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The attack on Pearl Harbor happened because Japan was seeking to occupy what was then called the Dutch East Indies and wanted to prevent the US Military from putting up any serious resistance. To do so, they needed to strike the US Navy a catastrophic blow so that they would be unable to fight or protect convoys sent to resupply forces near the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia). To a large extent the attack and occupation of the Philippine islands was also to block US forces from acting against the movements to the south.
The reason Japan was invading Indonesia was for the natural resources of those lands. The United States had put severe restrictions on imports to Japan in response to Japanese attrocities in China, which were starting to hurt the Japanese economy and military. Rather than back down and withdraw troops, Japan chose to escalate their conflict and move forward with plans to take what they felt was their rightful place as the main power in the Pacific Ocean.
At the same time that the Kido Butai (Special Attack Force, the name given to the ships attacking Hawaii) was moving across the Pacific Ocean to attack Hawaii, two other forces were moving southward to attack and occupy targets in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean and still others were spreading out to destroy lines of communication and shipping. US Radio Direction Finder units could see much of this movement by the radio traffic these forces transmitted, but some, including the Kido Butai, had been ordered not to transmit radio traffic at all to minimize the possibility that they would be spotted and the islands given a warning.
As dawn broke on the morning of December 7th, 1941, aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy were already flying towards the islands of Oahu and Maui. With the fleet pinpointed at Pearl Harbor on Oahu by scout planes, the 183 aircraft of the first wave headed in from the North. Three types of aircraft were to attack in four different ways; dive bombing was performed by D3A "Val" dive bombers, B5N Kates provided both low-level torpedo attacks and high-level armor-piercing bombing runs, and the infamous A6M "Zero" provided fighter coverage and low-level strafing.
The attack was broken into two waves; once the first was launched and cleared by the six carriers of the Kido Butai the second could be brought up from below decks and made ready. The Kates of the first wave focused on the ships at Pearl Harbor, putting torpedos into the battleships California, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Nevada; cruisers Helena, and Raleigh, and the battleship-turned-training-ship Utah. High-level Kates dropped heavy, armor piercing bombs on "Battleship Row," hitting California, Maryland, Tennessee, West Virginia, and the tragic Arizona, with repair ship Vestal moored aside.
The first-wave Val dive bombers hit the air station at Ford Island and surrounding airfields at Wheeler and Hickam Fields to destroy US fighter and scout aircraft, and Zero fighters strafed aircraft at Bellows, Ewa, Hickam, and Wheeler fields as well as Naval Air Station Kaneohe.
The 167-plane strong second wave lacked the heavy-hitting munitions of the first wave. Kates were limited to smaller bombs and attacked Hickam Airfield and Naval Air Stations Ford Island and Kaneohe. Vals and Zeros again attacked the outlying airfields that based aircraft that might be used to attack the now-northbound Japanese fleet before flying to join up and land.
The destruction they left behind was awesome in its impact but was not as complete as the Japanese had hoped. The primary target was the US Navy fleet, which was struck, but the highest priority of the ships based at Pearl Harbor were the aircraft carriers and all three of the Pacific theater carriers were at sea that sunday and were not damage. Enterprise was returning from a mission and was close enough that she sent some of her aircraft unknowingly ahead into the battle where some were shot down by both Japanese and American forces.
Of the eight battleships at Pearl Harbor, five were now resting in the mud at the bottom of the harbor, and the other three had recevied at least some damage. Arizona had exploded in a massive fireball that lead to the death of 1,177 of her XXXX crew. Two cruisers were heavily damaged, two destroyers effectively destroyed, and another was only able to return to service after a new bow section had been built for her and attached at a West Coast shipyard.
While the loss and damage to ships was the ultimate goal of the Japanese military, it is the human cost that stays with us. 2,107 sailors died in the attack or from injuries received. 105 Marines lost their lives on ships they were attached to or shore facilities. 223 Army and Army Air Corps soliders died in the air or on the ground, and 48 civilians (twelve of those children) were killed and another 225 wounded. by falling anti-aircraft shells.
There is much more to the attack than these simple paragraphs can tell. The tens of thousands of lives that were involved in the attack can give us tens of thousands of different tales of heroism and horror. Sadly, most of those who were at the attack are no longer with us. This site and others seek to tell the story, as best as we can, of a day that shaped the destiny of not only America, but every nation involed in the Pacific region. Pearl Harbor, perhaps more than any single event in the twentieth century, changed America, and its importance should not be understated.
Now that you have read the basics of the attack, we encourage you to check out some of the more advanced topics we cover on Pearl Harbor. If you have any questions you are more than welcome to me.
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