Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date that will live in infamy- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attached by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt

(Photo of CAF's TORA TORA TORA, a Pearl Harbor Reenactment Performance, Photo by Kevin Hong)

Early on a sleepy Sunday morning in December, more than 350 Japanese airplanes swooped down on the unsuspecting island of Oahu in Hawaii. The attack lasted 90 minutes. When it was over, nearly 2,400 Americans were dead and more than 1,100 wounded.

The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor was one of the defining moments in American history. In additional to marking our nations’ official entry into World War II, it remains the ultimate symbol of foreign treachery. Today, Pearl Harbor is more than a working port and naval station. It is also a national history battlefield and a sacred graveyard. This year marks the 74th anniversary of that infamous attack.

PearlHarbor2Photograph (right) taken from a Japanese plane during the attack. Japanese caption on this captured photo reads: “Full view of Ford Island gasping under The attack of our Sea Eagles. This distant view of Ford Island immediately after the attack of our assault force shows the enemy capital ships lined up on the opposite side of the island. In the foreground is the cruiser fleet, including the battleship Utah. The enemy ships around the island have all become tempting targets for our Sea Eagles. In the upper right clearly appear the outlines of two of our Sea Eagles who are carrying out a daring low-level attack, reminiscent of the performance of the gods.


In May, 1940, the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved its headquarters from San Diego, Calif. To Pearl Harbor, Adm. James O. Richardson, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, and other Navy officials opposed the move because they thought it would unnecessarily expose the fleet to Japanese naval strength. President Roosevelt, however considered the move a necessary countermeasure to the growing Japanese threat.

Both the Japanese and the U.S. navies recognized the strategic importance and the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor. However, most senior U.S. officers dismissed the idea of an attack. They believed its distance from Japan and its shallow harbor, along with the conviction of the Japanese Navy had more important needs for its aircraft carriers, made an attack unlikely. Most of all, they believed that. In the event of war, U.S. intelligence would provide ample warning.


On Nov. 27, 1941, all U.S. Army and Navy commanders received a war warning from Washington, D.C. about potential attached on U.S. forces in the Pacific. Although the naval and air bases at Pearl Harbor were put on war alerts, no one expected Japan to launch an air strike. Instead, military officials considered sabotage by Japanese Americans to be their biggest threat, and so they parked aircraft wing to wing to guard them more easily.

Late in the afternoon on Dec. 6, 1941, U.S. Intelligence intercepted and translated a diplomatic message sent from Tokyo to Japan’s Consul-General in Hawaii asking for information about ship movements and berthing positions at Pearl Harbor. When the message was given to a U.S. department head, he decided he would look into it first thing Monday, Dec. 8.

Just before 4 a.m. on Dec. 7, a minesweeper patrolling just outside of the harbor spotted a submarine, which was sunk by a destroyer three hours later. Although the incident was reported to Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet at that time, false reports of Japanese submarines in the past made him decide to wait for additional confirmation before looking into it further.

At 7 a.m., a radar operator at a new radar unit on Kahuku Point reported a large concentration of incoming aircraft. His commander assumed it was a flight of B-17s expected to arrive at the base that morning.


The first bomb exploded on Wheeler Air Field at 7:55 a.m. More than half the ships in the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been caught dockside in the harbor. Within the first 15 minutes, the Japanese had either sunk or immobilized almost all of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, including five battleships. The raid also disabled U.S. air forces on Oahu. Nearly 200 airplanes were destroyed and more than 100 were damaged.

The attack came in two waves. The first wave included nearly 200 torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighter aircraft. Torpedo bombers equipped with aerial torpedoes designed to operate in shallow water were ordered to target battleships and aircraft carriers first, and cruisers and destroyers second. Fighters were ordered to strafe and destroy as many parked aircraft as possible to prevent counter attack. Dive bombers attacked ground targets.

Fifteen minutes later, a second wave of approximately 170 airplanes launched bombing and strafing attached on the harbor. It targeted aircraft, hangars and personnel at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field and Barber’s Point.


YamamotoJapanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, a student of U.S. Naval strategy and a Harvard graduate, was the architect of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto believed the only hope of defeating the United States lay in a large-scale surprise attack against the biggest threat to Japanese ambitions: the U.S. Pacific fleet.

In late November 1941, six Japanese aircraft carriers left Kure Naval Base in Japan. Travelling under the cover of large weather front, they came within 275 miles north of Hawaii without being detected. From there, they launched their aircraft.

Only a handful of U.S. fighter pilots rose against the initial wave of attacking Japanese aircraft. Lieutenants George D. Welch and Kenneth A. Taylor climbed in and roared into the frenzy, just 20 minutes after the first bombs fell. Lt. Welch downed four Japanese planes, the highest number of any airman on Dec. 7, 1941.


Hours after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they also attacked the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Thailand, Burma, Borneo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and two British battleships at sea. The plan was to set up a wide defense perimeter around Japan from Alaska to Australia.

In the six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan has achieved all of their goals of expansion. They had defeated the Western forces in Southeast Asia and were now threatening India and Australia. But instead of consolidating their holdings, the Japanese continued to expand.


The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war against Japan. Just three days later, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt responded by signing the Declarations of War against Germany and Italy on Dec. 22, 1941.

Although military historians argue whether Yamatmoto really said the famous words, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant,” that is exactly what happened in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The attack, without formal declaration of war, introduced the realities of war to a peacetime American Army and Navy in the most abrupt manner. But the biggest effect of the attack on Pearl Harbor was that it united the American people. Previously divided on whether or not to enter the war. Americans were now in the war to win it.

Support the airplanes of the Commemorative Air Force this month at

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