(Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, just as the USS Shaw exploded, owned by the US government, [Public Domain-US] via Creative Commons)
Though Pearl Harbor was a victorious surprise attack for Japan, they missed their most vital targets.
Ascent Of An Empire
The Pearl Harbor attack, a day in which thousands of lives were tragically lost, will continue to ‘live in infamy’ within the hearts and minds of many citizens of the United States. The attack’s position of high notoriety has only recently been usurped by the horrendous terrorist attacks of 9/11. Like the al-Qaeda atrocity, the attack on Pearl Harbor first shocked the American population, and when their minds were cleared of the immediate grief, quickly unified the United States for war.
Looking back, it is easy to see that the United States and Japan were already heading toward war in the 20th century, decades before the Pearl Harbor attack. From the time Japan began its unprecedented sprint to modernization during the second half of the 19th century, the island country hatched an ambitious dream to become the next great imperialist nation. Rather than try to find its own way to success, Japan adopted the systems of other great and successful nations. Japan used Britain as a model for its navy, and the Japanese army heavily studied the formidable forces of Germany. Previously an isolationist country, Japan ascended to become a major world player.
By the start of the 20th century, Japan had already defeated both China and Russia in consecutive wars, and had spread its influence into Korea. When the First World War broke out, Japan joined on the winning side, but the Japanese leadership felt unappreciated by the Allies—one of the reasons that led Japan to eventually join the Axis Powers during WWII.
Between the World Wars, Japan dove headfirst into its imperial ambitions. It spread into Manchuria in 1931, fabricated a war against China in 1937 and by 1941, Japan prepared to move into Indochina and the islands of Southeast Asia.
The United States visibly and vocally disapproved of Japan’s aggressive actions, and the more Japan expanded, the worse the tensions became. The United States was only willing to impose sanctions and embargos, but for Japan, imported resources, especially fuel, were the lifeblood of their newly acquired empire. The United States was willing to end the embargo, but only on the condition that Japan would relinquish virtually all of its conquered territory—a deal that Japan quickly resolved to decline.
A Last Hope For An Empire; An Infamous Attack
With Japan’s imperial ambitions as high as ever and the empire’s fuel reserves plummeting, Admiral Yamamoto hatched a plot to severely cripple the United States’ Pacific capabilities. He hoped to delay the U.S.’s military response by destroying its Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Some bright Americans had already predicted that a Japanese attack would occur, but few would have thought the Hawaiian base of Pearl Harbor would be the first target on Japan’s radar.
The Japanese fleet that sailed toward Hawaii at the end of 1941 was state-of-the-art. Japan had not only modernized its training and equipment, it had also surpassed some of the technologies of Europe and the United States. Japan had some of the most talented pilots of WWII, its navy was trained to fight at night, and the design of the torpedo was revolutionized under Japanese research and development. Unfortunately, U.S. sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor would have a chance to witness Japan’s advances up close and personal.
Around 8:00 AM Sunday morning, on the 7th of December, 1941, approximately 350 Japanese aircraft entered the airspace of Pearl Harbor. For the Japanese, the harbor could not have been arranged any better—the U.S. battle fleet was anchored and stationary, and in a stroke of luck for Japan, the American aircraft were outside, parked in straight lines like birds on a wire. To seal Pearl Harbor’s doom, there were very few active defenses protecting the harbor, and the response time of the shocked base was dismal. In two waves, during a two-hour attack, the Japanese massacred the United States Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor.
Japan struck Pearl Harbor with a combination of bombers, fighters and miniature submarines. Torpedoes from the submarines and bombers devastated nearly twenty ships anchored in the harbor. The Japanese fighters set their sights on the unsheltered American airplanes, destroying or damaging around 300 of the machines.
The casualties caused by the attack were enormous. More than 2,400 men stationed at Pearl Harbor died, and more than one thousand extra were wounded. The Japanese took losses too, but less than a hundred lost their lives.
When the waves of enemy fighters and bombers had withdrawn from Pearl Harbor, photographers grabbed their cameras to document the wreckage, and captured grisly images of burned, sinking ships and the visages of dead, dying and wounded soldiers. The images and news of the United States’ astounding defeat at Pearl Harbor outraged the U.S. population. There had never been such a defeat of an American force on American soil by the hands of a foreign power since the battles of American Revolutionary War. Immediately after the attack, the U.S. government launched investigations to find negligent leaders responsible for Pearl Harbor’s lack of preparation, or at least scapegoats on which to blame the disaster. Admiral Kimmel and General Short (the leaders of Pearl Harbor) both were relieved of their commands and were simultaneously subjected to public scrutiny and government inquiry.
Even though the attack targeted the U.S. position in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor was not designed to be an isolated attack. The main purpose for destroying United States’ Pacific Fleet was for distraction and delay. While the U.S. was occupied in Pearl Harbor, Japan pounced on the resource-rich islands of Southeast Asia. Japanese forces moved into Malaya and took the strategic city of Singapore. The U.S. General MacArthur was forced out of the Philippines and ordered to retreat by President Roosevelt. The Japanese continued south from the Philippines into Borneo and Indonesia, capturing more oil-rich lands. Under cover of Pearl Harbor, Japan succeeded in seizing enough resource-laden territories to ensure their self-sufficiency, and they also crippled the U.S. Pacific Fleet with one devastating blow. While that must have sounded promising for the Japanese, they soon realized that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not as successful as they had hoped.
The Successful Failure of Pearl Harbor
Even though the Japanese destroyed the U.S. Pacific Fleet and seized a large swath of territory, the Pearl Harbor attack turned out to be a failure for Japan’s strategic goals. As a destructive distraction, Pearl Harbor could not have gone better for Japan. As a delaying tactic and a means to bring the United States into a deal-making attitude, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor fell well short of Japan’s hopes.
While death is tragic, and lost lives are irreplaceable, the United States was surprisingly able to quickly repair or salvage almost all of the damaged ships from Pearl Harbor—excluding the U.S.S. Arizona and Oklahoma, the most severely damaged of the U.S. battleships. Furthermore, the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers (the most important ships in the Pacific War) were all away from Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack and were spared the fate of the other ships lost in the harbor. The greatest blessing, however, for the United States, and equally the greatest curse suffered by the Japanese, was the targets that were left untouched during the Pearl Harbor attack.
The greatest failure of the Japanese attack, especially if they wanted to cripple and delay the United States Pacific Fleet, was the survival of the U.S. repair depots and the huge fuel reserves that were left untouched by the Japanese bombers and fighters. Though thousands of American lives were lost and the whole fleet was damaged, Pearl Harbor’s dockyards and repair equipment were left intact. More miraculous, however, was the survival of the fuel that was stored at the harbor—an incredibly huge, but undefended, amount of fuel. More than a million tons of fuel was stored at Pearl Harbor and all of it survived. To put it into perspective, enough fuel survived the attack to keep the entire Pacific fleet running for nearly a year without being replenished.
With their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese destroyed the priceless lives of soldiers living at the base, and knocked the U.S. Pacific Fleet off its proverbial feet. Japan even conquered much of Southeast Asia during the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Yet, even with all that Japan gained from the attack, the less talked about failures of Pearl Harbor would prove to be overwhelming. Instead of Japan pressuring the United States into a deal, the U.S. responded with a full-scale war. Instead of crippling the United States’ Pacific Fleet, the U.S. marched into a wartime economy where they could mass-produce battleships and aircraft carriers monthly. The thousands of deaths caused by the Japanese attack inspired a patriotic fervor that caused a wave of outraged Americans to enlist in the military, and more would later be drafted.
The strike against Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese invasions of Southeast Asia in the weeks following the attack, would be the end of Japan’s major strategic offensive operations during the Pacific War. With the forces of the United States joining the Allies in the Pacific, Japan was quickly forced into a defensive posture. Instead of preserving their empire, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor doomed their imperial ambitions to failure.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations since 1871 by Robert A. Doughty and Ira D. Gruber et al. Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996.