As Admiral Nagumo’s fleet turned away from Hawaiian waters and headed back to the safety of homeland seas on December 8, 1941, they had every reason to believe they had accomplished a great victory for the Japanese Empire. They had sent most of America’s Pacific Fleet to the bottom and either destroyed or damaged much of the infrastructure needed to support fleet operations. Nearly half of all military aircraft on hand had been eliminated in ninety minutes, mostly on the ground, and the dead and wounded – half of that total aboard the U.S.S. Arizona – would send shock waves across a “sleeping” America.
Like their American counterparts, Japanese admirals were still following a naval doctrine advanced by English captain, Alfred Mahan which held that ultimate victory at sea would always be determined in one great battle between opposing battleships. With virtually all U.S. battleships and heavy cruisers out of the equation, Admiral Yamamoto and his planners figured they would have at least one year to complete the conquest of the Philippines, Guam, the East Indies, Singapore, and New Guinea, while strengthening their hold on Korea, Indochina, Manchuria, and the string of Pacific islands which served as a protective shield for their homeland. And they were confident that a weak and self-absorbed America would be sufficiently demoralized to seek reasonable terms for a non-aggression agreement.
The Japanese, of course, were wrong on almost every count. To begin with, the three aircraft carriers they thought would be at anchor were safely at sea, and would shortly play a key role in reversing the fortunes of war. In the months to come, the greatest sea battles ever fought would take place – between opposing fleets which would never even come within sight of each other. It would be the aircraft launched by those fleets which would secure both victory and defeat. The vaunted battleship would become mostly a gun platform supporting invasion actions, and the aircraft carrier would become the new “capitol ship”. And Pearl Harbor would “rise’ again, as the arsenal of victory in the Pacific. The massive fuel depots, submarine pens, dry docks and repair shops, along with the fleet headquarters complex itself, were left untouched by the first two waves of bombers, and for reasons which will be forever debated, Nagumo failed to launch the third wave which might have corrected that oversight.
But there is more to this part of the Pearl Harbor story. Of the eighteen fighting ships sunk in the attack, all but two would be raised from the dead to play roles in the final defeat of Japan and the Axis, some of them within six months. In what must be recognized as one of the major engineering feats of all time, teams of underwater divers worked round the clock, making 5000 dives in the most treacherous and toxic environment imaginable to make the impossible possible. Navy and civilian divers spent more than 20,000 hours in oil-and-sludge-filled waters, both outside and inside ripped and torn hulls, not counting the many hours spent in a decompression chamber normalizing blood nitrogen levels following prolonged stays underwater. Exhausting efforts and great care went into recovering human remains, ship’s documents and ammunition.
On the other hand, the Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor did not fare so well. Of the six carriers which delivered the 420 bombers, fighters and torpedo planes, four were sunk in the battle of Midway six months later, with the fifth going down at Coral Sea, and Zuikaku , the sixth, in Leyte Gulf in 1944. Two of the Imperial Fleet’s battleships were sunk at Guadalcanal in November, 1942, and two cruisers, Tone and Chikuma sometime later.
In the end, despite all the military errors and oversights which can be ascribed to both sides in that initial battle of a war which would drag out for four more years, the Empire of Japan made the most fateful by profoundly misreading the people of America. The consequences of that mis-judgement was perhaps most succinctly captured by Admiral Hara Tadaichi who said, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”
Exhausted U.S. Navy divers stand in front of a decompression chamber at Pearl Harbor following the December, 1941 attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet.