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Forces War Records Blog


One of the greatest myths of World War Two is that the attack at Pearl Harbour was completely unprovoked. True, there had been no open moves of war on the United States’ part, but the Allies had been involved in a silent battle with Japan since the conclusion of World War One, one calculated to hurt the country by striking its pride and its pocket. As ‘Witness to World War II’ by Karen Farrington attests, Japan had first been snubbed at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, when the Allies set their peace terms. Japan had actually joined the Allied side in the Great War, and expected to be rewarded. Instead, a proposed clause of racial equality was barred by Woodrow Wilson. The US went on to ban Japanese people from entering the county, then, in the Washington Treaty of 1922, which aimed to prevent an arms race by limiting naval expansion, Japan was told it could only have three ships for every five the US and Britain were allowed to build. Later, in the 1930s, limited trade with the US and UK made it extremely difficult for the country to ride out the Great Depression. Japan was a tiny nation with a huge population to support, and it needed to expand to stay afloat. Why shouldn’t it aim for an empire, the way the UK and Holland had long ago?

The Japanese duly began taking an interest in Chinese affairs, and, when China made it clear it would not tolerate being pressured, invaded the Chinese territory of Manchuria in 1933. Japan was ordered to leave the area, and refused; instead, it left the League of Nations. In 1937, Japan declared war on China, while the US and Russia came down on the latter’s side. Finally in September 1940, with the great powers of Europe well and truly occupied with the fighting on their continent, Japan seized the opportunity to invade Vichy-French Indochina. As punishment, the US, UK and Dutch Government in exile vowed to stop all trade with Japan and stopped sending vital oil to the island, without which it would only be able to survive for a short time. Furious and desperate, the Japanese reached out to the only ones they knew would understand their yearning for more power – the Axis forces. Later that month, Germany, Italy and Japan signed the Tripartate Pact, promising to stand together. America, Holland and the United Kingdom had done nothing but get in Japan’s way and restrict its development for decades; it was payback time.

Japan of course had no intention of invading mighty America, but had its eye on the British, French and Dutch colonies of South East Asia and the Pacific. The owners of these lands had their hands full, but the US would surely fight to support its allies and keep the Pacific free of potential threats. As ‘Campaigns of World War II Day by Day’ by Chris McNab and Chris Bishop explains, Japan decided its best chance was to strike hard and fast, and to attempt to cripple to US Navy’s formidable force at Pearl Harbour before it had time to react. Duly, Admiral Yamamoto planned a surprise attack. The Japanese fighter, high-bomber, dive-bomber and torpedo bomber pilots practiced hard in secret all summer, arms were amassed, and a naval fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Chuiki Nagumo set out from base on 26th November, early enough to allow them to follow a meandering and highly unusual route to the launch point, 270 miles north of Pearl Harbour, nestled in the Hawaiian islands, while maintaining a strict radio silence. Controversially, Japan also hinted to the United States that it was keen to try and find a diplomatic solution to the disagreements between the two countries. As the planes launched the attack, the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was in the middle of negotiations with Japan.

At 6am on the morning of 7th December 1941, 360 planes took off from the decks of 6 aircraft carriers, which were escorted by 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, submarines and supply ships. 96 American ships were in port, though luckily all of the country’s vital aircraft carriers were out and about. Bad weather had hidden the Japanese approach, but as they attacked the skies were blue and clear. Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, in command of the first of two waves of planes, yelled ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’, or ‘Tiger, Tiger, Tiger’ in English, as a signal that the attack had not been anticipated (this somewhat belies the Japanese claim that they had meant to begin the raid a half hour after war was declared, but that the previously poor weather, and subsequent early launch, meant that the attackers accidentally began the raid before the hostilities had been announced). At 7.56am, they struck.

It was a massacre. The US had been warned of a pending Japanese attack, but had not expected it to occur so soon and had surmised that it would hit the Philippines instead of Hawaii. The ships in the harbour were totally unprepared, and, since their ammunition was neatly stored away in lockers and half the men were asleep in bed, defenceless. ‘Battleship Row’, a line of 7 battleships moored off Ford Island, was raked, while an eighth battleship, Pennsylvania, put up a fight from the dry dock and escaped all but a strafing. West Virginia was the first sunk, while Arizona experienced the most casualties, blowing up when an anti-personnel bomb hit the magazine; 1,200 of its crew died. USS Oklahoma was destroyed, as was California; Nevada beached itself in a panic as the second wave of planes, fighting through the belching smoke from the first attack, hit, while Maryland and Tennessee were damaged. Destroyers Cassin and Downs were sunk and Shaw exploded. Three cruisers, Honolulu, Raleigh and St. Helena also met with the wrath of the Japanese planes and submarines. Meanwhile, all of the US airfields were dive-bombed and strafed, at massive cost. Even more American planes were hit as they returned to base from the aircraft carriers, to find the runways burning and their vision completely clouded.

The US didn’t go down without a fight, of course. Once the ammunition was found, some guns were fired. However, ‘Witness to World War II’ calculates that for the cost of 18 ships (including 8 battleships), 164 planes destroyed and 124 damaged, 1,178 men wounded and 2,403 killed, the US sailors claimed just 29 aircraft, 5 midget submarines, 64 lives and just 1 prisoner. In the short term at least, Pearl Harbour was a triumph for the Japanese.

In the long-term, the Japanese may have lived to regret the attack. The striving for secrecy brought a lot of condemnation on their heads. The outraged Secretary of State, Mr Hull, said when he discovered the deception of the ‘diplomatic solution’, “In all my 50 years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.” The attack having happened before war was declared, Japan lost any international sympathy it might otherwise have garnered, and any opportunity to negotiate its way out of the fight. Had Japan known what horrors awaited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how little they would actually gain from their highly aggressive attempt to expand their empire, would they have gone ahead? Possibly they still would have, after national pride had been so badly hurt for so long; certainly, Admiral Yamamoto, the planner of the attack, is quoted as saying, “I fear we have only awakened a sleeping giant, and his reaction will be terrible.” His words imply he was certainly not blind to the possible consequences of his actions.

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