The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had a large carrier force at the start of the war, the air groups of which were weighted toward attack aircraft rather than fighters. Its aircraft were lightly built and had very long range, but this advantage was usually purchased at the expense of vulnerability to enemy fire. The skill of Japanese aviators tended to exaggerate the effectiveness of the IJN’s aircraft, and pilot quality fell off as experienced crews were shot down during the Midway and Solomon Islands Campaigns.
When it first appeared in mid-1940, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier-based fighter capable of beating its land-based counterparts. It was well armed and had truly exceptional maneuverability below about 220 mph, and its capabilities came as an unpleasant shock to U. S. and British forces. It achieved this exceptional performance at the expense of resistance to enemy fire, with a light structure and no armor or self-sealing tanks. Its Achilles heel was the stiffness of its controls at high speed, the control response being almost nil at indicated airspeed over 300 mph. The Zero was developed throughout the war, a total of 10,449 being built.
The Aichi D3A (“Val”) carrier-based dive-bomber entered service in mid-1940, and it was the standard Japanese navy dive-bomber when Japan entered the war. It was a good bomber, capable of putting up a creditable fight after dropping its bomb load. It participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the major Pacific campaigns including Santa Cruz, Midway, and the Solomon Islands. Increasing losses during the second half of the war took their toll, and the D3A was used on suicide missions later in the war. Approximately 1,495 D3As were built.
The Nakajima B5N (“Kate” in the Allied designator system) first entered service in 1937 as a carrier-based attack bomber, with the B5N2 torpedo-bomber appearing in 1940. The B5N had good handling and deck-landing characteristics and was operationally very successful in the early part of the war. Large numbers of the B5N participated in the Mariana Islands campaign, and it was employed as a suicide aircraft toward the end of the war. Approximately 1,200 B5Ns were built.
Japan relied on three primary reconnaissance floatplanes during the war. The three-seat Aichi E13A, of which 1,418 were produced, was Japan’s most widely used floatplane of the war. Entering service in early 1941, it was employed for the reconnaissance leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it participated in every major campaign in the Pacific Theater, performing not only reconnaissance but also air-sea rescue, liaison transport, and coastal patrol operations. Introduced in January 1944 as a replacement for the E13A, the two-seat Aichi E16A Zuiun offered far greater performance capabilities but came too late in the war to make a significant difference, primarily because Japan’s worsening industrial position limited production to just 256 aircraft. Based on a 1936 design that underwent several modifications, the two-seat Mitsubishi F1M biplane, of which 1,118 were produced, proved to be one of the most versatile reconnaissance aircraft in Japan’s arsenal. Operating from both ship and water bases, it served in a variety roles throughout the Pacific, including coastal patrol, convoy escort, antisubmarine, and air-sea rescue duties, and it was even capable of serving as a dive-bomber and interceptor.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the U. S. Pacific fleet moved to this shallow harbor in Hawaii in May 1940, thousands of miles from its base at San Diego. The idea was to deter a Japanese assault on Southeast Asia. Instead, American-Japanese relations continued to deteriorate toward war over the course of 1941. An Imperial Conference convened on September 6 made the decision for war. Japanese forces immediately mobilized and the Navy began planning the attack on Pearl. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto ordered preparations for the attack on November 1. A final peace effort by Japanese diplomats failed in late November. A powerful warfleet, Strike Force Kido Butai, sortied from the Kurils on November 26. It comprised six aircraft carriers and many heavy escorts, destroyers, and submarines. The flagship of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo flew the famous “Z” flag, which fluttered above victories over Russia at Port Arthur in 1904 and the Tsushima Strait in 1905.
After 12 days undetected at sea, facilitated by refueling from tankers, the carriers received the attack signal: “Climb Mount Niitaka.” Washington had broken the Japanese diplomatic code but not the naval code. Earlier in the day the War Department sent warnings to Pearl and Manila of an anticipated Japanese assault. The attack, if it came, was expected to fall on the Philippines; no one considered that the Japanese might be so daring as to hit Pearl. In any event, the warning to Pearl was delayed by a black comedy of technical and human errors and did not arrive in time. The battleships of the U. S. Pacific Fleet were therefore still neatly docked on a quiet Sunday morning and caught wholly unawares by the Japanese naval air attack. The first attack wave achieved total surprise just after 7:00 A. M. on Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941. It began before the official Japanese declaration of war was delivered: it was delayed by lengthy transcription and slow decoding by the Japanese Embassy in Washington. The declaration of war belatedly delivered to Secretary of State Cordell Hull accused the United States of conspiring “with Great Britain and other countries to obstruct Japan’s efforts toward the establishment of peace through the creation of a new order in East Asia, and especially to preserve Anglo-American rights and interests by keeping Japan and China at war.” Americans later made much of the “sneak attack” at Pearl, though in Japanese operational terms the achievement of surprise was desirable and effective
Surprise over Hawaii was total. The attack was designed by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, a brilliantly innovative planner. It had as historical inspiration the stunning sinking of the Tsarist fleet at anchor at Port Arthur in 1904. Its spiritual inspiration and icon was even older: a famous samurai sword maneuver, the “i-ia” stroke that gutted or crippled an enemy before combat began. Its immediate progenitor was the RAF assault on the Italian fleet at Taranto. Fuchida led in the first wave, comprising 183 bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters. Splitting into four attack groups, the Japanese hit U. S. Army and Marine Corps air fields and bombed the ships lined up in “Battleship Row” in the harbor at Ford Island. A second wave of 170 planes attacked into more opposition, yet Japanese losses remained light. Within hours of the first explosions much of the Pacific Fleet was afire, sunk, or badly damaged. Among major capital ships, the battleship “Arizona” was gutted while the “Oklahoma” turtled. The battleships “California,” “Nevada,” and “West Virginia” were also sunk at anchor. On these and other ships, at the airstrips and elsewhere in Hawaii, the U. S. suffered 3,695 casualties, including 2,340 military personnel killed. Of the dead, 1,177 were aboard the “Arizona.” Another 48 civilians were killed. The USN saw 12 of its warships sunk or beached and another 9 badly damaged, while 164 Navy, Marine, or Army aircraft were destroyed and 159 more damaged. The Japanese lost a mere 29 planes and 64 men, including 9 navy crew killed on 5 midget submarines. However, the U. S. fleet carriers, the primary targets sought by Yamamoto and Fuchida, were fortuitously at sea on exercises and thus were spared. The “USS Enterprise” took some pilot casualties as it stretched its planes out from a distance to intercept the Japanese second wave. Admirals Nagumo and Yamamoto then clenched and refused to launch a third strike wave to destroy Pearl’s fuel and repair facilities. Had they done so, that action would have done more long-term damage to the Pacific Fleet even than dropping battleships in the shallow harbor.