Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bombing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aerial attacks conducted by Japanese aircraft above on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.


The Pearl Harbor attack represented the culmination of a decade of deteriorating relations between the United States and Japan over the status of China and the security of Southeast Asia. Since the early 1900’s, Japanese military leaders had been gradually expanding their territory within the Asian mainland, as military extremists had overrun the northernmost Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931 without consent of the Japanese civil government. Upheavals within the infrastructure of the Japanese government became an ongoing and constant occurrence, most notably evidenced by repeated attempts by the civil government to exert more control over the previously independent Japanese military. Japanese generals began to resent receiving armed forces orders from bureaucrats rather than directly from the emperor, as had been the tradition.

Many Japanese military leaders felt that Nazi Germany’s 1940 defeat of France, Britain, and the Netherlands had left Japanese territories in Southeast Asia exposed to invasion. As Japan joined Germany in the Axis alliance, many Japanese military leaders focused on the ambitious goal of establishing an empire that would be immune to economic sanctions, such as the oil embargo by which the United States was attempting to curtail Japan’s expansion into China. As both the United States and Japan publicly established positions from which they could not retreat without loss of international prestige, Japanese generals plotted to attack Pearl Harbor as a preemptive strike to gain command of the western Pacific.

Although the Japanese had formally declared war on China in 1937 and the nations of Europe had launched World War II in September of 1939, the United States had remained uninvolved in both conflicts. The American public, previously divided over U.S. entry into World War II, rallied together after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in commitment toward victory over Japan and its Axis partners. The aviation industry then received considerable focus as it became obvious that victory would come to whichever side controlled the skies.

U.S. Entry into World War II

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, 7:50 a.m., Japanese carrier-borne aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting the entry of the United States into World War II. In fewer than two hours, 365 Japanese aircraft flying from 33 warships and auxiliary craft temporarily crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet. After the smoke cleared, fewer than 80 of the 231 operational aircraft assigned to the Hawaiian Air Force were flyable.

In two successive waves, Japanese bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters either sunk or disabled eighteen U.S. ships. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida sent the coded messages “To, To, To” and “Tora, Tora, Tora,” telling the Japanese fleet that a complete surprise attack had been accomplished.

More than 200 U.S. aircraft, most of them still grounded, were either destroyed or heavily damaged, along with six land air bases. Seven of the Pacific fleet’s nine battleships were lined up unsuspectingly in the harbor along “Battleship Row,” on the Northeast shore of Ford Island. The battleships USS West Virginia, USS California, and USS Nevada were sunk in shallow water, the USS Oklahoma was capsized, and the USS Arizona became a nonfunctional wreck, with 1,177 crew members killed. U.S. losses included 2,117 Navy and Marine Corps dead, 218 Army dead, and 68 civilians dead, in addition to 1,300 wounded and 1,000 temporarily missing in the resulting chaos. Five minutes after the first Japanese bomb landed, U.S. antiaircraft fire began to register hits, although many American shells actually fell on Honolulu, where civilians initially assumed them to be Japanese bombs. U.S. Army Air Corps pilots managed to get a few fighters into the air and shoot down twelve enemy planes before the second wave of Japanese warcraft entered the area at 8:40 a.m. Japanese losses included only 55 casualties, 5 midget submarines that had attempted simultaneously to enter Pearl Harbor and launch torpedoes, and 29 of the 365 planes that made the attack.

Japanese Air Strategy

Immediately after General Hideki Tojo took on the premiership of the Japanese empire in October, 1941, other military leaders warned him that only the U.S. Navy had the power to block Japanese expansion into Asia. The plan to cripple the U.S. Pacific fleet in one massive blow was deliberately masked behind false statements by Japanese representatives that implied their hope for continued peace with America. Japan was aware at the time of the bombing that Pearl Harbor functioned as a base to more than 75 U.S. warships, including battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and auxiliaries. What Japan did not know at the time, however, was that all U.S. aircraft carriers, essentially floating platforms from which air operations at sea were launched, were not then stationed in Hawaii, and that these carriers would later prove crucial to U.S. success in the Pacific.

The Japanese attack was devised and commanded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese combined fleet and one of Japan’s stronger air power advocates. Although personally opposed to war with the United States at the time, Yamamoto knew that the success of the Pearl Harbor bombing was dependent upon a quick and silent attack. The U.S. military was not totally surprised by the possibility of a Japanese attack in the Pacific, although the bombing was essentially a complete shock to American civilians. However, U.S. leaders were embarrassingly caught off guard by Japan’s unexpected ability to quickly achieve such a long-range air strike.

On November 26, six Japanese aircraft carriers, two battleships, three cruisers, eleven destroyers, and several tankers, carrying a total of 365 combat aircraft, had departed in secret from the Kuril Islands under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. Their launching position 275 miles north of Hawaii was reached at 6:00 a.m. on December 7. By 7:55 a.m., the first of two waves of Japanese planes struck Pearl Harbor, bombarding airfields and battleships moored at the concrete quays.

The Pearl Harbor bombing was just one of a series of Japanese strikes throughout the Far East. Almost simultaneously, Japanese naval and air forces attacked Wake Island, Guam, British Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, Thailand, and the Philippine Islands, destroying many U.S. land-based combat aircraft in the Pacific. Japanese troops later occupied Siam with the consent of that government.

Japan’s clear intention in attacking Pearl Harbor was to disable the U.S. fleet and reduce opposition against their war of conquest across the eastern Pacific. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese ambassadors publicly accused the United States of standing in the way of their “new order in East Asia.” The destruction of Allied sea power in the Pacific would win Japan access to Malaya, the East Indies, and other Southeast Asian areas, which all had supplies of raw materials the Japanese felt would ensure their success in future World War II battles.

U.S. Retaliatory Strategy

The Pearl Harbor bombing was described the following day by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy.” Two and one-half hours after the surprise attack, Japan declared war on the United States and Great Britain. The following morning, Roosevelt called on the U.S. Congress formally to declare war on Japan. On the afternoon of December 8, 1941, the United States, Canada, and Great Britain declared war on Japan, and on the next day, China declared war on the Axis powers. On December 11, Germany and Italy, bound by treaty to Japan, declared war on the United States. World War II had become a global conflict. Although Honolulu was the only U.S. city to be attacked, the U.S. Army proclaimed martial law in fear of an invasion attempt, the act of which was later found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Not until October, 1944, was the civil government of the United States officially restored.

Because the United States had expected any potential Japanese aggression first to take place in the Philippines or Southeast Asia, no U.S. aircraft carriers were in port in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. These carriers would later prove crucial to U.S. military success in the Pacific. Although the Pearl Harbor bombing was initially a tremendous success for the Japanese, it enraged a vast majority of Americans enough to show immediate public support for entry into World War II. Also significant was the fact that the Japanese had failed to destroy the vast oil supply adjacent to Pearl Harbor, thus leaving a significant fuel supply for American ships and planes.

Although many Japanese-Americans and persons of Japanese birth were interned, a vast majority of Asian-Americans worked peaceably on the plantations and on construction projects. Many Hawaiian-born Japanese-American troops achieved a notable combat record in Italy during the war.

Aircraft Development

Historians often note that nothing speeds up the development of machinery and technology in the aviation industry faster than war or even the threat of war. At the time of the bombing, the U.S. Army Air Force had only 1,100 combat-ready aircraft. By 1944, the Army Air Force had nearly 80,000 combat aircraft in sixteen separate air forces stationed around the world. U.S. airplane technology went through more changes immediately following the initial events of World War II than during the previous two decades of peace. The best piston-engine fighters developed during World War II were able to reach speeds of 460 miles per hour, nearly twice the speed of previous biplanes. The B-29 was America’s most effective combat aircraft against both land- and sea-based antiaircraft guns and enemy fighters in the sky. As piston-engine planes reached their full potential, jet-propelled aircraft began to be developed. The economy of the aviation industry turned into a war machine, utilizing manpower and materials at record levels, as the Allied and Axis powers raced against time and each other.

  • Christy, Joe. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1987. An excellent review text on U.S. aviation history, with interesting insights into the past and potential future of air warfare.
  • Condon, John Pomeroy. Corsairs and Flattops: Marine Carrier Air Warfare, 1944-1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997. An account of the pilots and crews who pioneered air support in the World War II-ending defeat of Japan, with emphasis on warcraft technology stimulated by the Pearl Harbor attack and in battles such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Indochina, the Philippines, and Tokyo.
  • Cooksley, Peter G., and Bruce Robertson. Air Warfare: The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Conflict. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1998. A chronology of significant events, inventions, and aeronautic milestones in armed flight.
  • Donald, David, ed. The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1997. A superb text with essays that examine the critical role of air power in international security by looking systematically at strategy and targeting, with photos, drawings, and statistics on essentially every airplane ever constructed.
  • Matricardi, Paolo. The Concise History of Aviation, 1903 to Present. New York: Crescent Books, 1984. A nontraditional view of the history and evolution of aviation, with an excellent chapter on aircraft utilized throughout World War II.
  • Price, Alfred. Sky Battles: Dramatic Air Warfare Battles. Dulles, Va.: Continuum International, 1999. A fascinating text for the lay reader that sensationally and accurately lives up to its title.

Air Force, U.S.

Aircraft carriers

Antiaircraft fire

Navy pilots, U.S.

Kamikaze missions

Military flight


World War II

The Japanese bombing of the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, brought the United States into World War II.

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Japanese Attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Central Pacific, December, 1941

Categories: History