Dec. 7, 1941

The USS Arizona burning in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Dec. 7, 1941

December 7, 1941.

Across the United States, it was a normal Sunday. Families gathered for breakfast, listening to the radios playing in the background. Christmas was just a few weeks away.

All of a sudden, the regular radio program stopped. An announcer broke in and said that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor? People looked at each other. Where’s Pearl Harbor?

But after that fateful December day, the entire world knew the location of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Many people were stunned to hear the Japanese attacked American soil. Japan was an American ally--a friend-- during World War I, along with Great Britain, France, and Italy.

Now, Japan had declared itself America’s enemy.

What happened?

After fighting in WWI, Japan fell into a terrible economic depression. Its military leaders seized control of the government. Then Japan brutally attacked China and took over some of its major ports (which was why the Flying Tigers were assembled). But that invasion wasn’t enough for Japan’s new leaders, especially for the aggressive Minister of War, General Hideki Tojo.

Tojo believed that Japan was a superior country. Most Japanese citizens agreed with him. For centuries, the Japanese people schooled themselves into thinking they were a superior race, destined to rule over all of Asia. (When you read about WWII in Europe, you’ll see that Adolf Hitler used this same sense of superiority with the German people).

But there was another reason behind Japan’s aggression: its smalls size. Japan is just a narrow string of islands in the Pacific Ocean, but it has millions of people to feed. In order to grow industries and manufacturing, it imported food and raw supplies from other countries.When Japan invaded China, America stopped sending Japan raw materials. This embargo was supposed to convince Japan to leave China alone. The embargo made Japan’s economic problems even worse.

Then, in 1939, Japan attacked the Soviet Union. It didn’t win that war, but the Japanese invasions didn’t stop, either.

The next year, Japan’s leaders signed something called the Pact of Steel. It was an agreement with Germany and Italy that made Japan a member of the Axis alliance. Banded together, these three countries would fight the Allies of WWII—America, Great Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union, Australia, Norway, and several other countries.

Then in 1941, General Tojo became the Prime Minister of Japan. He convinced Emperor Hirohito that Japan should attack the United States. Tojo said the world would always treat Japan like a third-class nation if it didn’t show some real muscle. In secret, the Japanese government started planning a highly-detailed attack on America’s navy. Of course, Japan didn’t want America to know what it was doing, so Japanese diplomats continued to discuss peace with the United States.

But American naval commanders in Hawaii received a warning that Japan might attack Pearl Harbor. The navy was told to ignore the warning, because the War Department in Washington DC was convinced the talks about peace with Japan were genuine, and that Japan had already overextended its military and couldn’t afford another war.

Then, on December 7, another message was sent to Washington: Japan was going to attack Pearl Harbor—today!

With modern computers, cell phones, and “instant messaging,” it’s hard to understand how that message didn’t go immediately to Hawaii. But back then, sending a message halfway around the world required hours, even days. When the message finally reached General Walter Short in Hawaii, the attack was over. Pearl Harbor was already in flames.

Here’s how the attack took place:

JEN, can’t get this graf’s indents to work right: On Oahu Island, Hawaii, December 7, 1941 seemed like just another sunny day. But the first sign of trouble arrived at 6:30 a.m. A military spotter saw a Japanese midget submarine near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The sub was sunk, and an early warning signal was dispatched.

But the warning was ignored.

Minutes later, the radar station on the island’s north shore signaled planes were approaching, from about fifty miles away. This information was sent to the army, but a commander passed the news to the navy. Then a naval officer assumed the planes were a fleet of American B-17 bombers that were expected to arrive at Pearl Harbor that day.

Minutes later, at 7:45 a.m., almost 200 enemy planes swooped over Pearl Harbor.

and here:Torpedo bombers. Dive-bombers. Fighter planes. So many planes, they blocked the sun.

But the planes bypassed Pearl Harbor, where battleships were moored, and headed to a nearby airfield.

Because the American military was more worried about sabotage than attack, it had bunched all its planes together on the airfield, to keep them safe.

But that “safeguard” gave the Japanese an easy target. Dropping their bombs, the Japanese destroyed half the American planes within minutes.

Then the planes headed for “Battleship Row” in the harbor. Zooming in from the west, the planes dropped torpedoes on the USS Helena, Utah, and Raleigh. Still more Japanese planes flew in from the east, attacking the USS California, Nevada, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. One armor-piercing bomb penetrated the forward ammunition magazine of the USS Arizona. The ship exploded. (You can see that explosion in the picture at the top of this chapter.)

While Pearl Harbor burned, the Japanese planes flew away. One Japanese pilot telegraphed a message to command: “Tora, Tora, Tora!”

Literally translated, the phrase means “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!”

But in this case, it was Japanese code for: “Surprise attack achieved!”

Only the Japanese attack wasn’t over.

Another 170 planes arrived in a second wave. They targeted ships impaired from the first attack. The battleship Pennsylvania and three destroyers in dry dock were bombed , filling the air with black smoke.

In less than two hours, Japan wiped out America’s naval force in the Pacific. Before the morning was over, twenty ships had been sunk or ruined. Almost 200 planes were destroyed and another 159 damaged—most of them never having left the ground.

Human casualties were even higher. Some 2,500 Americans were killed, including sixty-eight civilians. Most of the civilians died when improperly-fused anti-aircraft shells landed in Honolulu city. The largest concentration of casualties was aboard the USS Arizona. That explosion killed 1,177 crewmen, the highest number of deaths on any ship that day.

However, when the smoke cleared, the military saw one piece of good fortune. No aircraft carriers were in Pearl Harbor that day. Every single one was out at sea because Admiral Husband Kimmel had dispatched them for various duties, including delivering fighter planes to Wake and Midway islands.

The Japanese also made a strategic error. Despite all their careful planning, their bombs didn’t hit any fuel storage tanks, maintenance areas, submarines, or many of the destroyers. Those errors would later turned out to be very significant.

The American people were shocked by this surprise attack. Up until that time, most people were reluctant to get involved in WWII, which had been raging in Europe for two years. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people wanted revenge. They demanded the United States join the fight against the Axis alliance of Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The following day, President Roosevelt and Congress declared war on Japan.

In his address to Congress, President Roosevelt called December 7 “a date that will live in infamy.”

During the next six months, the Japanese military forces would sweep across Asia, invading or attacking Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaya, Burma, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Java, Borneo, Sumatra, New Guinea, Solomon and Gilbert Islands, Wake, Guam, and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

The Japanese appeared unstoppable.


Doris “Dorrie” Miller was collecting laundry on the USS West Virginia on the morning of December 7, 1941, when an alarm sounded. Miller headed for his battle station at the antiaircraft battery magazine mid-ship. But a Japanese torpedo had already wrecked the gun so Miller ran on deck.

A former boxing champion, and among the few black Americans in the navy, Miller was ordered to carry wounded sailors to safety. But an officer later ordered him to the bridge, the command center of the ship, because the captain was badly wounded. After taking care of the captain, Miller manned a 50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun. Although not trained to operate the powerful gun, Miller made good use of it.

The Japanese planes dropped two armor-piercing bombs through the battleship’s deck. They also launched five 18-inch aircraft torpedoes into her port side. The ship was already flooding but Miller kept firing until he ran out of ammunition. It’s believed he downed six Japanese planes before the West Virginia’s crew was ordered to abandon ship.

The ship sank to the bottom of the harbor. Of the 1,541 sailors onboard, 130 were killed. Fifty-two were wounded.

Miller received the Navy Cross for his actions. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, personally presented it to Miller.

Nimitz said:

“This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I'm sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.”

Miller later served on several ships throughout WWII.

On November 24, 1942, at 5:10 a.m., a Japanese submarine fired a single torpedo at an American escort carrier in the Pacific.

The bomb detonated in the ship’s magazine, sinking the vessel.

Among the 646 American sailors who died on that ship, Dorrie Miller was listed among the missing.



The Attack on Pearl Harbor: An Interactive History Adventure by Allison Lassieur

A Boy at War: A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Harry Mazer Remember Pearl Harbor: Japanese And American Survivors Tell Their Stories by Thomas B. Allen

Pearl Harbor: The U.S. Enters World War II by Steve Dougherty

Attack on Pearl Harbor; The True Story of the Day America Entered World War II by Shelley Tanaka and David Craig


The US Navy maintains several websites dedicated to Pearl Harbor’s history. You can find first-person survivor stories, photos and maps that show where the aircraft carriers were on December 7, 1942 at Naval History and Heritage.

Be sure to read President Roosevelt’s speech, given the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. People often quote his line about “a day that will live in infamy.”

The website EyeWitness to History offers still more information about that attack:


From Here to Eternity

In Harm’s Way

Tora, Tora, Tora!

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