Japanese shock attack on US Naval base at Pearl Harbor

A Nakajima B5N2 torpedo plane takes off from the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku to attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack. View looks about east, with the supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm in the right center distance. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Other battleships moored nearby are (from left): Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (torpedoed and listing) alongside Maryland, and California.

Panorama view of Pearl Harbor, during the Japanese raid on 7 December 1941, with anti-aircraft shell bursts overhead. The photograph looks southwesterly from the hills behind the harbor. Large column of smoke in lower right center is from the burning USS Arizona (BB-39). Smoke somewhat further to the left is from the destroyers Shaw (DD-373), Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375), in drydocks at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard.

The forward magazine of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, 09:30h. Shaw was docked in the floating drydock YFD-2. At right, The bow of Nevada (BB-36) can be seen after her aborted escape attempt out channel.

Despite the warnings that had been issued about possible Japanese aggression, the attack when it came was a complete surprise to most people. Lloyd Bunting was with the 50th Reconnaissance Squadron based at Hickam Field in Hawaii and his account gives a good impression of the reaction to the raid:

Sunday morning December 7th, 1941 was another beautiful day. I was returning from the shower clad modestly in my Army issue towel and with breakfast in the mess hall, or a snack at the P.X., on my mind. When I entered the barracks I noticed lots of the men were clustered at the window and I went to see what was interesting them. It seemed there was unusual activity over Pearl Harbour. Some guessed it was bombing practice or some such normal exercise. Then we noticed other planes crossing our air base enroute to Pearl Harbour. Suddenly a low flying plane, barely higher than the barracks, banked giving us a view of a big red ball insignia under the wing.

Gee !, then more speculation, perhaps a happy conclusion to Japanese / U.S. negotiations had something to do with it. Loud explosions made us decide to be elsewhere. We were being bombed, and we were on the top floor. By the time we got to the ground, the building was being shaken by the explosions and wall tiles were crashing down the steel staircase behind us.

Outside we found some blokes trying to set up a machine gun while enemy planes roared overhead enroute to the harbour. There were more big explosions further down the hangar line and rubbish began to fly. Such a beautiful day and all this happening “just like in the movies!”

I and others were sheltering behind things assuming that we’d soon be bombed or strafed, like in the movies, and we were trying to assess our position. No-one ever told us what to do if ……… , particularly an air raid on a Sunday morning in our various conditions of dress.

An enterprising lieutenant arrived with a truck. He gave us the “you, you and you” invitation to board his truck in which we found a couple of machine guns. Before our mouths closed we had arrived at the local parade ground opposite the barracks complex.

Half of us were left at one end of the ground with a gun and a couple of cans of 50 calibre ammunition. I and the other half were left at the other end similarly equipped. Nobody knew what to do but, being soldiers, we tried.

All the while those Japanese planes were coming down the airstrip, banking over our empty space and continuing to the harbour. I at least, from my interest in our squadron armament area, knew how to load and fire these guns and was able to select the cans of ammunition properly loaded for our guns. Nothing seemed to mean anything to my colleagues who drifted off leaving me with a now loaded machine gun to defend us. Next, I couldn’t get the plurry thing to charge. The bolt, when pulled back, wouldn’t snap forward to force a cartridge into the firing chamber. What the hell ! there was I, barefoot and dressed in only a tiny towel, equipped with an anti-aircraft machine gun with plenty of targets but ….?

Read the whole account at Recollections of Lloyd H Bunting Jr.

See National Security Agency for a good summary of the subsequent investigations and enquiries.

The combat report of planes flying into Pearl Harbor from the USS Enterprise gives some idea of the confusion in the air.

Sailors stand amid wrecked planes at the Ford Island seaplane base, watching as USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes in the center background, 7 December 1941. USS Nevada (BB-36) is also visible in the middle background, with her bow headed toward the left.

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