(This was written when it was still dark out, around 6 AM EST, hence “right about now”)
The USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee ablaze in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 DEC 41
Right about now, 75 years ago, the first flights of “Operation Z” were cresting the hills over the North edge of the harbor at Pearl Harbor and lining up for their assigned targets on Battleship Row.* In a bid to remove the strategic threat of any Allied response to seizing natural resources in the Southwest Pacific, the Imperial Fleet of the Empire of Japan was now launching a devastating near-simultaneous attack on the overseas territories of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In hindsight, this seems like an insanely foolhardy strategic objective, but in 1941, almost every mind in the Imperial War Cabinet was supremely confident of Japanese success. Why not? They had marched boldly into China, set up a puppet government, and had been busy looting for several years. This operation could hardly be that much trouble.
The strike aircraft from the Japanese force came from 6 carriers, and numbered somewhere between 375 to 414 aircraft, mostly the Aichi 3A2 “Val” bomber, Nakajima “Kate” Type 97, and Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, which would soon become infamous. The pilots had been practicing this attack for months; each sub-component of the massive attack wave had their own targets they were assigned to. The attack generally went in two waves; a massive first assault on the ships in harbor and a follow up wave that pounded airfields, shore facilities, oil storage and repair facilities. The attack, in the eyes of the Japanese, was an astounding success– 4 battleships sunk, 4 damaged, multiple smaller ships either sunk or damaged. The big exception was discovering the primary targets of the raid– the three operational carriers in the Pacific Fleet, weren’t present. Still, after the 2nd wave returned, the Japanese Fleet sailed back West again, confident that the hammer blow would keep the American forces crippled for a long, long time. Perhaps, if it had been 30 years earlier, they might have been right.
The Americans were in shock after the attack, to be sure, but they were also enraged. Decades later I was a little snot nosed college kid waiting tables in Rossyln, VA at the Key Bridge Marriott. A group of Pearl Harbor survivors were in DC for some ceremony commemorating the attack. Being nosy and just as big of a history buff then as I am now, I plastered them with questions. “What was it like?” Years later, I could still see it in their eyes- the rage and futility, the sense of helplessness, as these men remembered. “I remember seeing a sailor in a small utility boat in the harbor, screaming incoherently in rage, firing a pistol at the aircraft, like he was daring them to attack him personally. That was what it felt like, kid“. I’ve never forgotten that visual.
Ironically, the Japanese unwittingly performed a great strategic service for America, though nobody saw it at the time. By sinking aged, but still formidable surface battleships, Japan was propelling American naval planning into the modern age. In the short space of something like 119 minutes, the Japanese fleet conclusively proved the future did not rely on the status symbols of the battleship era. The Great Pacific War that had long been predicted was now on– and it would not be won by fleets of surface dreadnoughts from the World War One era. The future belonged to those carriers that had not been present that day– and the many other carriers that would join them as the United States switched to full wartime production operations.
For now, though.. 75 years ago, the infamy was very real. In a lot shorter time than it has taken to type this, America was experiencing real casualties on American soil, and as the fleet blinked its eyes, reddened by smoke and carnage and helpless rage, they were being transformed. It would be a very different America from this day forward, striding forth onto the world stage to fight (soon enough) three Axis powers. It all started today, right about now.. 75 years ago.
* Technically speaking, it would be about 4 hours in the future, not “right about now” due to time zones, but who’s counting?