Why the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor Was Actually a Failure

On 7 December, 1941, a Japanese force of six aircraft carriers launched two strikes against the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii.

A surprise attack

Over 180 Japanese aircraft participated in the attack. They damaged or sank eight battleships. Two thousand servicemen were killed – more than one thousand sailors were killed aboard the USS Arizona alone after its magazine exploded.

The USS Arizona was one of three vessels damaged beyond repair in the attack

The Japanese lost 29 aircraft, most during the second wave of the attack by which time the US defences were more effective. Five midget submarines were also lost during a failed underwater attack.

A planned third strike, intended to destroy the harbour and oil reserves, was cancelled for fear of an attack against the Japanese carriers by the remainder of the US Pacific Fleet. This meant that these facilities could be put to use repairing ships after the attack.

Following the attack, Japan declared war on the United States and the British Commonwealth.

Despite information from Allied codebreaking operations, diplomatic sources, and other warnings the raid was a tactical surprise. The failure to take appropriate precautions at the base, exacerbated by failures in interservice cooperation, came in for severe criticism.

Yet for all its apparent success, the Pearl Harbor attack failed in its aim of crippling the US Pacific Fleet. Critically, the carrier fleet was at sea and survived unscathed. Given the preeminent role the carrier would play in the Pacific War, this was a critical missed opportunity. The fleet itself was quickly repaired and Pearl Harbor continued to function as a base.

The USS Enterprise was among the carriers at sea at the time of the attack

A date which will live in infamy

In the United States there was outrage over the attack and popular support for declaring war.

The following day, President Roosevelt made a speech that was broadcast across the country by radio.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

Roosevelt signed the official declaration of war against Japan at 4.10pm and the country immediately mobilised.

Although a stunning short-term tactical success, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the onset of the Pacific War now pitted Japan in a total war against the largest economy in the world.

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