Over the course of two hours, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched two destructive waves of fighters and bombers on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The attack caused the deaths of over 2,400 Americans and left an immense amount of damage in its wake; but as devastating as it was at the time, the course of World War II made it clear that the Japanese goal of crippling the US Navy was never truly fulfilled.

Part of that may have to do with a missing component of the attack, a third wave that could have changed the tide of the war and helped the Japanese in securing its conquest of East Asia and the Pacific.

The Third Wave

By noon local time, the last of the Japanese aircraft had returned to the carriers waiting for them in the Pacific, two hours after the first wave had returned. One may question why, in that time, the first wave of planes didn’t rearm for another pass over the harbor for a third strike that could have taken the American fleet completely out of service.

While all eight battleships were damaged to one degree or another, only two never rejoined the war, meaning the remaining six were still viable targets for another Japanese attack run. Sending another well-armed wave when American defenses were in disarray could have resulted in additional damage that might have changed the course of the war by accomplishing what Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto intended – the crippling of the United States Navy.

Piling Up the Losses?

Fuel Tanks at Pearl Harbor, October 1941

With only 29 aircraft lost during the first and second attack runs, accounting for around 15% of the total attacking aircraft, it seems Japan could easily have accomplished a third wave. Considering that more damage to the American fleet could only have helped the Japanese in their conquest of the Pacific, a few additional planes lost would seem to be well worth it.

Besides the chance to completely destroy the battleships that eventually returned to service, the Japanese would have also had the opportunity to strike other assets vital  to the Americans. Fuel reserves and repair bays were left unscathed at the end of the attack, and as both are crucial resources for a naval force, destroying them would have dealt a devastating blow to the relief and repair efforts at Pearl Harbor.

There is no denying the level of damage that the two attack waves did to the American fleet at the harbor, but one can only imagine the potential for even greater damage had the Japanese followed through with a third wave.

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