On December 7th, 1941 (December 8th Tokyo time), the Imperial Japanese 1st Air Fleet, consisting of six carriers with 423 planes was located 230 miles north of Oahu and the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. As his aircrews waited for orders to launch, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sent the traditional Nelsonian admonition to a fleet about to go into battle. “The fate of the Empire rests on this enterprise. Every man must devote himself totally to the task at hand.” At 6 a.m. the first attack wave of 183 Japanese planes leaped off the carrier decks, heading east into the rising sun.
In the fall of 1941, the naval and air base at Pearl Harbor and the installations on Oahu represented the greatest concentration of American military power in the world. One of those ships anchored in the harbor off Ford Island was the minesweeper USS Avocet. On board was a young seaman named Joseph H. Messner.
Joseph H. Messner
“I was fascinated by the sights I saw there. I was an unsophisticated teenager, I had just turned 18. There were battleships all over the place, big guns sticking up, cruisers and submarines and over in this other place was the little Avocet.”
“I had joined the navy to be on one of those great warships. I was let down, I was betrayed. I wanted to be on one of them big fighting ships or on an airplane, or battleships with the big guns sticking up all over the place. Instead, they put me on a tugboat. But I was mistaken. The Avocet turned out to be a very brave ship.”
When the battleships eventually were sitting on the bottom, burning and exploding and capsizing, they called upon the Avocet to go alongside and put the fires out. They were like dinosaurs trapped in the tar pits and the Avocet went amongst them, while the bombs and torpedoes were slamming into them and we poured water on them, we pulled people out of the water, we did all kinds of things…but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.”
In normal circumstances, Pearl Harbor was the home to nine or ten battleships, three carriers with over 259 aircraft, a score or more of cruisers, and dozens of odd destroyers, submarines, and support ships, plus about 500 land-based aircraft and two under-strength infantry divisions.
General Walter Short, Army commander in Hawaii, dismissed the possibility of a carrier air raid on the place, even though the Navy had for years practiced such a bold stroke against the Panama Canal, San Diego and Pearl Harbor itself. These practice raids had demonstrated that such operations were not at all difficult. Despite that, Short’s principal concern seems to have been the threat of sabotage by members of Hawaii’s large resident Japanese and Japanese-American population.
Japanese Strike Force
Besides the six fleet carriers, the Japanese strike force included two fast battleships, two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, nine destroyers and three submarines, supported by eight tankers and supply ships, and was concentrated in great secrecy at a secure anchorage in the Kurile Islands north of Japan. As part of the undertaking, another group of submarines was assigned to ferry two-man midget subs. These midget subs were tasked with penetrating Pearl Harbor from the sea at the same time the airmen attacked.
The primary targets of the attack were to be the American aircraft carriers. All US aircraft were to be destroyed to prevent aerial opposition. A strong fighter element would be included in the attack for air cover for the fleet.
At 7:02 a.m., two Army operators at the Opana radar station on Oahu’s north shore picked up the approaching Japanese fighters on radar, only an hour after they had taken off from their carrier decks. Although U.S. Army enlisted personnel manning an experimental radar system spotted the incoming aircraft, the duty officer at air defense headquarters dismissed the bogey. He suggested that it was a flight of B-17s due from the mainland.
About the same time, a destroyer, the Ward, exercising outside the harbor entrance spotted a submarine periscope and made vigorous attack. The Ward had killed one of five midget subs trying to break into the harbor. No one took the destroyer skipper’s frantic messages seriously. The first Japanese bomb was dropped at 7:55 a.m. on Wheeler Field, eight miles from Pearl Harbor.Frank Naper
Frank Naper: “That morning at 7:55, my friend and I, Steve Seavack, were going to attend church services. As we were approaching the church we heard the hum of planes behind us; we looked back and over a mountain pass which is known as the Koli Koli Pass we saw planes coming over. As we looked back we noticed that there was a rising sun on the wing tips, so when I saw that my legs locked, I got a chill through my body, and I thought to myself, “Forget about ever going home.”
“But anyways, they came overhead; they came so low you could see their ugly silly grins on their faces looking down on us. As they made a couple of turns they went toward the quadrangles.”
Seaman John Spears, Battleship USS West Virginia: “All hell broke loose. I hadn’t any idea what was going on.” James Baker remembers the sounds of the first explosions coming from Hickam Field: “We didn’t know what happened; we thought maybe someone had went berserk or something.”
Frank Naper: “When they were finished strafing around Schofield, they went on their way to Wheeler Field; from there we can hear the explosions, smoke billowing up into the sky and it made your heart feel sad knowing that these people are being killed, not knowing what is happening to them and you just had to stand there and have tears coming out of you.”
As the planes moved towards the fleet in the harbor, most of the American crews were on the decks of their ships for morning colors and the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner.
John Spears: “I was below deck when heard this explosion up on Ford Island where the seaplanes come in. I thought what the heck. I ran back out on to the deck to see what’s going on. About that time a plane flew across the ship about 50 feet above us, two guys came running up behind me with machine guns and started firing, Guys were falling and screaming around me. I looked up and I saw the red ball on the plane’s wings and I screamed ‘Oh hell it’s the damn Japs.’ Then another one and another with guns blazing came over. They just went on and on and on….”
The Japanese planes moved with stunning precision to their primary targets: the seven battleships moored at “Battleship Row,” along the southeast shore of Ford Island. The first torpedoes hit Oklahoma with a crump and a boom and the battleship shuddered like a wounded beast. The next torpedo struck almost immediately after the first. Within 20 minutes of the first attack, the big ship began to roll over.
She kept rolling until her superstructure hit the mud about 25 feet underneath.
Four hundred and twenty-nine men perished when the USS Oklahoma went down. Some died instantly while others languished for days trapped under the overturned hull waiting for a rescue that would come too late.
“There were a lot of targets up there and the pointers and trainers were training the guns manually trying to get on these targets” remembers James Edwards. “The gun captain was calling the side angles and deflections and the fuse settings”.
“There were several planes shot down but there was so much concentrated fire over the harbor after they realized what was going on that you couldn’t tell who was getting what planes or nothing. There was just a black barrage up there with these shells exploding but, unfortunately, the fuses weren’t set on a lot of these shells and they ended up in Honolulu.” These falling shells led to the belief that the Japanese were bombing Honolulu, but they didn’t drop a bomb in Honolulu it was all American 5-inch shells.
Forward of the overturned Oklahoma, the California was punctured by two torpedoes. Oil spewed from her sides like blood. But her guns opened fire and kept firing throughout the raid, as she settled into the mud.
Aft of the Oklahoma, the West Virginia began to sink with her decks afire, her guns also keeping up the barrage. When the first torpedoes struck the Oklahoma, three more reached out for the West Virginia and opened holes in her side. Water poured into the battleship with the force of a flash flood, causing it to list dangerously to one side. One of the garbage lighters swung alongside to help fight her fires.
Captain Mervyn Bennion
From the bridge Captain Mervyn Bennion quickly took control, ignoring the crash of bombs around him and the hail of bullets spewed by the strafing Zeroes. He ordered flooding on the side of the West Virginia opposite the torpedo strikes to balance the weight caused by flooding from the gaping wounds and turn his ship upright. The countermeasures worked, the West Virginia sinking lower in the water but leveling out.
Then more torpedoes were unleashed, followed by bombs dropped from high above. Captain Bennion moved to the starboard side of the bridge, barking out orders and doing everything in his power to save his ship. As intent as the intrepid Naval officer was in keeping his battleship afloat, the Japanese pilots were equally determined to send the West Virginia to the bottom of the harbor. A bomb falling from 20,000 feet made a direct hit on the West Virginia, while a simultaneous strike was made on the neighboring USS Tennessee. Fiery eruptions filled the air with flying shrapnel.
On the bridge, ragged pieces of hot metal ripped into Captain Bennion’s abdomen. Struggling against unbearable pain, the ship’s Captain refused to be evacuated. Fire broke out all over the West Virginia and secondary explosions shook the bridge. Little more could be done to save her. Captain Bennion ordered others on the bridge to get out before it was too late. As they departed to find shelter away from the rapidly sinking battleship, Captain Bennion fought off his pain to receive reports and issue orders as long as he could think clearly. At last his horrible wounds became too much for human endurance and he collapsed…unconscious.
Then he died. In all, 106 of her crew were killed including the captain who refused to give up trying to save his ship…or spare his men. Finally, the harbor waters put out the flames on the West Virginia, but the gallant “Wee Vee” also sank into the mud.
Approximately ten minutes into the attack came the most thunderous explosion as a bomb smashed through the two armored decks of the USS Arizona, and ignited her powder magazine. The big battlewagon seemed almost to lurch out of the water. The concussion was felt for hundreds of yards around her. The resulting explosion ripped open the hull and started a fire that swarmed over the ship, completely engulfing her. Within minutes she sank to the bottom of the harbor. More than eleven hundred men went down with the Arizona.
Jack Rinninger witness the death of the Arizona. “Our Captain, Cassin Young, was on the quarterdeck just above where I was when the Arizona blew up. He was blown over the side of the ship. He swam back to the gangplank, swam back to the ladder and climbed the ladder.”
“The Executive had given orders to abandon ship because we were going down and the Arizona was pulling us down, there was just no way could we battle it any longer. But when he swam back aboard ship he gave orders to beach the ship and got us underway. got a tug alongside and got us underway We got in shallow water before we went down. For that act Captain Cassin Young was one of the three survivors of the attack to receive the Medal of Honor.”
At 8:05, after two torpedo hits, the target ship Utah strained against her mooring lines with a 30-degree list. With her torpedo blister removed, the Utah had little chance of surviving the attack. She capsized at 8:10.
At about 8:30 am, the first wave of Japanese planes, their ordnance expended, broke off the attack and headed back out to sea. Within minutes a second strike as strong as the first came over. Hampered by dense smoke from the damage inflicted by the first strike and by the increasingly voluminous antiaircraft fire as well as surviving American P-40s, the second strike inflicted relatively little damage. Then as suddenly as they had come, the attackers vanished.
In a little more than an hour and 45 minutes, the Japanese had smashed the pride of the Pacific Fleet and changed naval dictum forever.
Joseph H. Messner; “I saw a devastating sight: decapitated bodies on the gun turrets, arms and legs strewn over the deck, blood running out of the scuppers, men walking down the deck, completely burned, with their clothes burned off, and their skin hanging down—you heard the old term “dead men walking”—some of them fell over the side. We couldn’t get to them. They fell over the side. They were burned into shreds almost…it was a tragic sight to see.”
Of the approximately 100 U.S. Navy ships present in the harbor that day, all eight battleships were damaged. Five were sunk.
Eleven smaller ships, including cruisers and destroyers, were also badly damaged.
The wounded included 1,178 people. Among those killed were 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians.
The Arizona was dealt the worst blow of the attack. A 1,760-pound bomb struck it, exploding the ammunition on board and killing 1,177 servicemen. Japanese losses were five midget submarines and about twenty-eight aircraft, for a total of fewer than fifty men.
Even as the second strike flew back to the carriers, a critical argument was going on aboard the Japanese flagship. Impressed by the success of the first strike, air-minded officers were trying to convince Nagumo to undertake a third strike, this time against the harbor installations, warehouses and fuel dumps.
Nagumo demurred, concerned over the location of the missing American carriers, which had not yet been discovered. As a result, as soon as the second strike had been recovered, their strike force turned back to Japan. No Japanese naval task force would ever again penetrate so far eastward.
Arguably, the defeat could have been worse. The three Pacific Fleet carriers escaped the debacle. Saratoga was undergoing a refit in San Diego, while Lexington and Enterprise were at sea, returning from delivering additional aircraft to Wake Island.
A case can be made that Nagumo’s decision not to undertake a third strike was an error, for it would have destroyed the fuel dumps, thereby crippling the remnants of the fleet and seriously damaging the harbor facilities, forcing the U.S. fleet back to the US west coast.
But it is important to note that Nagumo’s second strike had been relatively ineffective and suffered the greatest losses. A third attack may have meant losing the advantage of surprise, valuable airmen and if the U.S. carriers remained undetected, even losing the Fleet itself.
Sunset did not end the commotion in the skies over Oahu. At 10:10 six Wildcats from the US Carrier Enterprise, returning from delivering aircraft to Wake Island droned over the harbor. Below them, the sight was one of hell on earth. The Arizona continued to burn, as she would until the 9th. Also aflame was the destroyer Shaw, the battleship California, and many of the military installations and airfields around the island. Just as the six pilots lowered their gear and entered the landing pattern for Ford Island, the entire harbor opened with everything they had.
Miraculously two of the planes landed safely and a third made nearby Barber Point. However, three of the Navy aviators were killed by friendly fire, the last fallen warriors in a long day of death.
Joseph H. Messner: “Back on the West Virginia, sitting on the bottom, water on her decks, then air spaces below, sitting on the bottom. After the West Virginia settled you could hear banging—ting, ting, ting—men with wrenches or hammers beating on the metal, trying to let people know they were trapped there. But they were below a section which was full of water and they were down, way down. The banging went on for days”
“To this day I have not forgiven them, these brave samurai’s—warriors—came like thieves in the night, without a declaration of war, and they slaughtered my comrades. I never forgave them for what they did. I don’t think I ever will.”