What events led to the attack on Pearl Harbor? Why was Japan willing to engage in a bold, highly secretive raid on the main American Navy base in the Pacific? How was Japan able to pull off this dramatic, deadly strike on a cloudless Sunday morning in Hawaii? What did the United States do in retaliation? And how did the Pacific Theatre of World War II impact the United States and its people? These questions will be reviewed and answers provided for them in this paper.
What were the reasons behind the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
Why did Japan attack the United States, a nation far more powerful, with vast resources available to build the weaponry that could defeat a much smaller nation like Japan? There are many reasons for the hostility that grew between the two nations, but it is widely recognized that Japan had been spoiling for war by aggressively attacking and occupying nations in Asia with clear imperialist intentions.
Japan had attacked and occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, and when Japan carried out its murderous massacre of over 200,000 Chinese citizens in Nanking, it turned public opinion in the West (U.S., England and parts of Europe) sharply against Japan. Author Charles Maechling writes in the journal History Today that at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor Japan had "over a million" troops in China, and Japan occupied all the "principal Chinese cities" and yet Japan was "heavily dependent on outside sources for the minerals, petroleum and other raw materials needed to fuel its economy" (Maechling, 2000, 41).
Ninety percent of the oil Japan needed to run its navy and other military programs came from outside sources, Maechling explains. The Japanese also counted on scrap iron and steel, and when the U.S. placed an embargo on steel, iron, and aviation fuel to Japan, the tension grew between the two nations. And in June and July, 1941, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt placed an embargo on all petroleum products to Japan -- and "ordered the freezing of all Japanese assets in the United States" -- it was "greeted with shock and dismay" in Japan (Maechling, 46). Maechling, a retired Navy officer and international lawyer, explains that the U.S. was demanding that Japan get out of China, which also upset the Japanese leaders.
Maechling believes the Japanese attack should have been expected because of: a) the "deterioration of relations" due to Japanese aggression in China and elsewhere; b) the potentially "explosive consequences" of the American decision to "recklessly cut the energy lifeline of a powerful adversary"; and c) because the Japanese military had shown it was out of control by boldly seizing political power; in 1936 "…fanatical young officers" had assassinated "elderly and conservative [Japanese] cabinet ministers" deemed "unworthy of Japan's imperial destiny" to seize power (Maechling, 47).
Professor Norma Field writes that Japan became trapped in its own obsession for expansion. Once it launched its imperialistic aggression it "set in motion a logic of perpetual expansion" that made it necessary to occupy Manchuria in 1931 (Field, 1991, p. 818). And in order "to safeguard the spoils of earlier battles" (and not lose face) the Japanese penetrated into the heartland of China. The only solution, Field explains, from that point on was "further expansion" into Southeast Asia and "full-fledged war with the Allied Powers," including the U.S. (818). Field also suggests that Japan was willing to go to war with the U.S. because of a "half-century of national aspiration to approach parity with the Western colonizers" (820).
How did the Japanese attackers fall under the U.S. radar in Hawaii?
The attack was apparently a total surprise for the American armed forces stationed on Island of Oahu in Hawaii on that Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. In the article "The Pearl Harbor Warning that Never Was" by Robert Hanyok, the author says that even though U.S. tracking technologies were aware of "unknown aircraft approaching Oahu" (U.S. Army radar picked up blips) and even though the Japanese midget submarines were detected approaching Pearl Harbor, these discoveries "never raised a general alarm" (Hanyok, 2009 1). In other words, the mighty United States was caught asleep at the switch, literally napping while a horrific attack was on its way and nearly 3,000 Americans were about to perish.
Part of the reason the attack was a surprise was the secret development of the Japanese "Zero," a fighter plane that author Patricia Leavy claims was able to "outperform all other fighter planes at the time" (Leavy, 2007, 50). This plane was lighter than most fighter jets, hence it could fly higher and faster than other planes. The Japanese had six aircraft carriers crammed with 423 aircraft, and from 230 miles away from Oahu, 183 of those planes took off in the first wave, including 49 bombers, 51 dive bombers, 40 torpedo planes and 41 Zeros. With all these enemy planes hurtling toward Hawaii -- loaded with ordinance -- Pearl Harbor was not on high alert "because it had been concluded by officials that there was no imminent threat," Leavy reports.
As evidence that the military on Oahu were totally oblivious to any possible threat, the American aircraft were parked in the open "wingtip to wingtip" and the aircraft guns were not manned; moreover, "supplies of ammunition were locked up" and the battleships were moored very close together. Making things worse, there were no "torpedo nets" set out to protect the fleet anchorage and officers and crewmembers were sound asleep in their bunks, Leavy continues.
Eyewitness reports from the Japanese and Americans
In the website EyeWitnesstoHistory.com an article titled "Attack At Pearl Harbor, 1941 / The Japanese View" offers the recounting of that day by Japanese commander Mitsuo Fucida -- who led the first wave of the air attack. Fuchida published his recollections after the war and it has subsequently been translated into English. Fuchida remembers approaching Hawaii and looking down at "a long white line of breaking surf appeared directly beneath my plane" which turned out to be the north shore of Oahu (EyeWitnesstoHistory.com).
Fuchida looked through his binoculars and witnessed eight battleships "riding peacefully at anchor" but he did not see any aircraft carriers. This turned out to be something of a disappointment for the raiders as aircraft carriers are far and away a more appealing target in wartime than battleships. When an aircraft carrier goes down, it takes dozens of fighter planes with it, planes that will never be in the air attacking the enemy.
Still, shortly before 8:00 A.M. local time he gave the attack signal by tapping out a code, "TO, TO, TO…" (Tora, Tora, Tora) and his bomber group headed towards Barbers Point. On his second pass over the battleships, a "colossal explosion in battleship row" jolted Fuchida as another bomber had hit the U.S.S. Arizona and the explosion ignited the "magazine" (ammunition) in the big battleship. There was an enormous amount of "fierce antiaircraft" fire but nonetheless his bomber released two bombs.
As he peered down from the plane's peephole, "The bombs became smaller and finally disappeared. I held my breath until two tiny puffs of smoke flashed suddenly on the ship to the left, and I shouted, 'Two hits!'" Fuchida's plane was actually hit by antiaircraft fire and there was a hole in the fuselage and the rudder wire was damaged. But Fuchida writes that "We were fortunate that the plane was still under control, for it was imperative to fly a steady course as we approached the target" (EyeWitnesstoHistory.com).
Meanwhile, down on the water the Pacific Fleet took an enormous amount of damage. Aboard the battleship Arizona Marine Corporal E.C. Nightingale reported that he was just leaving the breakfast table when the siren went off; he ignored it because these things happen frequently, but when he heard an explosion, he knew something big was happening. He reached the boat deck and saw that the anti-aircraft guns were blazing at enemy planes and was "three quarters of the way to the first platform on the mast" when a bomb struck close to him.
"I could hear shrapnel or fragments whistling past me," he said (his story was published in EyeWitnesstoHistory.com); Nightingale saw Second Lieutenant Simonson lying on his back "with blood on his shirt front" and after a quick inspection it was clear Simonson was dead. In a few moments he was seeing "bodies of the dead" everywhere along with men that were alive but were "badly burned… charred bodies were everywhere," he said. After being blown into the water he started swimming but his strength gave out and luckily "Major Shapley started to swim by, and seeing my distress, grasped my shirt and told me to hang to his shoulders while he swam in" (EyeWitnesstoHistory.com). Nightingale said he would have certainly drowned if the major had not saved his life. He and the major made it to shore and got to a bomb shelter safely.