Americans react to the Japanese Attack

The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941. National Archives

“Ten Minutes of Terror” — Part 4

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


Following the 7:57 a.m. Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, the sailors of Pearl Harbor frantically tried to save themselves and their shipmates.

Then, the unimaginable happened — a dreaded second wave of enemy bombers thundered onto the scene.

As 178 enemy planes dove and swarmed over the remaining American ships, 54 attacked Hickam Field.

When the enemy dropped a bomb between the light cruiser, Honolulu, and the pier, it exploded next to a 5-inch magazine which kept the vessel from getting under way.

Across from Ford Island, the USS Pennsylvania in dry dock and destroyers Cassin and Downs were hit repeatedly.

A group of enemy planes dove on the destroyer, USS Shaw, causing its magazine to blow up.

It seemed every Japanese plane was shooting at the USS Nevada as it tried to escape out of the harbor. Still, the American flag flew on the deck.

But after the Nevada was hit by a torpedo and at least five bombs, the ship met its demise. Two tugboats pushed the big ship across the channel where it slowly, sadly, sank to the bottom.

Still, the Americans continued to fight back. A total of 20 enemy planes were struck down by anti-aircraft fire which caused them to fall into the harbor, leaving flaming trails as they plunged downward before exploding.

A captured Japanese photo shows smoke rising from Hickam Field during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. National Archives

As the ships in the harbor remained under attack, American airfields were hit again by strafing. Hickam turned into a raging inferno. Hardly any American aircraft escaped undamaged.

The second attack ended just after 10:00 a.m. As the Japanese withdrew, they left an almost unfathomable amount of loss and destruction.

American ships at a total loss and never returned to service: 




American ships damaged and repaired to return to military service: 

Curtiss, Raleigh, Nevada, Vestal, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, California, Oglala, Helena, Shaw, Cassin, Downes, Pennsylvania, Honolulu

USS West Virginia was the only ship attacked at Pearl Harbor which was also present during Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945.


Between the first and second waves, nearly every American aircraft on Oahu had been damaged or destroyed. Only 43 out of 350 planes were flyable.

Still, the Japanese could not claim unequivocal success. Aircraft carriers Lexington and Enterprise were on maneuvers that morning. Japanese pilots who were to bomb them had to choose alternate targets.

Also, the Japanese had planned to have torpedo planes approach first, to be followed by high-level bombers and dive bombers. A series of mixed signals caused the Japanese aircraft to attack almost simultaneously.


A soldier guards a lonely beach position at Oahu following the Pearl Harbor attack, National Archives.

Even as the Japanese planes disappeared over the horizon, recovery, salvage, and rescue operations began. For months American sailors would work to free their comrades and dead bodies, while also salvaging what they could.

The threat of disease in the tropical heat meant the grim process of burying more than 2,000 dead must begin soon. The military resorted to mass graves. After the war, each soldier’s family was given the option of placing their loved one in an individual grave or being sent home.

As any bodies were burned beyond recognition, identification was nearly impossible. To this day, bodies from the attack remain buried in anonymous graves in Oahu, though identification processes are ongoing with DNA research.


Meanwhile, scenes of controlled chaos occurred everywhere, especially in Honolulu’s hospitals. Wounded military personnel arrived in such numbers that medical staff spent days at their jobs. Beds became a luxury. Wounded men lay in halls and on floors by bleary-eyed corpsmen and exhausted doctors and nurses.

Hawaiian civilians feared another enemy attack would soon hit their island and that they would be part of a Japanese occupation. They put up barricades and barbed wire along the beaches with restricted access. Their lovely resort island was no longer a vacation locale, but a potential target.


On the American mainland, news of the Pearl Harbor attack shook the nation. Citizens were stunned to learn of the devastation caused by the unprovoked attack, though, admittedly most people had never heard of Pearl Harbor or knew its location in the Pacific.

In New York’s Times Square news reports ran regularly, keeping the public apprised of updates.

On the west coast, once the initial shock passed, panic broke out. Invasion lay heavy on everyone’s mind. Everyone who had seen news reels in movie theaters had seen the destruction caused by the Japanese on Nanking and other Asian locales.

It didn’t take much imagination to believe the American west coast would soon be attacked.

In the first days nervous patrols reported enemy carriers steaming toward the coast. False reports of air raids sent people scrambling for shelter.

American air crews performed patrols, even though their numbers were pitifully few. In Seattle, the 54th pursuit group was so short-handed that the pilots spent the first week after the attack digging foxholes and laying sandbags around the city’s airfield.

One general called Washington to demand that the entire West Coast be evacuated to the Rocky Mountains. Guards were posted along bridges and power stations. Blackouts were imposed.

Not every American was content to simply react. Millions of men across the nation mobbed recruiting stations, eager to seek revenge on the enemy.

As the country mobilized for war, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the nation on December 8th
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Declaration of War against Japan, December 8, 1941. National Archives.

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.


Next week:

Seaman 2nd Class Richard Girocco talks about surviving the December 7th attack and a tour of Pearl Harbor.

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