Many a young student has wondered why the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor about halfway through World War II. I confess that the incident seems “out of place” with the rest of the war going on in Europe. So let me first explain the strange relationship between Germany and Japan. Then we can look at the deadly attack with some vivid details to help us “remember Pearl Harbor.”

In the mid-1800s, Japan was forced to open its doors to trade with the Western world. As Japan opened up, it grew. As it grew, it needed more land and resources. Thus, Japan became a lot like Nazi Germany in desiring more “living space” for its people. You could say that Adolf Hitler of Germany and Emperor Hirohito of Japan were of kindred mind and spirit. Both were powerful dictators. Both wanted to expand their empires. And both would employ Machiavellian methods to accomplish their goals. (Some historians debate Hirohito’s role in World War II, suggesting he was pressured by militant Japanese leaders to be aggressive.)

Regardless of Hirohito’s motivations, Japan invaded Manchuria for more resources, and then provoked a brutal war with China in 1937 called the Second Sino-Japanese War. (Interesting side note: Eric Liddell, the famous Chariots of Fire Olympian runner, was imprisoned by the Japanese in this very war for serving as a missionary to the Chinese! Liddell died while in prison.) Following the Japanese invasion of China, Japan signed a partnership with Germany and Italy to be allies. The long-distance relationship was named by the capital cities of each and called the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. Think about that for a minute. Mussolini, Hitler, and Hirohito were bound together by their ideologies. Just two years later, Joseph Stalin completed the circle of world-dominating leaders with the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The pact was a farce! Hitler didn’t plan on keeping Stalin in the loop. As you may know, Hitler turned against Stalin and invaded Russia in the summer of 1941.


Now, getting back to Pearl Harbor: So why did the Japanese attack the United States in the winter of 1941? Well, it had a lot to do with resources. The Japanese wanted access to rich oil reserves and other commodities scattered across Southeast Asia. Standing in their way was the United States, which had its own interests in Southeast Asia and China. In fact, the United States sided with China in its war against the Japanese and provided China with supplies.

The Japanese weren’t sure how far the United States would go in defending China and guarding the resources of Southeast Asia. Rather than wait to find out, they planned an attack—4,000 miles from home! It was the idea of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He believed that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would permanently cripple the United States Navy, knock it out as a threat, and pave a smooth path for Japan to conquer all of Southeast Asia. In particular, the Japanese wanted Sumatra, Java, Borneo, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Already in their possession was French Indochina (which now is Vietnam).


The Japanese took their mission seriously and trained for it extensively. With the help of spies in Hawaii, the Japanese learned the exact location of U.S. warships and planes, which regularly parked in and around Pearl Harbor. The United States had a few clues that the Japanese were up to something, but no one knew with certainty the disaster that was to come. (Not even Hitler knew what was to hit Pearl Harbor. He would later admit he was surprised!)

On Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, a wave of 184 Japanese torpedo planes (nicknamed “Kates” by the Allies) and Mitsubishi fighter planes (nicknamed “Zeros” or “Zekes”) took off from their aircraft carriers in the Pacific. When Commander Mitsuo Fuchida could see the island of Oahu breaking through partly cloudy skies, he shouted, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” The word means, “tiger” and was code for “Let the attack begin.” At 7:55 a.m., bombs began to shower Pearl Harbor, catching the U.S. military completely off guard.

Pearl Harbor was a large station for the U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines. (The Air Force was not a separate branch until after the war.) Most servicemen were “sleeping in” that Sunday morning. Those up and about were doing ordinary duties on the ships or enjoying time off on solid ground. The Japanese raid was so well orchestrated and came as such a surprise that soldiers could barely make sense of the sudden barrage of bombs and torpedoes. Within minutes, Pearl Harbor was engulfed in flames.


The Japanese intentionally hit air bases, navy yards, and battleships. Out of seven battleships that were struck that day, the USS Arizona was hit the hardest. After multiple bombings that probably hit its ammunition storehouse, the massive battleship exploded and sank into the harbor—killing 1,177 sailors and marines. They died from the scorching blasts or drowned as the ship capsized. To this day, 1,102 are still entombed in the sunken remains of the Arizona. (A permanent memorial, accessible only by boat, was built over the sunken ship in 1962 to honor all military personnel who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

To inflict more damage on Pearl Harbor, when the first wave of Japanese planes ran out of ammunition, they sent a second wave. Under Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki, 181 more aircraft took to the skies over Pearl Harbor to continue the plan of destruction and to strafe the tropical island.  By this time, more American soldiers had scrambled for their weapons. A few took to their P-40 Warhawk fighters, though half of the planes on the ground had been destroyed. Through black, billowing pillars of smoke, American soldiers defended the burning island as best as they could.

Within one hour and 45 minutes, the attack on Pearl Harbor ended. Though a third wave of attack was considered, the Japanese chose against it. They were not sure that they hadn’t stirred a sleeping giant, so they wanted to get out while they could. Deeming their mission a success, they lost only 29 aircraft and 5 midget submarines. The only part of the Japanese mission left incomplete was an attack on two extremely valuable U.S. aircraft carriers, which happened to be at sea. Otherwise, the Japanese managed to sink or destroy 18 vessels. Eight of those were highly prized battleships. The Japanese also destroyed 164 planes and damaged another hundred.


Of course, war machines can be replaced or salvaged. Most of the sunken battleships were retrieved and refurbished, as were hundreds of planes. What could never be replaced were the men and women who perished. Approximately 2,403 Americans died at Pearl Harbor. Sixty-eight were civilians. The Japanese lost 129—a few of those volunteering to die as suicide dive-bombers. (One Japanese solider was captured and taken prisoner.)

In summary, did the attack on Pearl Harbor cripple the United States as the Japanese hoped and knock it out of the way as planned? No, not at all. On the contrary, it riled the country up and pushed the war to a global level! On December 8, 1941, at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan for its “unprovoked and dastardly attack.”  A few hours later, Canada and Great Britain came alongside the United States against Japan. Within days, several other nations from around the world stood also with the United States and joined the Allied Powers. Since Japan was in cahoots with Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini declared war against the United States on December 11. The Soviet Union naturally “changed sides” after Hitler betrayed Stalin, and so the Nazis drew in instead the Baltic nations of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia. With both sides of World War II stacked and ready, the world saw four more years of conflict after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

That, my friends, is why we remember Pearl Harbor.