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Pearl Harbor 80th Anniversary: What happened in 1941 and why did Japan attack Hawaii?

Eighty years ago today a Japanese attack on an American military base on the island of Hawaii ravaged the Pacific Fleet and led to the US declaring war on Japan.

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Pearl Harbor 80th Anniversary: What happened in 1941 and why did Japan attack Hawaii?
SEAN LA MARR AFP

On Tuesday, 7 December the United States will mark the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbour attack, when the Japanese military launched a surprise offensive on a naval base on Hawaii.

The attack took place on 7 December 1941 and it served to reshape the story of World War Two. The US military had become increasingly focused on the ongoing warfare in Europe and had underestimated the threat posed by Japan, a member of the Axis powers alongside Germany.

The attack on Pearl Harbor cost 2,390 Americans their lives and the United States declared war on Japan the following day.

What happened in the build up to the Pearl Harbor attack?

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise, tensions between the two nations had grown over the previous decades and the two global powers viewed each other as rivals. Relations soured due to disputes over control in eastern Asia and their respective attitudes towards Chinese development.

In the late 1930s there was a spate of economic sanctions and trade embargoes issued by the United States and Japan. The US had hoped that the stringent controls would force Japan to rein in the expansionist agenda but it was not to be.

Hawaii, the island on which Pearl Harbor is located, is situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, around 2,000 miles from Mainland USA and roughly 4,000 miles from Japan. The island was relatively isolated but attacking a military target 4,000 miles away was considered too daring to be a realistic threat.

Japan ravages US fleet at Pearl Harbor

At the time of the attack near the entire US Pacific Fleet was stationed around Ford Island in Pearl harbour, with hundreds of airplanes lined up on nearby airfields. Given the lack of perceived threat the base was poorly defended and it became an irresistible target for Japan.

The Japanese hierarchy reasoned that destroying the Pacific Fleet would give them the breathing space needed to spread their own forces across the South Pacific, reasserting their control in the region. And so, after months of planning and preparation, the attack was launched on 7 December.

From around 8am local time the skies above Pearl Harbor filled with Japanese planes and bombs rained down on the vulnerable American fleet. A huge 1,800-pound bomb hit the USS Arizona battleship and more than a thousand men died as the ship exploded and sank.

The whole attack took less than two hours but the Japanese had decimated the US fleet, with significant damage to the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia, USS Utah, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee and USS Nevada.

Then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed 7 December “a date which will live in infamy” and Americans will today reflect on the events of eighty years ago.