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Japanese Air Attack on Pearl Harbor

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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
Admiral Yamamoto

Admiral Chuichi Nagumo
Chuichi Nagumo

Japanese pilots
Japanese pilots

Aircraft carrier Zuikaku
Carrier Zuikaku

Japanese torpedo plane
Take off - Shokaku

Japanese plane leaves Akagi
Leaving the Akagi

Japanese bomber in action
Aichi dive bomber

Pearl Harbor
Prior to attack

Over Pearl Harbor
Over Pearl Harbor

Japanese bomber in action
Sneak attack

Midget Submarine
Midget submarine


Japanese Objective

The Japanese objective in attacking Pearl Harbor was to disable the American Fleet for six months. This would allow the Japanese Fleet to take everything they wanted in the South Pacific and fortify those positions so that it would be very difficult and costly for the Americans to take those possessions away.

Element of Surprise

The Japanese had the element of surprise during this attack. Japan was a long ways away, and there were several spottings of the Japanese fleet near Indochina which included large elements – the troop transport, battleships, cruisers, destroyers. It looked like the main part of the fleet was headed south. There were no sightings, however, of the big fleet aircraft carriers. And as far a anybody knew, they were still in the home islands, in Japan. What had happened is that they sailed to the north end of Japan under strict radio silence. They'd actually left their normal radio operators behind, in Japan. There are records of some of the officers going through and putting pieces of paper in the radios of each one of the airplanes on the aircraft carriers, so they wouldn't accidentally send any signals from the radios in the airplanes.

So the Japanese came in - sailed across the north Pacific during December, in very rough water, away from all the shipping lanes, and then came down from the north and launched the attack on Sunday morning. The attack caught the Americans completely by surprise because it was 4,000 miles away from where they thought an attack was going to come, and it was by a method that they didn't really expect.

"Real" Weapons of War - Battleships or Aircraft

There were proponents in the American Navy about the use of naval air power, but most high ranking officers, both in the Japanese Navy and the American Navy thought that the real weapons were still battleships and that naval aircraft was real handy for scouting and for adjusting the fire from battleships to get them on target, but they really didn't consider the aircraft to be particularly potent in dealing with capital warships. Of course the whole world was was aware of Billy Mitchell bombing the German battleships at the end of World War I, that were anchored for the test, but those battleships had no one on board, and they weren't moving, so most battleship officers continued to say that battleships were not particularly vulnerable to air attack. Pearl Harbor showed that they were vulnerable both torpedo attack and bombing attack from aircraft.