The torpedo bombers quickly achieved the planners’ hopes to sink at least one battleship. Oklahoma capsized. West Virginia, with a more advanced internal torpedo defense system and benefiting from prompt counterflooding by alert junior officers and petty officers, was saved from a similar fate, eventually settling on the bottom on an even keel. California’s torpedo defense system resisted the torpedoes, but she was undone by ten or twelve access covers to her torpedo defense voids that had been removed for a material inspection, and another dozen that had their securing nuts loosened. Nevada was torpedoed on the forward port side, which should have been sustainable. However, the flooding of her forward magazine due to the proximity of a fire, the flooding of her after magazine due to a communications misunderstanding, and with additional damage forward from bomb hits, poor watertight integrity and a severe design flaw that contributed to progressive flooding, she was eventually intentionally grounded. With four sunken battleships just from the torpedo attacks, Yamamoto’s criterion for a successful attack was fulfilled.
Level Bombers’ Attack
The level bombers formed up in ten “V” formations of five aircraft each, with the lead bombardier at the point of the formation. One American observed, “The formation was perfect… and the timing on the dropping of the bombs was so perfect that I could follow them down in V formation right to the ground, right to impact.”
All ten formations lined up to pass over the targets one formation at a time. Even though they initiated their attack only minutes after the first torpedoes hit the water, they were surprised by a heavy volume of AA fire. Fuchida later remarked, “It was not wise to have deployed in this long single-column formation. The whole level bomber group could be destroyed like ducks in a shooting gallery.” Fuchida recognized too late the value of simultaneity.
The formation’s lead bombardier—again, curiously, not in Fuchida’s aircraft—had difficulty obtaining a clear sight picture due to smoke and clouds. Perfect alignment was a necessity—as examples of what errors could do, from 6,000 feet and 90 knots, a pitch error of 2 degrees would result in a 200-foot error in the impact point, and a roll error of 2 degrees from 10,000 feet would mean a 350-foot error—and the Japanese bombers were flying higher and faster, magnifying these potential errors.
Their initial target was Nevada, a curious choice since she was not double berthed and was accessible to torpedo attack. The run was aborted when Arizona’s powder magazine blew. Another run, and possibly two more, had to be aborted due to smoke. Eventually they lined up against Maryland.
One of the formation’s aircraft had prematurely lost its bomb due to a material failure caused by AA damage. Sometime between 0820 and 0840 Fuchida’s formation dropped their remaining four bombs. As Fuchida related:
Pilots, observers, and the radiomen all shouted, “Release!” on seeing the bomb drop from the lead plane, and all the others let go their bombs. I immediately lay flat on the floor to watch the fall of bombs through a peephole. Four bombs in perfect pattern plummeted like devils of doom. The target was so far away that I wondered for a moment if they would reach it. The bombs grew smaller and smaller until I was holding my breath for fear of losing them. I forgot everything in the thrill of watching the fall toward the target. They became small as poppy seeds and finally disappeared just as tiny white flashes of smoke appeared on and near the ship.
From a great altitude, near-misses are much more obvious than direct hits because they create wave rings in the water which are plain to see. Observing only two such rings plus two tiny flashes, I shouted, “Two hits!” and rose from the floor of the plane. These minute flashes were the only evidence we had of hits at that time, but I felt sure that they had done considerable damage.
David Aiken has determined that Fuchida’s formation did not score a hit. There were no “tiny flashes” on Maryland other than those from her AA battery. Apparently Fuchida inferred from the two misses that there were two hits, or his mind willed itself to see flashes. What he did not see—or chose not to report—or rejected as irrelevant—were two clouds of dirt from two bombs that drilled deep into Ford Island.
Of the ten groups of level bombers, two groups missed. Besides Fuchidas’, the other miss was an attack directed against California, who recorded that at 0825 a salvo of bombs hit the lagoon off her starboard bow.
Two of the formations attacking Arizona scored, each with a hit on the battleship and one on the repair ship Vestal moored alongside. The remaining six formations all apparently scored single hits.
Overall, the level bombers showed great coolness and precision. They were surprised by the fierce anti-aircraft fire, but were not deterred from making repeated runs until their sight picture was perfect.
Fighter Opposition Develops
The first wave attack arrived unopposed. The first defending fighters got aloft from Haleiwa Auxiliary Field at about 0830, and were directed to Ewa, where Japanese fighters continued to strafe the air station. The Japanese attackers were in a long line, breaking off into strafing attacks one at a time, totally fixated on the ground targets. Two American fighters jumped into the line and got two quick kills. Low on fuel and ammunition, they returned to Wheeler Field to replenish.
Four P-36 fighters got aloft from Wheeler Field at about 0850, just in advance of the arrival of the Japanese second wave. They engaged Japanese aircraft over Kaneohe, which was targeted by 18 B5N Kate level bombers and 18 A6M Zeros. In the fight the US fighters claimed three kills and one probable at the cost of one P-36.
Back at Wheeler, the two rearmed P-40s managed to get aloft during a lull in the second-wave attack. They claimed another kill and a probable over Wheeler, and a kill over Ewa.
At Bellows Field, two fighters attempted to take off but were shot down by A6M Zeros seconds after clearing the runway.
Other fighters took off from Haliewa and Wheeler and engaged Japanese aircraft as they joined up to return to their carriers.
Overall, during the attack fourteen American fighter sorties were able to get aloft. Two other aircraft attempted to take off, but were acquired by Zeros while in their takeoff roll and shot down seconds after they cleared the end of the runway before they could attain fighting airspeed or altitude.
Of the fourteen sorties, two American fighters were lost. The survivors submitted claims for ten kills and four probables. The AAF awarded official credit for nine kills; a close analysis indicated that the actual score might have been as low as eight kills and as high as eleven. That represents a four-to-one (or 5.5 to one) kill ratio in favor of the American fighters.
Just as significantly, twelve of the fourteen American fighters, outnumbered in the air by 36 of the vaunted A6M Zeros, survived and returned to their bases.
In spite of an overwhelming aerial superiority in numbers and aircraft performance, the Japanese fighters did not sweep the skies of defending fighters. This was a disappointing performance by the Japanese fighters, and certainly a failure to achieve their primary mission.
The Second-Wave Dive-Bomber Attack
Before taking off, the dive-bomber aircrews were told there were no carriers in port. With their primary target absent, one aviator reported that they “were told to attack the same targets as the first wave,” meaning battleships. Another recorded they were to “finish off ships damaged in the first attack, preferably the battleships.”
These oral instructions contradicted the prioritization plans, which directed the dive-bombers to attack cruisers before hitting battleships. It meant using GP bombs against battleships, in spite of the fact that the Japanese recognized that these bombs could be expected to do only superficial damage. Why the targeting instructions were changed at this last minute is unknown.
The dive-bombers’ strike leader, Lieutenant Commander Shimazaki Shigekazu, signaled the attack at 0854 as they approached Kaneohe Naval Air Station on their path to Pearl Harbor. They were greeted by a tremendous volume of AA fire, something never before seen in their combat experience over China, a stunning development. A massive column of smoke rose from Battleships Row and drifted over Ford Island, obscuring any chances for an up-wind attack against the battleships. An almost solid layer of clouds covered the harbor at 3,500 to 5,000 foot altitude, interposing between their usual pitch-over altitude of 10,000 feet. Shimazaki could not have been happy with the conditions.
Fuchida, orbiting the harbor, watched as the dive-bombers approached. Nevada had slipped her moorings and was underway heading south between Ford Island and the shipyard. He saw this as a great opportunity to sink a ship in the channel and bottle up the entire Pacific Fleet. He had instructed his aviators in the pre-strike briefings to be alert for such a chance. He said that he considered assuming command of the dive-bombers, but demurred when he saw the leader of the dive-bombers lining up against the Nevada.
A large oiler backed into the channel as Nevada passed. The Neosho was nearly as massive as a battleship, 25,000 tons at full load. It would have been easier for the dive-bombers to sink her in the channel rather than a heavily armored battleship. The oiler was mostly ignored.
Lieutenant Makino Saburo, leader of Kaga’s dive-bombers, headed for Nevada. Other bombers moved into position. As Nevada pulled abreast of 1010 Dock they attacked from two directions, into the wind from the southwest and crosswind from the southeast.
The dive-bombers were handicapped by environmental conditions. When using their 55-degree dives initiated from 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) altitude, the planes had to start a half-mile from their target. However, huge pillars of smoke were rising from Ford Island, Battleship Row, and Hickam Field, and clouds had moved in creating a nearly solid cloud base from 2,000 to 3,500 feet, obscuring targets except for fleeting glances. It was hard to identify targets, and hard to establish a path to attack the targets.
About 14 dive-bombers attacked Nevada.
Many of the American ships had awnings mounted to shade their living compartments from the tropical sun. The awnings broke up the normal profiles on the ships’ identification cards with which the aviators had trained, making differentiating battleships from large auxiliaries difficult.
The attack dragged as the bombers sorted out targets. Bombers were metered into the airspace, as they customarily would attack in order of each shotai in each ship’s formation of bombers, with units waiting until the previous attackers had completed their dives.
American observers noted some strange behavior on the part of the dive-bombers. Sometimes they appeared to just dive through a hole in the smoke, and then set up to attack whatever they found below them. Some of the dive-bombers were observed on an attack path toward one target, only to divert in mid-dive to a different target. Some attacked in dives steeper than the customary 55 degrees, while others glide-bombed under the cloud cover at angles of 20 to 40 degrees, an attack technique outside their normal training and beyond the settings of their bomb telescopes. The customary tactical unit of a shotai, consisting of three bombers, was sometimes broken up, with perhaps a third of the planes attacking individually or in pairs. Some opted for easier targets away from the maelstrom over the harbor. There was no central command and little localized control, forcing individual decisions onto stressed shotai leaders and individual pilots.
Defensive fire was intense. Of the 78 dive-bombers, 14 were shot down (18%) and another 14 so damaged they were written off on their return to the carriers.
While the 78 D3A Val dive bombers in the second wave gave their attentions to the ships in the harbor, 54 B5N Kate bombers loaded with 250kg GP bombs from the green aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku headed for Oahu’s airfields. Their primary targets were hangars and administrative areas. While it is impossible to separate out the damage that they inflicted from that of the previous wave’s dive bombers and strafing fighters, their attack was evidently effective. Only one salvo was a clear “miss,” a set of bombs that hit a baseball field near one of the air bases. This was a location that had been planned for an installation of underground fuel tanks, igniting a historical rumor that the Japanese had somehow obtained the Americans’ airbase building plans.
Of the 94 operational American fighters, only fourteen sorties got aloft, with two other aircraft shot down as they attempted to take off. Those fourteen sorties scored eight to eleven kills, some by interjecting themselves unnoticed into the holding patterns of Japanese aircraft waiting their turn to dive in on strafing runs against the airfields. None of the American fighters appeared over Pearl Harbor or contributed to the defense of the fleet, their primary mission.
The second wave attack began at 0854. The fleet’s defenders reckoned the attack was over around 0930.
Finally, over the harbor, the sky was clear of aircraft.
The attack left behind 2,403 people dead or dying and another 1,178 wounded. Of the dead, 1,177 were assigned to Arizona and 429 assigned to Oklahoma. Three battleships were sunk and two sinking. Two cruisers were torpedoed and three destroyers wrecked. The majority of the Army Air Force and Navy aircraft were either destroyed or damaged.
The Japanese left behind 29 aircraft with their crews, and five sunken midget submarines.