Second World War

How Pearl Harbor Attack made the War changed

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy led to US entry into World War II.

pearl harbor attack

In the early hours of a seemingly tranquil morning on December 7, 1941, the azure skies above Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, were abruptly shattered. Without a formal declaration of war, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a surprise military strike against the United States naval base. This attack was not merely a strategic military action; it was an event that would severely scar the American psyche and drastically alter the course of World War II, marking the United States’ entry into the global conflict.

To fully grasp the magnitude of Pearl Harbor, it’s essential to understand the motives and strategic calculations of the Japanese Empire. By the early 20th century, Japan had rapidly industrialized and sought to expand its influence and territory. Fueled by a belief in its destiny as a dominant power in Asia and facing resource constraints on its islands, Japan embarked on a path of aggressive expansion. This expansionist policy was further intensified by increasing resistance from Western powers and China. The 1930s saw Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and later full-scale war with China. However, embargoes and sanctions, particularly from the United States, which cut off oil and other vital resources, significantly threatened Japan’s ambitions. Facing this dire situation, the Japanese leadership saw a crippling blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet as the only way to secure its expansion and dominance in the Pacific.

The plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor was meticulously crafted. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who harbored deep reservations about going to war with the U.S., nonetheless planned a strike he hoped would be so devastating that it would demoralize the American people and force the U.S. to negotiate a settlement in the Pacific, allowing Japan free rein to continue its conquests. The Japanese military believed that by destroying or severely damaging the Pacific Fleet, they could buy themselves enough time to secure their expansive ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ without American interference.

The image: Captured from the vantage of a Japanese aircraft during the initial moments of the Pearl Harbor onslaught, this photograph presents a harrowing scene of destruction as torpedoes wreak havoc on the vessels anchored on both sides of Ford Island. Gazing eastward, one can discern the supply depot, submarine base, and fuel storage area in the distant right center. In this moment of chaos, a torpedo has just struck the USS West Virginia located on Ford Island’s opposite shore (center). Nearby, other battleships suffer a similar fate; from left to right are the Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (positioned inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (now listing from torpedo damage) beside Maryland, and California. On Ford Island’s closer edge, to the left, the light cruisers Detroit and Raleigh, the target ship Utah, and the seaplane tender Tangier are positioned. Both the Raleigh and Utah have been hit by torpedoes, with Utah notably tilting steeply to port. Japanese aircraft can be seen over Ford Island (center-right) and above the Navy Yard (far right). U.S. Navy seaplanes near the ramp have caught fire. Inscribed in Japanese at the bottom right, a note mentions that the photograph’s reproduction was sanctioned by the Navy Ministry.

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On the American side, despite deciphering some Japanese communications, the U.S. was caught off-guard. There had been warnings and signs of potential Japanese aggression, but nothing so audacious as an attack on Pearl Harbor was anticipated. The prevailing thought in the U.S. was that any Japanese attack would be on far-flung outposts in the Philippines or other Pacific islands.

The attack itself was brutal and meticulously executed. On the morning of December 7, waves of Japanese aircraft descended on the harbor, bombing and torpedoing battleships, cruisers, and other vessels. The USS Arizona suffered a catastrophic hit, its ammunition stores igniting and killing 1,177 crew members. In total, the assault killed 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,178 others, and sank or damaged 19 U.S. Navy ships, including eight battleships. The surprise and severity of the attack left the American public and military personnel reeling in shock and anger.

The immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor was a grim testament to the attack’s severity. Bodies lay scattered, ships smoldered and sank, and survivors struggled to save the wounded and contain the destruction. The imagery of the sunken battleships and the stories of heroism and tragedy would become etched into the American consciousness, symbolizing the brutal awakening of the United States to the realities of global war.

The response of the American people was one of unified outrage and determination. Previously divided over the issue of entering the war, the nation now rallied with a fierce resolve. President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress on December 8, declaring the date of the attack “a date which will live in infamy.” His speech galvanized the nation, and Congress swiftly declared war on Japan, officially bringing the United States into World War II. The attack, meant to discourage and debilitate, instead unified the American public in a way few events in history have. The subsequent mobilization of the United States’ industrial and military might would significantly tilt the balance of the war.

In the broader context of World War II, Pearl Harbor marked a significant turning point. It not only brought the United States, with its vast resources and military power, into the war but also solidified the Allied powers against the Axis. The attack had indeed crippled the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but not irreparably. The aircraft carriers, crucial to naval warfare, were not in the harbor at the time and thus escaped destruction. This oversight would prove pivotal in the coming battles in the Pacific, particularly in the Battle of Midway the following year, where the U.S. would deal a devastating blow to the Japanese navy.

The attack on Pearl Harbor stands as a somber reminder of the ravages of war and the unpredictable course of history. It demonstrated the severe consequences of strategic miscalculations and the resilience of a nation suddenly thrust into a global conflict. The images of burning ships and the stories of lives lost and acts of heroism would forever be ingrained in the collective memory of the United States, serving as a poignant testament to the tragedy and the indomitable spirit that emerged in its wake. As the years have passed, Pearl Harbor has become not just a historical event but a symbol of national resolve and a reminder of the costs of unpreparedness and the unpredictable tides of global politics.

william cavendish writer on world war ii
William Cavendish
Meet William Cavendish, a dedicated historian with extensive study in World War II. His detailed research and passion for history fuel his writings, providing readers with immersive, well-informed perspectives on the war's complex realities, and making the lessons of the past accessible and engaging for all.

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