How and Why Japan Didn’t Succeed at Pearl Harbor

February 10, 2017

Looking back at the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a Japanese victory. Enemy fighters took those stationed there completely by surprise and decimated the US Navy’s forces, killing over 2,400 and laying waste to battleships and aircraft. But is that enough to consider Japan’s risky maneuver a complete success?

As history shows, the United States wasted no time to rise from the ashes of Pearl Harbor to take on—and eventually subdue—Japan in the Pacific Theater, so where exactly did Japan go wrong? Pearl Harbor was meant to cripple the American Navy, making a counteroffensive nearly impossible. So, how did the US react so quickly?

Looking back, the answer may be simple: Pearl Harbor wasn’t as big a victory for Japan as originally thought.

Missing Targets

When Japan’s fighters had Pearl Harbor in their sights, they had very few predetermined targets: the ships moored at Battleship Row. While it seemed plausible that destroying the American Pacific Fleet would entirely cripple the country’s ability to fight in the Pacific Theater, by targeting only the battleships, Japan wasn’t striking the entire Pacific Fleet.

The USS Enterprise, USS Lexington, and USS Saratoga aircraft carriers were all away from Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Though Enterprise was scheduled to return to the harbor that morning, it was caught in stormy weather off Wake Island. Having survived the attack by being absent for it, Enterprise went on to become the country’s most decorated ship of the war.

Pearl Harbor Fuel Reserves

Targeting only Battleship Row also ignored many other potential targets, like fuel reserves, submarines, and repair bays that would become vital assets once the attack had ended.

The Fleet Left Standing

As Japan’s fighters completed their attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, USS Utah, and USS Oklahoma had sustained irreparable damage, but they were only three of the eight battleships in port that morning. The remaining ships, though severely damaged, all reentered the war anywhere from a few months to three years later. Japan may have hobbled the US Navy, but it did so only very temporarily.

Underwater Attack That Could Have Crippled the Entire US Navy

One of the biggest disadvantages in attacking Battleship Row was that the vessels not mortally damaged were in shallow enough waters to be recovered and repaired. With many of the Navy’s battleships still standing and the untouched aircraft carriers ready for war, the crippling of the US Pacific Fleet proved a more difficult task than initially expected.

The Response Across the Country

Despite taking the United States by surprise, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t as fruitful as it may seem on the surface. All across the country, Americans had a reason to band together and join the war effort, causing an exponential growth in military force that undoubtedly led to Japan’s eventual downfall.

Prior to the attack, the United States followed a policy of staying out of the war. Both the government and most citizens agreed on this stance, but all of that rightfully changed with the surprise attack.

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