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Pearl Harbor: The Attack

Dawn’s Early Light: Launch, Warnings, and Early Actions

Two hours before dawn at 4:00 a.m. Hawaiian time, Kido Butai’s flight crews were awakened for their breakfast of fish and rice, along with tiny ceremonial cups of sake. They wrapped traditional white hachimaki headbands around their flight helmets, inscribed with “hissho” (“Certain Victory”) for luck. At 5:30 a.m., the heavy cruisers catapulted off a pair of Aichi E13A1 “Jake” floatplanes for a final pre-strike reconnaissance over the target. Just before 6:00 a.m., the six carriers, making 24 knots, turned into the 10-knot east wind. It took about 15 minutes to launch the first strike wave, with one Zero fighter being forced to ditch. A total of 183 aircraft gathered into three formations of 16 compact attack groups and headed south, led by Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida in a Kate equipped with a special orange marker light. Estimated flight time to the target was just over 90 minutes.

The first wave was composed of 49 B5N2 Kate level bombers with one 800-kilogram/1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb, 40 B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers with one modified Type 91 torpedo, 51 D3A1 Val dive-bombers with one 250-kilogram/550-pound high-explosive or semi-armor-piercing bomb, and 45 A6M2 Zero fighters with two 7.7 mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannon.

Though the Ward radioed word of the attack to 14th Naval District headquarters ashore, the warning was lost in the chain of command. It was the first of several warnings that went unheard or unheeded in the confusion of that morning.

Even before the first Japanese planes made landfall, the destroyer Ward (DD 139) was firing the initial shots of the war in the Pacific. Patrolling just outside the harbor mouth, the Ward was directed toward a midget submarine trying to follow a repair ship towing a barge into Pearl Harbor at 3:42 a.m. The destroyer fired on the exposed conning tower of the sub, hitting it before depth-charging the craft.

Though Ward radioed word of the attack to 14th Naval District headquarters ashore, the warning was lost in the chain of command. It was the first of several warnings that went unheard or unheeded in the confusion of that morning.

USS California

The battleship California lists badly from two torpedo hits as she settles to the bottom of the harbor, surrounded by burning bunker oil. Her useless big guns elevated through her awning, the ship would soon have to be abandoned. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Twenty-eight miles north of Honolulu, Kahuku Point is the northern tip of Oahu. Just inland, near the tiny village of Opana, Joseph Lockard and George Elliot, two Army privates, manned one of the primitive SCR-270B radar sets. They were supposed to shut down the system at 7:00 a.m., but their breakfast truck was late, so they remained on duty to get some extra practice. Soon, the flickering radar scope displayed the largest return they had ever seen: more than 50 aircraft approximately 130 miles north. They phoned a report to the air warning duty officer at Fort Shafter, who told them not to worry about it. The control officer, 1st Lt. Kermit Tyler, assumed that the contact was the arriving flight of 12 B-17s, which was expected around 8:00 a.m. Lockard and Elliot continued to track the incoming wave until they lost the contact at 20 miles, in the noisy backscatter from the nearby hills.


First Wave: The Japanese Attack

At 7:38 a.m., Chikuma’s floatplane tapped out its radio report: “Enemy formation at anchor. Nine battleships one heavy cruiser six light cruisers in harbor.” This message, along with wind and weather reports, was relayed to Fuchida, now about 25 miles north of Oahu. Suddenly, the clouds broke and the coastline appeared, a good omen for the Japanese airmen. At 7:49 a.m., Fuchida ordered his force into attack formation by firing a single flare. Then, thinking the dive-bombers had missed this signal, Fuchida fired a second flare, which the 51 Vals misinterpreted as an order to attack immediately. It did not matter. At 7:53 a.m., Fuchida sent the pre-arranged signal “Tora Tora Tora” (“Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”), meaning that complete surprise had been achieved. Crossing over Kahuku Point, the first wave split into two main groups. Fuchida led 89 Kates swinging wide around the Waianae mountain range to strike Battleship Row from the southwest. Simultaneously, 51 Vals and 43 Zeros struck the air bases.

“Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.”

At 7:55 a.m., a Navy color guard raised the flag at the Ford Island Command Center. A plane buzzed them and Lt. Cmdr. Logan Ramsey, commanding the 2nd Patrol Wing, thinking a naval aviator was “grandstanding,” snapped, “Get that fellow’s number!” Then something fell from the plane and exploded among the hangars. By 7:58 a.m., Ramsey had ordered a radioman to send a message in the clear to all commands: “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.”

About the same time, on the western side of Ford Island, the first Kates skimmed in low above the waters of Pearl Harbor, dropping their specially modified torpedoes and striking Utah and Raleigh (CL 7). Lines from the quay kept the torpedoed cruiser from capsizing, but the old Utah was not so lucky. Disarmed and with wooden planks mounted across her decks to cushion the blows of practice ordnance, she may have been mistaken for a carrier, and with two torpedoes in her, she eventually capsized. On Battleship Row, Oklahoma (BB 37) took her first aerial torpedo hit, rapidly followed by three more, and began to list. Oklahoma is thought to have taken up to nine torpedoes by the end of the attack. West Virginia (BB 48) was shattered by no fewer than six torpedoes in addition to a number of armor-piercing bombs. Aboard West Virginia, Capt. Mervyn Bennion lay mortally wounded, but still trying to direct efforts to save his ship. Mess Steward Doris Miller moved his captain to a safer location aboard, despite the captain’s protests, and later manned a machine gun. Despite the ship’s grievous wounds, she took a long time to settle to the bottom of the harbor. Her captain was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and Miller became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross. Two torpedoes hit California (BB 44), which was quickly surrounded by burning oil from her ruptured tanks. With numerous voids open for an impending inspection, and hatch covers removed, California lacked normal watertight integrity, and the crew struggled to keep her from capsizing as she slowly settled to the bottom. Within minutes, every one of the outboard ships was torpedoed, and Oklahoma began to capsize. The worst was yet to come.

USS Oklahoma

Battleship Row seen from the capsized Oglala. The Oklahoma has turned turtle, her bottom projecting from the oily water, and Maryland lies inboard of her. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Just after hoisting the flag at 8:00 a.m., Arizona (BB 39) was apparently struck by a torpedo that passed under the old repair ship Vestal (AR 4) moored alongside. Then around 8:10 a.m., a flight of Kates dropped their special armor-piercing bombs, one of which hit Arizona on her foredeck. Penetrating to the forward magazine, the bomb detonated more than 50 tons of ammunition and set off a catastrophic explosion that nearly tore the battleship in half and shook the entire harbor. Almost 1,200 of the Arizona’s crew, including Capt. Franklin Van Valkenburgh and Rear Adm. Isaac Kidd, were killed instantly, the largest total for any American warship in wartime.

All around the harbor, the destruction of the Arizona was having secondary effects. Burning oil from Arizona surrounded the stern of Tennessee (BB 43), trapped inboard of the sinking West Virginia, starting fires aboard. Damaged by the blast when Arizona exploded and hit by a number of bombs meant for the battleships, Vestal later managed to pull away from the stricken Arizona. Her wounded captain, Cmdr. Cassin Young, climbed back aboard after being blown off the ship, and beached Vestal to keep her from sinking. For his gallantry and persistence, Young would be awarded the Medal of Honor. Just aft of the Arizona, Nevada (BB 36) managed to get her anti-aircraft guns into action, downing two torpedo planes but taking a hit in the port bow that caused extensive flooding. Nevertheless, Nevada had two boilers lit, and later managed to get under way, the only battleship to do so during the attack. With her captain and executive officer ashore for the night, command of Nevada fell upon Lt. Cmdr. Francis Thomas, a middle-aged reservist. Her sortie would mesmerize everyone around and over the harbor that morning. For the moment though, there were other battles being fought all over Oahu.

Then around 8:00 a.m., adding to the growing confusion, the unarmed B-17s from the mainland, and a reconnaissance flight of 18 SBD dive-bombers from Enterprise, arrived in the middle of the Japanese attack. Desperately trying to find a place to land, most ran into a holocaust.

At Ford Island’s gasoline pier, the fleet oiler Neosho (AO 23), loaded with volatile high-octane aviation fuel, struggled to get under way. If Neosho had been hit, the resulting fire and blast wave might have swept the harbor, killing any sailors in the water who had abandoned ship and doing untold damage. Then around 8:00 a.m., adding to the growing confusion, the B-17s from the mainland, and a reconnaissance flight of 18 SBD Dauntless dive-bombers from Enterprise, arrived in the middle of the Japanese attack. Desperately trying to find a place to land, most ran into a holocaust.

From the very beginning, Japanese planners had shown the utmost respect for what land-based aircraft might do to Kido Butai if discovered. It therefore is no surprise that almost half of the aircraft launched against Hawaii that morning were assigned to destroy American aircraft and airfields. At the Ford Island Naval Air Station, the lines of patrol planes were bombed and strafed to “take out the eyes” of the Americans who might try and find the Japanese fleet. Similar strikes at Kaneohe Bay were equally devastating, though by this time lone Americans were beginning to fight back. At Kaneohe, Chief Ordnanceman John William Finn set up spare .30- and .50-caliber machine guns on mounts, then manned several to shoot at the strafing Zeros. All around Oahu, from the Submarine Base to small fighter strips like Haleiwa, American servicemen began to get into the fight.

Ford Island

Ford Island Naval Air Station. Smoke from the burning Nevada and flames from the exploding Shaw rise above the shattered PBY, Kingfisher, and Seagull patrol aircraft the Japanese have destroyed. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Across the harbor at Hickam Field, the bombers and Zeros were particularly deadly. Time after time, Japanese aircraft on strafing runs blew up fighters and other aircraft, as well as strafing hangars and other ground facilities. Wheeler Field got a similar treatment, with virtually every plane blown up or shot to pieces. Into the middle of this cauldron came the squadron of unarmed B-17s from the West Coast, some of which landed at Hickam, while the rest diverted to Haleiwa. One put down on a golf course. The biggest nightmare was suffered by the SBDs from Enterprise. Some were lost to “friendly fire” from the ground, while Japanese fighters shot others down. Ironically, some of the survivors would help destroy the carriers of Kido Butai at Midway just six months later. For now, all any of them could do was survive.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

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