World War II had been taking its grim course for two years without the involvement of the world’s richest and most powerful nation, the United States of America. All that changed on the morning of December 7 1941 when Japanese aircraft launched a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack was as devastating as it was unexpected; in two separate strikes over 350 Japanese fighters and bombers unleashed their deadly cargo on the pride of America’s Pacific fleet, sinking five battleships and damaging 15 others. During the two-hour attack 188 US aircraft were destroyed; Japan lost just 29 planes. Never imagining such a brazen act of aggression, the Americans had moored their ships in lines, making them even easier targets for the bombers.
Although the standard American portrayal of Pearl Harbor is that of an unprovoked attack that came quite literally out of the blue, Japanese resentment over US economic power in the Pacific and its own dependence on imported natural resources had been festering for some time. In pursuing its expansionist policies in Southeast Asia, Japan may have achieved its short-term objective of disabling the US fleet and thus buying vital time to conquer prized targets in the region such as the Philippines, Malaya and Burma; but the assault on Pearl Harbor failed spectacularly in the long term, for, far from forcing the USA to abandon its presence in the Pacific or indeed to sue for peace, it served to galvanize the previously reluctant nation.
The very next day President Roosevelt declared war on Japan, prompting Germany in its turn to declare war on the USA, achieving finally what Churchill had been praying for since 1939: America’s entry into the European conflict on Britain’s side.
When: December 7 1941
Where: Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaiian Islands (USA)
Death toll: 2,402 Americans were killed in the attack, including 1,177 on the USS Arizona alone when it was blown up and sunk. Japanese losses were 64.
You should know: There has been much debate over the failure of US intelligence to gain advance warning of the Japanese plan, it seems particularly strange that no one detected a 30-strong fleet which spent 11 days travelling 6,500 km (4,000 mi) across the Pacific.