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Pearl Harbor: The Attack

Second Wave: Massacre

About 8:40 a.m., there was a brief lull before the second wave of Japanese planes struck. These included: 54 B5N2 Kate level bombers with a mix of 250-kilogram/550-pound and 60-kilogram/120-pound bombs; 78 D3A1 Val dive-bombers with one 250-kilogram/550-pound high-explosive bomb; and 36 A6M2 Zero fighters with two 7.7 mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannon.

At Bellows Field, three P-40s took off, but were quickly shot down by the incoming wave of Zeros. However, two Army pilots, George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, dodging Japanese strafing as they raced to Haleiwa field, managed to get their P-40s into the air and claimed seven kills between them.

The second wave continued the work of the first, especially at the airfields and air stations around Oahu. The helpless and massed Army aircraft at Wheeler Field were bombed and strafed repeatedly. The same story was repeated at the Ewa Marine Corps Air Station and other airfields around the island. At Bellows Field, three P-40s took off, but were quickly shot down by the incoming wave of Zeros. However, two Army pilots, George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, dodging Japanese strafing as they raced to Haleiwa Field, managed to get their P-40s into the air and claimed seven kills between them.

Back in the harbor, the Vals scored additional hits, concentrating on Nevada, which was slowly making her way toward the channel that led to the open sea. Between 8:50 a.m. and 9:05 a.m., she was hit by at least four more bombs. If Nevada had been sunk, blocking the channel, the U.S. fleet would have been trapped and the harbor would be rendered useless for months. Thomas, still senior officer aboard Nevada, decided to run the ship aground to keep her from sinking. At 9:10 a.m., Nevada plowed into the shore near Hospital Point, where she would eventually be salvaged. Meanwhile, the bombers continued to work over other targets in the harbor.

Pearl Harbor

Black smoke blots out the sky as it rises above the Marine Barracks Parade Grounds at the Navy Yard, where Marines wait for the next attack. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo.

Pennsylvania, the fleet flagship, was in drydock along with two destroyers, Cassin (DD 372) and Downes (DD 375). At 9:07 a.m., Pennsylvania was hit by a 250-kilogram/550-pound bomb that knocked out one 5-inch gun, though by Dec. 12 she was repaired and able to get underway. However, bombs also struck the fragile destroyers, flooding the floor of the drydock with burning fuel and setting the “tin cans” on fire. Downes’ torpedoes detonated from the fire, causing a sympathetic detonation of Cassin’s magazine. The dock had to be flooded to control the fires. At 9:20 a.m., a near miss buckled the hull of the light cruiser Honolulu, causing severe flooding, while her sister ship St. Louis (CL 49) got under way. Cutting through a cable that secured a dredge at the south end of Ford Island, St. Louis reached the open sea by 10:04 a.m., evading two torpedoes from a Japanese midget sub, which she promptly sank with gunfire. Earlier, the destroyers Helm (DD 388) and Monaghan (DD 354) both had encounters with midget subs while exiting the harbor, with the second vessel ramming and depth charging one of the tiny submersibles. Helm was also damaged by an attack at sea by a single Japanese aircraft, the near miss opening a couple of seams and damaging vital equipment.

A few other destroyers made it out of the harbor during the attack, all short of men and sometimes their senior officers. Dale (DD 353) and Henley (DD 391) joined the growing collection of surface ships outside the harbor mouth, wondering if a Japanese task force was approaching from just over the horizon to finish the job of the bombers.

Dale (DD 353) and Henley (DD 391) joined the growing collection of surface ships outside the harbor mouth, wondering if a Japanese task force was approaching from just over the horizon to finish the job of the bombers.

Perhaps the most unique escapes of the day came from two destroyers that went to sea under the command of ensigns. Aylwin (DD 355) under the command of Ensign Stanley Chaplin (and three other ensigns), and Blue (DD 387), conned by Ensign Nathan Asher, would both make the trip to sea under the most junior of commanders. Joining St. Louis, Detroit, and the destroyers at sea was the USS Phoenix (CL 46), undamaged in the attack. (Forty-one years later, renamed General Belgrano, she would meet her fate at the hands of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Conquerer during the Falklands War.)

About the time the destroyers were completing their breakout to the sea, the reason for their sortie was leaving to go home. The planes of the second wave, their ordnance expended and starting to take losses to the growing anti-aircraft fire, left the target areas. Heading out to sea to prearranged rendezvous points away from American observation posts, they doglegged back to Kido Butai to avoid any U.S. “snoopers” trailing them to their carriers. In just over two hours and with just a handful of losses, the planes of the First Air Fleet had just laid a textbook example in the use of airpower at the feet of historians for their study over the next six decades.

 

Japanese Midget Submarine

A beached Japanese midget submarine. The attacks of the midget submarines were rather less successful than those of the naval aviators. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

Withdrawal: The Japanese Turn Home

By 10:00 a.m., the Japanese first wave began landing aboard the carriers, which had closed to 190 miles north of Oahu. Fuchida remained in the air to observe the effects of the second wave. He landed aboard Akagi, the last plane of the first wave to be recovered, at 1:00 p.m., and reported to Nagumo that at least four battleships had been sunk and four seriously damaged. Fuchida believed his force had shot down 10 American planes in air combat and destroyed another 250 on the ground. He tried to convince Nagumo to launch a third wave of attacks on the port facilities, though the admiral only wanted to know two things.

First: Where were the American aircraft carriers?

Second: Had the Pacific Fleet been disabled for at least six months?

The answers were “We don’t know,” and “Yes,” and that was good enough for Nagumo. A lifelong fleet officer, Nagumo did not care about oil tanks and warehouses, which was typical of the Japanese military’s disdain for logistics. It was an attitude that would strand one heroic, starving Japanese army unit after another on remote islands and distant jungles.

 

A lifelong fleet officer, Nagumo did not care about oil tanks and warehouses, which was typical of the Japanese military’s disdain for logistics. It was an attitude that would strand one heroic, starving Japanese army unit after another on remote islands and distant jungles.

Nagumo didn’t know it, but he had just lost Japan its only chance to win the war. Four of his six aircraft carriers and most of the aircrews under his command had just six months to live, all destined to die just a few hundred miles away, near Midway Atoll.

As soon as the second wave had completed recovery, Kido Butai was on course for home. Along the way, Soryu and Hiryu, along with the two heavy cruisers and two destroyers, were detached to strike the U.S. base at Wake Island. The rest of the force headed home, arriving back in Japan to the congratulations of the emperor and Japanese people. The cost had been absurdly small, with only 29 aircraft lost (nine Zeros, 15 Vals, and five Kates) and 55 airmen killed. Five midget subs were sunk or beached, with the loss of nine sailors killed and one captured.

 

USS Nevada

Nevada sorties, moving up the channel as she is pounded mercilessly from the air. While she was an inspiring sight to Americans that morning, she paid a heavy price, and her acting captain was wise to beach her at Hospital Point to avoid her sinking in the channel. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

Accounting: The Price of Dec. 7, 1941

The cost to the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was heavy, with at least 19 U.S. warships sunk or severely damaged. Four battleships (Arizona, Oklahoma, California, and West Virginia) were sunk or destroyed, with the others damaged to various degrees. Light cruisers Helena (CL 50), Honolulu (CL 47), and Raleigh (CL 7); destroyers Shaw (DD 373), Cassin (DD 372), Downes (DD 375), and Helm (DD 388); minelayer Oglala (CM 4); seaplane tender Curtiss (AV 4); repair ship Vestal (AR 4); and target vessel Utah (AG 16) were all heavily damaged or sunk. Also lost were the tug Sotoyomo (YT 9) and Floating Drydock No. 2.

However, Maryland, Tennessee, West Virginia, California, Nevada, and Pennsylvania would all be repaired and modernized, all but Nevada to fight again in the last great clash of battleships, annihilating a Japanese squadron at Surigao Strait on Oct. 25, 1944. Arizona, stripped of gun turrets and superstructure, and topped by a gracefully arched visitor center, remains in place, slowly rusting away and still leaking oil, as a war grave and national memorial. Although she is not technically still “in commission,” her name has never been assigned to another Navy vessel, and probably never will.

Sixteen Medals of Honor were awarded for outstanding bravery at Pearl Harbor, 10 posthumously.

By one estimate, of the 394 U.S. aircraft present, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged. Several civilian light aircraft, out for Sunday morning rides and training flights, were also downed by Japanese pilots. The official count of Americans killed is 2,403, including 2,008 sailors, 218 soldiers, 109 Marines, and 68 civilians. The wounded totaled 1,178, including 710 sailors, 364 soldiers, 69 Marines, and 35 civilians. The toll would have been higher, but many severely burned casualties were saved from fatal infections by the new antibiotic sulfanilamide. Sixteen Medals of Honor were awarded for outstanding bravery at Pearl Harbor, 10 posthumously. Fifty-one Navy Crosses, 53 Silver Stars, four Navy and Marine Corps Medals, one Distinguished Flying Cross, and more than 1,000 Purple Hearts were also awarded, in many cases years later.

For all the damage done, ships sunk and put out of action, aircraft destroyed, and personnel killed, Pearl Harbor could have been much worse for the United States. All three of the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were away during the attack, allowing the incoming CINCPAC, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz (who replaced the now-disgraced Kimmel), to begin raids and other operations as soon as he took command. Also, since the sunk and damaged ships were inside a protected and shallow harbor, salvage and repairs were relatively easy. The bulk of the aircraft destroyed were obsolete, and not terribly difficult to replace. Best of all, not one of the oil tank farms or repair shops were damaged in any way. The air bases, while suffering some damage, were easily repaired and soon stocked with fresh aircraft from the mainland. By not attacking infrastructure targets after hitting the warships, the Japanese left behind the very instrument of their eventual defeat: the Pearl Harbor base itself.

 

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


    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-23978">
    WALTER HEIMERT

    THE MOTHER OF THE LITTLE GIRL,I WAS PLAYING WITH, WAS SITTING ON THE FRONT STEPS OF THEIR PORCH READING THE SUNDAY PAPER. MY FATHER CAME OUT OF OUR HOUSE AND EXCLAIMED”THE JAPANESE HAVE BOMBED PEARL HARBOR”. THE LITTLE GIRLS MOTHER BEGAN TO CRY, WE RAN TOWARDS THE TWO OF THEM AND I SAID TO MY FATHER”WHAT IS A PEARL HARBOR.” THUS BEGAN MY LOVE FOR THE HISTORY OF WWII.
    THANK YOU FOR THE ARTICAL.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-24072">

    Thanks for your comment and we’re glad you enjoyed it.