On this day, Sunday, December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy”, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the Naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.
These were the words spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt the day after the attack on Pearl harbor.
Today, marks the 75th Anniversary of this tragic event. This was a turning point in World War II.
Shortly thereafter, Germany declared war on the United States and our country was thrust into the ravages of war. FDR considered this immediately a surprise offensive while the Japanese embassador to the US and his colleague were still in negotiations with our Secretary of State.
“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory! With confidence in our armed forces with a unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.” With these words, FDR declaring war on the Empire of Japan signed into law through congress on December 8, 1941.
The First Wave of Attacks on Pearl Harbor
The most coveted prize in the attack was Battleship Row. Battleship row consisted of eight battleships that had recently returned from naval maneuvers. These include the USS Nevada, USS Arizona, USS Tennessee, USS West Virgina, USS Maryland, USS Oklahoma, USS California and USS Pennsylvania.
The attack came in the early morning of December 7th on the island of Oahu. The attack came in 2 waves. The first attack came in 3 groups. Group 1 attacked battleships and aircraft carriers, group 2 attacked Ford and Wheeler Islands and group 3 to attack aircraft at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Barber’s Point, Kaneohe.
The first wave began at 6:05am when the Japanese launched 183 aircraft from their carriers and divided into groups. The targets included planes parked on airfields and ships anchored in the harbor.
About an hour later, US radar at Opana mobile reported a large number of incoming planes believed to be 11 US B-17 bombers fling in from California. Within an hour, the Japanese carriers turn east and launch another attack of planes. They begin bombing aircraft at Kaneohe Naval Air Station, Wheeler Field, Ewa Field, Ford Island and Hickam Field.
At 7:55, planes begin to bomb Battelship Row and a torpedo hits the battleship USS California at 7:57am. At 7:58am, the Ford Island commander radios an island alert: “Air Raid, Pearl Harbor. This is no Drill!”
At 8:01am, one of two torepedos struck the USS Utah. It began to list and take on water. The ships chief water -tender, Peter Tomich, stayed below deck to secure the boilers and prevent an explosion. He ordered everyone out of the ship. 64 officers and men were entombed in the ship, including Tomich. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2006.
The USS Utah is the only other vessel whose wreckage remains in the waters of Pearl Harbor along with the Arizona. Unlike the Arizona, it is located in a place tourists cannot go. It’s starboard edge is still visible above the waterline today. The wreckage is now owned by the National Park Service which manages the site. There is hopes that someday, it will attract visitors like the Arizona does today.
The USS Oklahoma was quickly damaged and began to roll and turn over in the water. As she began to capsize to port, two more torpedoes struck home, and her men were strafed and shot as they abandoned ship. Within twelve minutes, it rolled over until halted by her masts touching bottom, her starboard side above water, and a part of her keel exposed.
Many of the crew of the Oklahoma remained in the fight, clambering aboard USS Maryland to help man the anti-aircraft guns. Of the USS Oklahoma, 429 of her officers and enlisted men were killed or missing. One of those killed, Father Aloysius Schmitt, was the first American Chaplain of any faith to die in World War II. 32 others were wounded, and many were trapped within the capsized hull. Julio DeCastro, a Hawaiian civilian yard worker, organized a team that saved 32 Oklahoma sailors.
About this same time, a few minutes later, a fourth armor-piercing bomb drops into the USS Arizona’s powder magazine and the bow of the ship explodes, sinking the ship in a matter of minutes.
The blast from over a million pounds of explosives lifted the Arizona 30 feet into the air pushing a massive wave onto nearby Ford Island.
The resulting explosion and fire trapped many of the sailors and entombed them in the ship when it sank. The remains of over 942 sailors, officers and Marines are memorialized in the hull of the ship. The fire from the explosion burned for two days. Over half of the 2403 casualties (1104 sailors and 73 Marines) at Pearl Harbor died aboard the USS Arizona.
The USS Arizona was commissioned on October 17, 1916, part of the Pennsylvania class of American Super-dreadnought warships. It made sea patrols in World War I off the eastern seaboard and transported President Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Talks in November 1918 that ended World War I. After a training period in 1941, it was moored at Berth 7 off Ford Island two days before the attack.
In 1962, on Memorial Day, the wreck of the Arizona was dedicated with government monies and private donations as the USS Arizona Memorial. The memorial is one of several sites in Hawaii and elsewhere that are part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
At 8:30am, the first wave of attacks ended.
The Second Wave of Attacks on Pearl Harbor
The second wave begins 20 minutes later at 8:50am consisting of 167 planes. The second wave was also divided into three groups. One was tasked to attack Kaneohe and the rest Pearl Harbor proper.
The separate sections arrived at the attack point almost simultaneously from several directions. The US bases responded with heavy anti-aircraft fire.
At 9:00am and only lasting for 45 minutes, Japanese bombers attacked Bellows Field shooting down a B-17 bomber and two US pilots trying to take off from the field. Five minutes later, at 9:05am, bombers returned to Hickam Field for an 8 minute all out assault.
Bombers also attacked the USS Pennsylvania and two destroyers that were dry-docked. The USS Pennsylvania was one of the first ships in the harbor to open fire as Japanese dive and topedo bombers as they roared out of the sky above Pearl Harbor. They did not succeed in repeated attempts to torpedo the caisson of the drydock, but the USS Pennsylvania and the surrounding dock areas were severely strafed.
The crew of one 5 inch (130 mm) gun mount was wiped out when a bomb struck the starboard side of her boat deck and exploded inside Casemate 9.
Two Destroyers Cassin and Downes, just forward of USS Pennsylvania in the drydock, were seriously damaged by bomb hits. The Pennsylvania was pockmarked by flying fragments. A part of a torpedo tube from Downes, about 1,000 lb (450 kg) in weight, was blown onto the forecastle. 15 men were killed (including her executive officer), 14 missing, and 38 wounded.
At 9:07, the USS Nevada, which was hit by torpedo in the first wave, is scuttled by enemy bombs as it tries to leave the harbor. The crew runs the ship aground in an effort to prevent the ship from sinking in deeper water.
The USS Shaw, moored in dry dock, explodes from a series of ignited powder magazines blowing the bow off the ship. At 9:20am, the USS Honolulu is damaged after a nearby bomb explodes under water. The USS Honolulu was a Brooklyn-class light destroyer and was moored off the Naval Station and only suffered light damage during the attack.
About an hour and a half earlier when the second wave began, the USS St. Louis was moored to the pier in Southeast Lock when the attack began.
At 7:56, Japanese fighter planes were sighted by observers on board St. Louis. Within minutes, the ship was at general quarters and her operable anti-aircraft guns were manned and firing on the attackers. By 8:06, preparations for getting underway had begun. At about 8:20, one of the cruiser’s gun crews shot down its first Japanese torpedo plane. By 9:00, two more Japanese aircraft had joined the first. At 9:31, St. Louis moved away from the pier and headed for South Channel and the open sea.
The USS St. Louis was the first ship to successfully clear Pearl Harbor once the attack began.
As the cruiser moved into the channel entrance, she became the target of a midget submarine. The Japanese torpedoes, however, exploded on striking a shoal less than 200 yd (180 m) from the ship. Destroyers then pounded the bottom with depth charges and St. Louis continued out to sea where she joined USS Detroit and USS Phoenix, both of which also left Pearl Harbor during the attack, and a few destroyers in the search for the Japanese fleet. After failing to locate the Japanese strike force, the hunters returned to Pearl Harbor on 10 December. St. Louis turned to escorting transports carrying casualties to San Francisco and troops to Hawaii.
For her success during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ship was given the nickname “Lucky“.
At 9:45am, the attacks were over.
Death and Heroism
Other ships hit that morning included the USS California which was hit by two torpedoes on its port side. Both torpedoes flooded the ship which settled into the mud. One hundred of her crew members were lost and 62 injured. Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Robert R. Scott was one of the sailors who lost his life, refusing to leave his battle station, even as it flooded, “as long as the guns keep firing”. Also killed was Chief Radioman Thomas Reeves who organized hand delivery of anti-aircraft ammunition when the equipment to lift it to the guns was knocked out. He was overcome by smoke and fire below decks while leading this effort. Both men were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for their heroism and destroyer escorts USS Reeves and USS Scott were named in their honor. (Wikipedia)
The USS West Virginia was also targeted and hit by seven torpedoes on its port side in the first wave of attacks. Port-side torpedo damage caused rapid compartment flooding; prompt counter-flooding by four damage-control parties under the command of J. S. Harper and early closure of all water-tight doors and hatches ordered by Harper’s assistant, Archie P. Kelley, prevented the ship from capsizing. The ship burned for hours from the same oil slick the engulfed the USS Arizona.
Debris from a bomb hit on USS Tenessee’s turret two hitting the command deck of the West Virginia mortally wounded the commanding officer, Mervyn S. Bennion. Shrapnel mortally wounded Captain Bennion and while holding one hand to his wound, continued to command his crew. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts in resisting the Japanese attacks. In 1943, the USS Bennion was named in his honor after being christened by his widow.
While the USS West Virginia was undergoing repairs after the attack at Pearl Harbor, 66 sailors were discovered lying atop steam pipes. Three sailors were found in a storeroom compartment where they had survived on emergency rations and water. A calendar found in the compartment indicated that they were alive for 16 days.
With a patch over the damaged area of her hull, the battleship was pumped out, refloated on May 17th, 1942 and docked in Drydock Number One on June 9th, 1942. This enabled a more detailed damage assessment, indicating six (not five) torpedo hits.
During repairs, workers found the bodies of 66 USS West Virginia sailors who were trapped below when the ship sank. Several were lying atop steam pipes, in the only remaining air bubble of flooded areas. Three were found in a storeroom compartment, where they had survived for a time on emergency rations and fresh water from a battle station; a calendar indicated that they were alive through 23 December. (Wikipedia)
The USS West Virginia was berthed next to the USS Tennessee at the time of the attack. The Tennessee was damaged, but not sunk during the attack. Crewman during the attack manned the 3 large anti-aircraft guns defending the harbor and their ship. Two armor-piercing bombs detonated incompletely, however, the first bomb hit the center anti-aircraft gun taking out all three guns. Shrapnel from this bomb is what killed Captain Bennion while on the deck of the USS West Virginia moored next to the Tennessee.
The second bomb went through the roof of turret three as a low burn-out and not a complete detonation. The oil from the West Virginia and the Arizona engulfed the ships stern in flames. The ship was essentially trapped at her berth until freed some four days later to sail and undergo repairs.
The USS Maryland was moored alongside the USS Oklahoma which capsized from multiple torpedo hits. However, the Maryland was only lightly damaged during the attack. Many of the crewmen of the Maryland where readying themselves for shore leave when the attack began. The quick action of it’s crew certainly prevented more bombing against batteleship row. Leslie Short—addressing Christmas cards near his machine gun—brought the first of his ship’s guns into play, shooting down one of two torpedo bombers dropping bombs on the Oklahoma.
The USS Vestal, after returning to the west coast for an overhaul at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California, steamed back to Pearl Harbor, resuming her vital duties.
On 6 December 1941, she was moored alongside USS Arizona, at berth F 7, off Ford Island, to provide services to the battleship during her scheduled period of tender upkeep between December 6th-12th, 1941. The USS Vestal was primarly a repair ship. About 8am, on December 7th, 2 bombs hit the USS Vestal. Just earlier, as the attack had begun, the crew was already manned at their anti-aircraft battery guns. Maintaining the anti-aircraft fire became secondary to the ship’s fight for survival. The 3-inch (76 mm) gun jammed after three rounds, and the crew was working to clear the jam when an explosion blew Vestal’s gunners overboard.
At about the same time, the USS Arizona’s powder magazine exploded. The resulting explosion touched off adjacent main battery magazines. Almost as if in a volcanic eruption, the forward part of the battleship exploded, and the concussion from the explosion literally cleared Vestal’s deck.
Among the men blown off Vestal was her commanding officer, Commander Cassin Young. The captain swam back to the ship, however, and countermanded an abandon ship order that someone had given, coolly saying, “Lads, we’re getting this ship underway.” Fortunately, the engineer officer had anticipated just such an order and already had the “black gang” hard at work getting up steam.
The explosion touched off oil from the ruptured tanks of the Arizona which in turn caused fires on board Vestal, aft and amidships. At 8:45am, the men forward cut Vestal’s mooring lines with axes, freeing her from the USS Arizona, and she got underway, steering by engines alone. A tug, the captain of which had served aboard the Vestal just a few months before the attack, pulled Vestal‘s bow away from the inferno engulfing Arizona and the repair ship, and the latter began to creep out of danger, although she was slowly assuming a list to starboard and settling by the stern. At 09:10, Vestal anchored in 35 feet (11 m) of water off McGrew’s Point.
With the draft aft increasing to 27 feet (8 m) and the list to six and one-half degrees, Commander Young decided upon another course of action. “Because of the unstable condition of the ship”, Young explained in his after-action report, “(the) ship being on fire in several places and the possibility of further attacks, it was decided to ground the ship.” Underway at 09:50, less than an hour after the Japanese attack ended, Vestal grounded on ‘Aiea Bay soon thereafter. Commander Young was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
Ships Damaged and Sunk at Pearl Harbor
The USS Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and West Virginia were all sunk during the attack. The USS West Virginia and to a lesser degree USS Nevada had serious damage. USS Pennsylvania was in dry dock, making attack difficult, and as a result was relatively undamaged. USS Vestal was also damaged. The USS Utah, which was on the other side of Ford Island, capsized.
Here is a synopsis of the ships damaged and sunk at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th, 1941:
- USS Arizona: (flagship of Battleship Division One) hit by an armor-piercing bomb, exploded; total loss. 1,177 dead.
- USS Oklahoma: hit by five torpedoes, capsized; total loss. 429 dead. Refloated November 1943; capsized and lost while under tow to the mainland May 1947.
- USS West Virginia: hit by two bombs, seven torpedoes, sunk; returned to service July 1944. 106 dead.
- USS California: hit by two bombs, two torpedoes, sunk; returned to service January 1944. 100 dead.
- USS Nevada: hit by six bombs, one torpedo, beached; returned to service October 1942. 60 dead.
- USS Tennessee: hit by two bombs; returned to service February 1942. 5 dead.
- USS Maryland: hit by two bombs; returned to service February 1942. 4 dead (including floatplane pilot shot down).
- USS Pennsylvania (flagship of the U.S. Pacific Fleet): in drydock with Cassin and Downes, hit by one bomb, debris from USS Cassin; remained in service. 9 dead.
- USS Utah: hit by two torpedoes, capsized; total loss. 64 dead. Was commissioned as a target ship during the attack and was docked on the west side of Ford Island, opposite of Battleship Row. (Source WIKIPEDIA)
Other than the attacks of 9/11 where there were 2996 casualties, the attacks at Pearl Harbor took the most American lives in one horrible event. In about 90 minutes, there were 2403 total deaths (2335 military and 68 civilian casualties).
Prime Minister Winston Churchill received news of Pearl Harbor at his Sunday night dinner table while entertaining American diplomats at his country home. Knowing that the US would now enter the war and join Britain in its war effort, Churchill would later write, “that night I slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.” Soon , the United States would join the effort to defeat Hitler and Germany’s war machine.
Of course, we won the war with great cost. Lives were lost at Pearl Harbor and many more accross the Pacific and European fronts. Pearl Harbor’s history did not end with the attack, but rather it marks a beginning. Pearl Harbor remained a supply base during and after the war. It helped to bring an end to World War II and the axis powers of Japan and Germany. Today, thankfully, Germany and Japan are our complete Allies.
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of that terrible day, I would like to say “Thank You” to all those who lost their lives and served our country. Thank you to those who continue to defend our very freedom each and every day.