For the Imperial Japanese Navy to successfully pull off an attack on American territory, it needed two things: the element of surprise and a sizable force. By the morning of December 7th, 1941, they had accomplished both, resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 servicemen and civilians, and the American shift in policy in regard to World War II.

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo

On November 26th, 1941, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo of Japan’s navy took to the Pacific Ocean headed towards Pearl Harbor. In his command was a fleet large enough to do a sizable amount of damage to the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Headed by Japan’s six aircraft carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku—the fleet took position, accomplishing the first part of its mission completely unseen.

To effectively launch the assault on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s strike force included two battleships, Hiei and Kirisima; two heavy cruisers, Tone and Chikuma; a series of destroyers that included the Tanikaze, Hamakaze, Kagero, Arare, Kasumi, Urakaze, Shiranuhi, and Akigumo; and the five mini-submarines that scouted Pearl Harbor and were among the first to actually draw attention from the United States Navy.

Though the strike force was large, none of Japan’s ships actually entered Pearl Harbor to engage the American fleet. Rather, to further guarantee the surprise nature of the attack, Japanese naval vessels remained away from the action while its aerial fleet took to the skies.

The Leaders of the Attack

The attack on Pearl Harbor was orchestrated with the Striking Force composed of multiple water-based vessels, but the actual assault was spearheaded by 408 aircraft, launched from the six carriers.

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter was the flagship of the attack and posed one of the biggest threats to targets outside of Battleship Row. To ensure the American counterattack would be minimal, the fighters were coordinated to wipe out any American aircraft on the ground, and since there was no indication of an incoming attack, that accounted for most of the US aerial resources.

Nakajima B5N over Oahu, December 7, 1941

Pilots steering the fighters gunned them towards the airfields while the Japanese Nakajima B5N “Kate” bombers utilized the newly modified Type 91 aerial torpedo and 1,769 lb armor-piercing bombs to strike their main targets: the battleships USS Arizona, Oklahoma, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Nevada, and Tennessee. The Type-91 was altered to allow for shallow-water implementation, to ensure it wouldn’t hit the bottom of the harbor before leveling out to strike its target. Accompanying the B5Ns were the Aichi D3A Val bombers, equipped with 500 lb bombs.

 

The attack was orchestrated into two waves, divided into 183 planes in flight for the first wave and 171 for the second. As much as the American forces on the ground attempted to strike back at this aerial assault, the Imperial Japanese Navy had made it quite difficult to do so, its devastating Striking Force effectively pulling off every phase of the Pearl Harbor attack.

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