Each shotai (for this attack, increased to four aircraft instead of the normal three) would normally remain together, but each plane commander (who could be the pilot, navigator, or radioman/gunner, depending upon who was senior) had the authority to alter the target. Some overruled the decision of their shotai leaders.
Matsumura and his radioman searched the northwest side of Ford Island with binoculars trying to identify targets. The rising sun made determining ship types impossible. Nagai, leading the Soryu eight, became impatient. Matsumura related that Nagai drew up alongside and “urged me by hand signal to quicken the attack pace.” Perhaps thinking it better to allow Nagai to get in his attack before the dive-bombers thoroughly woke up the island, Matsumura assented. Nagai banked left and, followed by the seven other Soryu torpedo bombers, descended to 150 feet and headed directly for the harbor.
Matsumura turned south, delaying his approach while trying to identify the ships at the carrier moorings. Six of the eight aircraft in his formation missed his turn and ended up orbiting Ewa Town trying to get their bearings.
Torpedo Attacks: Soryu and Hiryu Bombers
Nagai approached the carrier anchorages from the northwest. Nagai’s observer tried to classify targets using binoculars, but glare from the rising sun reflecting off the water interfered with his view. Nagai, however, was able to identify Utah, and rejected her as a target. He saw what he thought to be a battleship moored alongside 1010 Dock, where he had been briefed that the Pacific Fleet flagship Pennsylvania often moored. He turned to pass south of Ford Island to get into position for an attack run, followed by Petty Officer First Class Mori Juzo. But Lieutenant (junior grade) Nakajima Tatsumi, leading the trailing half of the formation, broke away, banked left, and led three others against Utah. Nakajima saw a battleship and went for it, not recognizing that the shapes over the barbettes were not turrets, but boxes covering empty holes.
Mori, following behind Nagai, could not see a target along the carrier moorings worth a torpedo. Observing Nakajima begin his attack, he thought, “How silly. Can’t they see that two of the ships are nothing but cruisers?” Then the two trailing torpedo bombers in his own group of four broke off to join Nakajima, leaving him to follow his leader alone of the eight Soryu torpedo bombers.
Six of the eight Soryu torpedo bombers went for Utah, flying closely past nests of destroyers to execute their attack against targets foreshortened by the angle of approach. They attacked while the American defenses still slept. Six torpedoes hit the water, but only two hit their target, slamming into Utah just before its colors were to be raised at 0800. One of the first torpedoes missed Utah so badly it hit the adjacent cruiser Raleigh, according to her executive officer, at about 0755.
The other ten torpedo bombers assigned to attack the carrier moorings, spurning further waste of ordnance against a target ship and aged small cruisers, went looking for battleships.
Nagai, followed by Mori, lined up to make his run against the ships berthed along 1010 Dock, only to discover there was no battleship. Pennsylvania was in drydock; her prestigious berth was occupied instead by the light cruiser Helena with the WWI minelayer Oglala, flagship of the Pacific Fleet Mine Force, moored outboard. In accordance with the attack prioritization scheme, Helena was a valid target, a modern 10,000-ton cruiser barely two years in commission. However, Nagai wasn’t after anything as small as a cruiser. He was deceived by the backlit superimposed silhouettes of the two ships and took the pair to be a battleship. His torpedo scored, passing under Oglala’s keel to slam into one of Helena’s engine rooms. Helena’s engine room clock stopped at 0757.
Mori, next behind him, was close to releasing his torpedo:
We had closed to less than 600 meters when it suddenly struck me that this was an odd-looking battleship. Then I realized that it wasn’t a battleship at all, but a cruiser. Nagai was as bad as Nakajima wasting his torpedo on such a small target.
Mori broke off his attack.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Kadono Hiroharu, who had missed Matsumura’s turn and ended up orbiting over Ewa, observed Nagai’s torpedo hit Helena. He decided to go for the same target. He led five other Hiryu torpedo bombers towards Helena.
When Kadono saw Mori abort his run he also pulled off, followed by Petty Officer First Class Sugimoto. But the other four pressed their attack. More ominously for the Japanese, the defenses awakened: they had to press their attacks into the face of AA fire from Helena, Oglala, and Shaw. AA fire caused at least one out-of-envelope drop. One torpedo missed, destroying a power transformer station on the pier next to Helena; the others buried themselves in the mud. Four torpedoes, no hits.
Kadono’s bomber was hit by AA—a bullet nicked a fuel line, spraying gasoline into the cockpit. Kadono’s navigator wrapped a rag around the leak and held it in place by hand until they regained the carrier.
As the Helena attackers came out of their runs they cut across the attack route of the Akagi and Kaga bombers going against Battleship Row.
Torpedo Attacks: Akagi and Kaga Bombers from the East
Matsumura, leading 24 torpedo bombers from Akagi and Kaga, passed Ewa, ten miles west of Pearl Harbor, heading southeast. The Akagi and Kaga torpedo bombers trailed him at 500 meters altitude, trying to attain a spacing of 500 meters between aircraft with 100 meters offset to the left rear. Their formation was ragged and they were obviously having difficulty establishing their assigned intervals. Smoke from a fire on the south tip of Ford Island blocked Matsumura’s view of the harbor. He turned east to gain a position to attack Battleship Row. The aircraft following him, distracted by Nagai’s attack, missed the turn. Thus, the leader of all the torpedo bombers found himself with no one to lead.
The bulk of the formations continued south until they were over the ocean, turned left to skirt the coast, then turned left again to approach Hickam Field from the southwest while dropping to 50 meters altitude. Past the field and the Naval Shipyard, they pulled a sharp left turn to head down the Southeast Loch past the Submarine Base, dropping to 20 meters. Murata, at the head of the line, was immediately greeted by machine gun fire.
The timing of the attack can be determined from testimony of the aviators and by time-and-distance calculations tracing their route. As they passed southwest of Pearl Harbor, their view of Battleship Row was blocked by the column of smoke rising from the first dive-bomber attacks, indicating they passed after the first bombs exploded and the smoke cloud had developed. They headed south to the ocean, turned left, passed Hickam Field, and then left again to line up with the Southeast Loch, a total distance of four to eight miles. Cruising at 140 knots, the first torpedo attack against Battleship Row was delivered four minutes after the first bomb hit, and four to eight minutes after the first torpedo was dropped against the carrier moorings. Nagai made his attack run almost the same time as Murata dropped the first torpedo against Oklahoma.
The times can be calculated using Helena’s engine room clock as a benchmark. Helena was hit at 0757. Using relative motion, speeds, and distances traveled by Nagai and Nakajima, Helena was attacked probably two minutes after the first attack against Utah and Raleigh, making Raleigh’s XO’s report of being hit at 0755 accurate. This would time the first torpedo hit on Battleship Row at just before colors (0800).
Of the Hiryu and Soryu torpedo bombers, Matsumura, Shira, Petty Officer Third Class Oku Yasumi, and Kadono and his wingman Sugimoto, all headed to join the attackers against Battleship Row, taking different routes. They intermixed with Akagi and Kaga bombers, disrupting approaches. Some of the Battleship Row attackers were forced to abort and go around for second attempts. The torpedo bombers’ attacks would last for 11 to 15 minutes, though the majority managed to release their weapons during the first ten minutes.
The first torpedo hit a battleship as early as 0757, possibly as late as 0759.12 The defenders took advantage of the precious minutes’ warning afforded by the Ford Island bomb blasts, so that when the first torpedo plane sped past the Navy Yard to hit Oklahoma, many AA gunners were ready. As related in the destroyer Bagley’s AR:
Immediately, general quarters was sounded. One of the forward machine guns was manned by the Chief Gunner’s Mate, SKINNER,… who started firing at the third torpedo plane, and hit the fourth plane to come in. This plane was seen to crash in the channel off the Officer’s Landing.
Machine gun fire on about the eighth plane was so heavy that it swerved to the left in front of the Bagley. This swerving caused the torpedo to drop and it exploded in the bank about thirty feet ahead of the Bagley. The plane crossed the bow of the Bagley and turned to recross. At this point JOHNSON… fired at the plane from No. 1 .50-caliber machine gun and downed it in the Navy Yard channel.
The third torpedo plane to be hit by the Bagley was shot down by PETERSON… who was not a machine gunner but who volunteered to assist at No. 3 machine gun. The plane, swerving under the fire of the forward machine guns, headed for the light cruisers, Honolulu and St. Louis, moored in the slip astern of the Bagley. As PETERSON’s shot hit it, it went out of control, dropped its torpedo and seemed to hit the L head crane in the Navy Yard. The machine gunner was seen to fall out. This was probably about the eleventh plane to come in.
WILLIAMS,… regular machine gunner on the after machine guns shot down the next plane to be hit by the Bagley. This plane came down over the dock, evidently thinking it would escape the Bagley’s fire which was very well placed. WILLIAMS, an excellent machine gunner, downed it with one short burst. The torpedo was dropped in the lumber pile on the dock and the plane is believed to have crashed on the dock.
The Bagley’s fifth plane was brought down by WILLIAMS and PETERSON together. This plane came down on the starboard side to the Bagley, having crossed over from the port side. As the bullets hit the plane smoke came out of the plane, it nosed directly up into the air and spun into a crash losing its torpedo.
Bagley’s four .50-caliber AA machine guns contributed to the destruction of four of the five B5N Kate torpedo bombers that were shot down. It is a measure of the fleet’s rapid initiation of AA fire that many other ships had a hand in their destruction—Arizona claimed two kills, Maryland two, and Nevada two. Most of the battleships’ reports acknowledged that multiple ships were firing on each kill. Nearly all of the torpedo bombers were hit, some suffering killed or wounded aircrew.
The third torpedo plane hit by Bagley was approximately the 11th plane to follow that same attack route. Perhaps 28 aircraft used this path to attack Battleship Row, avoiding the more technically challenging routes over the supply depot or over the main shipyard. Kaga’s string of 12 bombers lagged Akagi’s by three miles, a 70 second gap. Twenty-eight aircraft at approximately twenty to twenty-five second intervals comes out to nearly ten minutes, but this should be compared with some of the Japanese pilots’ estimates that the torpedo attack took fifteen to twenty minutes, reflecting the confusion of the attack and the degree to which torpedo bombers had to abort runs and go around. The decision to employ “one at a time” attacks turned the Southeast Lock into a shooting gallery.
One Japanese aerial photograph taken early in the attack gives a clue regarding their success in maintaining intervals. The photograph shows Battleship Row, with three torpedo plumes rising from hits on West Virginia and Oklahoma. The age of these plumes can be estimated by wind drift and height calculations. The oldest is 30 seconds, one six seconds, and the last, one second. Assuming no great variation in torpedo run times, that would make for an interval of 24 seconds between the first and the second hits, and five seconds between the second and the third.
Fuchida’s error with the flares provided precious minutes warning for the US gun crews to break out their ready service ammunition and prepare to receive the torpedo bombers. The smoke from the bomb hits interfered with the planned traffic pattern over the harbor, adding a further disruptive element.
But most significant was the response of the defenders. The Japanese, mirror-imaging the expected response, took from their contempt for the defensive and their estimation that the typical Japanese response to a surprise attack would be slow to develop, expected that their torpedo bombers could execute their attack before significant opposition could be mustered. Instead, defensive machine guns were firing within seconds after the first torpedo hits on Utah, and within minutes the approaches to Battleship Row would verge on impenetrable.
Crossing Routes for the Torpedo Bombers
The saga of Petty Officer First Class Mori, in Nagai’s group assigned to the carrier moorings, illustrates the lack of any semblance of control exerted by the strike leadership:
Mori, who had swept directly across Oahu, was still looking for a target [after rejecting an attack against Utah]. He hedgehopped over Ford Island, but finding only a cruiser on the other side [i.e. Helena], made a semicircle and came back just above the waves toward California at the southern end of Battleship Row. At the last moment a breakwater loomed between him and the target. He climbed, circling over Utah, which looked as if it had twisted in two, again went down to 15 feet and came at California from a different angle. His radioman-gunner took a picture of the torpedo explosion as Mori prepared to make his left circle to the assembly point. But his path was barred by a heavy pillar of smoke at the end of Ford Island and he was forced to bank right directly into the oncoming torpedo planes from Akagi and Kaga; he narrowly missed collision and his plane rocked from the turbulence.
Mori dropped against California. “It’s running straight!” screamed one of his crew. “It’s a hit! Banzai!”
Five B5N Kates from Soryu and Hiryu intermingled with the two dozen Akagi and Kaga torpedo bombers heading for Battleship Row. Intervals were irregular and extended. Petty Officer First Class Yasue Tomoe and Petty Officer First Class Katsuki Sadasuke lined up for attacks on Oklahoma. They were in what looked to be good runs when Katsuki veered into Yasue’s path. One of the bombers, likely Yasue’s, nearly lost control. To avoid crashing it jettisoned its torpedo.16
The Akagi aircraft heading for Oklahoma were interrupted by two Hiryu aircraft.
We cut in the row of an Akagi unit to release the torpedo. Then we were caught in heavy turbulence by the preceding attacker. Our plane bumped so wildly we could not aim at a target. Therefore we made a right turn to retry.
Two of the aircraft attempting runs against Helena, using the route that crossed those of the aircraft attacking Battleship Row, were forced to abort their runs and go around and make another approach.
Lieutenant Suzuki Mimori was heading for Battleship Row, down the Southeast Loch, when his B5N Kate took a hit that detonated his torpedo warhead. The blast knocked sailors at the Submarine Base off their feet. Nevada claimed this kill for her 5-inch battery, a direct hit that caused the “disintegration of the plane in midair.”
In spite of the increasingly heavy fire, the Japanese aviators bore in to their targets resolutely. Some of the bombers, taking damage as they passed the naval shipyard, went for the target that was most directly lined up with their approach path along the loch, Oklahoma or West Virginia, hoping to get their torpedo in the water before their aircraft became unmanageable. Many found the narrow release envelope too challenging. Torpedoes rammed into the harbor bottom and stuck, their motors sending a cascade of bubbles to the surface.
Most aviators wanted the honor of skewering a battleship—how else would a true samurai react but to go against the biggest and heaviest of their enemies? In the face of unexpectedly heavy AA fire, most picked the most prominent targets, Oklahoma or West Virginia.
The approach to the southern end of Battleship Row was a fairly long run that passed the shipyard, the easiest of the routes, one that gave the bombers a run of a thousand yards over the water to stabilize on their precise release parameters (airspeed, altitude, and attitude) before dropping their torpedoes. Still, this was only a 15-second run, and the pilot would have to be very skilled to get inside the launch envelop in such a short time after making a hard left turn on the deck. Given the choice between a difficult approach that might be unsuccessful, but against a battleship that was not damaged, or an easier approach that more likely ensured a hit, most of the Japanese pilots chose the easiest approach, much to the detriment of Oklahoma and West Virginia.