Quick Study: The attack on Pearl Harbor

The USS California billowed smoke after the attack.
The USS California billowed smoke after the attack.
Image: From an original U.S. Office of War photo/Library of Congress.

On Dec. 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m. in Hawaii, Japanese military planes attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

    The surprise attack 78 years ago ended the lives of 2,403 Americans (most served in the Navy) and destroyed or heavily damaged U.S. aircraft and 19 Navy ships -- including battleships, destroyers and cruisers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy," and the attack plunged the U.S. into World War II. 
    The following is a compressed account, along with sources and links for further study:

Tension mounts: After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the U.S. gradually increased aide to China and, in 1940, imposed an embargo on Japan. (See more on the U.S. State Department website.)
    Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy on Sept. 27, 1940. As part of the pact, Japan recognized “the leadership of Germany and Italy in establishment of a new order in Europe.” Germany and Italy in return, according to the pact, recognized “the leadership of Japan in the establishment of a new order in greater East Asia.”
    The three countries agreed to “further undertake to assist one another with all political, economic and military means when one of the three contracting powers is attacked by a power at present not involved in the European war or in the Chinese-Japanese conflict.” 
    In the middle of 1941, “Japan signed a Neutrality Pact with the Soviet Union, making it clear that Japan’s military would be moving into Southeast Asia, where the United States had greater interests,” according to the State Department’s website. “A third agreement with Vichy France enabled Japanese forces to move into Indochina and begin their Southern Advance.”
    While diplomatic efforts were aimed at resolving the issues, Japanese military leaders would not withdraw from China.  

Fateful decisions: The embargo against Japan had consequences, recounts an article by Jeffrey Record, a professor and defense policy critic, on the U.S. Army War College website. "The embargo, far from deterring further Japanese aggression, prompted a Tokyo decision to invade Southeast Asia. By mid-1941 Japanese leaders believed that war with the United States was inevitable and that it was imperative to seize the Dutch East Indies, which offered a substitute for dependency on American oil," Record wrote. "The attack on Pearl Harbor was essentially a flanking raid in support of the main event, which was the conquest of Malaya, Singapore, the Indies, and the Philippines.”

The logistics: The attack involved 353 aircraft launched from four heavy carriers, according to the National World War II Museum. There were 40 torpedo planes, 103 level bombers, 131 dive-bombers and 79 fighters, along with two heavy cruisers, 35 submarines, two light cruisers, nine oilers, two battleships and 11 destroyers. “Captain Mitsuo Fuchida sent the code message, ‘Tora, Tora, Tora,’ to the Japanese fleet after flying over Oahu to indicate the Americans had been caught by surprise.” 

The attack described: The attack took one hour and 15 minutes, and books have been written about it. Here are accounts from three different sources:

  • A survivor of the attack, Earl Jay Kohler, explained in an interview for the Veterans History Project that he had been assigned security watch that morning on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. Then 17 years old and a sailor, he got up early, had chow, went to work and was attempting to type a letter to his mother. “In the background I heard the sound of this approaching aircraft engine,” he remembered. That wasn’t unusual on a base, but the noise grew louder. Kohler thought it was one of the American pilots “hot–dogging it a little bit, you know, showing off.” Suddenly, there was another roar and an explosion. He was hit by glass and shrapnel. Shaking off the glass, Kohler went outside and became transfixed by the sight of another aircraft with a bomb attached to the fuselage. When it was no more than a couple hundred feet over his head, he spotted the “big round red (zero) on the bottom of the starboard wing and that, along with the bomb and stuff told me these were not the friendly fellows." He and another serviceman jumped in a ditch, then ran to get guns to fire back. Kohler was one of the first to take a defensive position on Ford Island, according to the Library of Congress.
  • The National Park Service, which operates the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, describes how, 15 minutes into the attack, the Japanese dropped a 1,760-pound bomb onto the USS Arizona: "The bomb penetrated the forward deck of the ship about 40 feet in from the bow. The resulting explosion ignited aviation fuel stores and the powder magazines for the 14-inch guns, instantly separating most of the bow from the ship and lifting the 33,000-ton vessel out of the water." That alone, along with the fire that followed, killed 1,177 sailors and Marines instantly. The fires continued for more than two days, cremating the bodies. Out of 1,511 crew members, 334 survived.
  • The New York Times reported the attack this way on Dec. 8, 1941:Sudden and unexpected attacks on Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, and other United States possessions in the Pacific early yesterday by the Japanese air force and navy plunged the United States and Japan into active war. The initial attack in Hawaii, apparently launched by torpedo-carrying bombers and submarines, caused widespread damage and death.”

Casualties, losses: The attack killed more than 2,300 servicemen, about 2,000 from the Navy and the remainder from the Marine Corps and Army, according to the National World War II Museum. The National Park Service lists 68 civilian casualties and has slightly different numbers for the military deaths. 

     Here is a list of lost or destroyed battleships, destroyers and cruisers:



Rejoined Fleets


Sunk, total loss



Sunk, raised and repaired

May 1944


Damaged, repaired

February 1944


Heavily damaged, refloated, repaired

December 1942


Capsized, total loss



Damaged, repaired

March 1942

West Virginia

Sunk, raised and repaired

July 1944


Damaged, repaired

August 1942



Rejoined Fleets


Heavily damaged, rebuilt

February 1944


Heavily damaged, rebuilt

November 1943


Damaged, repaired

January 1942 



Rejoined Fleets


Heavily damaged, rebuilt

June 1942


Damaged, repaired

January 1942


Heavily damaged, rebuilt

July 1942

US Aircraft damaged or destroyed:







Army Air Corps



     Three aircraft carriers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were out on maneuvers when the attack occurred and were unharmed, according to the National World War II Museum. The Japanese lost 29 aircraft and five midget submarines, along with 129 soldiers/airmen. One Japanese soldier was taken prisoner. 

Aftermath:  Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson ordered the entire U.S. Army to be in uniform by the next day, The New York Times reported. Frank Knox, secretary of the Navy, did the same. Roosevelt delivered his “date which will live in infamy” speech on Dec. 8, 1941, and Congress declared war on Japan.
    As fear intensified, people of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S., including citizens, were sent to internment camps
    Six months later, in June 3-6, 1942, U.S. forces won a clear victory at the Battle of Midway. 

     To know more:


    Attack inspired 'infamy' speech

    Internment of Japanese Americans still haunts 

    Gallery: Internment captured on film

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