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07 Dec

December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor Bombed

Pearl Harbor bombed

The McGlynn: My Uncle Bob O’Leary was on the U.S.S. Honolulu, at Pearl Harbor .

For the remainder of the year 1939 she engaged in exercises along the West Coast. During the first half of 1940, Honolulu continued operations out of Long Beach and after overhaul at Puget Sound, sailed 5 November for duty out of Pearl Harbor. She operated there through 1941 and was moored at the Naval Station when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on 7 December 1941. Honolulu suffered only minor hull damage from a near miss. Following repairs she sailed 12 January 1942 to escort a convoy to San Francisco, arriving 21 January. The cruiser continued convoy escort duty to Australia, Samoa, and the United States until late May. (From Honolulu II (CL-48)

The McGlynn

At 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, a Japanese dive bomber bearing the red symbol of the Rising Sun of Japan on its wings appears out of the clouds above the island of Oahu. A swarm of 360 Japanese warplanes followed, descending on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a ferocious assault. The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States irrevocably into World War II.

With diplomatic negotiations with Japan breaking down, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers knew that an imminent Japanese attack was probable, but nothing had been done to increase security at the important naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday morning, and many military personnel had been given passes to attend religious services off base. At 7:02 a.m., two radar operators spotted large groups of aircraft in flight toward the island from the north, but, with a flight of B-17s expected from the United States at the time, they were told to sound no alarm. Thus, the Japanese air assault came as a devastating surprise to the naval base.

READ MORE: Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?

Much of the Pacific fleet was rendered useless: Five of eight battleships, three destroyers, and seven other ships were sunk or severely damaged, and more than 200 aircraft were destroyed. A total of 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,200 were wounded, many while valiantly attempting to repulse the attack. Japan’s losses were some 30 planes, five midget submarines, and fewer than 100 men. Fortunately for the United States, all three Pacific fleet carriers were out at sea on training maneuvers. These giant aircraft carriers would have their revenge against Japan six months later at the Battle of Midway, reversing the tide against the previously invincible Japanese navy in a spectacular victory.

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress and declared, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941–a date which will live in infamy–the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” After a brief and forceful speech, he asked Congress to approve a resolution recognizing the state of war between the United States and Japan. The Senate voted for war against Japan by 82 to 0, and the House of Representatives approved the resolution by a vote of 388 to 1. The sole dissenter was Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a devout pacifist who had also cast a dissenting vote against the U.S. entrance into World War I. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, and the U.S. government responded in kind.

The American contribution to the successful Allied war effort spanned four long years and cost more than 400,000 American lives.

READ MORE: Pearl Harbor Veteran Recalls Coming Eye-to-Eye With a Japanese Bomber

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7 December 1941

80-G-K-13512

USS Arizona (BB-39) ablaze, immediately following the explosion of her forward magazines, 7 December 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from onboard USS Solace (AH-5) (80-G-K-13512).

 

World War II came to the United States of America on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, with a massive surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy. “Like a thunderclap from a clear sky,” Japanese carrier attack planes (in both torpedo and high-level bombing roles) and bombers, supported by fighters, numbering 353 aircraft from six aircraft carriers, attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in two waves, as well as nearby naval and military airfields and bases. The enemy sank five battleships and damaged three; and sank a gunnery training ship and three destroyers, damaged a heavy cruiser, three light cruisers, two destroyers, two seaplane tenders, two repair ships and a destroyer tender. Navy, Army, and Marine Corps facilities suffered varying degrees of damage, while 188 Navy, Marine Corps, and U.S. Army Air Force planes were destroyed. Casualties amounted to: killed or missing: Navy, 2,008; Marine Corps, 109; Army, 218; civilian, 68; and wounded: Navy, 710; Marine Corps, 69; Army, 364; civilian, 35. Japanese losses amounted to fewer than 100 men and 29 planes.

Sailors, Marines, and Soldiers fought back with extraordinary courage, often at the sacrifice of their own lives. Those without weapons to fight took great risk to save wounded comrades and to save their ships. Pilots took off to engage Japanese aircraft despite the overwhelming odds. Countless acts of valor went unrecorded, as many witnesses died in the attack. Fifteen U.S. Navy personnel were awarded the Medal of Honor — ranging from seaman to rear admiral — for acts of courage above and beyond the call of duty, ten of them posthumously.

Among the Sailors recognized with our nation’s highest award for valor were Chief Water Tender Peter Tomich onboard the ex-battleship Utah, who sacrificed his life to prevent the boilers from exploding, enabling boiler room crews to escape before the ship capsized. Another was Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill, who cast off the lines as the battleship Nevada got underway, swam through the burning oil to get back on board his ship, where he was killed by Japanese strafing after being credited with saving the lives of many junior Sailors. Ensign Francis Flaherty and Seaman First Class J. Richard Ward, onboard the battleship Oklahoma, sacrificed their lives to enable turret crews to escape before the ship capsized. Onboard the battleship California, Chief Radioman Thomas J. Reeves, Machinist’s Mate First Class Robert R. Scott and Ensign Herbert C. Jones stayed at their posts at the cost of their lives to keep power and ammunition flowing to the antiaircraft guns as long as possible. Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd and Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh onboard the battleship Arizona, and Captain Mervyn S. Bennion onboard the battleship West Virginia directed the defense of their ships under heavy fire, until the ships were sunk and they were killed.

Japanese forces were astonished at the quick reaction and intensity of U.S. antiaircraft fire. That more Japanese aircraft were not shot down had nothing to do with the skill, training, or bravery of our Sailors and other servicemembers. Rather, U.S. antiaircraft weapons were inadequate in number and capability, for not only had the Japanese achieved tactical surprise, they achieved technological surprise with aircraft and weapons far better than anticipated — a lesson in the danger of underestimating the enemy that resonates to this day.

While damage to the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s battleline proved extensive, it was not complete. The attack failed to damage any American aircraft carriers, which had been providentially absent from the harbor. Our aircraft carriers, along with supporting cruisers and destroyers and fleet oilers, proved crucial in the coming months. The Japanese focus on ships and planes spared our fuel tank farms, naval yard repair facilities, and the submarine base, all of which proved vital for the tactical operations that originated at Pearl Harbor in the ensuing months and played a key role in the Allied victory. American technological skill raised and repaired all but three of the ships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor. Most importantly, the shock and anger that Americans felt in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor united the nation and was translated into a collective commitment to victory in World War II.

Remembrance Resources
Resources for Pearl Harbor remembrance events may be found in our Pearl Harbor Remembrance section.

Two Pearl Harbor Medals for Valor Awarded in 2017

Imagery

People

Ships

History of the Base

Communications Intelligence

Why Pearl Harbor?
In the video sound bite below, Naval History and Heritage Command historian Robert J. Cressman discusses Japan’s strategic objective for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Click the links below for additional sets of video sound bites to hear Cressman answer questions about other aspects of the attack. Videos may be downloaded from DVIDS.

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Additional Reading

The Navy Department Library Online Reading Room contains an overview of the Pearl Harbor attack; that page also provides most of the links given above.

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