The beginning of the attack coincided with the hoisting of the preparatory signal for 8 o'clock colors. At this time-namely 7:55 a.m.-Japanese dive bombers appeared over Ford Island, and within the next few seconds enemy torpedo planes and dive bombers swung in from various sectors to concentrate their attack on the heavy ships moored in Pearl Harbor. It is estimated that nine planes engaged in the attack on the naval air station on Ford Island.

At the time of the attack, our planes-patrol flying boats, float planes, and scout bombers, carrier type-were lined up on the field. These planes caught fire and exploded. Machine-gun emplacements were set up hastily and manned, although the return fire from shore on Ford Island was pitifully weak. Then as suddenly as they had appeared, the Japanese planes vanished. No further attack on this air station was made during the day. However, 33 of our best planes out of a total of 70 planes of all types were destroyed or damaged.

As soon as the attack began, commander, Patrol Wing 2 broadcasted from Ford Island the warning: "Air raid, Pearl Harbor-This is not a drill." This warning was followed a few minutes later by a similar message from the commander in chief, United States Fleet.

At approximately the same time that the Japanese dive bombers appeared over Ford Island, other low-flying planes struck at Kaneohe Naval Air Station on the other side of the island. The attack was well executed, with the planes coming down in shallow dives and inflicting severe casualties on the seaplanes moored in the water. Machine guns and rifles were brought out, and men dispersed to fire at will at the low-flying planes. After a period of 10 to 15 minutes, the attacking planes drew off to the north at a low altitude and disappeared from sight.

About 25 minutes after the first attack, another squadron of planes similar to one of our light bomber types, appeared over Kaneohe and commenced bombing and strafing. Number 3 hangar received a direct hit during this attack and four planes in the hangar were destroyed. The majority of the casualties suffered at Kaneohe resulted from this attack. Most of the injured personnel were in the squadrons attempting either to launch their planes or to save those planes not as yet damaged. When the enemy withdrew, some 10 to 15 minutes later, salvage operations were commenced, but it was too late to save No. 1 hangar, which burned until only its steel structural work was left. Only 9 out of the 35 planes at Kaneohe escaped destruction in this attack. Six of these were damaged and three were in the air on patrol south of Oahu as previously described.

Meanwhile, the Marine air base at Ewa was undergoing similar attack. Apparently the attack on Ewa preceded that at Pearl Harbor by about 2 minutes. It was delivered by two squadrons of 18 to 24 single-seater fighter planes using machine-gun strafing tactics, which came in from the northwest at an altitude of approximately 1,000 feet. These enemy planes would descend to within 20 to 25 feet of the ground, attacking single planes with short bursts of gunfire. Then they would pull over the tree tops, reverse their course, and attack from the opposite direction. Within less than 15 minutes, all the Marine tactical aircraft had been shot up or set on fire. Then the guns of the enemy fighters were turned upon our utility aircraft, upon planes that had been disassembled for repair, and upon the Marines themselves.

Effective defense measures were impossible until after the first raid had subsided. Pilots, aching to strike at the enemy in the air, viewed the wreckage which until a few minutes before had been a strong air group of Marine fighters and bombers. All together 33 out of the 49 planes at Ewa had gone up in smoke. Some marines, unable to find anything more effective, had tried to oppose fighter planes with pistols, since the remaining 16 planes were too badly damaged to fly.

Although in phase I of the attack on the ships at Pearl Harbor Japanese dive bombers were effective, the torpedo planes did the most damage. They adhered strictly to a carefully laid plan and directed their attacks from those sectors which afforded the best avenues of approach for torpedo attack against selected heavy ship objectives. Thus they indicated accurate knowledge of harbor and channel depths and the berths ordinarily occupied by the major combatant units of our fleet. At least in the great majority of cases, the depth of water in Pearl Harbor did not prevent the successful execution of this form of attack. Shallow dives of the torpedoes upon launching were assured by the use of specially constructed wooden fins, remnants of which were discovered on enemy torpedoes salvaged after the attack.

Four separate torpedo-plane attacks were made during phase I. The major attack was made by 12 planes which swung in generally from the southeast over the tank farm and the vicinity of Merry Point. After splitting, they launched their torpedoes at very low altitudes (within 50 to 100 feet of the water), and from very short distances, aiming for the battle ships berthed on the southeast side of Ford Island. All the outboard battleships, namely, the Nevada, Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and California, were effectively hit by one or more torpedoes. Strafing was simultaneously conducted from the rear cockpits. A recovered unexploded torpedo carried an explosive charge of 1,000 pounds.

During the second of these attacks, the Oklahoma was struck by three torpedoes on the port side and heeled rapidly to port, impeding the efforts of her defenders to beat off the attackers.

The third attack was made by one torpedo plane which appeared from the west and was directed against the light cruiser Helena and the minelayer Oglala, both of which were temporarily occupying the berth previously assigned to the battleship Pennsylvania, flagship of the Pacific Fleet. One torpedo passed under the Oglala and exploded against the side of the Helena. The blast stove in the side plates of the Oglala. Submersible pumps for the Oglala were obtained from the Helena, but could not be used since no power was available because of damage to the ship's engineering plant.

The fourth wave of five planes came in from the northwest and attacked the seaplane tender Tangier, the target ship Utah, and the light cruisers Raleigh and Detroit. The Raleigh was struck by one torpedo, and the Utah received two hits in succession, capsizing at 8:13 a.m. At first it was feared that the Raleigh would capsize. Orders were, therefore, given for all men not at the guns to jettison all topside weights and put both airplanes in the water. Extra manila and wire lines were also run to the quays to help keep the ship from capsizing.

The Utah, an old battleship converted to a target ship, had recently returned from serving as a target for practice aerial bombardment. As soon as she received her torpedo hits, she began listing rapidly to port. After she had listed to about 40 degrees, the order was given to abandon ship. This order was executed with some difficulty as the attacking planes strafed the crew as they went over the side. Remnants of the crew had reached Ford Island safely. Later knocking was heard within the hull of the Utah. With cutting tools obtained from the Raleigh, a volunteer crew succeeded in cutting through the hull and rescuing a fireman second class who had been entrapped in the void scape underneath the dynamo room.

In the eight dive-bomber attacks occurring during phase I, three types of bombs were employed-light, medium, and incendiary.

During the second of these attacks, a bomb hit exploded the forward 14-inch powder magazine on the battleship Arizona and caused a ravaging oil fire, which sent up a great cloud of smoke, thereby interfering with antiaircraft fire. The battleship Tennessee in the adjacent berth was endangered seriously by the oil fire.

The West Virginia was hit during the third of these attacks by two heavy bombs as well as by torpedoes. Like the California, she had to be abandoned after a large fire broke out amidships. Her executive officer, the senior survivor, dove overboard and swam to the Tennessee, where he organized a party of West Virginia survivors to help extinguish the fire in the rubbish, trash, and oil which covered the water between the Tennessee and Ford Island.

The total number of dive bombers engaged in this phase is estimated at 30. Most of the torpedo damage to the fleet had occurred by 8:25 a.m. All the outboard battleships had been hit by one or more torpedoes; all the battleships had been hit by one or more bombs with the exception of the Oklahoma, which took four torpedoes before it capsized, and the Pennsylvania, which received a bomb hit later. By the end of the first phase, the West Virginia was in a sinking condition; the California was down by the stern; the Arizona was a flaming ruin; the other battleships were all damaged to a greater or lesser degree.

Although the initial attack of the Japanese came as a surprise, defensive action on the part of the fleet was prompt. All ships immediately went to general quarters. Battleship ready machine guns likewise opened fire at once, and within an estimated average time of less than 5 minutes practically all battleships and anti-aircraft batteries were firing.

The cruisers were firing all antiaircraft batteries within an average time of about 4 minutes. The destroyers, although opening up with machine guns almost immediately, averaged 7 minutes in bringing all antiaircraft guns into action.

During this phase of the battle there was no movement of ships within the harbor proper. The destroyer Helm, which had gotten under way just prior to the attack, was outside the harbor entrance when at 8:17 a submarine conning tower was sighted to the right of the entrance channel and northward of buoy No. 1. The submarine immediately submerged. The Helm opened fire at 8:19 a.m. when the submarine again surfaced temporarily. No hits were observed.


Phase II-8:25-8:40 a.m.-is described as a lull only by way of comparison. Air activity continued during this phase although somewhat abated, with sporadic attacks by dive and horizontal bombers. During this phase an estimated total of 15 dive bombers participated in 5 attacks upon the ships in the navy yard, the battleships Maryland, Oklahoma, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, and various light cruisers and destroyers.

Although three attacks by horizontal bombers occurred during the lull, these appear to have overlapped into phase III and are considered under that heading.

At 8:32 a.m. the battleship Oklahoma took a heavy list to starboard and capsized.

During phase II, there was still relatively little ship movement within the harbor. The ready-duty destroyer Monaghan had received orders at 7:51 a.m. (Pearl Harbor time) to "proceed immediately and contact Ward in defensive sea area." At about 8:37, observing an enemy submarine just west of Ford Island under fire from both the Curtiss and Tangier, the Monaghan proceeded at high speed and at about 8:43 rammed the submarine. As the enemy vessel had submerged, the shock was slight. The Monaghan thereupon reversed engines and dropped two depth charges.

The Curtiss had previously scored two direct hits on the conning tower. This submarine was later salvaged for inspection and disposal. The Monaghan then proceeded down the channel and continued her sortie. At the same time that the Monaghan got underway, the destroyer Henley slipped her chain from buoy X-11 and sortied, following the Monaghan down the channel.


The so-called lull in the air raid was terminated by the appearance over the fleet of eight groups of high-altitude horizontal bombers which crossed and recrossed their targets from various directions, inflicting serious damage. Some of the bombs dropped were converted 15- or 16-inch shells of somewhat less explosive quality, marked by very little flame. According to some observers, many bombs dropped by the high-altitude horizontal bombers either failed to explode or landed outside the harbor area.

During the second attack (at 9:06 a.m.) the Pennsylvania was hit by a heavy bomb which passed through the main deck amidships and detonated, causing a fire, which was extinguished with some difficulty.

The third group of planes followed very closely the line of battleship moorings. It was probably one of these planes that hit the California with what is believed to have been a 15-inch projectile equipped with tail vanes which penetrated to the second deck and exploded. As a result of the explosion, the armored hatch to the machine shop was badly sprung and could not be closed, resulting in the spreading of a serious fire.

Altogether, 30 horizontal bombers, including 9 planes which had participated in earlier attacks, are estimated to have engaged in phase III. Once more it was the heavy combatant ships, the battleships and cruisers, which bore the brunt of these attacks.

Although phase III was largely devoted to horizontal bombing, approximately 18 dive bombers organized in 5 groups also participated.

It was probably the second of these groups which did considerable damage to the Nevada, then proceeding down the South Channel, and also to the Shaw, Cassin, and Downes, all three of which were set afire.

During the fifth attack, a Japanese dive bomber succeeded in dropping one bomb on the seaplane tender Curtiss which detonated on the main-deck level, killing 20 men, wounding 58, and leaving one other unaccounted for.

During this same phase, the Curtiss took under fire one of these bombers, which was pulling out of a dive over the naval air station. Hit squarely by the Curtiss' accurate gunfire, the plane crashed on the ship, spattering burning gasoline and starting fires so menacing that one of the guns had to be temporarily abandoned.

Considerable ship movement took place during phase III. At 8:40 a.m. the Nevada cleared berth F-8 without assistance and proceeded down the South Channel. As soon as the Japanese became aware that a battleship was trying to reach open water, they sent dive bomber after dive bomber down after her and registered several hits. In spite of the damage she had sustained in the vicinity of floating drydock No. 2, and although her bridge and forestructure were ablaze, the ship continued to fight effectively. At 9:10, however, while she was attempting to make a turn in the channel, the Nevada ran aground in the vicinity of buoy No. 19.

Meanwhile the repair ship Vestal, also without assistance, had gotten underway at about 8:40, had cleared the burning Arizona, and at about 9:10 anchored well clear northeast of Ford Island.

Soon after the Nevada and Vestal had cleared their berths, tugs began to move the Oglala to a position astern of the Helena at "Ten-ten" Dock. The Oglala was finally secured in her berth at about 9:00, but shortly thereafter she capsized.

At 8:42, the oiler Neosho cleared berth F-4 unaided and stood toward Merry Point in order to reduce fire hazard to her cargo and to clear the way for a possible sortie by the battleship Maryland.


By 9:45 all enemy planes had retired. Evading our aerial searches, both shore-based and from carriers at sea, the Japanese striking force retired to its home waters without being contacted by any of our units.

2 The following are excerpts from hearings conducted in November 1945 by a Joint Congressional Committee investigating the Pearl Harbor attack.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now