy to form the Axis Powers. This alliance, coupled with the tensions that had risen throughout the 1930s, made it clear to the US that Japan would eventually launch some kind of attack on its enemies. Still, no US intelligence officials felt the need to raise alarm bells, and especially not about Pearl Harbor, which is roughly 4,000 miles from Japan. As a result, Pearl Harbor was unprepared for what was to come.
The Japanese planned the attack for over a year.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, knew that Japan would never be able to defeat the United States at its full military strength. Having served as Japan’s naval attaché in Washington, Yamamoto understood that the only way to successfully challenge the US war machine was to cripple it early on. As he stated to Navy Minister Koshiro Oikawa, “we should do our very best to decide the fate of the war on the very first day.”
The idea of attacking Pearl Harbor was raised as early as the spring of 1940. Yamamoto envisioned a surprise attack that would destroy America’s Pacific Fleet, effectively knocking the US out of any naval action for at least a year. This would give Japan time to conquer the Pacific nearly unopposed.
The details of the attack were planned by Commander Minoru Genda, a renowned tactical genius in aerial warfare. He developed workarounds to make the aerial torpedo strikes successful, including modifying the torpedoes by adding wooden fins. After months of training, negotiations between Japan and the US broke down, and Japan decided to move forward with the “Hawaii Operation.”
The Japanese planes were first detected almost an hour before the attack.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, American privates George Elliott Jr. and Joseph Lockard were finishing their shift at the Opana Radar Site on the north shore of Oahu. At 7:02 AM, they noticed a group of planes on the radar headed towards Oahu. Radar technology was rather new at the time, but the men could tell that the group was large.
Concerned, they notified the information center at Fort Shafter in Honolulu. Air Corps Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, a newly assigned officer, told Elliott and Lockard not to worry. Tyler knew that six American bombers were scheduled to arrive from California, and he assumed these were the very same planes. Tyler was later cleared of all wrongdoing in an investigation by the Naval Board of Inquiry, which found that he had been assigned to the post with little or no training, no supervision, and no support staff.
The attack lasted less than two hours.
Most men stationed at Pearl Harbor awoke to the sounds of the attack shortly before 8 AM. What had been a quiet Sunday morning was now dominated by alarms, bombs exploding, and gunfire. Fighter aircraft, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers filled the skies.
In a particularly significant moment of the attack, one of the Japanese bombs struck the USS Arizona, which ignited the gunpowder in its forward magazines. 1,177 servicemen were killed in the explosion and sinking of the Arizona, accounting for nearly half of the total deaths that day.
American servicemen attempted to fight back against their attackers as best as they could. Despite sustaining torpedo damage, the USS Nevada attempted to exit the harbor, but it was eventually ordered to beach itself in order to not block the channel into the harbor. The determination of the crew of the Nevada to escape proved to be an important morale booster. After a second wave pummeled the base further, the Japanese withdrew. Less than two hours had elapsed.
All told, around 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Another 1,200 or so were injured.
Pearl Harbor hero Doris “Dorie” Miller became the first Black man to be awarded the Navy Cross.
Mess attendant Doris Miller was on board the USS West Virginia on the morning of December 7th. Like many enlisted African Americans at the time, he was relegated to a non-combat service position, mainly handling cooking and laundry services onboard. Almost as soon as the ship was hit during the attack, Miller rushed to his battle station. When he found it destroyed, he ran to another section of the ship to help move injured crew members, including Captain Mervyn Bennion, to safety.
After helping pass ammunition to the crews of the .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns that were firing back at the Japanese, he manned one himself despite his lack of experience firing the weapon. For his actions that day he was awarded the Navy Cross, the United States Navy’s second-highest decoration for valor in combat below the Medal of Honor.
Miller was hailed as a hero in the African-American press and toured the country promoting war bonds. In 1943, he was reassigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay and was advanced in rating to Cook Third Class. On November 24th of that year, Liscome Bay was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine and sank in the Pacific. Miller was among the two-thirds of the crew who went down with the ship.
The attack was not actually successful in achieving Japan’s goal.
When Admiral Yamamoto envisioned the attack on Pearl Harbor, he saw Japanese troops inflicting enough damage to keep America out of the Pacific for at least a year. Although much damage was done and the nation was shocked, the Pacific Fleet was only weakened, not incapacitated. All but three of the battleships attacked at Pearl Harbor were salvaged, repaired, and returned to service.
Once the USS Nevada returned to service, she was deployed to Europe. She later went on to serve in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. The USS West Virginia, which had been sunk by torpedoes and bombs, returned to service in the Pacific and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
Although the Pacific Fleet was able to be repaired, it turned out that battleships were not the most important naval vessel of the Second World War. The real strategic advantage would lie with aircraft carriers. On December 7th, all of the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were away from Pearl Harbor, so they sustained no damage. Those aircraft carriers would prove integral to the US victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, a battle that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Additionally, what allowed the US military machine to be so powerful was ultimately the industry behind it. On December 7th, the Japanese made a critical error by not attacking the facilities on the base related to that industry. Pearl Harbor’s oil storage depots, repair shops, shipyards, and submarine docks were all left intact. These vital resources allowed the fleet to bounce back far more quickly than Yamamoto had anticipated.
The attack galvanized Americans to enter WWII.
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were somewhat divided on what to do about WWII. The country was officially neutral, but many people supported helping the United Kingdom win the war against Germany. Still, most people did not want to send American soldiers to Europe. Far fewer Americans supported intervening in Japan.
Pearl Harbor changed everything quite literally overnight. On December 8th, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress, asking them to declare war on Japan. His words were met with thunderous applause and the declaration of war was written up within an hour.
The event immediately unified the American people. A Gallup poll taken in the days following the attack found that 97% of Americans supported Congress declaring war on Japan. Pearl Harbor continued to serve as a rallying cry throughout the war, with propaganda and pro-war media continuously reminding Americans to “Remember Pearl Harbor!”