Japan Thought Pearl Harbor Would Destroy the U.S. Navy (What a Mistake)

September 18, 2019 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIImperial JapanAmericaPearl HarborPacific Theater

Japan Thought Pearl Harbor Would Destroy the U.S. Navy (What a Mistake)

A big mistake.

At Haleiwa Fighter Strip, northwest of Honolulu at Kaiaka Bay, a small group of American pilots of the 47th Pursuit Squadron drove wildly in two cars from Wheeler Field, dodged strafing bullets along the way, jumped into their P-40s, and took off. Second Lt. George Welch scored four victories, while Kenneth Taylor and three other pilots downed three additional Japanese aircraft; some reports had Army pilots shooting down as many as 12 planes. Both Taylor and Welch would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

While the airfields were being hit, other planes went after Schofield Barracks, bombing and strafing the installation while American soldiers ran around in panic, searching for weapons and ammunition with which to fight back.

During this period, Fuchida’s high-altitude bombers, torpedo planes, and divebombers directed their attention toward the ships, many of which were lined up like fat sitting ducks along Battleship Row on Ford Island’s southeast side.

But the first ship to be attacked was Utah, an old battleship that had been planked over and converted into a gunnery training ship, moored on the opposite side of Ford Island at F11. She looked to the Japanese pilots like an aircraft carrier and soon caught the brunt of the attack, along with the cruiser Raleigh. The enemy pilots slammed two torpedoes into Utah, causing her to almost immediately capsize. The attack killed at least 54 men, who still remain entombed within her.

At Battleship Row, the torpedo planes came in low and launched their fish. West Virginia was hit at 7:57 by Lieutenant Murata Shigeharu; Lieutenant Jinichi Goto, leading a second column of torpedo planes, set his sights on nearby Oklahoma, moored at F5 inboard of Maryland. He and another pilot both struck home. These were followed by further attacks, and soon Oklahoma was ablaze and listing badly. At 8:00, a torpedo penetrated the hull amidships near frame 65 and an enormous belch of flame rocked every inch of her.

The scene aboard Oklahoma was sheer bedlam. Sailors were running everywhere, some trying to get to their battle stations, some trying to get below to escape flaming fuel oil and flying ordnance, others jumping overboard. Kenworthy gave the order to abandon ship, but it was too late. The ship quickly keeled over, dooming more than 400 sailors trapped within her.

As the Japanese planes continued swooping in and dropping more bombs and torpedoes, alarms were going off all over the harbor. Men barely awake and in various conditions of undress were suddenly energized by bursts of adrenaline and sprinted for their guns, retrieving the anti-aircraft and machine-gun ammunition, quickly loading, and peppering the sky that was now swarming with enemy planes.

One pilot, streaking low across Ford Island, took aim at Pennsylvania, moored in dry dock. But, seeing that the mooring slip would block his missile’s path, he diverted his flight toward nearby Oglala. His aerial torpedo went too deep, slipped under Oglala’s hull, and slammed into the light cruiser Helena, tied up inboard of her; the subsequent explosions wrecked both ships.

“This is No Drill”

While all this was happening, Admiral Kimmel, at his office at CinCPac headquarters, was, incredibly, being briefed over the phone by Commander Vincent Murphy about Ward’s attack on a mystery sub when a breathless courier rushed into Murphy’s office with a report on the obvious: “Sir, there’s a message from the signal tower, saying the Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor and this is no drill!”

Indeed. At the Pacific Fleet’s Message Center, the word was already going out: “Air raid on Pearl Harbor X This is no drill.”

The battleship Pennsylvania was in a somewhat protected position––in Dry Dock No. 1, with the destroyers Cassin and Downes docked at her head and the submarine Cachelot at her stern; three spaces away in another dry dock was the destroyer Shaw.

Bill Trimmer was a 23-year-old Electrician Third Class aboard Pennsylvania. At about 7:50 on the morning of December 7, he went below to the electrical shop on the third deck for muster at his duty station. “I had just gotten into the shop,” he said, “when the PA system came on, sounding ‘General quarters, air defense, and this is no drill!’ A lot of background noise of planes roaring and bombs exploding could be heard.”

Trimmer took off running for his battle station on the fifth deck in the forward distribution room, where he donned headphones that connected him to the battleship’s various electrical departments.

At precisely 8:00 am, a flight of 18 aircraft from the carrier Enterprise, at sea 200 miles to the west, arrived over Oahu, planning to land at Ford Island, and flew into the maelstrom. Radioing back to the ship, the pilots told the carrier what was happening and the ship’s skipper, George D. Murray, changed course and headed west, out of range of any potential attackers.

The Big E’s pilots, however, were caught in the battle over Pearl. Gunners on ship and shore did not bother to first check the identity of the new arrivals; they simply continued blasting away at anything that had wings, assuming all were foes. Several were shot down in the melee. One of the Enterprisepilots, Ensign Manuel Gonzales, radioed, “Please don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! This is an American plane.” Moments later, he ordered his aircrewman, Leonard J. Kozelek, to bail out: neither man was ever heard from again.

Shortly after 8:00, the USS Arizona, tied to her mooring F7, caught the attention of the torpedo planes. Although aging, the 29,000-ton Arizona was still a powerful symbol of American naval might and a prime target of the Japanese, but, although protected outboard by Vestal, she was still not immune to the torpedoes; one slid under Vestal and slammed into her hull.

At 8:05, California, tied up alone at berth F3, was struck by two aerial torpedoes. The ship’s hatches were open, awaiting a full inspection, and allowed torrents of water to pour in; she quickly sank with just her superstructure protruding from the water.

Then the high-altitude bombers came over with their deadly ordnance. One bomb hit Arizona’s boat deck between the No. 4 and No. 6 guns, splitting the deck wide open and touching off fires. Men rushed with hoses to fight the flames, but with no water pressure, they were helpless.

At 8:10 came the coup de grace for Arizona. A dive-bomber pilot, Tadashi Kusumi, and his bombardier, Noburu Kanai, took aim. Their lone Type 99 bomb struck near the No. 2 turret and exploded in the forward magazines full of shells for the 14-inch guns. Suddenly the old ship detonated in a terrible fireball and shockwave, throwing debris and pieces of sailors hundreds of feet into the air. Gone in an instant were 1,177 of her crew and Marine detachment, along with her skipper, Captain Franklin van Falkenburgh and Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, both of whom had been on the bridge. Burning oil flared out from her, and the badly damaged Vestal was quickly tugged out of harm’s way.

Two bombs also found Tennessee and West Virginia at F6, causing both to sink. A whirling piece of jagged debris from the exploding Tennessee scythed through the air and into the bridge of West Virginia, disemboweling her captain, Mervyn Bennion. Doris “Dorie” Miller, an African American cook aboard West Virginia, carried wounded sailors to safety, then tried to help his dying captain. When that proved impossible, he rushed to a .50-caliber machine gun and blazed away until ordered to abandon ship. For his courage, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross.

Commander Fuchida, circling high above the devastation, recalled, “By 8:00 there were no enemy planes in the air…. While my group circled for another attempt, others made their runs, some trying as many as three before succeeding. We were about to make our second bombing run when there was a colossal explosion in Battleship Row [the Arizona]. A huge column of dark red smoke rose to 3,000 feet. It must have been the explosion of a ship’s powder magazine. The shock was felt even in my plane, several miles away.”

Focusing Fire on the Nevada

In far-off Washington, D.C., the shock was about to be felt there. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his White House study with adviser Harry Hopkins in the early afternoon when Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, phoned. “Mr. President,” Knox said, “it looks like the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” As Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in No Ordinary Time, “Hopkins said there must be some mistake; the Japanese would never attack Pearl Harbor. But the president reckoned it was probably true—it was just the kind of thing the Japanese would do at the very moment they were discussing peace in the Pacific. All doubt was settled a few minutes later when Admiral [Harold] Stark [head of the U.S. Navy] called to confirm the attack.”