December 7th, 1941 began like most other Sunday mornings at the Unites States Naval base in Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Yet the tranquility of dawn spreading across the tropical waters would not last long.
Shortly before 8:00 am, the lagoon harbor experienced the devastation of a surprise attack that saw five battleships sunk, over a dozen other vessels run aground or damaged, 188 airplanes destroyed, and as many as 2,402 Americans killed, with another 1,282 wounded. Yet a list of such Pearl Harbor facts does little justice to the destruction that was meted out that day. One can only imagine what it must have been like to be there. Unquenchable fires raged aboard the stricken American craft that day, a nation was stunned, and the course of history was inexorably altered.
The Japanese orchestrated the infamous attack in an attempt to prevent the US Pacific Fleet from obstructing their planned advances into Southeast Asia – yet the opposite effect was achieved. In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States, outraged by the unexpected attack, declared war on Japan. The resulting conflict would ultimately lead to the Japanese Empire’s defeat at the end of World War Two with the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This photograph has become one of the most iconic images of the Pearl Harbor attack. It shows the forward magazine of the USS Shaw, a destroyer, exploding dramatically after fires had spread through the ship. The warship sustained three hits during the bombing but, incredibly, was fully repaired within months and earned 11 battle stars during WWII.
Around half the casualties suffered by the United States naval fleet during the Pearl Harbor attack were men who died aboard the battleship USS Arizona, seen here violently ablaze – more inferno than ship. Of the 1,400 on board at the time, only 223 survived the bombing and subsequent sinking of the vessel.
The ammunition magazines in the forward section of the Arizona exploded after a bomb penetrated the ship’s deck, and the intense fires that broke out continued to burn for two days. The battleship suffered eight bomb hits in total, with the debris she produced raining down on nearby Ford Island.
Here, the USS Arizona billows huge clouds of smoke while her fires continue to rage. As on other warships stationed in Pearl Harbor that day, many acts of bravery occurred aboard the burning Arizona. Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua, for example, was awarded a Medal of Honor for his coolheaded role in fighting the blazes and rescuing survivors.
Two others to be recognized were Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd and Captain Van Valkenburgh, who acted courageously before perishing in the attack and were awarded Medals of Honor posthumously. Captain Valkenburgh was on the bridge trying to defend the Arizona when he was killed in the massive explosion that tore the ship apart.
From this perspective, we can get an idea of the true scope of the destruction that occurred under the relentless bombing. You can also see the defensive anti-aircraft shells exploding in the air – mostly to little effect. While the biggest smoke plume is billowing from the USS Arizona, dark clouds can also be seen rising from the other ships sitting prone in the harbor.
Interestingly, the US military had actually been expecting a Japanese attack thanks to their code breaking work, but unfortunately they wrongly believed that it would most likely take place in the Philippines.
Here, sailors at the Ford Island Seaplane Base look on in disbelief as explosions rock the USS Shaw, nearby in the background. Surrounding the men are the wrecks of their planes strewn about the recently bombed airfield. The Japanese had targeted PBY aircraft – like that whose ruined wing is pictured in the foreground – to prevent retaliatory attacks on their fleet by the long-range patrol bombers.
Silhouetted here is what must have been the terrifying sight of a Japanese Type 99 bomber, the Aichi D3A1, during the attack. Codenamed “Val” by the Allies, each of these aircraft carried a single 550-lb (249-kg) bomb. Their targets at Pearl Harbor were Ford Island, where the vessels that formed ‘Battleship Row’ were moored, and Wheeler Field.
This scene of devastation shows the upshot of the Japanese bombing of the Ford Island Naval Air Station's seaplane base. Smoke rises from wrecked planes and the burning hangar is dominating the background, while at the bottom left you can see personnel with rifles – firearms that could do little, if anything, against the airborne enemy planes.
With seven battleships anchored along its shore together with its seaplane base, Ford Island was the main target in the Pearl Harbor attack, and Battleship Row took the full force of the Japanese bombers’ assault. These days, the island continues to operate as a military base, but it also has an aviation museum attached that allows civilians to visit some of the battlefield’s notable locations.
One of the points for which the USS West Virginia (pictured) is best remembered is the valor of her captain, Mervyn S. Bennion, together with the bravery of the firefighters who tried to extinguish the battleship’s flames during and after the attack. In total, the West Virginia sustained seven torpedo hits.
Despite being hit in the stomach by shrapnel, Captain Bennion continued to defend the battleship right up until his death. The volunteers who formed the firefighting team (seen here in smaller boats) returned to the West Virginia to try and save the vessel even after her abandonment. However, she had not been abandoned completely: tragically, it was later discovered that, when she sank, the ship took down 70 sailors who had been trapped inside.
Although Pearl Harbor was primarily a military target, many civilians were also killed in the attack. In this particular car, sprayed with shrapnel from an aerial bomb, three people died – among them the driver, who can be seen at the wheel. Altogether, about 60 individuals not involved in combat lost their lives when the Japanese struck.
It was speculated that most of these bystanders were the victims of “friendly fire” rather than the Japanese bombs; that is, they were killed by anti-aircraft shells that missed the enemy planes and fell back down to earth.
This aerial view shows Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers that had launched from the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga. The planes, codenamed “Kate” by the Allies, had already played their part in the first bombing waves and were on the way to their rendezvous point. On the ground below, smoke can be seen rising from the bombers’ freshly hit targets.
The Nakajima B5N was Japan’s most successful bomber during World War II, performing a significant role in this and every other Japanese military triumph that followed in the subsequent twelve months.
The sinking battleship in this photograph is the USS California, which was hit by two bombs as well as two torpedoes during the attack. When the first bomb hit, it caused an ammunition magazine to explode, taking the lives of 50 men. The second bomb split open the ship’s bow plates, allowing water to rush in and causing the ship to sink. In the end, 98 crew members were killed on the California, with a further 61 wounded.
Also in this picture are the USS Shaw, on the far left, and the USS Nevada, center left, both of them billowing smoke. The California was later reconstructed and returned to duty.
In this shot, smoke almost completely engulfs the stricken – and all but sunk – USS Arizona. The gun director mast tilts almost perpendicular to the water, its supporting base having collapsed. At this point, the ship itself was resting on the harbor’s muddy floor – where most of it remains to this day, as a National Shrine memorial to those who lost their lives that day.
The exact cause of the catastrophic explosion that killed most of those aboard the USS Arizona has never been firmly established. One theory is that the offending bomb exploded in, or close to, the black powder magazine – which may have had gunpowder stocked outside it – with the resulting blast igniting the nearby smokeless powder magazine used for the ship’s main munitions.
A second theory suggests that the bomb was able to burst through the ship’s armored decks and explode inside one of the main armament's magazines. Yet, whatever exactly brought it about, the cataclysmic explosion was enough to destroy the evidence that might have proven either hypothesis.
Of the 350 aircraft sent into the attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, only 29 were lost. Five of these planes were from the carrier Kaga, including the Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber seen here being fished out of the harbor. The B5N’s commander Lieutenant Suzuki Mimori and two other crewmen died when their plane was shot down.
This photograph, taken on aircraft carrier the Kaga the day before the attack, shows men who made up the crews of the Nakajima B5Ns – like the one to their rear. Such crewmen were highly proficient, even claiming a nine out of ten success rate in their strikes. Interestingly, the torpedoes used by the BN5s had to be specially modified for the Pearl Harbor attack, with wooden fins attached so that the projectiles wouldn’t hit the shallow harbor bottom.
Airplanes were not the only craft used by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. This ‘Type A’ HA-19 midget submarine ran aground while trying to make its way into the harbor during the attack – one of only two such vehicles that managed to do so. Five of these midget subs were launched roughly five hours before the aerial bombardment commenced, but only one is thought to have successfully fired its torpedoes at a target, and none returned back to their carrier ships.
Of the five midget subs – each of them crewed by two men – one was grounded, two were sunk, another was abandoned after being damaged by a depth charge, and the last was only discovered in 2009. It is this last sub that is believed to have fired its torpedoes at the USS Oklahoma, possibly contributing to the battleship’s dramatic capsizing.
Here, we can see, close-up, some of the damage done to the USS Nevada by the Japanese bombers. The photograph, taken five days after the attack, shows the gun turrets and ruptured superstructure.
Unlike most of the other battleships struck off of Ford Island, the Nevada was not flanking any other vessels during the attack and so was able to steer a course away from Battleship Row to the other side of Ford Island. Although hit by no less than six bombs and a torpedo, she was able to bring down three or four Japanese planes before she herself grounded.
The USS Raleigh, a light cruiser, was being kept afloat by the barge lashed to her side when this picture was taken, following damage inflicted by both a bomb and a torpedo. The capsized hull of the less fortunate USS Utah can be seen here behind the Raleigh. The Utah was not a combat ship but a training vessel, and moreover was not even a planned target. She was only struck because overeager Japanese pilots could not resist firing two torpedoes into her side.
It is estimated that 58 men died on the Utah during the attack, either due to being trapped in the sinking ship or else being gunned down by strafing planes. In one of many displays of great courage at Pearl Harbor, the chief watertender, Peter Tomich, lost his life while helping others get to safety.
The ship in the center of this picture is the USS Nevada; but the majority of the thick black smoke is pouring from the USS Shaw to the left – seen exploding spectacularly in an earlier picture. Both ships were positioned near the Naval Air Station.
This picture clearly shows the devastating effect of the Japanese bomber attacks. Smoke pours from the USS Shaw, which can be seen to the center right. In the left of the photograph, also billowing smoke, is light cruiser the USS Helena, while in the center is the bombed dry dock.
The aerial torpedoing of the Helena created shockwaves which caused another ship that had been alongside her, minelayer the USS Oglala, to capsize. The upturned hull of the Oglala can be seen in the front of the picture.
Although Pearl Harbor is often remembered for the ships that were laid to waste and sunk, close to two hundred US Navy planes were also destroyed in the attack. This OS2U seaplane clearly took a battering and lies wrecked on the ground.
It was not only the Navy that lost planes, either; the US Army suffered a total loss of 97 planes at their Hickam and Wheeler airfields.
Here, sailors look on as the USS California settles into the muddy harbor bottom. At the time of the attack, the ship was being readied for a material inspection and so wasn’t as watertight as she might have been – doubtless contributing to the fact that she sank.
On the far right of this photograph, just visible though plumes of smoke, is the capsized hull of another Navy battleship, the USS Oklahoma. Four hundred and twenty-nine men perished on the Oklahoma, including many who were trapped inside as the ship went down; and whose futile banging on the bulkhead could be heard but not responded to. Among the Oklahoma’s fatalities was the first military chaplain killed in WWII, Father Aloysius Schmitt, who died while helping junior sailors get to safety.
Thick black smoke forms noxious clouds over battleships the USS West Virginia and the USS Tennessee, the former vessel sinking after the torpedo and bombs hits she sustained.
Fortunately for those aboard the West Virginia, the assistant fire control officer, Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts, was able to perform enough damage control to prevent the ship from capsizing – as happened to the unluckier USS Oklahoma, docked ahead, which had also been torpedoed.
Here, we’re given the chance to see the bombing of Pearl Harbor from the attackers’ point of view. This picture, taken from a Japanese aircraft, shows the famous Battleship Row – where key Navy ships were docked as the carnage began to unfold that fateful morning.
Lined up from left to right are the USS Nevada; the USS Arizona, with USS Vestal outboard; the USS Tennessee, with USS West Virginia outboard; the USS Maryland, with USS Oklahoma outboard; the USS Neosho; and the USS California. When this photograph was taken, the West Virginia, Oklahoma and California had already been hit by torpedoes and can be seen leaking oil.
While the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor proved to be a resounding victory for the Japanese, it was such a dark day for the United States that just over twenty-fours later, the nation declared war on its aggressors following President Roosevelt’s historic Infamy Speech. Vengeance, while not necessarily swift, was nonetheless exacted tenfold, and Pearl Harbor became a centerpiece for American propaganda during the war.