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Pearl Harbour, December 7th 1941: “a date that will live in infamy” (Franklin D Roosevelt)

Posted in America, Aviation, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 2 on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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This edited article about the Second World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Pearl Harbour, picture, image, illustration

The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour

At 7.55 a.m. on December 7th, 1941, the Sunday morning quiet of the American base at Pearl Harbour was broken by the drone of approaching aircraft. A dive-bomber bearing the scarlet roundel of Japan came in low over the lush green hills of Oahu and headed for Wheeler Field, where rows of US warplanes were neatly parked. Behind the newcomer stretched two hundred others: high-level and dive-bombers, torpedo-planes, fighters. Minutes later, the bombs began to fall, the torpedoes to run.

The first attack lasted a quarter of an hour. By then Wheeler Field was a graveyard of blazing, wrecked planes. At the other side of the island, at the fleet anchorage, the battleships USS “Arizona,” “West Virginia” and “Oklahoma” had been pounded to scrap iron. The “Arizona” blew up, “West Virginia” settled on the bottom of the harbour, “Oklahoma” rolled completely over and showed her propellers.

All this happened in the time it would take a man to have a quick breakfast.

Less than an hour later, a second wave of attackers came in. This time it was left to the dive-bombers and the high-level bombers. When they withdrew shortly after 9 a.m. four of the eight battleships of the US Pacific fleet had been sunk and the remaining four so severely damaged as to be useless for action. Sunk, also, were three destroyers and four smaller vessels. Three light cruisers and a seaplane tender were heavily damaged. One hundred and eighty-eight aircraft were destroyed on the ground and sixty-three made unserviceable. Over two thousand American sailors perished with their ships and the army casualties amounted to at least six hundred.

In one stroke, America had ceased to be a power in the Pacific.

We have seen how the long prelude to the Second World War really began with Japan’s aggression in Manchuria in 1931. All through the ’30s, the Sons of the Rising Sun prised their way, with bomb and bayonet, into China. The Chinese, divided and confused, fought back. The Western Imperial powers eyed the whole thing with growing concern.

After the fall of France in 1940, Japan took advantage of the situation by demanding the right to occupy French Indo-China (North and South Vietnam, as it now is) as a protective power. France had no choice but to agree. This action was the powder trail that sparked off the general war in the East.

American and British interests could not allow Japan to push herself so far into their areas of control. President Roosevelt called for a Japanese withdrawal from Indo-China, and backed it up by cutting off oil supplies until this request was obeyed. Britain supported the move, as did the Dutch. From that moment, it was a certainty that Japanese national pride and the Oriental compulsion to “save face” would drive her to war with the Western powers.

Japan’s aims were brutally clear: a militaristic government was intent upon bringing the whole of South-East Asia under Japanese domination. The Western Powers’ move provided a check to this ambition. Oil was the key. Japan imported 88 per cent of all her oil consumption, and had only sufficient oil stocks to last her for a year and a half of all-out war. The only available oil in the area lay in the Dutch East Indies.

If the Rising Sun was to ascend over South-East Asia and the Pacific, the Japanese had to have that oil.

In the all-important question of sea power, Japan was almost exactly equal in strength with the combined Pacific fleets of Britain, America and the Netherlands – except in the vital area of aircraft carriers, where she had a 3-1 superiority.

Of the three Western powers, America contributed the heaviest tonnage of naval hardware, including nine out of eleven capital ships that faced Japan’s ten.

Japan’s solution to this hard arithmetic was – Pearl Harbour.

Democracies are at a tremendous disadvantage in their dealings with military dictatorships. In the Far Eastern situation of 1941, the Japanese took the initiative by secretly planning war while she publicly negotiated for peace. Top-hatted emissaries from Tokyo pleaded the amicable solution to the oil situation in Washington while their navy pilots back home were training for the Pearl Harbour attack.

The model for the Pearl Harbour operation was the Royal Navy’s spectacularly successful attack on the Italian base of Taranto, where a handful of “Swordfish” torpedo-bombers of the Fleet Air Arm descended upon a heavily defended naval base and sank three battleships. The Japanese, always ready to “copy-cat” a good idea, decided to make torpedo-bombing the mainstay of their Pearl Harbour attack.

While the Japanese emissaries were still haggling in Washington, a force of six aircraft-carriers, escorted by two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers and three submarines, all under the command of Admiral Nagumo, was ploughing southwards from the Kurile Islands towards Honolulu and the Japanese Naval Air Force’s date with destiny at Pearl Harbour.

Prime targets of the Japanese were the three aircraft-carriers based at Pearl; but the good fortune that looks after even the unwary had ordained that they were dispersed at sea on that fateful occasion. Every other factor played right into the attackers’ hands: it was Sunday and the base was in a state of relaxation; the big ships were at their moorings with no protective torpedo nets rigged; the fighter planes were all on the ground. And, when a radar operator picked up the approaching attackers, he was told to forget it. America was pitched into World War II the hard way.

The triumphant Japanese Naval pilots who headed their aircraft back to the waiting carriers had, in one act, grievously wounded America and also ensured that the days of the military dictatorships were numbered.

Japan sowed the wind at Pearl Harbour; her people reaped the whirlwind in the atomic horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japanese timing was perfect. The day after Pearl Harbour, the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was attacked from the Chinese mainland. Not even the British had considered that Hong Kong was defensible for any length of time, and they were right. The colony fell on Christmas Day, and the garrison of 12,000 men was doomed to years of hideous captivity.

There was a simultaneous attack on the Philippines, where America had important bases. Here, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, a hard core of defenders held out, on the Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor, for six months.

The invasion of Malaya actually began an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour. Any hope that the powerful forces of the Royal Navy might check the landings was smashed with the sinkings, on December 10th, of the veteran battle-cruiser, “Repulse” and the brand-new battleship, “Prince of Wales” by an assault of thirty-four high-level and fifty-one torpedo-bombers. This tragic day, that saw the low watermark of British fortunes in South-East Asia, also heralded the end of the armoured battleship in the Air Age.

Ahead lay the conquest of the Malay Peninsula and the capture of one of Britain’s brightest jewels – the great naval base of Singapore.

Heavily-gunned Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15th, after an assault from the mainland. Her biggest guns never fired a shot in anger – they were all sited to point out to sea.

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