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This Day In History: 75 Years Ago, Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor

December 07, 2016

This day in history, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

At 7:55 a.m. local time, a Japanese dive bomber bearing the red symbol of the Rising Sun of Japan on its wings appeared out of the clouds above the island of Oahu. A swarm of 353 Japanese warplanes followed, and attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States irrevocably into World War II.

With diplomatic negotiations with Japan breaking down, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers knew that a Japanese attack was probable, but nothing had been done to increase security at the naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday morning, and many military personnel had been given passes to attend religious services off base.

At 7:02 a.m., two radio operators spotted large groups of aircraft in flight toward the island from the north, but, with a flight of B-17s expected from the United States at the time, they were told not to sound the alarm, making the assault a surprise attack on the naval base. Five of eight battleships, three destroyers, and seven other ships were sunk or severely damaged, and more than 200 aircraft were destroyed as a result of the assault. A total of 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were wounded, many while valiantly attempting to repulse the attack. Japan’s losses were 29 planes, five midget submarines, and fewer than 100 men with a total of 64 deaths.

All three Pacific fleet carriers were out at sea on training maneuvers. These giant aircraft carriers would have their revenge against Japan six months later at the Battle of Midway, reversing the tide against the Japanese navy in a spectacular victory.

U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat Tiger conducted anti-submarine sweeps outside of Pearl Harbor and another patrol boat Taney opened fire on Japanese aircraft that appeared over Honolulu Harbor during the attack. The Americans lost 188 aircrafts; the Japanese 29. Admiral Nagumo, despite the task forces’s capacity and against advice, did not send a third wave against the base.

The three American aircraft carriers serving in the Pacific were not in port and escaped unharmed as did much of the infrastructure of the port, including the oil storage tanks. However, the attack left the Allies with only the three U.S. carriers and two British battleships as active capital ships in the theater. The cruisers, destroyers and submarines available from the Dutch and Free French reduced the numerical inferiority against the Japanese navy, however, the Allied craft were widely dispersed and under multiple commands.

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress and declared, “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.” After giving a forceful speech, he asked Congress to approve a resolution recognizing the state of war between the United States and Japan. The Senate voted for war against Japan by 82 to 0, and the House of Representatives approved the resolution by a vote of 388 to 1.  Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, and the U.S. government responded in kind.