Pearl Harbor Myths and Facts


By: J. Owen

Even generations after the attack on Pearl Harbor there are things we do not know. The are also things that we think we know. Some of those ideas are Pearl Harbor myths that have endured decades, but are simply wrong. Some are conspiracy theories and others are simply misunderstandings.  We will help you to differentiate what is true and what is not.

1. The attack was a complete surprise to the US.

While the specific time that the Japanese would attack was not known to the leaders at Pearl Harbor or in Washington, they were expecting an attack. In fact, the Navy department warned the US commanders before the attack and put them on a “war warning”. Even though the commanders were told that war was imminent and the Japanese fleet was on the move they did not understand the severity of this threat.

2. Roosevelt knew about the attack, but did not warn the commanders in order to get the US involved in WWII

This is the most popular of the Pearl Harbor Myths. The serious historians who have researched the Pearl Harbor attack have debunked this myth. FDR was well aware that the negotiations with Japan had fallen apart and that Japan was likely to show some aggression, but US intelligence did not know when or where that aggression would come.

3.  Japan only attacked Pearl Harbor.

Many are unaware that at the same time Japan attacked Hawaii it also attacked other bases in the Pacific. Even President Franklin D. Roosvelt’s “Day of Infamy Speech on December 8th, mentions the other targets.

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that Nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State of form reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government had deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces — with the unbounded determination of our people — we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The White House, December 8, 1941

4. Yamamoto said “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

While this is a great line and sounded excellent when he said it in the movie Tora, Tora, Tora, there is not proof that Yamamoto made this statement. He did make statements that Japan could not win a protracted war against the US. His hope was that a decisive victory at Pearl Harbor would damage the morale in the US and prevent a prolonged war.  This was the opposite of what actually happened as Americans came together in the war effort.

5.  The Japanese fired the first shot

The Japanese were clearly the aggressors and the attackers, but they did not fire the first shot.  The first shot fired was fired by the United States when the USS Ward, a destroyer, fired at a Japanese Midget submarine.  The submarine was hit and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The shot fired by the USS ward was at 0637 would have provided ample time to prepare for an attack. Poor communication prevented a warning from going out to all of the military personnel on Oahu.

Many did not believe the sailors on the USS Ward until 2002 when a University of Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory sent exploratory submarines down 1200 feet to look at an object that they discovered on sonar.

Have you heard other Pearl Harbor Myths?

These are just a few of the Pearl Harbor Myths that have carried on for decades. You may find more questions answered in our FAQs. If you have any that you would like to add, please contact us.

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