On December 7th, 1941, a striking force of the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base on Oahu. During the course of the two-hour attack, over 2,400 Americans were killed, though not every casualty was on the naval base.
Though the Japanese bombers and fighters focused primarily on the vessels moored along Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, the attack required other Oahu targets to be hit for maximum effectiveness. Shortly after the first bombs and torpedoes began falling on Pearl Harbor, a portion of Japan’s first aerial strike force focused on airfields scattered around the island.
Striking these additional targets was essential to Japan’s success. Without the ability to counterattack with its own air fleet, the United States was forced to remain almost completely on the defensive, and with just stationary anti-aircraft guns and rifles, downing Japan’s fast-moving and agile Mitsubishi Zero fighters would prove to be nearly impossible.
Though the naval base tends to be the focus of discussions, a map of the December 7th attack shows that disabling Wheeler Field, Hickam Field, Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, and Ford Island and Kaneohe Naval Air Stations were vital in pulling off the attack on the harbor.
Before any of the other Oahu targets were hit, however, Japan used the element of surprise to successfully use its slower-moving torpedo bombers to strike the battleships present at the harbor. Their reasoning was that this preemptive hit would send the Pearl Harbor into a panic and rescue mode, allowing additional waves of bombers to swoop in with little resistance.
While chaos erupted in Pearl Harbor, groups of fighters and bombers shifted focus to the airfields, in order to prevent a potential aerial counterattack. Though a few American pilots got off the ground, the plan to attack the air bases was largely a success.
What About the Planned Third Wave?
According to the original plans for the Pearl Harbor attack, there were intended to be three attack waves, but IJN commanders feared the US forces would be able to retaliate before a third could launch. So the two-hour attack consisted of two waves, the first also serving as a preliminary attempt at dismantling the American defenders.
During the second attack wave, while the horizontal bombers circled around the island’s eastern coast to hit from the south, dive bombers soared over Kaneohe to strike from the northeast. With the airfields already disabled, there was no further need to waste firepower and payloads there.