Today in History: Attack on Pearl Harbor

One thing about Pearl Harbor that is not often talked about often is, why Pearl Harbor and how did we not see it coming? 

Like many historical events, it’s a long story. But like many historical events, the seeds of Pearl Harbor were planted way before December of 1941. Things with Japan had been shaky since as far back as April of 1941. In September 1931, Japan had invaded China and would be in the process of controlling it with insanely vicious warfare- that is a huge topic of discussion that we will save for another time. The taking of China and the Far East was a major concern to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. If Japan thought she could take China (the biggest Asian country), what was to stop her from taking other Eastern countries that the United States had a presence in, such as the Philippians, the famous Midway and Guam?  By September of 1940, the Japanese forces had begun to move south towards French occupied Indo-China and finally, by July 1941, the United States and Britain had had enoughIn protest to Japan's continuous aggression, they froze the Japanese's assets. By doing this, they assumed that they would think about the situation in a rational way and pull itself back into line. (Roberts, 186)

But the Japanese military-dominated nationalistic government was highly sensitive, extremely proud and "far from logical...they ignored them." (Roberts, 186) 

Just days later, still looking for some type of acknowledgment, the United States revoked all US export licenses for oil. At this time, Japan got just over 75% of its oil from the United States. The Japanese had to import every recourse they needed because of the limited natural resources of the islands and the United States had complete freedom to sell or not sell its natural resources to a country that was using them for "imperialist oppression." Still refusing to bow to the United States, Japan opted to find its needed oil elsewhere in both Burma and the East Indies. (Roberts, 186)

In the coming months, Roosevelt publicly declared that the United States would take the needed actions to protect its assets and interests in the region if the Japanese continued to harass them; while behind closed doors the United States Secretary of State, Cordell Hull and Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura negotiated for more than a hundred hours to find middle ground.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Fleet originally stationed in California was moved to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to add weight to the United States’ warnings. This cut the distance to Japan for the US navy by over 2,500 miles, leaving it only a total of 3,500 miles from mainland Japan. Also, 35 B-17 bombers were transferred to the Philippines where they could easily reach mainland Japan. (Roberts, 187)

But instead of scaring Japan out of a fight it only offended them into taking the first punch. The pride of Japan and its forces at its disposal were not taken seriously by policy makers in Washington DC. 

It did not help that many senior politicians and soldiers genuinely believed that the slanted eyes of Japanese pilots meant that they could not undertake long flights; as one historian has put it, 'American leaders, harboring all sorts of racist stereotypes about the Japanese, did not think that they were capable of such a feat' as the bombing of Pearl Harbor..." (Roberts, 187)

Also, it was believed by many in Washington for many years that radio made surprise impossible and that any surmountable force approaching for an attack would be intercepted over the radio. The American policy-makers also assumed wrongly that Japan would never attack before issuing a declaration of war.

In October of 1941, leadership in Tokyo changed as General Hideki Tojo came to power. Tojo and his military Chiefs of Staff got right to work on a blowout of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. At the same time they finalized plans to invade the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Thailand, and Burma, creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The invasions would depend upon a Blitzkrieg-style victory, using surprise and fast, violent, and hard attacks. (Roberts, 188)

On November 27th, Washington notified all Pacific stations: "This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. An aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days...Execute appropriate defensive deployment." (Hastings, 192) The leadership failed to acknowledge the significance of this obviously very serious notification all of the bases close to Japan, not just Hawaii, should have been on full precautionary alert. Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor made one right decision that ended up being a crucial move. He ordered 4 carriers west with fighter planes on board to help Midway and the Wake Islands if things with Japan did go south. (Roberts, 189)


74 years ago today, at 6:45 in the morning, a very long day started for those stationed at the Pearl Harbor military bases on Oahu. Lieutenant William Outerbridge, aboard the USS Ward, eyed the small scope of a small submarine moving at about 8 knots in to the harbor. The USS Ward quickly shot its 4-inch guns and dropped a series of depth charges (underwater bombs) sinking the submarine. They radioed the incident to headquarters with the news that would have resulted in the base being on full alert. But nothing happened.

Not long after this incident Privates Joseph Lockhard and George Elliott detected a large number of aircraft on their radar unit at their station on the northern tip of Oahu. Their Lieutenant said "Don't worry about it," assuming them to be a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers due in from California later that morning." (Roberts, 184) This large “bloop” on their screen was in fact 43 Japanese bombers, 40 torpedo-bombers, 51 dive-bombers, and 43 fighters; 183 in all. 

There were no American air crafts in the air, no anti-aircraft fire to avoid as they let loose on the Harbor. Radio silence by the Japanese air crafts was broken to send the victory signal "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger) (Roberts, 186)

After it was all over, more than 2,400 casualties and "the core reality was that [the] attack sufficed to shock, maul and enrage the Americans, but not to decisively cripple their war-fighting capability." Overnight, the United States became completely committed to total war. (Hastings, 194)