by Gregory Karpicky
Until 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry anchored in Yokahama Bay, the
islands of Japan had been relatively isolated. Having a long and very proud
history of self-reliance, they considered themselves a chosen race. Their
Emperor was considered a god, supposedly descended from Amaterasu, or Great
Spirit Illuminating the Heavens, and could trace his lineage back well over 1000
years. Added to this long national history was an equally long military history
of victories against invaders and foes that had left Japan feeling invulnerable.
But the isolation became clear with Perry's visit, and the Japanese quickly
realized they needed to arm themselves with modern weapons if they were to deal
with the outside world. They performed this task so well that by 1895 they had
annexed Formosa and part of the Korean peninsula and had shamed the Czar's army
and navy in the short Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. By the early 20th century
Japan was recognized as a world-class military nation. Militants in the Japanese
army were moving into control of the government and were bent on conquest. The
early 1930's involved Japan in a war to seize China.
The Americans had not been idle during the build up to the Pacific conflict. As
early as the twenties, American and British cryptanalysts had forged an
agreement. As the British had a lead in deciphering Japanese naval codes, they
would concentrate their efforts on those while the Americans would work on
diplomatic codes. By 1939 the Americans had finally broken the Japanese
diplomatic code that would eventually become known as "Purple". "Purple" enabled
President Roosevelt and his staff to be privy to Foreign Minister Oshima's
communications to Ambassador Nomura. This gave the U.S. an invaluable advantage
in reading diplomatic messages. But that advantage did not translate into an
advantage in naval intelligence or intentions in the Pacific. The Japanese
militarists, by this time fully in charge of the Japanese government, were dead
set on a war with Britain and the U.S. and did not want their embassies to know.
So while Foreign Minister Oshima may have known more than he let on, he
certainly did not communicate that to his ambassadors.
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger
After much argument the leaders of the army, navy and the Japanese cabinet had
finally made their decision. They met with the Emperor on December 2nd and led
by General Tojo, made their case for war: "At the moment our Empire stands at the
threshold of glory or oblivion…Once His Majesty reaches a decision to commence
hostilities, we will all strive to repay our obligations to him, bring the
Government and the military ever closer together, resolve that the nation united
will go on to victory, make an all-out effort to achieve our war aims, and set
His Majesty's mind at ease." At an earlier conference on
September 6th, the Emperor had expressed his desire to explore all avenues of
peaceful resolution. He had chastised the army for trying to drag Japan into war
in the pacific when they couldn't resolve the China conflict. But by this time
he had resolved himself to the fact that the Japanese military wanted war, and
was prepared at any cost to pursue that goal. When the conference was finished,
Hirohito merely nodded, rose and left the room. The war was to begin. By
November 21st, all thirty-two ships involved in Operation Hawaii had straggled
into the cold, gray harbor of Hitokappu Bay, near Iturup in the Southern
Kuriles. Rear Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, in overall command of the fleet, held a
last conference on board AKAGI on the evening of the 23rd. On November
25th, Combined Fleet Operations Order No. 5 was received aboard the flagship
"No, sir. This is Pearl."
At 7:55 A.M. December 7th 1941, the Second World War began for the United
States. The first bomb dropped by the Japanese hit the ground just off
Battleship Row, exploding and throwing clods of dirt high in the air but causing
no damage. Comdr. Logan Ramsey saw the plane drop the bomb and idly thought to
himself "stupid pilot, not securing his bomb correctly." But when the plane
banked he immediately recognized the "meatball" on the Japanese plane's wing and
rushed to the nearby radio room. At 7:58, one of the most famous signals in
American history went out in plain English, " AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR,
THIS IS NO DRILL!" In Washington Secretary of The Navy Frank Knox had
just returned to his office when the message was delivered to him. He read it
and blurted out, "My God, this can't be true, this must mean the Philippines."
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark replied, "No, sir; this is
Pearl." At that same time, Lt.s Matsumara and Nagai were leading the
first six Japanese torpedo planes in an attack on the USS Utah and the
USS Raleigh. The Utah was hit first by two torpedoes fitted
with the special wooden stabilizing fins developed especially for the shallow
waters of Pearl Harbor. Only minutes after the torpedo hits, the mooring lines
snapped and she rolled over, trapping or killing fifty-eight seamen. The
Raleigh fared better than the Utah , having only one torpedo
hit to contend with. Damage-control parties soon had the torpedo damage in hand
and her anti-aircraft gunners were eventually credited with five kills.
During the initial attack, twenty-six "Vals" and eighteen "Zeros" had separated
from the main body and looped around the westward side of the island. They
descended on Hickam Airfield and began bombing and strafing everything in sight.
One of the first bombs scored a direct hit on a hanger and another detonated in
the mess hall in a barracks, killing thirty men instantly. As the Japanese
planes were tearing up the airfield, a flight of B-17's being ferried from the
mainland flew into the melee, unaware and unarmed. When they first spotted the
fighters the pilots thought the Army had sent up an escort. But as soon as
bullets began to strike home they realized they had flown straight into a war.
After a long, tedious overwater flight from the mainland, the crews were tired.
Also the big bombers were no match for the nimble "Zeros", especially in the
hands of experienced, combat tested pilots. It was only a combination of pilot
skill, aircraft toughness and just plain luck that allowed all twelve of the
Boeing bombers to make it safely to the ground, although one had to land on a
golf course. After finishing their work over the East End of the island, the
aircraft headed back north towards the rendezvous point.
"The results…what are they?"
Fuchida's plane circled had the harbor area for about two hours, until 1000. He
was assessing and trying to photograph the damage from both strikes. Smoke and
flames from the destruction wrought by his forces made this task difficult. His
plane had taken some hits and was holed and badly shot up. He then had his pilot
begin the long journey north to the task force. On his way there, he reflected
on his desire for a second full strike. He wanted to put the few remaining
American ships out of commission. He had also noticed the tank farms, dry-docks
and other shore facilities. He knew that if the Japanese could destroy Pearl
Harbor's maintenance facilities, America would have a hard time projecting any
strong naval presence in the Pacific.
Copyright © 2005 Gregory Karpicky.
Written by Gregory Karpicky. If
you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Gregory Karpicky at:
About the author:
My literary background has mostly been in writing for various businesses I have consulted for. My father was a career Army officer who earned the Legion of Merit, and the exposure I received at various postings around the world with this gave me a lifelong interest military history.
Published online: 12/17/2005.