Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pearl Harbor

"Yesterday, December 7th 1941 - a date that will live in infamy- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

That is the first line of the speech U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt gave to a joint house of Congress on December 8th, 1941, asking for a formal declaration of war against Japan. Japan's transgression was a surprising and violent attack against the United States' naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor brought America into the Second World War. It was an event that altered history. Up until that point the "Axis", as the formal alliance between Germany, Japan and Italy was called, was completely victorious. Germany was at the gates of Moscow with the rest of Europe under her domination. Throughout the 1930s and 1940 Japan had embarked upon a campaign of Imperial expansion throughout China and the Pacific. German and Italian forces were driving the British back through Egypt and looked ready to capture the Suez Canal and move into the middle-east oil fields. America was one of the few neutral countries in the world. Pearl Harbor brought the industrial giant into the global conflict.

During the late 1800s Japan had embarked upon a program of modernization and industrialization. With a lot of help from the United States, she had built factories, a modern navy and army, roads, cars and set up a modern infrastructure complete with electricity and telephones in nearly every home. In the First World War Japan had been on the side of the Allies, helping the British and French maintain their Imperial colonies in Asia. As a result, Japan was granted several outposts throughout the Pacific during the Versailles peace talks in 1919. Japan had already annexed Korea in 1910.

But this island nation of over 130 million people required massive amounts of raw materials to maintain modernization programs, and over 90% of these materials had to be imported. With the major economic and political changes that occurred in the world as a result of the Versailles Treaty and the Wilsonian politics of national self-determination, these resources became increasingly difficult and expensive for Japan to obtain. The global market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression made it even more difficult for Japan.

Japan was ruled, at the time, by a military junta which had seized power from a semi-democratic government in 1908, and the ruling general staff embarked upon a program of Imperial expansion in order to take the resources the nation required to survive. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria (now a part of northern China but an independent nation at the time) from bases in Korea. Manchuria had no real army of it's own and the Imperial Japanese Army was able to overrun the country in no time. Manchuria gave Japan access to rubber and coal as well as a strong launching-pad for an invasion into China itself.

In 1937 Japan attacked China. The goal was to take the Chinese coast and gain control over the massive offshore oil reserves, but the Chinese fought back and the Japanese advance became bogged down in a bitter war of attrition.

In 1938 the U.S. officially condemned the Japanese attack and Congress implemented oil and steel sanctions on Japan as well as a demand that Japan withdraw to Manchuria. The U.S. sanctions cut off nearly 80% of Japan's crude oil supply.

In 1939, when war broke out in Europe with the nazi invasion of Poland, the public mood in the United States was one of isolationism. Poll after poll showed that the American public had no stomach for involvement in foreign wars. When, in 1940, Germany conquered Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, public opinion started to shift and U.S. started to mobilize it's industry for war, albeit in a limited manner. After the fall of France Great Britain stood alone against a massive German military machine, and as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over south-east England Roosevelt and Churchill signed a "Lend-Lease" deal, whereby the U.S. would supply Britain with war resources and naval ships in exchange for access to military bases and an "IOU" to repay the debt after the war. Public sentiment in America was still strongly against involvement, even during the height of the German blitz on London.

It was while America's attention was focused on developments in Europe that the Japanese high command started to plan for a major imperial expansion throughout the Pacific. Their goal was to seize all the resources of the entire Pacific ocean, including the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea but there were several obstacles in their path.

First, there were the British garrison colonies at Hong Kong and Singapore. Second, Japan knew that there was no way Australia was going to let a powerful military seize New Guinea. Finally, and most importantly, was the fact that the Philippines, the most resource-rich country in the region and the main target for Japanese plans, was an American colony.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941 Japan believed that they had a real opportunity to put their plans in motion. Japan wanted the Philippines. The war in China was still dragging on and the need for raw materials was more important now than at any other time. In order to seize the Philippines Japan would be forced to fight a war with the United States, which they didn't want. The Japanese high command believed that if they could deliver a knock-out blow to the U.S. Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbor, then they could achieve two aims. First, the U.S., without a navy, would be unable to stop the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Their second, and most important, goal was to bring America to the negotiating table. The general staff believed that a spectacular display of Japanese strength would force the Americans to sue for peace and simply "hand over" the Philippines.

So the plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor was put in motion. The bulk of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) would sail, in secret, across the Pacific Ocean to a point 200 km west of Hawaii. This fleet would consist of six heavy aircraft carriers, including the flagships Akagi and Hiryu, protected by battleships and cruisers and destroyers. Japanese naval aircraft would launch from the carriers, swoop down on the U.S. fleet at anchor and destroy it in one blow. The key to the entire plan was surprise. Japanese counter-intelligence agents started a campaign of misinformation. In the months leading up Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy was reported to be at anchor in Tokyo, then it was sighted off the coast of Thailand, then reports fed to U.S. spies indicated that it was on exercises off the coast of New Zealand. U.S. intelligence was completely unable to figure out where the IJN actually was.

In fact, the IJN carrier task force was sailing across the vast expanse of the central Pacific Ocean, towards Hawaii, out of range of recconaisance aircraft. The U.S. Navy was nervous and the three American aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet, the Hornet, the Enterprise and the Yorktown were ordered out of Pearl Harbor to patrol the Ocean closer to the U.S. mainland. On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the IJN believed the carriers were still at anchor, and it was in position.

That morning in Honolulu was a typical Hawaiian morning. People were going about their day, getting ready for work. It was the Christmas season and stores had christmas trees up and holiday shopping sales displayed. At the naval base of Pearl Harbor battleships, cruisers and destroyers as well as the oil and supply ships required to keep a modern navy operating were all at anchor and lined up in perfect rows. The crews were busy swabbing decks, cooks were preparing breakfast and officers were getting ready to go Christmas shopping with their sweethearts.

On top of a large hill a single American radar base had been set up. At 7 am they picked up a signal showing a large "blob" of aircraft quickly approaching Hawaii from the west. They telephoned their controllers back in Honolulu who told them that a flight of American B-17 heavy bombers from California were due in that day, and that must be what they see. The radar controllers ignored the flight.

The "blob" wasn't a flight of B-17 bombers, however, but a swarm of nearly 360 Japanese torpedo and dive bombers escorted by Zero fighters. They were heading straight for Pearl Harbor. When they were 50 miles from the island they picked up Radio Honolulu on their headsets, playing Benny Goodman jazz. The Japanese leader of the attack, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, gave the code for the attack to commence. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" he radioed to his air armada.

The Japanese flight broke off into three groups and all of them dove below radar. They crossed the Hawaiian coast only 80 feet off the ground, and passed a group of school boys playing baseball. The boys stared in stunned silence at the hundreds of white warplanes with the red ball of Japan painted on their fuselage.

At Pearl Harbor, everything was peaceful and another beautiful day in Hawaii was starting when the drone of approaching aircraft could be heard. Most sailors ignored the sound; this was a major military base, after all. But some sailors noticed the approaching danger and tried to warn their comrades. It was too late. At 7:40 am the first flight of IJN torpedo bombers swooped into the harbor and dropped their lethal "long lance" torpedos into the water. The torpedos sped toward their targets. Some men looked over the rails of their ships in disbelief as the torpedos, traveling at 80 km/hour just under the surface, streaked towards the ships and then exploded into the hulls.

Within moments all hell broke loose. Waves of dive bombers climbed high and then dropped down in vertical dives onto the rows of battleships. Bombs detached from their bellies and exploded onto the decks and superstructures of the American warships. Zero fighters swooped down over the base and machine-gunned cars, people and buildings. One flight of Zeros zipped up the main street of Honolulu, machine guns clattering, and blew up several cars, a packed city bus and a garbage truck. Store windows were destroyed and the bodies of women in flowery dresses were left on the sidewalks.

Within the first five minutes of the attack sixteen American warships were in flames. Burning oil from exploding ships spread across the water so that men who leaped off their sinking ships landed in an inferno.

A Japanese dive bomber dropped an armor-piercing bomb onto the deck of the battleship USS Arizona. The bomb cut through the top deck and exploded in the ammunition magazine. The 80,000 ton ship rose out of the water for a moment before exploding in a massive detonation that shattered windows 50 miles away.

Meanwhile, a second wave of attackers swooped in over two American air bases at Pearl Harbor. The bombers and fighters had been lined up in neat rows on the tarmac to defend against sabotage, and they presented easy targets for the Japanese. U.S. warplanes burst into flame as Zeros flew in straight lines down the runways with guns blazing.

The attack wasn't all one-sided. Many Americans managed to get to anti-aircraft guns and the skies over the harbor were soon filled with thousands of rounds of machine gun fire. Four American P-40 fighters managed to get airborne and they shot down 7 Japanese bombers before running out of ammo and flying away to safer airfields. In all, 21 Japanese planes were shot down over Pearl Harbor.

90 minutes after the attack began it was all over. A planned third wave of attackers was cancelled after reports indicated that the U.S. carriers weren't in harbor, and once all the Japanese aircraft had landed back on their carriers the IJN turned around and sailed back for Japan.

Pearl Harbor itself was left in ruins. 2,389 Americans were killed, including 55 civilians in Honolulu. 18 American warships were destroyed and a further 36 damaged. Over 5,000 people were injured, many of them from unexploded American anti-aircraft shells after the battle.

As the Japanese carrier task force sailed away there was jubilation on the ships. "What a great victory for the Emperor!" one officer shouted. Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack (and a former student of Yale), shook his head and said somberly "I'm afraid that the only thing we have accomplished is to awaken a sleeping giant."

He couldn't have been more right. When Congress declared war on Japan the next day Hitler flew into a rage. His Axis treaty with Japan obligated him to help his ally, and on December 10th Germany declared war on the United States.

Four years later the Axis ceased to exist. Germany and Italy were completely conquered and Japan suffered two atomic bombs. December 7th, 1941 changed history.

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