Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor | 7 December 1941
Battlefield photographs ordinarily do not show much, being shot in haste, or from a safe distance. Usually they present one observer’s hazy corner of a large picture, leaving much to the imagination. This snapshot is a stunning exception, covering in clarity and detail much of a major battle, just after the combatants engaged.
The scene is an aerial view looking southward over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, shortly after sunrise on Sunday, December 7, 1941. At anchor in the foreground is the pride of the US Pacific Fleet, seven aging but still-powerful battleships. Starting from the bottom left corner and scanning rightward they are the USS Nevada; the Arizona, anchored beside the supply ship Vestal; the West Virginia and Tennessee moored together; with the Oklahoma and Maryland side-by-side and behind them. The USS California rests farther back, along the picture’s right edge, beyond the fleet oiler Neosho.
The photograph captures a moment when something violent has disturbed the tranquil morning. Japanese bombers had roared into the harbor only seconds before, dropping the torpedoes that left white streaks heading toward the American battleships. Several torpedoes have already hit the hulls of two ships, West Virginia and Oklahoma, and waves from their explosions are rippling back across the hitherto calm waters. A geyser from one hit can be seen alongside the West Virginia, rising as high as the battleship’s masts, and both the West Virginia and the Oklahoma are already listing to port. The Oklahoma will soon capsize in the shallow waters, trapping hundreds of sailors in her shattered hull.
We do not know just which Japanese aviator snapped this picture, but we can time it almost to the minute. The attack began about 7:53 am, and the USS Arizona still appears unscathed. Minutes later, at 8:06 am, a bomb will explode her ammunition magazine and break the ship in two. The aircraft crewman who captured this instant with his camera did so during that interval; he probably rode on a torpedo bomber climbing away from the harbor after dropping its ordnance.
The sky for now is still clear of smoke from burning ships and the black puffs of American anti-aircraft fire that would soon cloud the picture. For now the view extends to an air base in the distance; the white smoke in the background rises from Hickam Field, a US Army installation guarding Pearl Harbor. The Army and Navy had both received the same warning from Washington ten days earlier: be ready for war with Japan, but do nothing to alarm the civilian population. The Army’s commander in Hawaii understood those orders to include a danger of sabotage from Japanese agents, hence the planes at Hickam were lined up wingtip-to-wingtip, making them easier to guard but also leaving them easy targets for Japanese pilots bombing the field.
The photograph illustrates how the Japanese attack utterly surprised American forces in Hawaii and the United States at large. To be sure, relations with Japan had been strained for some time, which is why President Franklin D. Roosevelt shifted the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor during the previous year. FDR calculated the move would deter Japanese aggression in East Asia, but instead it provoked Tokyo and gave Japan’s militarist government a clear target. Washington knew that war could come, but did not appreciate the power and daring of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The result was a shock to the United States. Tokyo directed its diplomats in Washington to deliver a war declaration some thirty minutes before Pearl Harbor was attacked, but that plan went awry and the diplomats were late. The next day President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war, calling Japan’s surprise attack “unprovoked and dastardly,” and famously describing December 7, 1941 as a “day which will live in infamy.” Congress and America responded with a grim determination to crush Japanese power at any cost, even if that cost included the civil liberties of Japanese-Americans, suspected of harboring secret agents for Tokyo.
What is missing from this dramatic photograph is almost as important as what it shows. No US Navy aircraft carriers appear in the picture. Mostly by chance, the Pacific Fleet’s carriers were at sea on December 7. In addition, Pearl Harbor’s drydocks, workshops, and oil tanks (those big white disks in the middle distance) were untouched by bombs even as the attack raged around them. Japanese pilots that morning concentrated on American ships and aircraft; they left the harbor installations alone and ignored the Pacific Fleet’s vital fuel supply. Pearl Harbor thus remained a functioning base for the American aircraft carriers that would begin to turn the tide of war a few months later.
Every battleship visible here was sunk or damaged within a few minutes. With the harbor facilities left intact, however, the US Navy raised all but one of those battleships from the shallow waters, and eventually five of the seven would see action against Japanese forces.
The USS Arizona would never be raised. She still lies in Pearl Harbor, leaking oil from her fuel tanks, a war grave and a memorial to the 1,177 men who died aboard her moments after this picture was taken. Most photographs of battles do not show much. This one helps to illustrate why the United States resolved to wage a long war to defeat Imperial Japan, and how it retained the wherewithal to launch that campaign.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address to Congress on December 8, 1941, accessed July 18, 2017
Prange, Gordon W. with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981)
US Congress, Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, “Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack,” 79th Congress, 2d Session, 1946
“Attack on Pearl Harbor: Footage and Aftermath,” British Pathe War Archives, accessed July 18, 2017
US Navy History and Heritage Command, “Overview of The Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941.”