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Attack on Pearl Harbor

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On 7 December 1941 a surprise aerial attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii, by the Japanese precipitated the entry of the United States into World War II.  This year marks the 75th anniversary of the attack.

The strike climaxed a decade of worsening relations between the United States and Japan. Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, its subsequent alliance with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) in 1940, and its occupation of French Indochina in July 1941 prompted the United States to respond that same month by freezing Japanese assets in the United States and declaring an embargo on petroleum shipments and other vital war materials.  By late 1941 the United States had severed practically all commercial and financial relations with Japan.

On November 26 a Japanese fleet, including 6 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 11 destroyers, sailed to a point some 275 miles (440 km) north of Hawaii.   From there, about 360 Imperial Japanese Navy fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes were launched in two successive groups for the attack.

The first Japanese dive bomber appeared over Pearl Harbor at 7:55 am (local time). It was part of a first wave of nearly 200 aircraft. The reconnaissance at Pearl Harbor had been lax; a U.S. Army private who noticed the large flight of planes on his radar screen was told to ignore them, since a flight of B-17s from the United States was expected at that time. The anchored ships in the harbour made perfect targets for the Japanese bombers, and since it was Sunday morning (a time chosen by the Japanese for maximum surprise) they were not fully manned.

Similarly, the U.S. military aircraft were lined up on the airfields of the Naval Air Station on Ford Island and adjoining Wheeler and Hickam Fields to guard against sabotage, and many were destroyed on the ground by Japanese strafing. Most of the damage to the battleships was inflicted in the first 30 minutes of the assault. The Arizona was completely destroyed and the Oklahoma capsized.

The California, Nevada, and West Virginia sank in shallow water. Three other battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, and other vessels were also damaged. More than 180 aircraft were destroyed. U.S. military casualties totalled more than 3,400 including more than 2,300 killed.  Japanese losses were light: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines were lost and 64 servicemen killed. 

The Pearl Harbor attack came as a profound shock to the American people and severely damaged U.S. naval and air strength in the Pacific.  The following day, 8 December, the United States declared war on Japan.  U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed 7 December 1942 as “a date which will live in infamy”.  Because the attack happened without a declaration of war, and without explicit warning, the attack on Pearl Harbor was judged to be a war crime.

Some nine weeks later, the Japanese launched a similar surprise aerial attack on Darwin.  In two air raids on 19 February 1942, 235 people were killed and more than 400 were wounded.

The Territory Remembers commemorates the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin and defence of northern Australia during World War II.

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside USS West Virginia

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside USS West Virginia

 

Photograph of Battleship Row taken from a Japanese plane at the beginning of the attack. The explosion in the centre is a torpedo strike on USS West Virginia. Two attacking Japanese planes can be seen: one over USS Neosho and one over the Naval Yard – Official US Navy NH50930