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Why was the attack on Pearl Harbor a failure for Japan?

The American defeat inflicted by the Japanese fleet on Pearl Harbor is considered one of the biggest military catastrophes in the history of the USA. In fact, the losses of the Pacific Fleet were not as severe as usually thought, and Japan made a number of mistakes during the attack, which did not have the desired effect. Below there is an explanation of why the Pearl Harbor attack did not violate the foundations of the American war machine, but only became the beginning of the end for the Empire of Japan.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, author unknown

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On December 7,1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor – the American naval base in Hawaii. Three waves of Japanese planes – fighters, bombers and torpedo planes – destroyed five of the eight American battleships (damaged other three) and sunk eleven other large ships. Of the 390 aircraft stationed on the island, as many as 198 were destroyed. Losses in people amounted to 2403 deaths (almost half of them were sailors on the USS Arizona battleship) and 1178 were wounded. The Japanese squadron of Admiral Nagumo captured the victory with very small losses: over Pearl Harbor the Americans shot down 29 enemy aircraft and sunk 5 miniature submarines.

Shortly after this bold attack, the command of the American Pacific Fleet, focusing on the terrible balance of losses, horribly described Pearl Harbor as a humiliating disaster. A similar, exaggerated tone was quickly picked up by the media and quickly after shockingly unreliable articles started to appear, even saying that the “loss of 3/4th of the American fleet” – which was, of course, nonsense. Probably that is why, in public opinion, the myth is still circulating today that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a huge defeat for the USA, from which the Pacific Fleet could not recover anymore.

US Navy burning ships during attack on Pearl Harbor; from left: USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee and USS Arizona.
Source: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

One of the first commanders who showed a reasonable calculation of losses was Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz, who arrived at Pearl Harbor on December 24, 1941. Nimitz did not miss the fact that the roadstead in Pearl Harbor is not deep and the Americans managed to lift most of the ships settled there. In the end, only three (out of eighty two) of them – Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah – were irretrievably lost.. All three of them were relatively old (encoded before or during World War I) and slow, so their loss was not acute to the US Navy. The proximity of hospitals has reduced (and so much) the loss of human lives.

Despite appearances, the fact that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor with surprise when the ships were at port turned out to be beneficial for the US. According to Nimitz, if the Pacific Fleet had gone to the sea to meet the enemy, its loss would be not 3,800 but 38,000 people. These facts represent a “catastrophe” in Pearl Harbor in a completely different light from what was previously thought.

Also, the Japanese leadership did not share the euphoria that prevailed in their country after the victory in Hawaii. The plan of the attack was to completely destroy the enemy fleet (the Japanese fleet did that 36 years ago under Tsushima against the Russians) and then in six months were going to take over British Malaysia, the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Burma, New Guinea and even Australia. Meanwhile, as we already know, the American losses were not so big at all and, most importantly, the Japanese did not manage to destroy their main purpose – the three aircraft carriers: USS Lexington at that time was delivering aircraft to Midway, USS Enterprise to the island of Wake, and USS Saratoga was undergoing maintenance work in San Diego.

Second wave of Japanese airplanes taking off from the Akagi aircraft carrier
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In addition, Pearl Harbor revealed the chaos and indecisiveness that prevailed in the Imperial Fleet at that time. Two commanders, Genda and Yamamamoto, had different visions of the main goals of the future attack. The first one wanted to attack battleships first of all, while the second wanted to attack aircraft carriers. Another example is the situation when, before the air raid on the American base, Japanese people noticed that one of their aircraft carriers would not reach their destination due to insufficient reach. First, it was ordered to abandon the carrier at sea, but later Japanese decided to load additional barrels of oil on the ship.

There were more and more errors committed by the Emperor’s fleet, among them:

  • sending out a second wave of 250 kg bombs, which were unlikely to cause serious damage to the battleships they targeted,
  • The 800-kilograms of bombs loaded on diving bombers were too heavy for airplanes, which had an impact on their accuracy: out of 49 dropped bombs, there were 10 which managed to hit the target, but only 4 of them exploded.

The consequences of the attack on Pearl Harbor were terrible for Japan. Already on April 18,1942, American bombers raided Tokyo successfully and a Japanese offensive directed to Australia was halted in May. On June 7th, the tragic Battle of Midway ended for Japan, where the Imperial fleet lost four aircraft carriers.

Despite everything, no matter how much the Pacific Fleet suffered during the Pearl Harbor defeat, since the beginning of the war the Imperial Republic of Japan had been doomed to failure. The Japanese economy was not even able to approach US production capacity: in 1940, the Americans produced four times more aluminium and 518 times more oil than Japan. In the same year alone, the Congress commissioned eighteen large aircraft carriers, seven battleships, seven battlecruisers, twenty-seven cruisers and fifteen thousand planes for the armed forces. The unleashing of the war with the USA was best summed up by the already mentioned admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who after the attack on Pearl Harbor said: “I am afraid that all we have done is to awaken the sleeping giant and fill it with terrible determination”.

What happened later is history. The Japanese Empire was destroyed when two American nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union threw itself at its remains. All this started with a spectacular but ineffective attack on Pearl Harbor’s base.

Below I have pasted a fragment of a very good film “Isoroku” showing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor:

a moment from the same film, explaining the war strategy of Japan and the motives that led the Combined Fleet Command to attack the USA: (from 6:53)

Source "Mity II Wojny Światowej" J. Lopez, O. Wieviorka Britannica

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