On 7th December 1941, at shortly before 8am, Japan launched an attack on the US Naval fleet based at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. America at that point were maintaining their stance of neutrality, however due to interests of USA, Britain and the Netherlands specifically, in Southeast Asia, Japan had decided that interference from those countries was a high risk at odds with their own aims in the area, specifically their recent invasions of Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937. Japan had her sights set on further expansion into Malaya and the Dutch controlled area of the East Indies in the hopes of exploiting the natural resources there, particularly rubber and oil. War between China and Japan had been the result of her invasion, with support being offered by Britain and France particularly, to China as part of her war effort. Meanwhile the Japanese invaders had indiscriminately massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and non-combatants; one well known example being Nanking.
Japan’s attack was based on the assumption that they would neutralise the threat of retaliation from the US, and then be in a position to continue their planned consolidation of South Pacific invasion. And yet they were perfectly aware that their action could bring America into war with them. Following Japan’s invasion of French Indochina, the year before, the US had restricted exports to Japan of certain goods, machine parts, and various aviation needs, to place Japan under sanctions using items they needed for their war effort, but the US Government had drawn the line at restricting oil exports, feeling that this could be seen as a provocation. In early 1941, they had moved their US naval fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbour to ensure the Japanese saw the increased military presence as a message not to continue their aggression in the Far East. At the same time, they had reinforced their military presence in the Philippines. Japan however believed that any strike on UK held Southeast Asian interests would bring the US into the war on the side of the Allies. They were of course wrong. America had until that point no real interest in entering the war. Japan made the rash decision on the basis of this incorrect assumption to plan an attack on the Naval fleet to prevent this possibility.
Following a change in need on their domestic oil consumption, and following Japan’s continuing aggression in South East Asia, America finally restricted their oil exports to Japan in July 1941 forcing Japan to focus on invading Dutch East Indies, an oil rich area, and the following month Roosevelt issued a warning to Japan to leave European settled areas alone. Japan was faced with the proposition of relinquishing China, and losing face in order to secure a redemption of oil imports through the US or to continue with their domination of European held Asian countries to obtain new supplies. They chose the latter.
Several attempts were made by the Japanese Konoye Government to meet with America in an effort to negotiate an agreement. Despite being urged by his US ambassador for Japan, Roosevelt refused a meeting until Japan pulled out of China and Indochina. Japan agreed to leave most of China in return for a lifting of import sanctions. USA refused to lift the sanctions, or agree to any conditions, until there was a conclusion to the Japanese aggression and a further non-aggression agreement was in place. The Konoye government collapsed as the Military refused to withdraw from China. The US issued their last counter proposal, known as the Hull Note, on the 26th November (US date), the Japanese failed to respond as they had instead launched their mission on Pearl Harbour the day before. On the 26th November the main branch of the attack fleet left port.
From the spring of 1941, the Japanese military, seeing relations disintegrate with America, had formulated a plan of attack as a solution should an agreement not be reached. Led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in a consistent rally on Headquarters, during which he threatened to resign if he didn’t get the go-ahead, his team had studied the British attack on Taranto the previous year, to gain an idea of why the Royal Air Force was successful. They meticulously gathered data, intelligence and began to train their pilots. Despite this, Emperor Hirohito still had not given his permission for the attack to go ahead. That permission finally came on 5th December several days after the attack force had already left.
On the morning of the 7th December, over 350 Japanese aircraft from six Japanese Aircraft Carriers took off in two waves, assisted by a further 40 defence aircraft, to attack the fleet moored at Pearl Harbour. Scout vessels had already ascertained what the targets were, and the pilots had been ordered to prioritise the US aircraft carriers first, followed by battleships, cruisers and finally destroyers. A number of the Japanese force were to target US aircraft on the airfields near to the harbour to prevent their defending the Naval Fleet. At 7.48 am the first wave struck the fleet, 90 minutes later it was all over. Eighteen Navy ships had been destroyed including eight battleships, although six were later repaired and set back into service. Several were sunk, including the Arizona, whose forward magazine exploded and caused around half of the 2400 deaths. Along with the Arizona, Oklahoma was also damaged beyond repair, as was the training vessel Utah, an ex-battleship. Despite the damage, all but these three ships were resurfaced if sunk, and repaired; within a year all were back in service. Oklahoma was raised but subsequently sank again whilst on tow to the mainland for repair assessment in 1947. Arizona is now classed as a war memorial.
Despite the devastation of the attack that morning, and simultaneous targets on around sixteen surrounding islands where small outposts were stationed, and a subsequent attack later on that day, on the Philippines added further damage to the outcome. Luckily General McArthur was pre-warned of the earlier attack on Pearl and was able to make some hasty defence moves. Over 1100 men were injured during the course of the Japanese attacks, compared to light enemy loss. They failed however to push their advantage by not following up the attack with an invasion, nor launching a planned third wave. They failed in several objectives, including not hitting the dry docks, repair stores and fuel stores, which ensured the US were able to get the fleet up and running again much quicker than had they been forced to return to the Mainland.
As a result of the nature of the attack, which took place without fair warning, whilst the two nations were ostensibly still in negotiations, and without a prior declaration of war, the attack on Pearl Harbour was later decreed a War Crime. Conspiracy theorists claim that the planned attack was known to Allied officials
month prior to action, yet failed to act upon the knowledge in the hope that it would push America into the war. Far from neutralizing the threat of retaliatory action from the US, by their attempts to destroy the fleet, Japan succeeded in bringing USA into World War II. By December 8th, the formal declaration was agreed by all except on representative, Jeanette Rankin of Montana, who was a pacifist, Rankin was also known as the same representative who had refused to agree to America joining WWI, for the same reasons. “I can’t go to war and refuse to send anyone else”. War with Japan was declared that day. Britain as a result of her promise to America to declare war on Japan within an hour of any attack on America, was carried out.
Churchill declared war on Japan the same day Pearl Harbour was attacked. Because of their Tripartite agreement with Germany and Italy, on December 11th these nations responded to America’s declaration of War on Japan, with their own. On a civilian footing, the breakout of war between America and the Tripartite, had further reaching consequences. Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and interred in camps. In the Canadian Province of British Columbia, Japanese Canadians were given a choice of internment or deportation.
Pearl Harbour and the horrific attack that December morning have become synonymous with the epitome of unacceptable crimes of war; a feature of Japan’s conduct that would continue for a further four years to the end of the war, and beyond, as tales of their brutal treatment of Prisoners in their POW camps became known. Kamikaze pilots, killer prison guards, torture and starvation, the grim world of the Burma railway are just some of the things Japan achieved notoriety for a war which only ended for them with the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of their civilians and the suicide of their military leader. Admiral Hara Tadaichi later summed up the attack on Pearl Harbour and its significance in the war, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.” And yet their children, desperate to learn are denied, not as some notion of pride, but as a result of no academic time or resources.
In 2015, 400 unidentified US Navy servicemen from USS Oklahoma were exhumed from their resting place, where they had been buried following the raising of their watery tomb in 1947. Following advances in DNA technology, it is hoped that scientists will now finally be able to identify these sailors 74 years after they died.