Pearl Harbor History
Pearl Harbor is located on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Originally a shallow embayment called Wai Momi (meaning “water of pearl”), the natives believed it to be the home of the shark goddess Ka’ahapahau and her brother, Kahi’uka. First thought to be too shallow to serve as a port for ships, the US Navy leased the harbor in 1887 and began refitting the harbor for service as a re-coaling port for ocean bound naval vessels. In 1908, the US Navy established the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and continued improvements on it until 1919, when the bases dry-dock was opened. The station served as a refueling stop for naval vessels destined for all points in the Pacific until 1940 when Pearl Harbor became the home of the United States Pacific Fleet. Yet it was the events of December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” that would forever enter Pearl Harbor into the hearts and minds of all Americans.
Tension between the US and Japanese governments had been rising since the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and by 1941 they had reached a critical point. Early in the year, President Franklin Roosevelt had begun to position the United States as the “arsenal of democracy,” providing materials and supplies for democracies that were battling the Axis powers. The passage of the Lend-Lease Act in May of 1941 served to increase tension between the US and the governments of Germany, Italy and Japan. The seizure of Japanese assets within the US and the placement of an oil embargo on Japan pushed relations between the governments to their breaking point. However, by the time Admiral Cordell Hull received a message from Japanese diplomats on December 6, the Japanese Navy was moving into position to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The attack came as many of the people on the island of Oahu were attending Sunday morning church services. The first wave of fighter planes left the decks of Japanese aircraft carriers at 6:00 AM, and at 7:53, the first attack began. The first wave consisted of nearly 200 planes made up of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, fighter planes and heavy bombers.
Their main objective was to disable as much of the Pacific fleet as possible. The torpedo bombers led the first wave of 183 planes, attacking the ships docked in the harbor while the dive bombers attacked the Hickam and Wheeler fields, the two primary airfields located on Oahu. The second wave attacked Bellows field and Ford Island, two other air bases. Both waves were virtually uncontested, with the only opposition coming from the few planes that managed to launch and a smattering on naval anti-aircraft fire.
The attack on Pearl Harbor lasted two hours and 20 minutes, but by the time it ended, 12 American warships had been damaged or destroyed and more than 2,400 American servicemen and civilians were dead.
Unfortunately for the Japanese, the three main targets of the raid – the three American aircraft carriers – were not in the harbor during the attack. The attack had succeeded in disrupting the American fleet, but did not destroy it. The Japanese navy would suffer for its failure less than one year later at the Battle of Midway, where the US Navy destroyed four of Japan’s aircraft carriers and regained equal footing in the Pacific theater.
The attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States headlong into World War II, bringing an end to the neutrality that so many in the country had been condoning. The attack did significant damage to the US Navy, but certainly did not have the effect the Japanese intended. The attack had awoken the sleeping giant and would prove to be the major turning point of the war.