War was coming to the ocean called “Pacific.” Imperial Japan, in need of oil to feed its growing ambition, squirmed under the stricture of an American embargo (implemented because of Japan’s aggression toward China). Japan would not be denied its self-proclaimed destiny, so Tokyo’s warlords cast covetous eyes southward to the petroleum-rich Dutch East Indies, ripe for the plucking. The Pacific was to be “their” ocean, and the only major obstacle was the U.S. Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii. The focus of the two-year-old war in Europe was about to swing dramatically to what would soon be the world’s largest theater of operations.
To U.S. servicemen in 1941, Hawaii was a tropical paradise and a “dream” duty station. Army air and ground forces enjoyed a pleasant tour of duty; after all, the only potential enemy was 3,400 miles to the west. In 1940, the Pacific Fleet had moved to Pearl Harbor from San Diego despite the objections of Adm. J.O. Richardson, “CinCPac,” who felt that basing the fleet in Hawaii was no more a deterrent to Japanese aggression than leaving it by the mainland; furthermore, it made a tempting target. His objections were overridden by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who replaced him with Adm. Husband E. Kimmel. His Army counterpart, Gen. Walter Short, had no more influence than Kimmel on Roosevelt’s decision.
Meanwhile, the Army, Navy and Marine airmen on Oahu basked in the joy of flying in a pleasant climate, even amid growing concern about Tokyo’s actions in China. Many of the fliers at Hickam, Pearl and Ewa (“Evva”) would later clash with Axis aircraft in other sorties around the globe. Lt. Francis S. Gabreski, currently America’s highest-scoring living ace, remembered duty in Hawaii as “wonderful.” He said, “Unless you had the duty that day, you flew from eight a.m. to noon or so, maybe did some paperwork then had the rest of the day for surfing, fishing, or chasing girls.” “Gabby” Gabreski met his future wife in Hawaii, eventually trading his P-36s and P-40s for P-47s in England.
Status of forces
On the morning of December 7, 1941, the U.S. Army Air Force had about 230 aircraft in Hawaii; the Navy and Marines had about 170, plus 70 to 80 each on the aircraft carriers USS Lexington (CV-2) and Enterprise (CV-6). Lex was delivering Marine scout-bombers to Midway, 1,100 miles northwest of Honolulu. “The Big E” was en route home to Pearl Harbor, having delivered Marine fighters to Wake Island.
The Army had 45 bombers in Hawaii, though 33 were obsolete Douglas B-18s, barely capable of 200mph. A dozen B-17D Flying Fortresses represented the USAAF’s best striking arm, with excellent range and payload and a 25,000-foot capability. At that early time, however, it had not yet been realized how ineffective high-altitude bombers would be against moving ships. More promising were 13 Douglas A-20 attack bombers, later demonstrably effective in the Southwest Pacific. Defending Hawaiian skies were 152 “pursuit ships” of various numbers and performance. The largest contingent was 99 Curtiss P-40B and C Tomahawks, with decent armament and speeds approaching 350mph. First delivered early in 1941, they were the most modern fighters available.
Dating from 1938 was the Curtiss company’s earlier entry, the radial-engine P-36A. Though claiming a 310mph top speed, the 39 fighters with Pratt & Whitney R-1830s lacked the altitude performance of the -40s and packed a less lethal punch. Owing to export contracts for Britain, France and other nations, however, Curtiss was unable to deliver enough P-40s to its own country, so the second-line -36 soldiered on. Some squadrons flew both types interchangeably. The P-36 may have been lacking in speed and firepower, but it was two-and-a-half laps ahead of the petite Boeing P-26. Fourteen of the fixed-gear, braced monoplane fighters remained in Hawaiian squadrons, and though the “Peashooters” had been considered hot ships in 1934, they were now more than 100mph slower than the opposition—fit only for proficiency flying. The other USAAF aircraft on hand represented a variety of obsolete observation and liaison types.
By far the most significant naval aircraft in Hawaii was Consolidated’s long-lived PBY flying boat. Newly named “Catalina,” the big twin-engine patrol plane equipped two air wings with a total of 69 aircraft. They were based at Kaneohe Naval Air Station on the east coast of Oahu and were largely responsible for long-range patrol of Hawaiian waters. However, the Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Kimmel, realized that he had too few PBYs to provide adequate coverage of all the approaches to the Hawaiian Islands. America was heavily committed to the ill-named “Neutrality Patrol” covering the Atlantic, where American-flown PBYs had been involved in destroying the German battleship Bismarck seven months before.
The Navy service wing at Kaneohe owned nearly 40 utility and scout-observation Grumman, Beech and Sikorsky types. There was also a small fleet-aircraft pool with 21 replacement fighters and dive bombers. Marine Air Group Two, based at Ewa, comprised two scout-bomber squadrons with 29 Douglas SBDs and Vought SB2Us, a fighter squadron with 11 Grumman F4Fs and a utility squadron with eight “cats and dogs.” Naval aviation’s offensive arm was built around its three aircraft carriers. As noted, Lexington and Enterprise were ferrying Marine planes to Midway and Wake, while the Saratoga (CV-3) was loading more leatherneck fighters in San Diego. Each flattop had nearly identical air groups, nominally flying 36 SBDs, 18 fighters (Saratoga had Brewster F2As) and 18 Douglas TBD torpedo planes. One of the luckiest breaks in American history was that all three PacFleet carriers were out of port on December 7. Because so many battleships were destroyed or damaged during the attack, and because submarines were largely irrelevant owing to the scandalous failure of their torpedoes (a problem that persisted for nearly two years), carrier aviation became America’s only way to conduct a war in the Pacific.
Japan’s Sunday punch
In contrast to the rather anemic American forces, the Japanese Navy committed itself wholeheartedly to the Hawaii operation: all six fleet carriers, embarking 427 aircraft plus cruiser-based floatplanes for reconnaissance. The carrier air groups owned 144 Nakajima B5N torpedo planes, 138 Aichi D3A dive bombers and 138 Mitsubishi A6M fighters, arguably flown by the most experienced naval aviators on earth. Certainly, they had a high degree of competence, having trained relentlessly over the previous several months.
The effort that went into the aerial torpedoes alone was significant. Pearl Harbor was shallow—only 40 feet deep in places—and the challenge was to get torpedoes to level off before they plunged into the muddy bottom. After the British Navy’s air attack on Taranto Harbor in November 1940, the Japanese naval attaché examined the damage done to Italian battleships (U.S. intelligence was aware of this) and concluded that it was possible to make torpedoes run shallow enough. Fitting large wooden fins to the torpedoes’ aft ends proved to be workable; otherwise, Oper-ation Hawaii probably would not have been executed. The Japanese navy’s standard torpedo plane was the Nakajima B5N, which entered service in 1937— the same year as America’s ill-fated Douglas TBD. Reasonably fast and armed with the world’s finest aerial torpedo, the Type 97 Carrier Attack Aircraft (later called “Kate” by the allies) represented a lethal threat against enemy ships. It also proved effective as a high-level bomber and performed well in both roles on December 7. The counterpart of the Douglas Dauntless was the Aichi D3A, the Type 99 carrier bomber (aka “Val”). Despite its spatted, fixed landing gear, the Aichi demonstrated excellent stability and, therefore, accuracy in addition to a decent top speed—nearly 250mph. The crews assigned to Operation Hawaii drilled incessantly before deploying, both against stationary and moving targets. Toward the end, they frequently recorded hit rates upward of 50 percent on maneuvering ships. The Japanese Imperial Navy possessed an air-superiority design unlike any other in the world in the Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 fighter. Fast, long-range, agile and well-armed with cannon and machine guns, it was flown by competent, aggressive pilots, including combat veterans with kills over China. All three Japanese carrier planes became first to last warriors, flying from 1941 through 1945. In contrast, most of their American rivals were largely replaced by newer, more capable planes before 1945. The notable exceptions were the Flying Fortress, Catalina and Wildcat. Japan’s newly created First Air Fleet was easily the most powerful naval aviation force in existence. Six fast carriers were specially trained and equipped for the Hawaii operation, with adequate escorts and tankers to support a prolonged sweep of the largest ocean on Earth. Organized into three divisions with two flattops each, the Carrier Striking Force (Kido Butai) was led by Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, an experienced surface officer. He commanded Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku. His lack of aviation expertise was more than offset by his excellent staff, including two of Japan’s ablest airmen and planners: Cmdrs. Minoru Genda and Mitsuo Fuchida. The latter would lead the first of two waves against Hawaii with a total of more than 300 planes.
Kido Butai departed Japanese waters on November 26, steaming the northerly route where weather was thick and shipping rare. Though U.S. intelligence picked up radio signals indicating that the carriers were out and headed east, the information was never used; nor did the decrypts of Japanese diplomatic codes clearly show that only Pearl Harbor had been divided into targeting grids. Arriving at his launch point some 200 miles north of Oahu, Nagumo ensured that his aircrews were carefully briefed to recognize specific targets. At 0600 on December 7, the first 183 planes were launched in only 15 minutes—an accomplishment in itself—and deployed off the northern tip of Oahu at 0740. Ten minutes later, the fighters and dive bombers turned inland and aimed at Army air bases at Hickam and Wheeler fields plus the Naval air stations at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor and beautiful Kaneohe Bay on the east coast. Bellows Field, the Army facility south of Kaneohe, was mostly ignored, as it was known to be the home of an observation squadron. Meanwhile, the Nakajima level and torpedo bombers skirted the southwest coast, arriving above the harbor at 0755. They overflew the Marine Corps base at Ewa, which Zeros strafed with eerie efficiency. By then, of course, the surprise was complete, despite the fact that a destroyer had sunk a midget submarine an hour previously and because of the fact that the huge formation detected by radar north of Oahu was deemed to be a dozen B-17s arriving from California.
Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, commanding the Enterprise task force, had placed his ships on a war footing in November. Taking no chances, he had launched 18 Dauntlesses southwest of Kaula Island toward Pearl Harbor that morning. The SBDs found nothing remarkable between their carrier and the shore, but they flew directly into the Sunday surprise. The first “the Big E” knew of Pearl’s peril was a frantic radio call from a young Dauntless pilot: “This is an American plane! Don’t shoot!” Over the next half hour or so, Japanese planes shot down five SBDs while American gunners downed a sixth. Three pilots and two radiomen were killed, and three more fliers were wounded.
It only got worse. After the carrier launched a futile search-strike that evening, the Wildcat escorts were diverted to Ford Island. In yet another snafu, gunners on the ground assumed that any airborne planes were hostile. Three F4F pilots were killed by “friendly fire.” The Big E’s revenge would be deferred for six months, but the debt was repaid with compound interest at Midway. Nowhere was the efficiency of Japanese bombing and strafing more evident than Kaneohe. Of the 36 Catalina flying boats based there, 27 were destroyed, and six were damaged. Only three escaped enemy attention; they were on scheduled patrol missions. Some of the best flying of the entire attack was by the Nakajima B5Ns that skimmed the waters of Pearl Harbor to deliver their Type 95 aerial torpedoes against “Battleship Row.” The pilots had only seconds to descend to drop altitude, pick their aim points, release and pull out. The outboard ships took a succession of hits from the powerfully efficient torpedoes: West Virginia (BB-48) and Oklahoma (BB-37) were sunk at their moorings. Arizona (BB-39) took an armor-piercing bomb that detonated a magazine and exploded, taking more than 1,100 men with her—half the American fatalities on that day. The two inboard battlewagons—Maryland (BB-46) and Tennessee (BB-43)—sustained relatively light damage and were under way again in weeks. Nevada (BB-36), the only battleship to work up steam, became an immediate target as she headed for the harbor mouth. Bombers and torpedo planes jumped her as she pushed along at 10 knots, and her captain wisely beached the behemoth off Hospital Point rather than risk its sinking and blocking the channel. Two other battlewagons were also hit: California (BB-44), moored alone off Ford Island, was sunk but eventually refloated; Pennsylvania (BB-39) was damaged in dry dock. The old Utah (AV-16) was destroyed on the opposite side of Ford Island, but fortuitously, she absorbed Japanese ordnance that would have been better expended elsewhere: she was the Pacific Fleet’s training target vessel.
Legends arose from the smoke and twisted wreckage in the harbor and onshore that day. Popular music contributed to the mood with the jaunty tune, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” a statement attributed to the chaplain of one ship as he encouraged the antiaircraft gunners blasting away at enemy aircraft.
Ashore, the mood was decidedly less festive. Under peacetime regulations, live ammunition could not be issued without written authorization from a commissioned officer. At Army posts such as Fort Shafter and Schofield Barracks, soldiers clamored for machine-gun and antiaircraft ammunition that remained locked in storage. Career noncoms—the “lifers” often disliked by rookies and draftees—reportedly declined to issue ammo, even with bombing and strafing in progress. Yet common sense more often ruled, and Japanese aircrews remarked on the speed and ferocity of AA fire. The Pacific Fleet report stated that some ships opened fire within two minutes of the attack; most did so within seven minutes. The Navy alone fired 4,620 three- to five-inch shells and 276,000 rounds from automatic weapons.
The most common antiaircraft weapon was the three-inch gun, firing a shell with a fuse that detonated a bursting charge. Sixteen were in place to defend the harbor, plus those aboard ship, and photos show the sky pockmarked with black flak bursts. A few Japanese planes were downed by heavy flak, but a confidential report later admitted that many of the 68 civilian deaths were caused by falling shell splinters. A variety of automatic weapons was employed both afloat and ashore. Probably the most effective was the Browning .50-caliber machine gun—a 1918 design with a cooling water jacket around the barrel. Mounted on a pedestal with sights high over the bore, the .50s put out a sustained rate of fire that could knock down a single-engine aircraft. One of 15 Navy Medals of Honor that day went to a .50-caliber gunner, Chief John Finn of Kaneohe Naval Air Station, who remained at his gun despite multiple wounds. Another Navy machine gunner was Mess Attendant Doris “Dorsey” Miller, the West Virginia’s heavyweight boxing champ. Though not trained in gunnery, he proved his fighting spirit aboard a sinking ship as well as in the ring. Elsewhere, infantry weapons such as .30-caliber tripod-mounted machine guns and automatic rifles also came into play.
Few USAAF fighters got off the ground that morning: 14 P-36 and 11 P-40 sorties were logged, mostly from the 46th and 47th Pursuit Squadrons. The P-40 pilots claimed six shootdowns; the P-36s four more. At least one P-36 fell to U.S. gunfire over Schofield Barracks. Two second lieutenants from the 47th Pursuit became famous for their efforts. Kenneth M. Taylor and George S. Welch had barely returned from an all-night poker game and were badly in need of rest when the Japanese arrived. Still partly dressed in civilian clothes, they drove to the alert strip at Haleiwa, scrambled into their P-40s and took off. In a 30-minute fight, they intercepted enemy aircraft near Ewa and shot down four. They claimed to have hit dive bombers, but they probably bagged level bombers. Low on ammunition, they landed to rearm and were back in the air in barely 15 minutes. Later, over the north shore, they chased more bandits; Taylor was wounded, while Welch claimed a fighter and a dive bomber. Legend has it that “Wheaties” Welch and Ken Taylor were nominated for the Medal of Honor but were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses because they had taken off without authorization. True or not, no Army men were given the MOH for that day, although 15 Navy officers, noncoms and sailors were recognized with the nation’s highest award.
The second wave
One hour behind the first wave were 168 more planes from Kido Butai. By now, there was no need for stealth: they crossed the coast heading directly for Pearl, though more fighters turned to port to keep the pressure on Kaneohe and starboard to “cap” Wheeler. Other Zeros pressed southward for Hickam and Ford Island. The dive bombers attacked Pearl Harbor from the northeast while the level bombers overflew the southeast of Oahu, passing south of Honolulu and turning west for Hickam and Ford and east for Kaneohe. The second wave met far heavier opposition than the first and sustained greater casualties. Twenty of the 168 (12 percent) were lost, compared with nine of the first 183 (five percent). AA and flak took a toll on the survivors, however; a surprising 74 planes returned to their carriers bearing battle damage. By the time the last raiders regrouped over Ewa and turned their black noses north, 90 minutes had elapsed. In exchange for 29 aircraft and five midget submarines with their crews, Imperial Japan had crippled the United States’ Pacific Fleet. More than 2,400 Americans were dead or dying; nearly 1,200 were wounded. Eighteen ships were destroyed or damaged, though some later returned to service in the Atlantic and Pacific. The total Army, Navy and Marine aircraft losses were 347 destroyed or damaged. However, Nagumo’s failure to launch a third strike—especially to destroy the Pacific Fleet’s vulnerable oil reserves—proved to have strategic consequences.
A terrible resolve
It would take time and effort, but America’s materiel losses were redressed by an awesome industrial effort on the mainland. Meanwhile, Army and Navy hatcheries turned out tens of thousands of fledgling airmen and the skilled artisans to support them, train them and put them over Japanese targets. On the 50th anniversary of the attack, Zenji Abe, one of the Imperial Navy’s best dive-bomber pilots, visited Pearl Harbor. “What I think now is why we had to attack,” he said. “Why could we not seek the natural resources that we needed by peaceful measures? If there had not been Pearl Harbor, the unhappiness of mankind could have been limited to much less.” He thought a moment, then added, “As a soldier of the foremost line, I regret it very much.” Another attitude was expressed by Zero pilot Takeshi Maeda, who insisted: “We don’t have to apologize because we did it by order.” However, like most Japanese veterans, he said that his comrades were told that notification had been given to America moments before the attack. That was the intention, but the Japanese embassy in Washington was painfully slow in decoding Tokyo’s message, and that resulted in the appearance of a sneak attack that outraged America and, in Adm. Yamamoto’s words, “… awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”