The 7th of December 1941 AD
When the Japanese launched their well-planned attack on the US naval force at port in Pearl Harbour, the two countries were not at war, though it is suggested that the Japanese may have intended to issue a declaration of war half-an-hour before the first shots were fired. There had been many provocations on both sides prior to the attack, however: a US gunboat in Nanking targeted ‘in error’ by Japanese forces in 1937; America’s support of the British with lease-lend and outright gifts of materiel; and the assistance provided to Britain by US volunteer airmen in the Far East as well as Europe.
The attack on Pearl Harbour should not have been surprising, therefore. Even moreso given it is thought a British agent may have garnered details of the plans – one of several reasons why conspiracy theorists have bruited the unproven idea that Churchill and/or Roosevelt was fully aware of what was going to happen, but no action was taken in order that American entry into the war would be rendered easier by such an incident.
What is clearer is that the forces in Hawaii were poorly prepared: a radar station observed the first wave of Japanese aircraft on the way, but communicated just that some planes, rather than hundreds, had been seen, resulting in an officer in Pearl Harbour thinking it was American planes due to arrive at that time; US fighters on the ground were generally not ready for action; and the Japanese fleet had managed to approach Hawaii unnoticed.
In two waves of aerial attack the Japanese totally destroyed two battleships and damaged six more, keeping some of them out of action for more than two years. Two destroyers were also sunk, and many other ships temporarily disabled. Losses to planes were equally significant, with 188 US aircraft destroyed and almost that number suffering damage. And 2402 Americans died in the attack. Japan lost just 29 aircraft and four midget submarines, in personnel terms losing 64 men with one captured.
Militarily the attack was a great success, Japan for a time effectively in complete control of the Pacific seas. But it was far from a knock-out blow, and brought immediate American entry into the war against Japan, and soon against Germany and Italy. It is one of the great ‘what-ifs’ of history: had Japan not struck at Pearl Harbour, would the reluctance of the American-in-the-street to join another global conflict have won out against pro-war advocates?
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