Pearl Harbor - "No, sir - This is Pearl."
by Gregory Karpicky
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.
The remaining planes of this group joined up with Murata and swung around to
attack the American battleships moored on the south side of Ford Island. In
rapid succession, five of the specially outfitted torpedoes launched against
the USS Oklahoma slammed, home causing the ship to immediately
list to port. Within minutes the list had grown to 40 degrees and men were
unable to stand on the steeply sloping decks. In just over a quarter of an
hour, the mortally wounded ship capsized, trapping many of her crew within her
hull. During the rest of the 7th and into the 8th, shore parties and civilian
workers cut holes in the ship's bottom, following the sounds of banging made by
the trapped sailors. Thirty-two lucky men were pulled from the wreck by rescue
teams, but some 415 men perished, suffocated or drowned within her hull and
another 32 were wounded to varying degrees.
Next to be targeted was the USS West Virginia, moored to the outside
of the USS Tennessee. A torpedo launched by Matsumura struck the West
Virginia at about 8:00. This hit was followed quickly by two more and
the ship began to list to port. When the ship refused to sink, Murata's torpedo
planes loosed another round of missiles, with another four striking home.
Additionally, a flight of horizontal bombers dropped two bombs on her at 8:08.
The Japanese seemed to be throwing everything they had into the effort to sink
Admiral Pye's flagship, the USS California, a sister ship to the USS
Nevada , was moored singly off Ford Island. Shortly after eight
o'clock, two torpedoes hit her almost simultaneously, causing an immediate list
to port. Due to an upcoming inspection, many of her hatches and watertight
doors had been left open, so the flooding from the hits was exacerbated. Only
prompt counter-flooding by the damage control party kept the vessel from
capsizing. Later, at 8:25, Fuchida's high-level bombers made their runs at
the California and the "ship [was] shaken by four near bomb hits."
Seven bombs hit the USS Arizona soon after she had sounded General
Quarters. At about 8:12 a single converted naval armor-piercing shell,
(credited by the Japanese to bombardier Noboru Kanai) hit the Arizona.
The bomb most likely glanced off the faceplate of Turret II, penetrating the Arizona's
deck armor and several more decks. It detonated inside the forward black powder
magazine, which in turn set off the adjacent smokeless powder magazine. In an
instant, over one million pounds of powder detonated. Admiral Kimmel and the
wife of one of his staff officers were watching from their homes over the
harbor. They saw "[the] Arizona leap out of the water, then sink back
down – way down." Fire, smoke and debris belched out of her. Survivors of
Pearl Harbor describe the sound of the explosion as not so much a detonation
but more of a horrible "whoosh." A contemporary film that captured the event
shows an incredible eruption of flame engulfing the entire forward section of
the ship as far back as the superstructure and reaching hundreds of feet into
the air. Over 1,100 U.S. Navy sailors lost their lives in that single moment.
Only about 200 of the Arizona's total complement of 1,400
seamen survived that horrible explosion. The ship still lies on the bottom
of Pearl Harbor, a mute testimony to that day. While her guns and
superstructure were removed, oil still seeps from her tanks, and above her was
built a memorial to the American sailors who died in the attack. Interred
within the hull are the remains of many of her crew.
Fuchida, circling high above the scene, saw the powerful explosion and realized
that one of the American ships' ammunition holds had exploded. Later he said,
"The smoke and flame erupted together, It was a hateful, mean-looking red
flame, the kind that powder produces, and I knew at once that a big powder
magazine had exploded." His plane was flying at some 3000 meters, more than
9000 feet, but was rocked by the blast. "Joy and gratification filled my heart
at the time," he said, " for I knew now that our mission would be a
Next to the Arizona was the USS Vestal, an old cruiser repair
ship that was preparing to do some work on the battleship. When the Arizona
detonated she was subjected to a rain of debris from the explosion, starting
several severe fires. The blast from the Arizona's exploding magazines
was so violent it blew the captain of the Vestal off his ship and into the
harbor. She also received two bomb hits from Japanese planes, but somehow
managed to stay afloat.
More of this burning debris from the Arizona rained down and started
fires on the USS Tennessee. Two Japanese high-level bombers also
scored hits on that ship, one of which luckily broke into several pieces
without exploding. In addition, flaming oil from bombed and leaking warships
was being swept into the harbor and began to threaten the Tennessee and her
Moored on the inside row of battleships, the USS Maryland was targeted
by the lead bomber in Fuchida's group. At about 8:20 the group dropped their
bombs on Fuchida's order to "release!" As he stretched out on the bottom of his
command plane he observed two hits and two near misses, and thought severe
damage had been done. But neither bomb caused the Maryland much real damage and
her position on the inside of the Oklahoma protected her from torpedo
attack. The Maryland managed to escape without major damage or loss of
Last but not least was the USS Nevada, an old WWI era battleship. That
December 7th she was moored singly off Ford Island and was perhaps the only
ship that had freedom of movement. Shortly after eight, a torpedo dropped by
one of Kitajima's group from Kaga tore into her innards, but within
two minutes counter flooding had begun. Then, when flaming oil from the Arizona
and other ships began to threaten her, "it was considered necessary to get
underway to avoid further danger…." By 8:50, the Nevada had steam
up and was moving down the channel towards the open sea. Onlookers were amazed
to see just how fast a large battleship could maneuver in the narrow confides
of Pearl, with the two senior officers conning the large, unwieldy battleship
like a small motor launch. As she passed the furiously burning Arizona
, seamen covered antiaircraft shells with their bodies to shield them from the
From his plane high overhead, Fuchida observed the dash of the Nevada towards
the open sea and recognized a golden opportunity to sink another battleship and
at the same time bottle up the harbor's main channel for months. He ordered
Egusa's high-level bombers to attack the Nevada, hoping to sink her in
the main channel. "The Japanese bombers swarmed down on us like bees," said one
of the senior officers. Within minutes five bombs had detonated in the bow or
on the superstructure of the ship, killing or injuring many men. Even after
this attack the officers still believed the Nevada could make it to
the open sea. In his headquarters overlooking the harbor, Admiral Pye realized
what the Japanese were up to and sent a signal to the Nevada to
abandon her attempt to sortie. By the time another series of bombs had fallen,
the decision to beach her had been made. The ship was grounded in the mud of
Hospital point on the East Side of the channel.
. At Dawn We Slept , Gordon W. Prange, p.517.
. National Geographic , Remembering Pearl Harbor.
. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships , Vol. V; p. 148.
. Rising Sun in the Pacific , pp. 111-12.
. Log of California, Dec. 7, 1941.
. At Dawn We Slept , Gordon W. Prange; Interview with Kimmel
December 1, 1963.
. Rising Sun in the Pacific , p.109.
. God's Samurai , Gordon W. Prange; Interviews with Fuchida, 6
January 1949 and 11 December, 1963; Shinjuwan Sakusen No Shinso, pp. 187-89.
. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships , Vol. V, p. 52.
. Log of Nevada, Dec. 7, 1941
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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: 03/22/2006.