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.
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.