Behind Japan’s Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941 was, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, “a day that will live in infamy.” President Roosevelt delivered that line on December 8, 1941 during a joint session of Congress, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack surprised and stunned the United States of America, and thrust the country into World War II, which it had been tip-toeing around since the war began. Up to that point, the United States had been a neutral territory in the expanding global conflict.

The images of the attack on Pearl Harbor are unforgettable: smoke, fire, and destruction as planes scrambled above and the harbor seas churned chaotically. The attack was calculated and intended to commence as a reinforcement after Japan delivered a message that they were no longer interested in negotiations. However, due to timing issues, the declaration didn’t reach the United States until an hour after the attack began. 

The Japanese planned the attack months in advance. And though images of planes surging into the airspace are well-known, the attack on Pearl Harbor also included a sea element. Newly developed mini submarines were a crucial element in pulling off the surprise attack. These were the Japanese’s secret weapons. There were a total of 5 subs, each just 78 feet long, and Pearl Harbor was their test voyage. It was a skeptical addition to what was supposed to be solely an airstrike. But the submarines had an edge: because of their size and speed, they could operate in the waters of Pearl Harbor, a place where conventional submarines couldn’t. It was important to test the new submarines, but the attack on Pearl Harbor had to be a surprise. If one of the subs was spotted, it could compromise the entire mission. 

Half of the Japanese fears about the submarines were realized. At 6:51am Hawaii time, the periscope from one of the submarines was spotted by the U.S.S. Ward. The Ward opened fire and destroyed one of the five Japanese mini subs. That defense would turn out to be the opening shots of the Pacific portion of World War II. However, that didn’t compromise the attack. It was a later error on the part of the United States that permitted the Japanese airstrike to take place.

The fatal error came at the hands of a United States Army officer. Kermit A. Tyler hadn’t been trained properly for the job of monitoring the radar. When he saw a large blip on the radar, his response was “don’t worry about it.” He thought he was seeing American Army Air Force bombers that were due to arrive from the mainland United States. That blip on the radar was actually the first wave of the Japanese air forces moving in to attack. Had that error not been made, December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii may have looked radically different. 

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Posted on December 7 2020 in Blog

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