Ten Minutes of Terror — Part 3

The USS ARIZONA burns after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, National Archives

A 5-Part Series Commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1944, as dawn crested, the Japanese Imperial Navy fleet’s aircraft carriers continued their journey from the North Pacific south toward their prey. Approximately 134 planes were parked on the decks. Each was armed with torpedoes. Another 49 were equipped with 16-inch shells modified for high-level bombing.

In all, the planes comprised the most superb air strike force ever assembled.

As the selected pilots clambered aboard their planes, their planes rumbled, one by one, on their journey towards Pearl Harbor. It would possibly be the most important mission of their lives – that of decimating the American naval fleet.

Each pilot felt pride at being chosen, though possibly none could imagine how their actions would change the course of world history and affect the lives of millions of people around the world, including their own countrymen.


A little after 7:00 a.m., as the aircraft approached their target at Hawaii, their presence didn’t go undetected. Their movements were picked up on radar by an American army outpost on Oahu, Hawaii. Thinking the formation looked suspicious, radar operators called it in to the air defense center.

Officials there interpreted it as a flight of B-17s due in from the United States. The report was subsequently ignored.

There was a flight of B-17s coming in over Oahu. They arrived at Ford Island at the same time as the Japanese, around 7:40 a.m.


As was typical during most early morning weekends at Pearl Harbor, hundreds of American sailors were completing daily routines aboard American battleships. These were among America’s proudest naval vessels. Lined up neatly in an area known as ‘Battleship Row’, they represented the nation’s best defense in the Pacific.

The morning’s tasks began as normal. Sailors aboard the USS Nevada prepared to stoke the boilers, while others scrubbed decks and performed other never-ending tasks involved in keeping a ship spotless.

On the Nevada, one sailor below deck heard the crew’s call to colors (a formal ceremony of raising the American flag on deck) just before a cacophony of machine gun fire filled the air. As he started up a ship’s ladder to investigate, he met the ship’s band who had played the national anthem (The Star-Spangled Banner) clambering down, almost falling over each other in haste.

“The Japs are here!” they shouted, terror raising their voices to a screech-pitch.

Sailors try to put out fires on USS WEST VIRGINIA following the Japanese aerial attack, December 7, 1941. National Archives. 

Down the row from the Nevada sat the USS West Virginia. Its crew was also preparing to conduct its morning ritual to the call for colors when Japanese planes dropped their first bombs around Ford Island.

When the USS Utah was hit by a torpedo, 58 members of its crew died.

Three Japanese planes headed for the West Virginia. Flying 25 feet above water, they dropped bombs which upon exploding killed 106 American sailors.

Despite being covered with oil, some young men thrown on impact into the water still believed they were in the midst of an American military maneuver gone horribly wrong. But military protocol didn’t allow use of live torpedoes in drills. Who would have the audacity to do so?

As the death-dealing enemy planes climbed into the air, the seamen finally understood the tragedy of the events occurring around them as they spied with horror the planes with ominous red balls painted on the sides.

The shock following the attack proved so intense that some sailors stood paralyzed with fear and confusion. A sharp bark of orders from a nearby officer to “Get your butts to battle stations, we’re under attack by the Japanese!” penetrated their psyches, spurring the men to scramble to their battle stations.

All across Battleship Row, general quarters sounded as seamen rushed to their assigned areas where they had been trained what to do in an attack. Methodically, they began shooting at the bombers. It quickly became obvious their bursts were not close enough to inflict damage, but they continued in desperation, praying for a result.

Aboard the USS Tennessee crew members fired wildly, thrilled to see four enemy planes go down.

American sailors tried valiantly to defend themselves and their ships against the fierce attacks. Anti-aircraft fire burst forth from every gun. Just before one Japanese plane prepared to drop its torpedo, it was struck by anti-aircraft fire and fell from the sky, never to fly again.

But those triumphs were rare. When a Japanese pilot commander of a torpedo squadron headed toward the USS Pennsylvania sitting in dry dock for repairs, he quickly switched directions upon spotting the dry dock’s doors closed. He turned his attention to what looked like a huge battleship.

It was in fact the cruiser USS Helena. The minelayer USS Oglala lay moored beside it. When the pilot released his torpedo, it passed over the Oglala to strike the Helena. The cruiser sustained heavy damage from the explosion while the concussion ruptured the Oglala’s hull. Thirty-one men died from the destruction to the Helena.

No men died aboard the Oglala, which slowly rolled over on her port side and by 10:00 a.m. had capsized, though a handful received injuries.

The attack continued.

At the far end of Battleship Row, the USS California attracted enemy pilots who approached at point-blank range. Releasing torpedoes, they scored two hits, killing 98 American sailors.

The Nevada also became a target, taking a torpedo in the bow, killing 60. When another enemy pilot tried to lay a torpedo on the Nevada, the ship’s gunners downed the plane.

The largest loss of life occurred aboard the USS Arizona where 1,177 sailors died when an armor-piercing bomb struck and ignited over a million pounds of gunpowder within the ship.

On the USS Oklahoma 429 sailors and Marines lost their lives.

The Arizona, along with the Oklahoma and Utah, were total losses. Other ships damaged that day were able to be raised and restored and returned to active service in the war.


Meanwhile, sailors who had received liberty for the weekend were jolted awake upon hearing the commotion outside their barracks at Ford Island – a small islet within Pearl Harbor.

The cacophony from the explosions sent the men from their bunks to peer out the windows. What they saw stunned them. Black smoke rose high into the air at Ford Island.

At first, some military personnel and civilians were angered at being interrupted by what they believed was a dangerous maneuver conducted on another warm, somnolescent Sunday.

The sailors wondered if the action was some kind of over-enthusiastic drill. Even the sight of green aircraft flying strangely low overhead with large, red circles on their fuselages did not immediately cause alarm. Many of the sleepy-eyed young men had partied in Honolulu until the wee hours and wanted to discourage too much energy.

But now they understood they were under attack.

They ran to assist in whatever aid they could provide to the confusion.

But it appeared to be too little, too late.

In less than 10 minutes, Japanese planes had already inflicted severe damage, succeeding in crippling half of the American military power in the Pacific.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.


Next week:

The Second Wave of Attack and How Americans react to the Japanese Attack of December 7, 1941


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