Geography of War - The Attack on Pearl Harbor

The Attack on Pearl Harbor (World War II)

December 7, 1941

Modern Location:
Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Japan (led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto) vs. United States (led by Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short)

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the United States was not at war.  Negotiations with the Japanese Empire, who was upset that the Americans had cut off oil and other exports to their island nation in the midst of their war with China, had been ongoing for several weeks but remained largely unfruitful.  In need of such resources, the Empire planned for a contingency - a preventative strike against the United States and their Pacific Fleet.  By setting out while peaceful negotiations were ongoing and attacking before a declaration of war, Pearl Harbor cannot be considered a battle and those Americans who were involved were technically non-combatants.  The quite of a Sunday morning was broken a few minutes before 8 am when the first Japanese dive-bombers arrived.  Battleships were lined up along Ford Island within the harbor, and planes were sitting wing-to-wing at the nearby airfields to prevent sabotage (which was deemed a more credible threat than actual attack).  Japanese planes in the first wave had approached from the north - some covering the entire length of the island along the valley between Oahu's two mountain ridges that run parallel paths along the east and west shorelines, the rest circling the island and reaching Pearl Harbor from its sides.  Torpedoes, bombs, and bullets quickly and effectively reached their targets, and within 20 minutes of the engagement's outset the most devastating blow was landed as a Japanese bomb found the magazine of the USS Arizona.  The resulting explosion quickly sank the battleship with more than 1,000 trapped men aboard.  Shortly thereafter, torpedoes claimed another prize as the USS Oklahoma was struck, rolled to the side, and sank with another 400 trapped sailors.

Elsewhere, dive-bombers and fighters had crippled the American ability to respond by destroying over 300 planes at several air fields.  None of the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers were present on the morning of the attack, with the USS Enterprise scheduled to return that day.  They did provide some of the scant resistance to the Japanese assault, but no counter-attack was made.  At the end of two waves, the Japanese fleet opted to leave and return home, although a third wave may have caused significantly more damage to America's ability to recover.  Although Japan had destroyed or damaged every battleship in Hawaii along with a significant number of support vessels, they did not target ship yards, repair facilities, radar, or oil tanks.  Admiral Yamamoto believed he had succeeded in accomplishing his purpose to cripple the United States ability to wage war in the South Pacific, and realizing the element of surprise was no longer his opted not to risk further losses.  The attack was over less than two hours after it had begun.

The natural shape and location of Pearl Harbor was the reason for placing the bulk of United States naval forces on Oahu.  Sheltered from open ocean, the clover-shaped inlet nevertheless creates a bottleneck for vessels inside.  Of all the battleships that were attacked only the USS Nevada was able to make a serious attempt to get underway and was nearly sunk at the head of the channel before it was grounded during the second wave.  Hawaii's location made it an ideal staging point as well, sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean roughly 2,000 miles west of the California coast.  The Japanese fleet was able to successfully cover 4,000 miles in 11 days under total radio silence to reach Pearl Harbor undetected.  Additionally, the terrain of the island of Oahu played a key factor.  The central valley of the island offered no natural barriers to incoming aircraft, which helped the surprise attack to be executed smoothly and successfully.

A view of Oahu from the opening of Pearl Harbor, facing north across the island's central valley:

It was a total victory for the Japanese, who sustained fewer than 100 casualties while killing 2,403 Americans (both military and civilian).  The absence of any aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor effectively set the course of how the war in the South Pacific was to be fought, rather than eliminating America's ability to fight, and Japan's inability to damage critical infrastructure allowed the US to recover much more rapidly than they may have expected.  All but two of the battleships were eventually recovered and repaired before seeing service later in the war.  The Battle of Midway was fought and won by America less than six months after Pearl Harbor, and was a significant turning point for Allied forces in the South Pacific.  Nearly four years after their attack on the United States, Japan surrendered on Sep. 2, 1945 to finally bring an end to World War II.


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