What Went Wrong? Pearl Harbor Attack on Dec. 7, 1941

Poster designed to remind Americans through the long war to keep fighting. Courtesy National Archives.

This is the sixth and final part of my series commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor which occurred on December 7, 1941.


If you’ve not read the previous entries to this series, please do so to gain a full appreciation of the destruction done to an American military base which caused the deaths of more than 2,400 Americans.

Thank a veteran today for his/ her service in our military. We wouldn’t be free without them.


The USS WEST VIRGINIA burns during the Japanese aerial attack at Pearl Harbor.

For decades controversy has raged about what went wrong at Pearl Harbor. Almost before the last bomb fell, the finger pointing began.

How could such a disaster befall the American military?

Why wasn’t the military better prepared?

Who was responsible for the debacle?

Over the past 80 years, conspiracy theorists have tried to turn incompetence into plots. But little credible evidence exists to support these theories.

The truth is, Pearl Harbor is about a quarter of the globe away from the places it was thought the Japanese would want to capture. Location, poor communication and intel, combined with improper deployments, doomed the United States to suffer disaster.

Unquestionably, the raid was a tactical success. The American navy could only offer feeble opposition to the Japanese.

But the Japanese were not without their miscalculations.

The primary targets of the raid — three aircraft carriers of the Pacific fleet — were out of port that day. The Enterprise was less than 200 miles out and turned around upon learning of the invasion.

The USS Lexington was delivering Marines to the island of Midway, while the USS Saratoga was loading Marines and aircraft at San Diego.

The failure to destroy or disable the American flat tops laid seeds for destruction of the Japanese within the next six months at the Battle of the Coral Sea and Midway.

Once the smoke that obscured Battleship Row had cleared, the failures of the Japanese attack in port became evident. Numerous facilities essential to base operations had only been lightly damaged or spared entirely.

The Japanese had flown directly over the submarine base to get to Battleship Row, seemingly ignoring them. This major tactical error would become evident by 1944 when the American submarine force would whittle down the enemy’s tanker fleet to virtually nothing. The Japanese economy depended on its tankers to transport oil from the Dutch East Indies and as a result, would grind to a halt for want of oil.

Nor did the Japanese target the main Pacific oil storage tanks at Pearl, its repair facilities, machine shops and, most importantly, the dry docks. By ignoring these facilities, the Japanese aided the Americans in their salvage operations.

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, pilot in charge of the raid, had been given strict orders to disable every American battleship in Pearl Harbor. After inflicting widespread damage on American army and naval forces, he was satisfied and left.

Perhaps the greatest mistake of all was Japan’s failure to understand the psychological reaction the raid would have on the American people.

Rather than demoralizing them with a crushing defeat, Americans became united with a common purpose to win the war like nothing else could have.

American airmen lift an injured crew member from his plane. Courtesy National Archives.

The deaths of more than 2,400 of its citizens – most in service to their country – caused the country to face its enemies with a vengeance.

In the end, the US overwhelmed its enemies with a mighty industrial power. When called upon by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation poured forth an output of goods and products to a degree that had never been seen.

Like the Kennedy assassination in 1961, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 (the latter two of which I remember), each adult would forever remember where he or she was when news of the Japanese attack reached them.

It propelled their generation to actions that ultimately won World War II and beat back the forces of oppression that at one point engulfed much of humanity.

Instead of withdrawing from international affairs as it had in the 1920s, the United States assumed the mantle of world leadership.


What do you remember about hearing of the news of the attack at Pearl Harbor?

What impact has this incident had on your life?  

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