Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941
Facts, information and articles about the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Date: December 7, 1941
Location: Oahu, Hawaii
United States: Husband Kimmel and Walter Short
Japanese: Chuichi Nagumo and Isoroku Yamamoto
Outcome: Japanese Victory
Casualties: United States: 3,700 Japanese: 50 civilians: 48-68
Importance: The surprise attack on America led to the nation entering World War II
Explore the HistoryNet archives about Pearl Harbor
» See all Pearl Harbor Articles
Pearl Harbor summary:
On December 7, 1941 the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the US Naval Base Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, using bombers, torpedo bombers and midget submarines. On December 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his “Infamy Speech” to American citizens, informing them that this occurred despite the fact that the US was in the midst of talks to keep peace with Japan. That same day, with congressional approval, America entered into World War II.
On the southern end of Oahu, Pearl Harbor held a 22,000 acre naval base. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel of the Navy and Lt. General Walter C. Short of the Army were in command of the fleet and troops on the ground, respectively. The majority of the Pacific area’s military commands were headquartered there because of growing apprehensions regarding an aggressive Japanese presence.
Since Emperor Hirohito’s Japan wanted to expand in territory and power like some European countries, it needed natural resources, like oil and aluminum found in the Netherlands East Indies. Standing in opposition to Japanese conquest of what Japan’s leaders termed “the Southern Resource Area” was the United States. In 1940 the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands had initiated a total embargo of oil and scrap metal to Japan in response to Japan invading French Indochina. Unless a new source of oil was opened, the Imperial Japanese Navy would be in dry dock within a year and Japanese industries would grind to a halt in 12–18 months.
A plan was developed to cripple the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor to allow time for Japan to seize the resource areas it needed and fortify them to the point that retaking them would cost more lives than the Imperial High Command thought Americans would be willing to pay. The Pearl Harbor attack plan was conceived by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the IJN. Yamamoto had studied in the United States. He knew his nation lacked the ability to defeat the much larger, resource-and industry-rich country and did not share the opinion of many Japanese officers that the Americans were too weak-willed to fight. However, Yamamoto’s vociferous arguments against going to war with America were overruled by the High Command. The attack on Pearl Harbor, which was influenced by the successful British attack that used carrier aircraft against the Italian fleet at Taranto, Italy the previous year, was essentially a last best-hope for Japanese success in the Pacific.
Early in the morning on December 7, more than 350 Japanese planes attacked about 33 American ships on orders of Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. America sustained a loss of nearly 170 aircraft destroyed and 160 damaged that morning, as well as three ships destroyed and 16 damaged. Three thousand seven hundred Americans lost their lives, including 68 civilians. The cost to the Japanese was 29 aircraft, five midget submarines, and 130 service personnel, all but one of whom was killed in action.
The Pearl Harbor Memorial
The Pearl Harbor memorial, otherwise known as the USS Arizona Memorial, is a National Monument located at the site of the sunken battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Commemorating the 1,177 crewman who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor, it s a tribute to World War II valor in the Pacific. Learn more about the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Articles Featuring Pearl Harbor From History Net Magazines
The Pearl Harbor Myth
As a wave of shock surged from Pearl Harbor’s burning waters, the nation stood in awe of the destruction wrought by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “The incredulousness of it all still gives each new announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack the unreality of a fairy tale,” a young naval aviator stationed in Virginia wrote just hours after the attack. “How could they have been so mad?… If the reports I’ve heard today are true, the Japanese have performed the impossible, have carried out one of the most daring and successful raids in all history.… The whole thing was brilliant.”
In just 90 minutes, the Japanese had inflicted a devastating blow: five battleships were sunk, three battleships, three cruisers, and three destroyers were damaged, and nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed. The most devastating loss was the 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 wounded. Michael Slackman, a consulting historian to the U.S. Navy, described the attack as “almost textbook perfect” in his book Target: Pearl Harbor (1990). Gordon Prange, the battle’s leading historian, judged it “brilliantly conceived and meticulously planned.” Another prominent historian, Robert L. O’Connell, author of Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (1995), likened it to the perfection of a “flashing samurai sword.” Even the recorded narration on a Pearl Harbor tour boat says the attack was “brilliantly conceived and executed.”
Yet a detailed examination of the preparation and execution of the attack on the Pacific Fleet reveals a much different story. Even after 10 months of arduous planning, rehearsal, and intelligence gathering, the attack was plagued by inflexibility, a lack of coordination, and misallocated resources. A plan for a likely contingency was cobbled together by three midgrade officers while en route to Hawaii. The attack itself suffered significant command blunders. Though armed with enough firepower to destroy up to 14 battleships and aircraft carriers, the Japanese landed killing hits on only three battleships; luck, combined with American damage control mistakes, added two more battleships to their tally. Not only was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor far from brilliant, it also narrowly avoided disaster.
High Command and Aviators Disagree on Primary Targets
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, thought he saw a way to win an impossible war, beginning with a surprise attack against American battleships. He believed battleships possessed “intangible political effects internationally as a symbol of naval power.” Sinking them, in tandem with capturing the Philippines, would so shock and demoralize the American people that their will to continue the war would sink along with the shattered battlewagons. The Japanese Naval General Staff wanted to sink battleships, too, but for a different reason: they calculated (from some faulty initial assumptions) that crippling four of the eight battleships in port would prevent the Pacific Fleet from sailing to relieve the Philippines for six months, allowing the Japanese to secure the flank of their southern advance.
The aviators involved had other target priorities. The operation’s main planner, Commander Minoru Genda, was a brilliant and iconoclastic fighter pilot known as “Madman Genda” for his belief that battleships were anachronisms. While a student at the Naval Staff College, he had called for the Imperial Navy to scrap all battleships and build only carriers. When assigned in early 1941 to plan an attack to sink battleships at Pearl Harbor, he instead plotted to aim the bulk of the attack at any carriers that might be in port. His fixation would come close to disrupting the entire attack.
The plan finally presented to the admirals called for a first wave of 40 Nakajima B5N carrier attack bombers (later code-named “Kates” by the Allies), each carrying a Type 91 aerial torpedo, to open the assault on Pearl Harbor. According to the Japanese Official History, they were to first attack four designated battleships, then shift their attention to carriers. After crippling or sinking these ships, the attack would shift to the remaining battleships, then shift again to cruisers.
It was an overly complex, impossible scheme, likely constructed merely to brief the admirals, who were largely ignorant of aviation tactics and would not know that such an orderly progression through the targets was unworkable. Genda and the planners were well aware that the torpedo bombers had to fly low and slow as they approached their targets, making them extremely vulnerable to antiaircraft fire.
The plan they intended to use split 90 Kates between two roles: torpedo and level bombing. Genda then divided the 40 acting as torpedo bombers into four formations. They were to travel together to a point north of Pearl Harbor, where 16 torpedo bombers in two formations would separate to approach from the west and attack the carrier moorings, while 24 torpedo bombers in two formations would attack Battleship Row from the east. Immediately after, 50 more Kates acting as level bombers would attack from high altitude, dropping massive 1,760-pound armor-piercing bombs on the battleships sheltered from torpedo fire by other ships or dry docks.
The plan emphasized surprise; all 40 torpedo bombers could deliver their attacks in less than 90 seconds, before the enemy defenses could respond. It would be impossible for the torpedo bomber aircrews to methodically ratchet through a complicated target prioritization scheme because they would not be in a position to observe or evaluate the attacks of the aircraft that went before them. Each aircrew could only do their best to identify a good target, launch a torpedo, and get out as quickly as possible. They were instructed to concentrate their attacks to ensure that ships would be sunk rather than just damaged, but at the same time avoid “overkill” on ships already sinking, as any such hits would be a waste and better applied to other targets.
A second wave of the attack was to be launched about an hour after the first: 81 Aichi D3A dive-bombers (“Val”) armed with 550-pound general-purpose bombs—which were unable to penetrate battleship deck armor—had the carriers as their primary targets. They were to stay on those targets, even if the carriers had been sunk or capsized by the torpedo bombers.
Genda, true to his philosophy, assigned twice as many torpedo bombers per carrier than per battleship, despite the fact that fewer hits would sink a carrier. In other words, he allocated more than enough firepower to sink the carriers, but sent only enough firepower to cripple the battleships. He wanted to guarantee the carriers would never be salvaged.
Inadequate Rehearsal Sets the Stage for Gaffes
The Imperial Japanese Navy had begun preparing for the Pacific War in earnest in 1938. They grounded their hopes that their smaller navy would prevail through better tactics, better weapons, and better training. Realism, not safety precautions, drove their intensive preparations. Destroyers practiced torpedo attacks at night and in poor weather at high speed, resulting in some catastrophic collisions. Night bombing attacks were practiced while searchlights dazzled the pilots, resulting in midair collisions. The cost in airplanes and lives was deemed acceptable.
Yet the attack on Pearl Harbor went forward without a realistic dress rehearsal. Each mission type—dive-bomber, level bomber, torpedo bomber, and fighter—trained independently. The Japanese simply did not practice combined arms doctrine, which utilizes different types of units in complementary ways to achieve an objective. There was no combined training until the very end, when the Japanese staged two practice attacks against target battleships at anchor in Japan’s Inland Sea, and against a nearby airfield. But the ships were not arrayed as in Pearl Harbor, the sun angle and geography were different, and the approaches were nothing like Oahu’s narrow lochs. The torpedo bombers apparently did not even employ the attack formation they would later use. On top of all that, they repeatedly concentrated on the easiest targets; no corrective action was taken.
Poor Planning Neglects a Likely Contingency
On the eve of their departure, the planners realized that everything they had devised and practiced was based on achieving surprise. What if the Americans were alert?
Genda met with Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the strike commander, and Lieutenant Shigeharu Murata, the torpedo bomber commander, in the flagship’s wardroom after departing from Japan. They devised a modification to the master plan: Fuchida, leading the first wave, would fire one flare for “surprise achieved” or two flares for “surprise lost.” If the Americans were on the alert, the first-wave dive-bombers—which, in the original plan, were to orbit north of the harbor until the torpedo bombers finished their attack—would surge ahead and bomb Ford Island and Hickam Field to draw antiaircraft fire from the torpedo bombers.
This last-minute change held the spark of chaos. It was formulated without any flag officer or senior staff captain present; Genda and Fuchida were probably embarrassed that they had neglected such an obvious contingency. Murata objected to the plan, unwilling to risk his vulnerable torpedo bombers against an awakened defense, but was overruled. Reflecting the lack of a combined arms approach, the new plan was cemented without input from the fighter or dive-bomber leaders.
Another key contingency emerged at the last minute—and was ignored. The day before the strike, Japanese intelligence reported that there were no carriers in Pearl Harbor. Genda could have redirected the attack to focus on battleships and cruisers. However, a staff officer expressed hope that the carriers might return in the few hours remaining before the attack. Genda brightened: “If that happened, I don’t care if all eight battleships are away.” The plan remained unchanged.
Communications Blunder Distorts Attack Plan
As the first wave neared Oahu’s northern shore just after 7:30 a.m. on December 7, clouds blocked the route down the center of Oahu. Fuchida veered, leading the way down the island’s west side. After the massed formation cleared the clouds, he made no attempt to regain the planned track.
Spotting no sign that their presence had been detected, Fuchida fired a single flare to activate the “surprise” attack plan. When the fighters did not take up their assigned positions, however, he assumed they had missed the signal and fired another—without considering that the observers might take this as the two-flare signal. He groaned as the dive-bomber leader, believing that surprise had been lost, raced ahead of the torpedo bombers to make his diversionary attack.
Fuchida later told Gordon Prange, the author of At Dawn We Slept (1981), that he “ground his teeth in rage [but later] realized that the error made no practical difference.” He also diverted blame onto the dive-bomber leader—“that fool Takahashi, he was a bit soft in the head.”
Fuchida’s blunder did in fact make a monumental practical difference: with half the aviators trying to execute a different plan, order disintegrated as the dive-bombers and torpedo bombers raced each other to the harbor like horses released from the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. The dive-bombers arrived first, without climbing to standard bombing altitude, which reduced the accuracy of their attacks. Their bombs, exploding on Ford Island and Hickam Field, awoke American defenders aboard ships in the harbor.
Because the attack groups split up west rather than north of the harbor, the torpedo bombers assigned to strike the carrier moorings commenced their attack about five minutes before their counterparts assigned to Battleship Row. This granted still more reaction time for the defenders; on average, around 25 percent of each vessel’s antiaircraft guns were manned and stocked with ammunition as the attack began. As a result, the first torpedo bomber to attack a battleship was met with heavy fire. Most of the torpedo planes were hit, and five of the last seven to arrive were shot down, all due to Fuchida’s mistake.
Torpedo Bomber Formation Errors Result in Chaos
The planners had selected a long single-file attack formation for the torpedo bombers, with 500-meter (7-second) intervals between aircraft, which they believed suited Pearl Harbor’s long, narrow lochs. It proved a poor choice.
In the confusion following Fuchida’s blunder with the flares, and the pilots’ apparent lack of practice in changing from cruise to attack formation, up to 1,800 meters (30 seconds) stretched between aircraft, and miles opened between the two formations that were to attack Battleship Row. Pilots lost sight of their leaders, or even the aircraft ahead, and had to gain altitude and circle to get their bearings. Some broke away from their formation leader and attacked independently. There were mistakes, aborted runs, misidentified targets, and at least one near collision that forced a bomber to jettison its torpedo.
Instead of a tightly timed attack lasting 90 seconds, the torpedo attack stretched out over 11 minutes, with torpedo bombers spaced far apart, allowing the defenders’ antiaircraft fire to concentrate on each in turn.
At this point, Japanese fighters had detached to strafe nearby airfields. Had American fighters been aloft over the harbor, instead of grounded by communication issues, the scattered torpedo bombers could easily have been slaughtered.
With no carriers in port, nearly half the torpedo bombers fell into disarray over which ships to target.
Lieutenant Hirata Matsumara, leading 16 torpedo bombers, struggled to identify targets against the early morning sun’s glare—a challenge the rehearsals had not prepared him for. Impatient aviators surged ahead and Matsumara’s formations disintegrated. Six torpedo bombers misidentified the demilitarized battleship Utah as a frontline battleship and attacked, scoring only two hits. One torpedo missed Utah so badly it hit the light cruiser Raleigh in an adjacent berth. Considering that this first wave was unopposed by enemy fighters and flew the easiest approach—similar to rehearsals, when 83 percent of the torpedo bombers hit their targets—it was a miserable performance.
The remaining 10 bombers in the carrier attack group swung south of Ford Island looking for battleships; none of the aviators wanted to come home from the most important battle in Japanese history to say they had attacked a secondary target. Five misidentified the backlit silhouette of the old minelayer Oglala, moored outboard of the light cruiser Helena, as a battleship; only one torpedo hit. In all, 11 of the 16 torpedoes from the group assigned to attack carriers—more than a quarter of the 40 torpedoes in the entire attack—were launched at misidentified targets.
The Battleship Row attackers made their runs under heavy fire, further hampered by the remaining bombers from Matsumara’s group that were trying to squeeze in their attacks at the same time. All were desperate to drop their torpedoes before the defending antiaircraft fire became more intense and, just as in rehearsals, aimed mostly at the easiest targets—the battleships Oklahoma and West Virginia. Of the 19 total torpedo hits, these two battleships absorbed 12—nearly two-thirds of the hits. Four of these were overkill, wasted torpedoes that would have been more effective against the battleships California, which received only two hits, and Nevada, which received just one.
Only 11 torpedo hits were against properly identified targets that were part of the objective; the score rises to 13 if the accidental hits on the cruisers Raleigh and Helena are included. Thus, at best 33 percent of the torpedoes brought to the battle were effective—far short of the 67 percent Genda had expected.
Just before the 81 second-wave dive-bombers launched, the pilots were informed that the American carriers were not in port. Rather than turning their focus to the secondary targets—cruisers—word was circulated that they were to finish off ships damaged in the first attack. Many of the pilots took this vague declaration as an order to strike battleships, despite the known ineffectiveness of their general-purpose bombs in this role.
While the second wave approached the harbor, Fuchida—after dropping his armor-piercing bomb (a miss)—spent 30 minutes circling the harbor. He could have identified targets for the dive-bombers and directed their attacks. Instead, he did nothing. The most senior aviator over Pearl Harbor was a passive observer.
The dive-bomber pilots, left to select targets, wasted most of their ordnance. Forty percent of the dive-bombers went after battleships. Another 7 dropped their payload on destroyers misidentified as cruisers, 16 attacked auxiliary vessels misidentified as cruisers or battleships, 8 bombed a destroyer in dry dock, 2 attacked an oiler in the channel, and 1 attacked an ammunition ship. One may even have attacked the Dutch liner Jagersfontein in Honolulu Harbor, 10 miles away. Only 14 of the 78 bombers that arrived at Pearl Harbor attacked appropriate targets—cruisers.
The Japanese expected their dive-bombers to land 49 hits, a 60 percent success rate; even with a charitable definition of what constitutes a hit, they achieved only 15 hits, or 19 percent. Three bombs that had been aimed at battleships missed so badly they hit destroyers, so only 15 percent of the bombs actually hit their intended targets—another miserable performance.
Five hits were scored on the battleship Nevada, a ship already sufficiently damaged by a torpedo strike in the first wave. These hits triggered a damage control blunder by the Americans, which ultimately sank the ship. Single hits on California and Pennsylvania caused little damage.
The remaining second-wave dive-bombers contributed nothing to Japan’s objective of immobilizing the Pacific Fleet for six months. There was only one direct hit on a cruiser, Raleigh, but like the Nevada it had already been torpedoed and would be out of the war for six months. A near miss caused some flooding aboard the cruiser Honolulu, quickly repaired. Three hits landed on a destroyer in a floating dry dock. Another hit on an aircraft tender was later mended in a single day at the San Diego shipyard.
Overall, the Japanese attack fell far short of its potential. There were eight battleships and eight cruisers in port; four of each were accessible to torpedo attack. The Japanese had more than enough armor-piercing bombs to sink the ships inaccessible to torpedoes, along with two of the four battleships that were either double-berthed or in dry dock, and enough general-purpose bombs to sink all of the cruisers. But instead of destroying 14 of the 16 priority targets, they dropped killing ordnance on only three: Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona. Two other battleships —California and Nevada—later sank because of flooding, damage control errors, and poor construction. This raised the score to 5 of the 16 priority targets, or only 31 percent—a poorly planned and executed attack, no matter how it is dissected.
Lessons of a Flawed Victory
Its flaws aside, however, the attack’s results are all too familiar. Japan succeeded in taking the United States by surprise. Five battleships sank; the loss of American lives shook the nation to its core. December 7, 1941, will never cease to live in infamy.
But examining the attack’s planning and execution blunders offers a key perspective on the Pacific War. Defeat forces change; victory entrenches the current system, with all its faults.
By celebrating its success at Pearl Harbor, Japan sheltered myriad problems. Victory obscured poor planning, to be seen again at Midway; poor staff procedures were evident later at Guadalcanal. Poor target selection, attack tactics, and accuracy appeared again in the carrier battles; poor aerial command and control manifested throughout the war. Victory perpetuated a samurai approach to aerial combat that led to horrendous losses.
Most significantly, Pearl Harbor cemented the Japanese belief that they could achieve stunning victory against all odds—that with sufficient will and the favor of the gods they could achieve the impossible. This sustained Japan when defeat was inevitable; it prolonged the war; it nurtured the Bushido warrior spirit—and its dark side, the kamikaze. Paradoxically, the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor firmly entrenched the seeds of the destruction of their navy, and near destruction of their nation.
Alan D. Zimm heads a section of the Aviation Systems and Advanced Concepts Group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He is a former surface line officer in the U.S. Navy. His book The Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deception was released in May 2011 by Casemate Publishers.
What If the Pearl Harbor Attack Had Failed?
From his flagship, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo watched with mingled fear and fury as the remnants of his aerial armada returned to the six carriers of Japan’s 1st Air Fleet. The fear stemmed from Commander Mitsuo Fuchida’s radioed report that the Pearl Harbor gamble had been a fiasco. The fury stemmed from the memory of how he and numerous others had advised Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto against this insane venture, only to have the commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy arrogantly overrule them.
At the debriefing of his pilots, Nagumo learned the full extent of the disaster. An American combat air patrol had spotted the first wave of 183 planes as they neared the northern coast of Oahu. By the time the attackers had reached Pearl Harbor, swarms of P-40s had risen to challenge them, while the sky above the objective roiled with antiaircraft fire from American warships and shore batteries. Forced to dodge this storm of shrapnel, Fuchida’s dive bombers and level bombers had scored few hits, none of them severe, while the torpedo planes, condemned to an unswerving course as they neared their targets, were nearly wiped out. The 170 aircraft of the second wave, trailing an hour behind the first, had suffered even greater losses. All in all, the Americans had destroyed or damaged nearly a third of Nagumo’s attacking force.
The above scenario could easily have occurred. Twelve weeks before the actual Pearl Harbor attack, a Japanese war exercise had demonstrated that even on short notice, American fighters and antiaircraft fire could decimate Japan’s air flotilla and prevent serious damage to the American fleet. And indeed, historically, the second wave, hampered by massive antiaircraft fire, accounted for only 10 percent of the total damage.
The American defenders could have received the warning in any of several ways: by better analysis of signals intelligence; by greater vigilance on the part of Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, commander of the defense of Oahu; or by a more precise report from radar operatives, who spotted the incoming attack formation but failed to indicate its size, leading the watch commander to assume it must be a flight of B-17 bombers due from the mainland. Murphy’s Law—“If anything can go wrong, it will”—could well have operated against the Japanese instead of the Americans.
What would have been the sequel to a failed attack? Three scenarios are possible. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel might have sent his battleships in hot pursuit of Nagumo’s task force. But with two of his three flattops detached to ferry aircraft to Wake and Midway Islands (the third was at San Diego, over 2,500 miles to the northeast), and just four oilers immediately available out of the 25 required to refuel the fleet at sea, this course of action seems unlikely. He might have kept the fleet in harbor and confined the fast carriers to brief hit-and-run strikes on Japanese outposts, as occurred historically. But Kimmel was an offense-minded admiral and the spirit of War Plan Orange—the Navy’s long-standing blueprint for a conflict with Japan—was also offensive. Thus he might well have chosen a third course, and steamed west in search of an early, decisive confrontation with Japanese naval forces in the Central Pacific.
Nowhere in the official documents do specific directives for such an operation exist. But in War Plan Orange, a magisterial study of naval planning done in preparation for a war in the Pacific, historian Edward S. Miller notes that the instructions that American submarine and carrier forces were supposed to execute in the event of war with Japan make sense only in the context of an early battle in the Central Pacific. Recollections of those involved and of other historians support that idea. Kimmel’s operations officer maintained that the Pacific fleet was “virtually mobilized” and ready to sortie en masse within one to four days of the outbreak of war. His battle force commander recalled that a 1941 war game included a full-scale battleship strike as well as carrier and submarine raids. And Gordon W. Prange, a historian who concentrated on the Pearl Harbor attack, believed that in the event of war, “Kimmel proposed to sail forth to engage Yamamoto and waste no time about it.”
Miller believes Kimmel would have pursued the following plan: American submarines would immediately sail west to reconnoiter and torpedo any enemy vessels they encountered. By 16J—the 16th day after the outbreak of war—the U.S. fleet would have sailed to Point Tare, a rendezvous point near Wake Island. Preliminary raids by American carrier aircraft would have functioned as bait to lure the Japanese Navy in that direction. With part of the Japanese Navy committed elsewhere, Kimmel anticipated an even match in terms of capital ships. In this he was correct. Yamamoto sent two of his ten battleships to support operations in southeast Asia. Thus, both sides would have had eight battleships available for the fight. The Japanese would have had an edge in aircraft carriers, but this would have been partially offset by the availability of American land-based aircraft on Wake Island—and the massive depletion of Japanese carrier-based aircraft that resulted from the failed Pearl Harbor attack.
The outcome of a major 1941 battle in the Central Pacific is impossible to predict. A decisive Japanese defeat would have been at least as crippling to the Japanese Navy as Yamamoto’s historical defeat at Midway in June 1942. A decisive American defeat would have been far worse than the historical Pearl Harbor attack. Most of the vessels damaged or sunk were subsequently repaired and returned to action, whereas any warships lost in the Central Pacific would have disappeared beneath thousands of feet of water.
But no American victory would have been great enough to prevent the Japanese seizure of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. And no Japanese triumph would have been enough to prevent America’s industrial might from sending forth hundreds of new warships to renew the fight. All that is certain is that Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the scapegoat of Pearl Harbor, might instead have gained the hero’s reputation that a bitter U.S. Congressman accused him of coveting: that of an “American Nelson.”
Pearl Harbor Attack: Lieutenant Lawrence Ruff Survived the Attack Aboard the USS Nevada
Lieutenant Lawrence Ruff, USS Nevada‘s communications officer, rose early that Sunday. He had turned in after the ship’s movie the night before, planning to attend church services on the hospital ship Solace. Since his transfer to Nevada, he had lived on board as a ‘geographical bachelor,’ leaving his wife back on the West Coast. They had both decided that life in the islands, while idyllic, was too uncertain and potentially dangerous for a family household. Emerging on deck, Ruff stepped into another day in paradise. High clouds lingered over the Koolau Mountain Range to the east, but the sun had already burned off most of the early morning overcast. Lieutenant Ruff joined Father Drinnan in the boat headed for Solace. Chugging in leisurely fashion across Pearl Harbor, the launch deposited the two officers at Solace‘s accommodation ladder shortly before 7 a.m. Ruff waited in the officers’ lounge while Father Drinnan assisted in the preparation for services.
Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), had most of his ships in port that Sunday. While his aircraft carriers were at sea delivering planes to some of America’s outlying Pacific islands, he felt it would be prudent to keep his remaining ships under the protective cover of land-based aircraft. Nests of destroyers bobbed together, tethered to mooring buoys about the harbor. The larger cruisers and auxiliaries rode alone or occupied the limited berthing space at the naval station. The heart of the fleet, seven battleships, rode at their moorings east of Ford Island. An eighth battleship, Pennsylvania, rested on blocks in dry dock No. 1.
While the smaller ships swayed gently in the wind, the broad-beamed, immense battleships were unaffected by the lapping water. In the atmosphere of rising tensions with Japan, Admiral Kimmel wanted to keep his fleet concentrated for any eventuality. For the officers and men, Sunday in port meant holiday routine, with liberty for most of the men and reduced work schedules for those standing watch. As the tropical heat rose and the clouds retreated, December 7, 1941, promised to be an excellent day for relaxation.
Nevada occupied berth Fox 8 alone at the northeast end of the line of battleships. At 583 feet long and 29,000 tons, Nevada and her sister ship Oklahoma were the smallest and oldest. Nevertheless, each possessed a powerful main battery of 10 14-inch guns. Twelve 5-inch guns, four 6-pounder anti-aircraft guns and eight .50-caliber machine guns provided anti-aircraft protection. Six Bureau Express oil-fired boilers powered a pair of Parsons turbines generating 25,000 shaft horsepower for a top speed of 20.5 knots.
While Lieutenant Ruff waited for services to start, the reveille watch on Nevada polished brass, piped away breakfast and woke the forenoon watch. The assistant quartermaster of the watch woke Ensign Joseph K. Taussig, Jr., the forenoon officer of the deck, at 7 a.m. Taussig was the junior gunnery officer in charge of the starboard anti-aircraft batteries. He did not have to relieve the watch until 7:45 and had ample time to dress and eat breakfast.
Ensign Taussig was descended from a proud naval family. His father and namesake had led the first American warships to Europe in World War I. Destroyer Squadron 8’s six ships had barely arrived in Ireland following a rough North Atlantic passage when British Vice Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly asked when they would be available. Commander Taussig answered confidently, ‘We are ready now, sir.’ Truly a fine example for the young Taussig to live up to.
Taussig relieved the watch promptly at 7:45. His first duty of the day was to execute colors at 8 a.m. A 23-member band and color guard, with proper holiday colors for Sunday, stood ready. Taussig had to precisely follow the lead of the senior officer present afloat, Rear Adm. William R. Furlong on the minesweeper Oglala. At the proper signal, they would raise the national ensign aft and the blue, white-starred jack forward and play the national anthem, simultaneously. Taussig was determined to execute this ceremony in precise military fashion. The rest of the watch was easy in comparison. First call to colors sounded at 7:55. Few on deck noticed the planes buzzing around the harbor. The watch piped colors at 8 a.m., the flags went up and the band played. Only what they thought to be an inconsiderate Army aviator roaring low over Battleship Row marred the ceremony.
But this was no ill-timed Army drill. At 7:40 a.m. Japanese naval aircraft, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, approached Kahuku Point, the northernmost tip of the island of Oahu. There, the main force broke into smaller attack groups, each proceeding to its primary target. Fuchida, in a Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber, accompanied the high-level bombers. Nevada was his plane’s target. Torpedo bombers, dive bombers and high-level bombers formed up northwest of Kaena Point at 7:50. Five minutes later, the first bombs began to fall on both ships and Oahu’s shore installations. Midway through the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ on Nevada, the first bomb exploded on Ford Island’s seaplane ramp.
Hard on the heels of the first blast came several more. A torpedo struck USS Arizona, just ahead of Nevada. As the B5N torpedo bomber (later given the Allied code name of Kate) pulled up over Nevada, its rear gunner sprayed the fantail, shredding the flag but, amazingly, missing the tight ranks of bandsmen. Through shock, discipline or habit, the band members finished the anthem before rushing to their battle stations. Ships’ klaxons sounded all over the harbor, mixed with the wail of air-raid sirens from the nearby airfields. Smoke from fires and spray from near-misses obscured the sights of gunners bringing their mounts into action.
Ensign Taussig rushed through the press of men to his battle station in the starboard anti-aircraft director. From there, he took charge of Nevada‘s defensive fire. The regularly manned fore and aft .50-caliber machine guns chattered, and a single 5-inch gun barked. Taussig plugged his sound-powered phones into the net, linking him with the other anti-aircraft stations. He found many of them already on the line. One 5-inch mount had been manned at the beginning of the raid for its daily systems check. Taussig calmly passed orders while guiding his director from target to target, but the system was inadequate to handle so many attackers. Surprised men scrambled up from below, struggling into their clothes. Shortly after 8 o’clock, most of the guns were manned and firing but lacked good overall coordination. Despite the confusion, Nevada‘s gunners had already claimed a couple of enemy planes shot down, including a torpedo bomber off the port quarter. Marine Private Peyton McDaniel paused to watch a torpedo bear down on the ship. Though he expected it to break the ship in two, Nevada only shuddered and listed somewhat to port.
Then a projectile crashed into Taussig’s gun director, passed through his thigh and smashed the ballistics computer. In shock, the ensign felt no pain. His leg was shattered, and his left foot was lodged up under his armpit. Taussig commented absently, ‘That’s a hell of a place for a foot to be.’
Ignoring his injury and refusing evacuation, Taussig tried to regain control of the gun mounts. While the guns could still fire in local control, Taussig knew that they would be much more effective in directed mode. Most of the connections between his director and the starboard guns were cut, but the wounded ensign continued to give visual spotting reports over his sound-powered phones.
Far above, Commander Fuchida guided his bombers down Battleship Row. Although anti-aircraft fire increased steadily, most of the shells burst well below his planes. The gunfire and lingering high clouds frustrated the attackers, and Fuchida’s bombardier reported that he could not see Nevada. Other planes reported similar difficulties, though some managed to drop their bombs. With resistance still largely ineffective, Fuchida did not want to rush the attacks, so he led his charges in a wide circle over Honolulu to make another run. This took only a few minutes, but on the second pass the northern end of Battleship Row was still obscured, this time by the blaze and thick, oily smoke from Arizona. Despairing of a clear shot at Nevada, Fuchida directed his pilot to try for another ship.
Lieutenant Ruff remembered saying to himself, ‘Uh oh, some fool pilot has gone wild,’ as he heard the first explosion from Solace. A short time later, he heard a roar and rushed to the starboard porthole in time to see Arizona erupt in a ball of flame. Leaving Father Drinnan behind, he commandeered one of Solace‘s launches, directing the coxswain back to Nevada. The small boat labored across the smoky harbor, strafed but unhit. Shouting above the din, Ruff guided the coxswain under Nevada‘s stern for protection from low-flying attackers. Moments later, he scrambled up the accommodation ladder to the quarterdeck.
Ruff found himself in the midst of a full-blown shooting war. Minutes after Arizona had been torpedoed, a speeding Kate launched one into Nevada, tearing a 45-by-30-foot gash in her bow. The gunners labored to maintain a high volume of fire, but the Japanese aircraft seemed to attack with impunity. Fuses set for too low an altitude caused 5-inch shells to explode below many of the attackers. Lack of coordination reduced overall effectiveness. Ruff saw only a glimpse of this as he headed below to his general quarters station in radio central. On the way he passed Ensign ‘Pops’ Jenkins at his damage control station near the galley, but they exchanged little more than a glance. Ruff trotted down the passageway, ducking through watertight doors. He reasoned that with Captain Francis Scanland and the executive officer ashore, Lt. Cmdr. Francis Thomas, the command duty officer, would need all the help he could get. Though unsure of Thomas’ location, Ruff realized that radio central would not play much of a role under the current circumstances. He changed direction and headed up to the navigation bridge. There, higher and more exposed, Ruff could feel the intense heat and smoke from Arizona.
Upon reaching the bridge, Ruff found Quartermaster Chief Robert Sedberry on station. When the attack began, Chief Sedberry, on his own initiative, had ordered engineering to prepare to get underway. Since Nevada always kept one boiler steaming, she could sortie when most of the other large ships were resting at ‘cold iron’ and could not. Ruff joined Sedberry in preparing the bridge, laying out charts and identifying navigable landmarks for a run to sea. Admiral Furlong had already signaled the fleet to sortie as soon as possible. None of the larger ships had yet attempted to do so.
Establishing communications with Commander Thomas in Nevada‘s internal control station, deep in the bowels of the ship, Ruff detailed the conditions topside. He filled Thomas in on the sortie signal and his readiness on the bridge. Thomas had his hands full below, counterflooding to correct Nevada‘s port list, dispatching firefighting teams around the ship and supervising engineering’s preparations to get underway. Ruff suggested that Thomas handle things belowdecks while he handled topside. Battling damage and a shortage of manpower, Thomas readily agreed.
Time was running out for a sortie. A sheet of flames from Arizona rode a slick of fuel oil toward Nevada‘s bow. Despite the spirited defense organized by Taussig, assisted by Ensign T.H. Taylor in the port director, two or three bombs struck Nevada around 8:25. Inside the bridge, Lieutenant Ruff heard a faint voice calling, ‘Let me in, let me in.’
Ruff opened the hatch leading to the bridge wing but found no one. Returning puzzled, he heard the voice again. After casting about for the location of the voice, Ruff and Sedberry traced it to the deck. They lifted the deck gratings and opened the access hatch–and found Thomas, who had climbed the 80-foot access trunk from his control station. Mounting damage had convinced him that Nevada must attempt the sortie soon or be pounded under the water. Thomas had stabilized the ship’s damage to the best extent possible, so it was now or never. Ruff and Sedberry quickly briefed him, and within 15 minutes Nevada pulled away from Fox 8.
By sheer luck, Thomas timed his departure perfectly. Between 8:25 and 8:40 there was a lull between the first and second strikes. With steam to the engines and the steering tested, Thomas directed that Nevada get underway. Chief Boatswain Edwin Hill, led a few sailors to the moorings ashore to cast off the lines. Although hindered by Arizona‘s spreading fire, strafing planes and spent anti-aircraft shells falling around them, Chief Hill and his party quickly freed Nevada. They then dove into the treacherous waters and swam back to the ship.
Thomas, Ruff and Sedberry now began the difficult maneuvers involved in getting the 29,000-ton battleship out of Pearl Harbor unassisted. As Ruff remembered, it usually took two hours to build steam in all boilers, and required several tugs, a civilian harbor pilot, the navigator and the captain to get underway. The three of them would attempt the channel passage alone, under attack, their ship damaged by both flooding and fires. Ruff found the prospect daunting. With Thomas conning, Ruff navigating and Sedberry manning the helm, Nevada eased back from her berth. Ruff aligned his landmarks on Ford Island and fed Thomas positions and recommended courses to steer.
As Nevada headed fair into the South Channel, Ruff gazed in shock at the destruction of Battleship Row. Arizona blazed fiercely, forcing Nevada‘s sailors manning the starboard anti-aircraft batteries to shield the shells from the heat with their bodies. The deck crew still managed to throw a line to three sailors in the water. Wet and oily, they promptly joined the crew of the nearest 5-inch battery. Several of Ruff’s U.S. Naval Academy classmates had been serving on Arizona, and he could only wonder if any had survived her destruction.
West Virginia came into sight next. She had taken several torpedoe hits, and she was settling into the mud on an even keel, thanks to rapid counterflooding. Oklahoma had turned turtle, trapping many sailors inside. Tennessee and Maryland were moored inboard and had escaped torpedo damage. Still, smoke rose from both of them. Finally, Nevada steamed past California, the flagship of the battle force. Flames surrounded her and she, too, was settling on an even keel.
Nevada cleared the end of Battleship Row just before 9 a.m. Ahead lay the dredge Turbine and its pipeline attached to Ford Island. Maneuvering through the narrow space between the dredge and 1010 Dock would be challenging on a normal day. Now time was running out; the second wave of Japanese planes began to arrive in force. Attacks on Nevada intensified, and Chief Sedberry did’some real twisting and turning’ to make Nevada a difficult target and avoid the dredge.
Planes destined for Pennsylvania dove on Nevada instead. If they could sink her, they could bottle up the South Channel or, better yet, the main channel off Hospital Point, for months. Nevada‘s gun crews threw up the stiffest barrage they could, but Aichi D3A1 dive bombers scored numerous hits and near-misses.
Casualties mounted in the gun crews. Flying splinters raked the decks, and fires set off ready ammunition. Boatswain’s Mate A. Solar, who had taken charge of his mount until its officers arrived, fell to shrapnel. Seaman 1st Class W. F. Neundorf, gun captain of No. 6 gun, also died at his post. Most of the bombs struck forward, making a shambles of the forecastle. Ruff, Thomas and Sedberry hung on. ‘Their bombs jolted all Hell out of the ship,’ Ruff remembered. ‘My legs were literally black and blue from being knocked around by the explosions.’
Still, the officers on the bridge hoped that they might make it to open water. Then, a signal from Vice Adm. W.S. Pye, the battle force commander, ordered Nevada not to exit the harbor because of reported enemy submarines. Committed to their present course and continuing to absorb heavy punishment, Thomas and Ruff decided to nose her into the mud off Hospital Point so that she would not be sunk in the channel. Hits to the forecastle had wrecked the anchor windlass and killed many in the deck crew, including Chief Hill, who was blown over the side. Once aground, securing the ship there might prove impossible.
Fortunately, Ruff could still talk to the boatswain’s mate standing by the stern anchor on the fantail. Fires raged around the conning tower, threatening to cut him off, so Ruff relayed the plan as quickly as possible. Heedless of the danger on the open fantail, the young sailor promised to wait for Ruff to wave his hat, the signal to let go the anchor. Passing out of the channel between buoy No. 24 and floating dry dock YFD-2, Ruff backed the engines full, then hastened to the bridge wing, waving his hat out over the side. With a clatter and a cloud of rust, the stern anchor plunged into the water and took hold. At 9:10, Nevada came to rest at Hospital Point.
Thomas then turned his full attention to damage control, while Ruff headed aft to assess conditions topside. Five minutes later, he met Captain Scanland boarding at the quarterdeck. The captain had left his home in Honolulu as the first bombs fell, fighting his way through the chaos in the streets to commandeer a launch and chase down his command.
With the second-wave attacks nearly spent, firefighting and flood control became paramount. Tugboats sent by Admiral Furlong arrived alongside, bringing their hoses into action against the fires that raged from stem to almost amidships. For a time, only the tugs could fight the fires because most of Nevada‘s fire mains had been ruptured. Thomas directed his damage-control parties to splice or patch the critical ones forward.
After directing Ruff to report Nevada‘s status to Admiral Kimmel, Scanland headed forward to find Thomas, and Ruff boarded the launch that had brought Scanland. As the coxswain picked his way through smoking debris, Ruff saw Arizona, still blazing as fiercely as when they had passed her half an hour before. California also burned steadily. Shaw, the destroyer perched in YFD-2, added to the pall. Her forward magazine had exploded shortly after Nevada had grounded. Finally, great columns of smoke billowed skyward from the major airfields surrounding Pearl. Even from lowly sea level, the destruction appeared complete.
Back on Nevada, as the attacks ceased, the gun crews joined in the battle to save the ship. Sweating, smoke-grimed sailors gradually gained the upper hand over the fires. Individually, officers and sailors secured their immediate areas. Ensign Taylor climbed down from his gun director to lead the firefighting on the port gun deck. Hindered by shattered eardrums, Taylor directed hose teams to spray red-hot ready ammunition boxes before they exploded.
Escape proved considerably more difficult for Taussig. His men finally convinced him to relinquish his post, where he had fought on despite his serious wounds. Now fires licked up and around the upper works, blocking the ladders to the starboard director. Eager sailors rigged a line to lower Taussig’s stretcher directly to the deck. The young ensign remained conscious and coherent as pharmacist’s mates worked to stabilize his injuries.
With no bow anchors to hold her fast, Nevada might still slide back and block the South Channel. At 10:35, with the damage situation under control, Scanland prepared to move Nevada to a safer haven well clear of the shipping channels. Two tugs pushed her stern around until her bow slid free, then accompanied her across the channel to Waipio Point, where she grounded herself stern first at 10:45. Nevada rested there until February 1942, when she was floated for repairs. She later returned to service.
Meanwhile, Ruff had arrived at CINCPAC headquarters to find a somber staff sorting out the details of the attack and grasping for some means of retaliation. Admiral Kimmel questioned Ruff personally, his calm demeanor barely masking the anguish he obviously felt. Ruff had hardly returned to Nevada when Scanland sent him back to report the grim initial damage assessment. At least one torpedo and five bombs had hit Nevada, mostly forward. Numerous near-misses had added to the hull damage. Engineering was flooded, salting the boilers and much of the steam piping. Though she had sortied, Nevada was now neither battle-worthy nor seaworthy. Some stubborn fires burned on and would not be completely extinguished until 6:30 p.m.
Ruff made several more trips between headquarters and Nevada. He acted as Captain Scanland’s pointman ashore, organizing necessary services for the ship and crew. Most important, the crew needed shelter and sustenance. The wounded received top priority, evacuating to Solace or the base hospital. Ensign Taussig was on one of the first boats. He would lose his left leg and spend the remainder of the war in the hospital.
With the ship in such bad shape, Ruff arranged shore billeting for the crew in the base’s open-air theater. Captain Scanland left a skeleton crew aboard to serve as a reflash watch and to perform critical repairs to keep the ship defensible. Thomas remained aboard, directing much of that work. In fact, Scanland’s after-action report offered high praise of Thomas, a naval reservist, not only for his skillful handling of the ship during the attack but also for his dogged repair efforts. Two days after the attack, Thomas was on the verge of collapse from almost continuous work with no sleep.
As darkness fell, Lieutenant Ruff bedded down with the crew at the theater. Exhausted, he could only gaze into the night sky, pondering the few short hours that had shattered this tropical paradise. Friends had died, Nevada lay aground, and the war he and his wife had feared was upon them with stormlike fury. Reeking, oily smoke hung over Pearl, and the glow of fires was still visible all around. In the darkness, the desperate day finally ended.
Author Mark J. Perry has conducted extensive research on the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath. For further reading, try: At Dawn We Slept, by Gordon W. Prange; and Day of Infamy, by Walter Lord.
This article originally appeared in the January ’98 issue of World War II.