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.

Back in Hawaii, the nightmare was continuing. The flight of a dozen unarmed B-17s that Lieutenant Tyler mistakenly assumed were represented by the earlier radar sighting suddenly arrived in the midst of the battle. Originally scheduled to land at Hickam, the flight leader told his pilots to land anywhere they could. All of the planes were attacked and hit, but only one was lost.

All along Battleship Row, ship after ship was exploding, burning, dying. Nevada, moored alone at F8 at the northeast end of the row, had been under partial steam and she, along with five destroyers, was able to get underway. Her skipper, Captain Francis W. Scanland, was ashore that morning, so Lt. Cmdr. Francis Thomas was at the helm as she made her way south to the exit channel.

Seeing Nevada making a run for it, the Japanese descended upon her like hawks on a field mouse, hoping to sink her in the channel and bottle up the harbor. Bombs crashed all around her, but the ship’s gunners engaged in a running gun battle with the attackers, downing three of them.

Suffering from a huge torpedo wound, Nevada, listing to port and down at the head, was slowing. Then someone on the bridge spotted signal flags that had been raised at the Naval District Headquarters, ordering the ship to stay clear of the channel. So Thomas swung her in a wide arc and backed her into the shore on the Waipio Peninsula across from Hospital Point.

Dead in the water and ablaze, Nevada continued to attract a crowd and received a further pummeling. The old girl then settled onto the bottom of the shallow harbor (where she would remain for the next two months while repairs were being made; she would fight again in support of the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944). Of her crew of nearly 1,500, 50 officers and men died on her on December 7, and 109 were wounded.

At 8:17, the destroyer Helm, the first ship to get underway that morning, had reached the harbor entrance and encountered another midget sub outside. Although contact was lost, Helm radioed her sighting to the fleet. At 8:30, the destroyers Breese and Monaghan, and the seaplane tender Curtiss and repair ship Medusa, saw another sub and went into the attack, sinking it with deck-gun fire and depth charges.

Bill Trimmer on the Pennsylvania

The Japanese attack was building in intensity. At 8:40 am, the second echelon, a flight of high-level horizontal bombers from the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, led by Lt. Cmdr. Shigekazu Shimazaki and Lieutenant Tatsuo Ichihara, arrived over smoke-shrouded Pearl Harbor. Their mission was to bomb the hangars and other permanent facilities at Hickam Field and elsewhere; despite the smoke, their bombardiers’ aim was true and they inflicted much damage. Even the naval hospital was not spared.

Curtiss was then hit by a bomb that exploded on her main deck, killing 20 and wounding another 58. Still in the fight, though, her gunners zeroed in on another bomber that crashed into one of her big topside cranes and exploded but caused only minor damage to the ship.

The “Kate” dive-bombers, too, were still engaged in their deadly business, dropping their 250-pound eggs––whenever the pilots could glimpse their targets through the thick, roiling smoke––on whatever ships seemed to be the least damaged.

The Americans were now peppering the air with munitions of all types; the bombers had to fly through a thick storm of lead and steel being thrown up at them. Gunners on Maryland and Helenadowned three of the attackers, and those on other ships chalked up further scores. Fuchida reported, “Enemy anti-aircraft fire began to concentrate on us. Dark gray puffs burst all around. Most of them came from the ships’ batteries, but land batteries were also active.”

Throughout the harbor, chaos and casualties continued to mount. At about 9:00, dive-bombers struck Pennsylvania in dry dock. Bill Trimmer, aboard the immobilized battleship, recalled, “A bomb blew our power lines in two. All the lights went out and all the machinery stopped running. It was pitch dark until we turned on our battle lanterns––large, battery-powered lights. Our emergency lights then came on, taking their power from batteries. They were very dim, but better than the battle lanterns.

“I could hear all kinds of reports coming over the headphones, such as, ‘There goes the Cassin, the Downes, the Oklahoma, the California, and the West Virginia.’ I’m reporting all this to our chief, a man named Moorehouse. There was a little humor down there when one of the men asked Chief Moorehouse, in all sincerity, if he thought this would make the papers back in the States. The Chief said, ‘I guess so.’

“It was about this time that I felt the ship shudder and a loud boom come from starboard aft. We had been hit with a 500-pound bomb that penetrated two-and-a-half decks and exploded.”

Trimmer asked permission to go topside for a look around; Moorehouse granted the request. Coming up during the brief lull between attack waves, Trimmer was greeted by scenes of utter devastation. The destroyers Downes and Cassin, resting in the same dry dock as Pennsylvania, were shattered wrecks engulfed in flame. Within the dry dock and beyond, the water was covered with a carpet of floating debris. Ships of all description were burning, listing, capsizing, sinking. Sailors young and old were in the water, some hurt, some burned, all swimming for their lives.

Trimmer said, “I was feeling so helpless knowing I couldn’t reach them; to jump in to help, I would just become another victim. Other sailors worked frantically everywhere to douse the fires and prepare for a follow-up attack, which was not long in coming.”

Trimmer was right. As Pennsylvania’s anti-aircraft guns opened up on the next wave of onrushing planes, he “flopped face down on the six-foot-wide starboard catwalk, looking to where our gunners were shooting at a Japanese torpedo plane. The pilot was flying very slow and low. As they say in basketball, I thought he had ‘good hang time.’ The plane was low—about 100 feet—and about 50 yards down the starboard side of our ship. The plane had dropped its torpedo and was flying with its rear gunner strafing anything he could. I could see his machine gun firing at the anti-aircraft guns just above me. At that time I was hit in the head and shoulder with fragments and thought I was going to die.”

Trimmer’s wounds were not as serious as he first feared, and he scrambled to the ship’s stern, where he encountered scenes of horror. “I saw one kid that had been hit laying there, and I pulled him up under Number Three turret and went to help others. I left the boat deck to go down to the afterdeck, where they were bringing out the dead and wounded. I helped with this and won’t ever write about it because it was so gruesome. I also tried to help fight the fire caused by the bomb. I didn’t have a mask and the fumes were heavy, so I couldn’t do much.”

Not far from Pennsylvania was the destroyer Shaw, held in Floating Dry Dock No. 2. At 9:12, a quick succession of three bombs penetrated her fuel tanks, which then, at 9:30, touched off Shaw’s forward magazine and caused a giant belch of fire, smoke, and flying debris.

Japan’s Devastating Victory

The Japanese pilots, searching for more targets, found them away from Battleship Row. The destroyer tender Dobbin, moored at the north end of Ford Island, came under attack and was blasted unmercifully. The cruisers Honolulu and St. Louis, docked at the Southeast Loch’s finger piers, were attempting to make steam and get underway, but an explosion crippled Honolulu. St. Louis somehow managed to escape and was moving by 9:31 past all the flaming wreckage of the harbor, heading toward the exit channel. Miraculously, she made it to open water––and even hit and sank the fourth of five midget submarines lost by the Japanese.

Military personnel weren’t the only ones to suffer, for what goes up must come down. In Honolulu, Pearl City, Red Hill, Ewa, Wahiawa, Waipahu, and elsewhere, the anti-aircraft ammunition that was fired at the Japanese planes and missed began raining down with deadly effect. Off-target Japanese bombs also took their toll. Thirty-two civilians were killed in Honolulu, with the worst mass casualties occurring at the intersection of Kukui Street and Nuuanu Avenue. A shell dropped onto a restaurant there, killing the Japanese-American owner, his three children, and another relative, along with seven diners having breakfast. A bomb exploded at Judd and Iholena Streets, killing three members of the McCabe family in a car while on their way home from church. The final civilian death toll was reported as 69.

By the time the attack ended, 2,403 American soldiers and sailors were dead or missing, and 1,178 more lay wounded. The most devastating attack in American military history was over by 9:45 as the Japanese pilots headed north to their awaiting carriers.