• Exploring American History

December 7, 1941, Japan cries, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

As the sun rose over Hawaii on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the weather was gorgeous and carried with it the promise of a wonderful day. Looks, however, soon prove to be deceiving. What at first appeared to be peaceful quickly changed into an event President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) would later refer to as “a day that will live in infamy”.

At approximately 7:48 a.m. Hawaii time, the Japanese Imperial Navy began to rain down “fire and brimstone” from the sky in an unprovoked attack on the U.S. naval base located at Pearl Harbor. Composed of fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers, the attack force was launched in two waves from six aircraft carriers. The second wave of the attack began at 8:40 a.m. as the first wave returned to their carriers. All total, the attack lasted 75 minutes.

Docked at Pearl Harbor that morning, the U.S. fleet consisted of eight battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers and one minelayer. Thankfully, the fleet’s three aircraft carriers, U.S.S. Enterprise, U.S.S. Lexington and U.S.S. Saratoga were out to sea. These were the ships the Japanese sought to destroy. The goal of the attack was to buy time for the Imperial Navy to increase their strength in the Pacific. Attacking the prestige battleships in the harbor, they hoped to hinder the ability of U.S. forces to mobilize. Following the attack, the carriers served as the Navy’s fleet until the damaged ships could be repaired and new ones built.

During the attack, all of the battleships were damaged to some degree – four of which were sunk. Six of the eight battleships would ‘live to fight another day’, including three which were resurrected from the depths. Sadly, Pearl Harbor became a watery grave for the USS Arizona and her crew. A Japanese bomber hit the ship’s magazine, which created a devastating explosion.

While surveying the devastation, several important facts were soon realized. Compared to the ocean, the depth of the harbor was relatively shallow; thus the Navy was able to salvage and repair most of the damaged fleet. Also, the majority of the ships’ crews were on shore leave or could more easily be rescued from the harbor than had the attack occurred at sea.

In addition to crippling the fleet, the Japanese hoped to undermine the Americans’ morale and encourage a desire to seek a compromised peace with Japan. Little did they realize at the time, rather than crushing American morale, they instead stirred up a hornets’ nest of anger.

The arrogance of the Japanese mindset at the time proved favorable for the Americans. Due to thinking they had won a quick victory by attacking the ships the way they did, the Japanese failed to hit other strategic sites in the area such as Pearl Harbor's navy repair yards, submarine base, oil tank farms and old headquarters building which housed the intelligence office. The fact these crucial installations were not damaged helped the base “stay afloat” and function.

Anyone who knows even a little about the history of Japan’s attack is likely familiar with the comment by Naval Marshall General Isoroku Yamamoto, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.” (Maybe he should have said ‘tiger’ instead of ‘giant’, due to the fact ‘tora’ is the Japanese word for ‘tiger’.)

Though it isn’t known for certain whether Yamamoto actually voiced these words, most likely a though similar to that was lodged in his mind. Mastermind of the attack, Yamamoto may have thought highly of what the Japanese pilots accomplished, but his jubilation would be short lived. In 1943, U.S. forces caught up with him over the Bougainville Islands and ambushed his plane.

In death, Yamamoto was proven to be correct about two situations: the effectiveness of America’s air craft carriers with respect to long-range attacks and the fact Japan could not endure a drawn-out military campaign against the United States.

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