Beyond Torpedoes and Bombs: What is Strafing?

May 20, 2018

When learning about the details of the morning of December 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the United States Naval Base in Oahu, the focus is usually on the devastation caused by the bombs and torpedoes dropped by the attackers on the ships of Pearl Harbor. But there was another tactic that produced deadly results and significant damage: strafing. But what exactly is strafing?

Strafing bullet holes still visible at Hickam Field

Strafing bullet holes still visible at Hickam Field

When you get deeper into the details of the attack, you come across words like “strafing.” You can probably guess that it’s a method of attacking, but its complete definition describes the practice of low-flying aircraft attacking ground targets using mounted automatic weapons.

Though the bulk of the heavy damage done at Pearl Harbor was caused by the bombs and torpedoes, Japanese fighters, like the Mitsubishi Zero fighter, used machine gun fire to attack their targets and cause a wave of destruction against stationary targets, especially the American aircraft on the ground at airfields across Oahu.

Using of wartime strafing grew rapidly during the First World War. When troops were entrenched and couldn’t be hit by conventional rifles or other ground units, enemy aircraft would typically fly along the path of the trench. This allowed them to fire into the open well, hitting anyone trying to duck for cover.

Civilian car strafed by Japanese fighter

Civilian car strafed by Japanese fighter

Since there no trenches for people to hide in at Pearl Harbor, strafing fire was done to not only destroy grounded aircraft but to try and clear sailors from the decks of ships. Machine gun fire wasn’t strong enough to sink the intended target, but it could rip through machine gun nests, making it difficult for sailors to use anti-aircraft guns. Japanese aircraft also strafed troops who were grounded at airfields and forced to use rifles against them and even civilians in Honolulu.

The use of strafing tactics continued throughout World War II. In the Pacific Theater, the North American B-25 Mitchell was a common craft used on strafing runs. The Mitchell was accompanied by the Republic P-48 Thunderbolt, which was equipped with eight .50 caliber machine guns that could pelt the ground with bullets at a rapid pace.

Strafing continues to be used today and played a role in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In Vietnam, American fighter craft like the F-4 Phantom and A-6 Intruder weren’t equipped with mounted cannons or machine guns, forcing more innovating technicians to build improvised gunships.

When not describing an aircraft’s attack on ground troops, strafing can also refer to high-speed firing runs against land and naval craft. These are often carried out with lower caliber weapons used on stationary or slow-moving targets.

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