Looking at the events of Pearl Harbor, it may seem like the United States suffered the greatest blow it could have that day, but in retrospect, the outcome could have been far worse. The United States was able to recover from the blow quickly—something Japan had not counted on—and become a formidable foe in the Pacific Theater. Though Japan had what seemed like a foolproof plan to surprise the United States and cause enough damage to essentially cripple the Navy, the attack on Pearl Harbor must be considered a partial failure for the forces of Imperial Japan.

What mistakes did Japan commit that made Admiral Yamamoto’s plan not as successful as it could have been?

The Shallow Waters of Pearl Harbor

One issue with attacking the ships lined up at Battleship Row was that the water wasn’t deep enough to hinder relief efforts. That meant the Japanese fleet would have to completely destroy the vessels to ensure they wouldn’t be able to return to service.

Of the eight battleships attacked on December 7th, only the USS Utah and USS Arizona were unsalvageable, meaning that the Japanese fleet failed in its objective of crippling the US Navy. By February of 1942, the first of the damaged battleships returned to service in the fight in the Pacific.

Missing Targets

Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise underway to Pearl Harbor, 1939

That quiet Sunday morning in December of 1941 was carefully chosen by Japan’s Navy. The surprise attack was effective in that many sailors were on leave. A major flaw with the choice of that date, however, was that some of the highest-value targets—the American aircraft carriers—were absent from the Pearl Harbor.

The USS Lexington, USS Enterprise, and USS Saratoga were on missions that kept them at sea on the day of the attack. Though the Enterprise was scheduled to return the night before the attack, dangerous weather conditions delayed her return by a day.

With the carriers still afloat and immediately ready for battle, Japan’s fleet missed a real opportunity to cripple the US Navy.

Missed Opportunities

Fuel Tanks at Pearl Harbor, October 1941

The battleships were far from the only vital target at Pearl Harbor. While the Japanese planes also targeted nearby airfields, they failed to pay any attention to other important assets. The dry docks in the harbor and the fuel depots were largely ignored by Japan’s assault force and both proved imperative in the relief, rescue, and repair efforts that followed.

Had the dry docks been destroyed, the damaged battleships would have had to be transported to the United States mainland for repair, adding a considerable amount of time to the Navy’s downtime. With fuel supplies destroyed and taken out of the picture, the Navy would have been faced with shortages of a vital resource necessary to the war effort in the Pacific. Considering very few of the battleships were actually permanently disabled, any attack on these smaller targets would have had a huge impact in crippling the United States Pacific Fleet.

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