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Pearl Harbor Day 2020: what time did Japan attack and with how many planes on 7 December?

On 7 December Americans will honor the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japanese forces an event that thrust the US into WWII.

On 7 December Americans will honor the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japanese forces an event that thrust the US into WWII.

Shortly before 8 am on Sunday 7 December 1941 the first of 353 Japanese aircraft appeared over Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack that crippled the US Pacific Fleet. The event would draw the US into World War II with the US declaring war the next day on Japan part of the Axis alliance formed with Germany and Italy.

The assault came after a decade of worsening relations between the two powers over Japanese expansion in Asia and the western Pacific. An attack was expected but not on Hawaii which lies in the middle of the Pacific.

Why did Japan Attack?

In the 1930s Japan began an expansionist policy in China which drew it into conflict with the US which was supporting China. In 1939 the US terminated the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan and by 1941 the U.S. government severed all commercial and financial relations with Japan. The US hoping to limit Japan’s aggression frozen Japanese assets and imposed an embargo on Japan, most importantly of petroleum.

This and the US aid to China soured relations with Japan, however the two sides did negotiate to find an understanding. These negotiations continued through November 1941 when it became clear that no agreement could be reached.

The lead up to the attack

The attack on Pearl Harbor was ordered 5 November but the Japanese Commanders were told that the fleet could be recalled if the negotiations had a favorable outcome. The Japanese had assembled a fleet of 6 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 11 destroyers according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The US was on alert for a possible attack but neither the superiors in Washington nor the Commanders on the island expected an attack on the base at Pearl Harbor from Japanese forces. The Hawaii islands lie about 2000 miles from the US and 4000 from Japan leading military planners to expect the Japanese to strike somewhere else. This would lead to the strike being so devastating as it was. Actions to increase defensive capabilities of the base were not taken as the fear of sabotage was the bigger worry.

Reconnaissance missions were sent out but crucially not to the northwest and a new technology radar had been rolled out but only for a few hours in the morning when an attack was most likely. So when on the morning of the attack there were warning signs of the raid, they were not taken seriously. Two destroyers had encounters with Japanese submarines. As well a radar operator practicing after hours spotted a large squadron of planes, he was told by superiors to disregard it. That morning a flight of B-17 bombers was expected from the mainland.

How did the attack occur?

"December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy," proclaimed President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a joint session of Congress on 8 December to ask for a declaration of war.

The day before at 7:55 the first Japanese plane flew over an unsuspecting Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu. The first wave of the attack included almost 170 planes. It would be the most destructive wave with hardly any one of the American naval vessels escaping damage, and nearly 20 vessels were rendered useless.

A second wave attacked at 8:50 but a third wave was never sent. The whole battle lasted just one hour and fifteen minutes.

What casualties were inflicted?

The official American death toll was 2,403, according to the National WWII Museum, including 2,008 Navy personnel, 218 Army service members, 109 Marines and 68 civilians. The USS Arizona, whose wreckage serves as a memorial to the incident lost 1,177 souls. The total number wounded was 1,143, including 710 Navy personnel, 364 Army service members, 69 Marines and 35 civilians.

The Japanese lost 29 planes, five midget submarines and perhaps one or two fleet submarines according to Britannica. They suffered fewer than 100 casualties with only one prisoner taken. The task force left the theater of battle without being attacked but also without taking the real prize America’s aircraft carriers.

All three carriers were out of the harbor and couldn’t be located by the Japanese forces. This would allow America to enter the war much sooner than otherwise possible.

What was the importance of the attack?

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor the US had been resisting getting involved in World War II. The US had been supplying the forces fighting the Axis powers with material and aid extensively. With the raid on Pearl Harbor the United States got fully involved in the war effort declaring war on 8 December 1941. VE Day, Victory in Europe, was celebrated on 8 May 1945 and VJ Day, Victory in Japan, was celebrated on 15 August 1945.

Where are the remembrance ceremonies taking place this year?

This year due to the covid-19 pandemic the ceremonies to commemorate have been all but cancelled. The main ceremony at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, hosted by the National Park Service and the United States Navy will be the sole event. This year it will be closed to the public but about five WWII veterans are being given priority to visit the USS Arizona Memorial with family members and have a moment of reflection with the fallen according to Star and Stripes.


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