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The Japanese Fleet at Pearl Harbor

Written by Sakhal

"If war is unavoidable, better if it comes soon; the later, the worse it will be."

The embargo of petroleum meant for Tokyo the hardest diplomatic blow among many others coming from United States: the reserves of fuel would be enough for a year only. From the early 1941 the Japanese Navy (then the most powerful one in the world, with 10 battleships, 10 aircraft carriers, 35 cruisers, 11 destroyers and 64 submarines) started the preparations to deal a deadly blow to the American Pacific Fleet. While the plan to attack Pearl Harbor was being tuned up, the Japanese High Command was still undecided about the original plan of a treacherous attack against the Philippines. In their primitive war plan, the Japanese expected to conquest the Philippines in 50 days, Malaysia in 100 days and the Dutch East Indies in another 50 days. But with the appointment of Admiral Yamamoto as supreme chief of the entire Japanese Fleet in August 1939, the plans were changed. Fervorous defender of the aircraft carriers, Yamamoto promoves the absolute necessity of crippling the Pacific Fleet, "a sword aimed to the throat of Japan", to delay its counteroffensive. The High Staff of the Japanese Navy, albeit doubtfully, accepted this thesis. On the other hand, the American High Staff was reluctant to take seriously the possibility of a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor, and precisely the efforts were focused into defending the Philippines.

The Japanese studied in depth the aeronaval operation against the base at Tarento, on which with only 27 torpedo bombers the Royal Navy had achieved to put out of action three Italian battleships. However, even after that raid, it had been still thought that it would be impossible to launch torpedoes from aircraft in water areas of depth lesser than 22-23 meters (more or less the average depth in the anchorages at Tarento); according to this theory, Pearl Harbor would be immune for the depth in there was only about 10-15 meters. But the Japanese soon learned that the British, benefiting from the experience acquired in Tarento, had achieved to launch torpedoes from the air into a depth of water of barely 12 meters by simply adding stabilizing fins to the torpedoes, preventing these from either jumping outside the water or impacting against the seabed. A special idea developed by the Japanese was to provide their high-altitude bombers with piercing projectiles of caliber 381 and 406 millimeters, fitted with stabilized fins to allow them to be used as normal bombs. No battleship in the world could resist the impact of such projectiles when dropped vertically. Finally, the decision from the High Staff of the Pacific Fleet of not using torpedo nets in their ships, because of considering them obtrusive for mobility, would seal the fate of the fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor.

Prelude of war

The date and time of the attack was determined by many factors. During Sunday the crews of the ships would be in land, which would increase the effect of a surprise attack. After the mid of December, the monsoon would reach its maximum intensity and this would be unfavorable for the amphibious landings in Malacca and Philippines, as well as the fuel supply operations that the fleet attacking Pearl Harbor would have to effectuate at sea. The 8th December, Sunday according to Tokyo timezone, there would be new moon in Hawaii and the resultant darkness would help the aircraft carriers to approach their targets without being noticed. On the other hand, the tide would be favorable for any attempt of amphibious landings, idea which however was later discarded due to the lack of transport means and the fear of being easily spotted because of the large size of the landing forces. Following order of importance, the targets of the operation would be: the aircraft carriers, of which the Japanese expected to find from three to six units, the battleships, the large fuel deposits and other port facilities, and the aircraft stationed in the main airbases Wheeler, Hickam and Bellows Field.

Albeit due to propagandistic reasons the Americans presented the attack to Pearl Harbor as a longly premeditated treacherous action, the Japanese intended to exploit all the strength of the surprise attack without surpassing the legal limits. The timing of the declaration of war had been carefully planned so the Japanese ambassador in Washington could present it to the Government of United States at 13:00 hours of the Sunday, corresponding to 7:30 hours in Hawaii. This would have granted to Washington a narrow timespan of barely half hour to warn the military chiefs on the Pacific, still juridically correct according to the contemporary international laws. However, due to the length of the declaration (about 5000 words) and the delay to decipher it in the Japanese embassy, the document was not ready to be delivered to the ambassador until 14:20 hours, almost 35 minutes after the beginning of the attack against Pearl Harbor.

The strategy of Yamamoto

In the Japanese bases everything is ready for the enterprise, but the crews of the ships are still unaware of the purpose of the mission. Only the High Command knows this. Yamamoto affirmed that if the plan is successful it would be possible to set a solid "defensive perimeter", fortified with military bases, outposts and a mobile assault force provided with aircraft carriers and battleships. The "defensive perimeter" should be an iron and fire ring that not even the United States at the maximum of its power could frank, forcing a negotiation. Once the Pacific Fleet were put out of action, the Japanese could conduct their operations without having to fear serious naval interferences, while the same formation attacking Pearl Harbor would be ready on its return to exercise support and cover tasks. The margin of time to consolidate a defensive ring would be so increased.

The Japanese Fleet

The 10th November, the Japanese "special force" departs from the large bases at Kure and Hiroshima. The ships, isolated or in pairs, following a diversity of routes to not alarm the espionage, march to the north towards the Kuril Islands. The 22nd November, in the deserted bay Hitokappu is concentrated the powerful fleet: the assault group commanded by Admiral Nagumo, composed of six aircraft carriers, which carry a total of 432 aircraft (39 fighters, 40 in reserve and 353 strike aircraft); the support group commanded by Admiral Mikawa, with two battleships and two heavy cruisers; the reconnaissance group commanded by Admiral Omori, with a light cruiser, nine destroyers and 28 submarines (five of them of midget type); and the supply group composed of eight tankers.

The morning of the 26th November the fleet departs towards the east to later aim towards Pearl Harbor from the north, crossing areas of bad weather but of sparse mercantile traffic. The aircraft carriers navigate in two columns, preceded by seven destroyers and followed by the tankers, with the flanks protected by submarines, battleships and cruisers. It is a slow and strenuous march across a stormy ocean that sweeps the men from the decks of the ships. The majority of high officers and a hundred of pilot officers have been informed about the operation, but the rest of the crews remain uninformed. The Monday 1st December, onboard the aircraft carrier Akagi, Admiral Nagumo receives the fatidic message: "Niitaka Yama Nobora" (Climb Mount Niitaka). The crews are promptly reunited and informed about the objective of the mission. In a general frenzy, the soldiers shout fervorously "Banzai, Banzai!" (Thousand years of life to the Emperor!). The Japanese war machine has been activated.

The 4th December, Nagumo is informed that in Pearl Harbor have not been installed any captive balloons nor the torpedo nets recently delivered from America. The chief of air operations, Commander Fuchida, receives the order of announcing the attack, as soon as his groups are upon the enemy roadstead, with the word "Tora" (Tiger) repeated thrice. This word made allusion to the Japanese proverb that says: "The tiger marches to a distance of 2000 kilometers and returns infallibly." The tiger serves as metaphor of the brilliant fighter aircraft Mitsubishi Reisen Zero and its astonishing operational range in comparison with other contemporary aircraft. Now the Akagi hoists the flag that Admiral Togo, the 21st May 1905, raised on the Japanese ships before annihilating the Russian Fleet in Tsushima. The morning of the Sunday 7th December, under the first glow of the dawn, the Japanese "special force" arrives to its attack position, 275 miles north of Oahu, 26 degrees latitude north and 158 degrees longitude west. The pilots, who wrap their heads with the "Hachimaki", pray in silence before the pale lights of the Shinto shrines and then get onboard the aircraft that already roar in the flight decks.

The Japanese Fleet at Pearl Harbor

Strike Group - First Air Fleet Led by Vice Admiral Chuiki Nagumo as Chief Commander and Counter Admiral Ryonosuke Kusaka as High Staff Chief. Composed of the 1st Aircraft Carrier Division led by Vice Admiral Chuiki Nagumo (Akagi and Kaga), the 5th Aircraft Carrier Division led by Counter Admiral Chuiki Hara (Zuikaku and Shokaku) and the 2nd Aircraft Carrier Division led by Counter Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Hiryu and Soryu), with an air force totaling 392 aircraft.

Escort Group Led by Counter Admiral S. Omori. Composed of the light cruiser Abukuma and the 1st Destroyer Squadron (Akigumo, Arare, Hamakaze, Isokaze, Kagero, Kasumi, Shiranuhi, Tanikaze and Urakaze).

Support Group Led by Vice Admiral G. Mikawa. Composed of the 3rd Battleship Division (Hiei and Kirishima) and the 8th Cruiser Division (Tone and Chikuma).

Advanced Patrol Led by Captain at Sea K. Imaizumi. Composed of three cruising submarines and 28 exploration submarines.

Supply Group Composed of eight ships for supplies and petrol.

Neutralization Force of Midway Led by Captain at Sea K. Konishi. Composed of two destroyers (Akebono and Ushio).

The attack

At 7:55 hours, Fuchida breaks into the skies of Pearl Harbor with his 183 aircraft (43 escort aircraft, 51 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers and 49 high-altitude bombers). The surprise is practically full. Little matters that four hours before the mineswepper Condor had spotted a submarine in the mouth of the roadstead, later sunk at dawn by the destroyer Ward, or that only 15 minutes before were detected from Cape Kuhaku "numerous aircraft at 132 miles"; nobody in the higher ranks expected anything special in that sunny Sunday. Someone, confusing red circles with red stars, even believed that Soviet aircraft had arrived as visitors; others are admiring the "very realistic maneuvers" supposedly - and strangely - effectuated by Marines early in a Sunday; in the middle of this delusion, a Japanese pilot has the nerve to greet the Americans from his aircraft and some of these greet him back. In the battleship Pennsylvania a mariner shouts "The Japanese are attacking! and another one replies with sarcasm "And the Germans too...

At low altitude, fast as falcons, the pilots from the group of Fuchida deploy themselves and promptly attack the battleship Oklahoma, anchored together with the Maryland in Battleship Row. Knowing that the depth in the roadstead does not exceed 14 meters (a standard torpedo launched from an aircraft would have to submerse itself about 20 meters before emerging to hit the target), the Japanese had been training for long time in Kagoshima Bay; invariably their torpedoes, in such a brief and superficial route, resulted deviated, hitting the seabed and sinking in the mud. The problem was solved by placing wooden stabilizers in the tail of the torpedoes. During the attack, the first five torpedoes glide perfectly towards the water, barely touching the seabed, and then they emerge, hitting the Oklahoma in both ends of the hull and causing her sinking. The battleship California is hit by two torpedoes and a 250-kilogram bomb reaches her powder magazine through a hatch. A terrible explosion shakes the ship and this one overturns.

Immediately after, the attackers charge against the battleship Arizona. The Japanese pilots, to avoid wasting ammunitions, adjust very well the launchings. A torpedo soon hits the Arizona, a bomb explodes in the deck, literally uprooting an artillery piece, and another bomb destroys the artillery turret number four. But also hundreds of men are mown by the explosions. The Arizona would sink, busted and ablaze, along with 1103 men, who would represent almost half of the casualties suffered during the attack. Almost half hour has passed since the beginning of the attack and the anti-aircraft artillery is still disorganized and unable to consistently oppose the enemy aircraft, which hammer the roadstead with torpedoes and bombs, while also attacking the aviation fields, where dozens of fighters and bombers have been destroyed.

Then it comes the turn of the West Virginia, torn apart by three torpedoes (105 casualties), the Tennessee, hit in the deck by two piercing bombs (five casualties), and the Pennsylvania, flagship of the Pacific Fleet. Albeit protected by the dock and two destroyers, this battleship is hit by a bomb (18 casualties) and devastated by the fire. Another two bombs opened terrible water leaks in the bridge of the Maryland (415 casualties). The Nevada, which attempts to reach open sea, is hit by a torpedo and three bombs (50 casualties) and she looks like about to sink in the entrance of the roadstead. All around, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary ships are sinking, afire or exploding, and a cloud of thick black smoke covers the island.

The Japanese Fleet at Pearl Harbor

Inland the situation is not better, but at least the Tank Farm, deposit of four millions and half barrels of naphtha and fuel that supplies the Pacific Fleet, survived the destruction. But the airfields Hickam Field, Wheeler Field and Fort Island, the deposits of ammunitions and the encampments and headquarters are harassed. At 8:40 hours the first Japanese group withdraws and Fuchida transmits to Nagumo: "Mission accomplished. We return. Pearl Harbor is a sea of fire." The relay is taken by a second wave of 171 aircraft led by Commander Shimazaki. The new attack starts at 8:54 hours and it lasts for 53 minutes, until 9:47 hours. This group is tasked with completing the destruction. The aftermath of the operation is impressive. After two hours of attacks, of the 96 ships anchored in Pearl Harbor, 18 are out of action, five are destroyed (the battleships Arizona and Oklahoma, the destroyers Cassin and Downes, and the target ship Utah), four are stranded and scuttled (the battleships West Virginia, California and Nevada, and the minelayer Oglala), albeit they would be promptly retrieved, and nine are severely damaged (the battleships Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the cruisers Helena, Honolulu and Raleigh, the destroyer Show and the auxiliary ships Curtis and Vestal).

In the airfields of Oahu there are 188 aircraft destroyed and another 159 damaged. The battering of the runways was so meticulously executed by the Japanese that after the raid from the 82 aircraft stationed at Ewa and Kanehoe only one remains in flying condition. The human losses reach 2403 dead and 1178 injured. According to Japanese accounts, they lost 29 aircraft (nine fighters, 15 bombers and five torpedo bombers), one submarine and the five midget submersibles used in the operation; regarding human losses they declared 64 dead, being 55 of them aviators. At 5:05 hours according to Tokyo timezone, Admiral Nagumo comfirms to the supreme authorities of Japan the success of the surprise attack. Seven hours later the Mikado places the imperial seal into the document that proclaims the war status with United States. Then, in a gesture that scandalized all the Japanese aristocracy, the plebeian Fuchida is received in private audience to be congratulated.

The Japanese Fleet at Pearl Harbor

First wave (7:40) composed of 45 fighters, 54 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers and 50 high-altitude bombers. Second wave (8:50) composed of 36 fighters, 81 dive bombers and 54 high-altitude bombers.

The Japanese Fleet at Pearl Harbor

The protagonists at the Pearl Harbor attack: the dive bomber Aichi D3A and the torpedo bomber Nakajima B5N.

A chain of negligences

A series of deplorable factors contributed to the great success of the Japanese attack: 1) the delay in the Japanese declaration of war; 2) the permanence of the ships in their anchorages instead of being exited to sea or distributed along the roadstead; 3) the neglect in the installation of torpedo nets (the Americans were convinced that the low depth of the water in Pearl Harbor would prevent any attack from aerial torpedoes; 4) the way on which the aircraft were stationed, wingtip to wingtip, in the center of the airfields (because of the fear to sabotages); 5) and a number of warnings (the detection of midget submarines, the observation in the Opana radar station or the interpretation of messages) that did not have the consequences that would be logically expected. Numerous proceedings were made to set responsibilities, which generally felt upon the responsible military commanders, leading to the dismission of Admiral Kimmel and General Short.

Even more, some personalities of sharp critical spirit dared to express a belief that would not be confirmed nor denied. They affirmed that the interventionist leaders of United States had incurred in a premeditated negligence and unpreparedness, knowing well what the Japanese were preparing, with the purpose of creating an atmosphere of psychological shock on the American society that would finally open the road to war with the approval of the public opinion, rather reluctant until then. This judgement attributed to the Roosevelt administration a Machiavellian touch. Anyway, United States had received a contundent blow and the agressor would start the war with the short-term advantage of having crippled the Pacific Fleet, gaining time to prepare its defensive positions on the Pacific.

Categories: Events - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-10-07

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