History behind ‘date which will live in infamy’


The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service against the United States (a neutral country at the time) and its naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, just before 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.

The attack led to the United States’ formal entry into World War II the next day. The Japanese military leadership referred to the attack as the Hawaii Operation and Operation AI, and as Operation Z during its planning. Japan intended the attack as a preventive action to keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering with its planned military actions in Southeast Asia against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States. Over the course of seven hours, there were coordinated Japanese attacks on the United States held territories of the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island, and on the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The attack on Pearl Harbor commenced at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian time. The base was attacked by 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft (including fighters, level and dive bombers, and torpedo bombers) in two waves that were launched from six aircraft carriers. Of the eight U.S. Navy battleships present, all were damaged, four were sunk. All but USS Arizona were later raised. Six ships were later returned to service and went on to fight in the war.

The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer. A total of 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed. 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were wounded. Base installations such as the power station, dry dock, shipyard, maintenance, and fuel and torpedo storage facilities, as well as the submarine piers and headquarters building (also home of the intelligence section) were not attacked. The Japanese were unable to destroy vital infrastructure such as repair shops and fuel tanks. Japanese losses were light: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost, 64 servicemen killed. The commanding officer of one of the submarines, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured.

The Japanese attack force (which included six aircraft carriers and 420 planes) sailed from Hitokappu Bay in the Kurile Islands on a 3,500-mile voyage to a staging area 230 miles off the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The Japanese sailed without radar or reconnaissance planes overhead, in an effort to avoid detection.

The first wave of the attack included 180 Japanese aircraft, including torpedo planes, high-level bombers, dive bombers and fighters. They were followed by a second wave of similar size, but with more dive bombers and no torpedo planes. Japanese torpedo bombers flew just 50 feet above the water as they fired at the U.S. ships in the harbor, while other planes repeatedly attacked the decks with bullets and dropped bombs. The Japanese attack lasted nearly two hours.

Though caught off guard, U.S. service members fought back hard and managed to fire more than 284,000 rounds of ammunition at the Japanese attackers. One of the most outstanding heroes was Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller, who took over a 50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun on the U.S.S. West Virginia. Despite his inexperience with the weapon, he managed to shoot down between four and six Japanese planes before being ordered to abandon ship. He later became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross. Miller was killed in action in 1943.

The USS Arizona, which was moored next to a repair ship when the attack began, was struck by several Japanese bombs and exploded into flames as it sank. More than 1,100 service members were killed, including Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd and the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Franklin Van Valkenburgh.

With diplomatic negotiations with Japan breaking down, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers knew that an imminent Japanese attack was probable; but nothing had been done to increase security at the important naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday morning, and many military personnel had been given passes to attend religious services off base. At 7:02 a.m., two radar operators spotted large groups of aircraft in flight toward the island from the north, but, with a flight of B-17s expected from the United States at the time, they were told to sound no alarm. The Japanese air assault came as a devastating surprise to the naval base.

The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States into World War II. Much of the Pacific fleet was rendered useless. Despite inflicting heavy casualties, the Japanese attackers failed to achieve their objective of disabling the U.S. fleet. No U.S. aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor that day. Fortunately, for the United States, all three Pacific fleet carriers were out at sea on training maneuvers. These giant aircraft carriers would have their revenge against Japan six months later at the Battle of Midway, reversing the tide against the previously invincible Japanese navy in a spectacular victory.

Japanese forces trained for about a year to prepare for the attack. They added wooden fins to their aerial torpedoes and made other modifications so that they could work on short runs at the 45-foot average depth of Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor was devised by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a former student at Harvard University who had served as Japan’s naval attaché in Washington, D.C. Yamamoto knew that the United States had far greater resources than Japan, and that his country could not win a protracted war. Yamamoto believed that Japan’s only chance for success was to stage a surprise assault that would knock the U.S. fleet out of action for a year or more. Yamamoto, the architect of the attack, didn’t survive to see Japan’s eventual defeat. He was killed in 1943, when American fighters shot down his plane over the Solomon Islands.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry wanted to present the United States with a declaration of war prior to the attack, so that they wouldn’t violate international law. But they were blocked by the Japanese military, which didn’t want to jeopardize the operation.

The Japanese radio code indicating a successful attack was “Tora, tora tora.” The word “tora” means tiger in Japanese. It may have been inspired by a Japanese saying, “A tiger goes out two thousand miles and returns without fail.”

The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress and declared, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” After a brief and forceful speech, he asked Congress to approve a resolution recognizing the state of war between the United States and Japan. The Senate voted for war against Japan by 82 to 0, and the House of Representatives approved the resolution by a vote of 388 to 1. The sole dissenter was Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a devout pacifist who had also cast a dissenting vote against the United States entrance into World War I. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, and the United States government responded in kind.

The American contribution to the successful Allied war effort spanned four long years and cost more than 400,000 American lives.


By Harold B. Wolford

Veterans Corner

Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973. Wolford can be reached via email at [email protected].

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