By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood
Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
As more than three-quarters of a century have passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor, a dwindling number of people are alive who remember the shock, horror and heroism that turned a Sunday morning into “a day of infamy.”
However, thanks to the diligence and action reports of Sailors there that day, all transcribed in their own words, the details of what happened that day will keep the memory alive.
While many think the attack began at 7:55 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the first enemy contact is believed to have been made four hours earlier at 3:50 a.m., when the coastal minesweeper USCG Condor (AMC 14) sighted the periscope of a submerged submarine while conducting mine sweeping operations a little less than two miles southwest of the Pearl Harbor entrance buoys.
According to one of the action reports by Commander In Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Condor used visual signals to notify destroyer USS Ward (DD 139), then patrolling off the Pearl Harbor entrance. The destroyer sighted a periscope of an unidentified submarine trailing USS Antares (AK 53) at 6:37 a.m. and deployed depth charges three minutes later.
An officer on the destroyer sent a verbal dispatch at 6:45 a.m. to the Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District. It was reported received at 7:12 a.m. and transcribed. Since no prior report of either contact had been made to the Commandant or CINCPAC, the report was treated like the many reports of submarine contacts from the preceding 12 months (none of which were ever confirmed). To confirm the report, however, action was taken to close the net gate and attempt to verify the sightings.
Another telephone call came in to CINCPAC around 7:40 a.m. from the Operations Officer, Patrol Wing TWO, that a patrol plane had sunk a hostile submarine south of the entrance buoy at 7:32 a.m. Almost immediately another telephone report came in about USS Ward towing a sampan (flat-bottomed wooden vessel) into Honolulu.
Then just minutes later, at 7:55 a.m., the Navy Yard Signal Tower telephoned CINCPAC: “ENEMY AIR RAID – NOT DRILL.” Almost simultaneously, Japanese torpedo planes attacked Battleship Row.
For most people at Pearl Harbor, the day started as any other Sunday. They woke up, hit the head to brush their teeth, shave, etc. Others were in wardrooms or mess decks eating breakfast. Some were still asleep.
Suddenly, everything changed.
“About 8 o’clock I heard the air raid siren,” said Ensign G.S. Flannigan, a member of the Naval Reserve on board the battleship Arizona (BB 39). “I was in the bunk room and everyone in the bunk room thought it was a joke to have an air raid on Sunday. Then I heard an explosion. I was undressed.”
Elsewhere onboard Arizona, Ensign H.D. Davison had just sent the messenger of the watch to make the eight o’clock reports to the Captain. “Then I heard a dive bomber attack from overhead. I looked through my spyglass and saw the red dots on the wings. That made me wonder, but I still couldn’t believe it until I saw some bombs falling.”
The attack had begun.
According to the CINCPAC report: “At 0755, Japanese dive bombers appeared over Hickam Field and Ford Island, and, bare seconds later, enemy torpedo planes and dive bombers swung in from various sectors to concentrate their attack on the heavy ships moored in Pearl Harbor. An estimated 18 planes engaged in the attack on Hickam Field while approximately 9 dive bombers from out of the northeast bombed and strafed the Naval Air Station, concentrating particularly on Hangar No. 6 and the planes parked in that vicinity.”
Amidst the chaos and confusion, CINCPAC sent a message to the rest of the US Navy: “AIR RAID ON PEAR HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL!” The missing “L” in Pearl makes apparent the stress felt by the command during the onslaught.
An order familiar to all Sailors who’ve ever been to sea was heard booming through each ship in the Hawaiian harbor—“General quarters, general quarters. All hands man your battle stations.”
In tandem with the attack on Pearl, surrounding airfields were also targeted. Japanese pilots bombed and strafed the Navy air bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the Army Air Corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam.
Within the first minutes of the attack seven of the eight battleships adjacent to Ford Island had taken bomb and/or torpedo hits. USS Pennsylvania (BB 38) was in dry dock at the yard. USS West Virginia (BB 48), USS Oklahoma (BB 37) and USS Arizona all sank quickly, while USS California (BB 44), USS Maryland (BB 46), USS Tennessee (BB 43) and USS Nevada (BB 36) suffered varying degrees of damage. Former battleship USS Utah (BB 31), which had been converted to a radio-controlled target ship (AG 16), was also sunk.
Nevada managed to get underway despite a torpedo hit on her port bow. From nearly the start of the attack until about 8:30, she fought back.
“Fire from [our] machine guns was almost continuous until 0820 when the attack slackened somewhat,” said Capt. F.W. Scanland, her commanding officer.
Seizing the chance to get to sea, Nevada attempted to sail down the channel. However, before she could escape the harbor, a second round of aircraft appeared. Nevada being an easy target, the Japanese aviators tried to finish her off and sink her in the middle of the channel—and thereby stop other ships from entering or leaving, too. But Nevada beached herself instead at Hospital Point.
“Officers and members of the crew vary in their accounts of the number of enemy planes seen brought down by gun fire. It is probable that at least five planes were destroyed in the vicinity of the Nevada,” Scanland wrote in his action report.
Several other ships also managed to clear the area.
Probably the worst hit of all was the Arizona. Early on, a bomb from a dive bomber penetrated into her 14-inch powder magazine and exploded, resulting in a ravaging fire.
“The oil fire sent up a great cloud of smoke and interfered with antiaircraft fire. The fire itself endangered the Tennessee, in the adjacent berth,” said the CINCPAC report.
Ensign Jim Miller said in his own report, “Most of the men who were burned were unrecognizable. Shortly after the stretcher cases had been removed to the Solace motor launch, the First Lieutenant ordered abandon ship. All of our guns had ceased firing; the main, forecastle, and boat decks were burning; smoke obstructed a view of the foremast and the forward part of the ship. All officers’ quarters aft were flooded and the quarterdeck forward was awash.
“Men found the rafts difficult to paddle, and most of them crawled aboard motor launches or started swimming toward Ford Island. […] We picked up quite a few more men who were swimming toward the island. We made the officers’ landing at Ford Island, and all hands went ashore except the boat crew, Ensign Field, and the First Lieutenant.
“I was told to remain in charge of the men on Ford Island. We went to the air raid shelter at the northeastern corner of the island. All injured men were sent to the air station hospital as fast as possible. The rest remained in the air raid shelter until the raid was clear.”
The raid ended just under two hours after it began, and the toll was steep. Aircraft losses were 188 destroyed and 159 damaged, the majority hit before they had a chance to take off. American dead numbered 2,403. There were 1,178 military and civilian wounded.
Despite these heavy losses, the raid was almost a tactical failure for the Japanese. Two of the three aircraft carriers home-ported at Pearl Harbor – Enterprise (CV 6) and Lexington (CV 2) — were out to sea and the third, Saratoga (CV 3), was undergoing an overhaul at Bremerton, Wash.
The Japanese didn’t damage the shore-side facilities or fuel depots at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, either, which played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II.
Also, all but three of the ships sunk or damaged – Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah — were later repaired and went on to fight against the Japanese and Germany.
Arguably the greatest outcome of this tragedy was the unity it inspired in the nation. It motivated the American people to wholeheartedly commit to victory in the Second World War.
Hyperlinked ship’s names reveal each ship’s action report for that day.