Pearl Harbor's Oil Tank: What Could Have Been


By: Alison

It’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ballgame, and at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a third strike might have meant “you’re out” for the U.S. Navy. We know of course that only two air strikes hit Pearl Harbor, but did you know that three were actually planned?

After two deadly attacks that sank the USS Arizona and killed thousands of crewmen, the Japanese had plans to carry out a third attack – this time going for the repair facilities and the storage oil tanks – which held 4.5 million gallons of fuel.

Had this attack been carried out. there’s no telling what sort of devastation might have befallen the U.S. Army. We’ll never know, but we can certainly speculate.

Here’s what could have been if the Japanese had carried out a third air strike at Pearl Harbor.

Oil tank destruction

If you’ve ever filled up your car at the gas pump, then you know how dangerous fuel oil can be if you’re not careful. Too much static electricity on your person can spark a fire (which is why you should never get back in your car), and leaving the car on while refueling could start a spark, sending the whole car up in flames.

At Pearl Harbor, dropping a bomb on 4.5 million gallons would’ve certainly started a spark. Without a doubt, the oil tanks would have gone up in flames, starting a terrible flame that would have been difficult to put out – especially when so many men are injured, attending to the injured or simply trying to fight back.

oil tank area was south of Hickam Field

The oil tank area was south of Hickam Field. Although the flames might not have affected Pearl Harbor itself, they would have almost certainly started fires in the nearby forests. According to aerial photos of Pearl Harbor, the oil tanks were nearly surrounded by trees, which would’ve caught fire easily.

The casualties lost that fateful day would been significantly higher. Although it’s unclear exactly how many crewmen were at the oil tanks, they would have almost certainly been killed in the initial blast – if not the subsequent fire.

As to how the war itself would have turned out, it’s difficult to say. If anything, the Navy would have taken longer to recuperate, and during war time, every day is precious.

So why did the Japanese turn back?

The U.S. Navy was in no way prepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were caught completely off guard, and after the second attack, the Navy could barely fight back. Although crewmen tried bravely to fire back and did manage to take down a few planes, the Japanese had clearly won.

oil tank area was south of Hickam Field

So why did Vice Admin. Chuichi Nagumo decide to turn back rather than attack the repair facilities and the oil tanks?

By the time the Japanese air force was ready for the third strike, they had lost 29 planes total. Though they had well over 150 planes in the attack, Nagumo feared more planes would be hit. Rather than risk it, he told his men to turn around. The attack was over by 9:45 a.m.

It’s amazing to think how much more devastating the attack on Pearl Harbor could have been. If the Japanese had hit the oil tanks, we might have been remembering a much sadder story.

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