A photograph of Battleship Row taken from a Japanese plane at the beginning of the attack. The explosion in the center of the picture is a torpedo strike on the USS West Virginia.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service against the United States naval base located at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory, on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. The attack, also known as the Battle of Pearl Harbor, ultimately led to the United States’ Congress declaring war on the Empire of Japan and its entry into World War II. The Japanese military leadership referred to the attack as the “Hawaii Operation” and “Operation AI” and as “Operation Z” during its planning stage. Japan intended the attack as a preventive action to keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering with military actions they planned in Southeast Asia against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States, which they needed for natural resources including oil and rubber which were not available in their own established colonies. Over the next seven hours there were coordinated Japanese attacks on the U.S.-held Philippines, Guam and Wake Island and on the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The attack commenced at 7:48 a.m. Hawaii time and included 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft (including fighters, level and dive bombers, and torpedo bombers) in two separate waves, launched from six different aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships anchored at Pearl Harbor were damaged, with four being sunk. All but the USS Arizona were later raised, and six were returned to service and went on to fight in the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer. One hundred eighty-eight U.S. aircraft were destroyed, most while grounded, 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded. Important base installations such as the power station, dry dock, shipyard, maintenance, and fuel and torpedo storage facilities, as well as the submarine piers and headquarters building (also home of the intelligence section), were not attacked. Japanese losses were light: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost, and 64 servicemen killed. One Japanese sailor, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured.

Was the attack a success for the Empire of Japan? Well, that answer isn’t as simple as you would think and is debatable. The attack itself accomplished only a portion of what was planned and the Japanese hesitance to press the attack after initial success by cancelling a planned third wave that would have targeted the various support infrastructure proved damaging to their future efforts and greatly aided the Navy in salvaging and repairing those ships that were damaged and destroyed. Admiral Hara Tadaichi summed up the Japanese result by saying, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.” And from the lips of Isoroku Yamamoto himself is attributed the “sleeping giant” quote:

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

The surprise attack came as a profound shock to the American people and led directly to the American entry into World War II in both the Pacific and European theaters. The following day, December 8th, the United States declared war on Japan and several days later, on December 11th, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. The U.S. responded in kind with their own declaration of war against Germany and Italy. Domestic support for non-interventionism, which had been fading since the Fall of France in 1940, disappeared and the American people seemed determined to do everything possible to win the war.

There were numerous historical precedents for unannounced military action by Japan, but the lack of any formal warning, particularly while negotiations were still apparently ongoing, led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”. Because the attack happened without a declaration of war and without explicit warning, the attack on Pearl Harbor was later judged in the Tokyo Trials to be a war crime.

It is fairly evident that the Empire of Japan was not militarily or economically powerful enough to fight a long sustained war against the United States in 1941, and the Japanese military knew this. Its attack on Pearl Harbor was a tremendous gamble and though the short-term gamble was successful, allowing them to take several key objectives, overall the long-term gamble was lost because the Japanese were wrong about the American reaction to their attack. This attack brought the United Stated together and created the will to fight alongside their allies to end the threat of the Axis powers.

At Dawn We SleptOne other side note about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I am not a subscribed conspiracy theorist but have read several books about the months and weeks leading up to the attack and have always been shocked at the amount of information that was available regarding the Japanese intentions and even serious suspicions about their actions. One of my favorite reads was At Dawn We Slept by Gordon W. Prange, which is an exhaustive account of the attack from both perspectives of the U.S. and the Japanese. The book focuses a lot of its effort on a discussion about the issue of culpability in regards to both the U.S. Naval and Army Commands inaction and unprepared state, as well as the administration of President Roosevelt itself. In the end, I choose to believe that the events unfolded in the manner it did because of aggression and deceit by the Japanese and furthermore that it was a seminal event that formed the world and caused a “sleeping giant” in the United States of America to awaken to dutifully assist in the cause of liberty and freedom and to beat back aggression from Fascism and Totalitarianism.

Air Raid Pearl Harbor! from Legion Wargames

Air Raid Peral Harbor

As we try to do in these On This Day… posts, we identify a game on the covered subject that might interest you so that you can attempt to play out the history. There are a few other games on the subject out there, but a new one, that is not yet released, has caught our attention from Legion Wargames. Air Raid Pearl Harbor! is a detailed simulation of the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It is an extensively researched wargame inspired by the nearly life-long interest of the designer John Heim in the subject matter. Alexander reached out to John for an interview earlier this year and he gives a lot of details about the game and how it will play. Units are individual ships and also individual aircraft, although these are amalgamated into various counters by aircraft type. There is area movement for some portions of the map, and the areas of particular interest are modeled using 250-yard-wide hexes. The simulation is detailed but not overly complex and includes various subsystems to render results for air-to-air, air-to-ground/ship, anti-aircraft, and also anti-submarine operations, to engage any full-size and/or midget Japanese submarines brought into action.

Air Raid Pearl Harbor Map

The initial scenario may be played by two players, although it is designed to be a solitaire introduction to the system and also a way to let players experience and study this historic battle, to give insight into much of what happened and why. The likelihood is that you will achieve the historical result, a Japanese Tactical Victory. The standard scenario presents all of the forces available to both sides and allows the Japanese player to modify his or her deployment and attack plans up to and including the composition of the two attack waves. If you think you can plan a more successful attack than Minoru Genda did, you have here the tools to try. Conversely, the U.S. player has the opportunity to fight back to the best of his or her ability, and various optional rules – particularly variations in the initial Alert Level – give the U.S. player more assets with which to fight and more assets to save through evacuation.

Air Rair Pearl Harbor Counters

There is also a scenario which has one or two American aircraft carriers in port and your initial thought is probably that this is a huge bonus toward Strategic Victory for the Japanese. However, the main Japanese player dilemma of this simulation is that the Japanese have a finite amount of aircraft and ordnance, and more targets are not necessarily a guarantee of victory. You will find that you need to target appropriately and generally roll for damage well in order to successfully hit everything you need to hit. The options allowing a third strike later in the day or the next day are a gamble – you can strike again, but at a fully alerted, albeit weakened, set of targets and you risk losing more aircraft, which equal Victory Points for the U.S.

The game is currently on pre-order through the CPO Program on the Legion Wargames site for the price of $55.00 at the following link:

Finally, some parting words about the calamity that was Pearl Harbor. I have visited the site of the USS Arizona and I can say that this was one of the most reverent and solemn places that I have visited, rivaling many churches and cathedrals that I have been in. The feeling of solemnity that one feels come over them as you read over the names of those that gave their lives that day in 1941 is existential and moved me to tears on multiple occasions. But it also caused in me a great pride to come to the surface. Pride in the boys who fought and sacrificed. Pride in my country. Pride in the ideals that I believe in and for which many have died to uphold. I have the utmost respect for all American serviceman, in fact, for ALL serviceman, whether with our allies or fellow Americans, and even with those that have been against us, who have fought and paid the ultimate price for their convictions and for their country. I for one will never forget Pearl Harbor. I will never forget those young sailors who gave their lives in that sinking battleship to provide me, my family and our country, the freedom to live life as we see fit. Thanks to all veterans of all wars. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice. May God sanctify and honor it, as I hope all people will.