The Pearl Harbor Strike Force,
Kidô Butai

Aircraft Carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy,
Nippon Teikoku Kaigun-no Kôkûbokan,

On the morning of April 2, 1801, Horatio Nelson directed a line of British ships up the dangerous channel that lay outside Copenhagen harbor. Along the channel was anchored a line of Danish ships and floating batteries intended to protect the harbor and the city. Britain was not at war with Denmark, but the Danes had joined a league of "armed neutrality," masterminded by Russia, in great measure in protest against the way the British boarded and searched the vessels of nations that were neutral in the great war between Britain and France (the United States would declare war on Britain in 1812 for some similar reasons). The British considered the "armed neutrality" a sufficiently belligerent step that a pre-emptive strike was planned to knock Denmark right out of it. Nelson was under the nominal command of a dead-wood senior officer, Vice Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Parker watched the attack from outside the north end of the channel. Nelson swept in from the south and anchored his ships next to the Danish line. After two hours of firing, Parker, thinking that things were not going well, ordered Nelson to break off the action. Clapping a telescope to his blind right eye, Nelson denied that he could see any such order. The Danes, indeed, were hard pressed and soon agreed to a truce. The truce quickly became a negotiation, as British ships moved into place to shoot "bombs" from mortars right into Copenhagen. The "armed neutrality" fell apart. Henceforth, the attack on an enemy's fleet in its own harbor could be called "Copenhagening" the fleet.

Just after midnight of February 9, 1904, a force of Japanese destroyers attempted to "Copenhagen" the Russian Far East Fleet in the harbor of Port Arthur, Manchuria. Japan had broken relations with Russia on February 6, and two Russian ships had been sunk at sea on February 8, but war had not yet been declared. Port Arthur was brightly illuminated, not expecting an attack. This was the first great torpedo attack in naval history, but of twenty torpedoes fired, only three hits were scored. Two of those were on the newest Russian battleships, the Tsessarevitch and the Retvisan, which were run aground near the harbor entrance. The Retvisan took on 2100 tons of water. The Russian fleet was in disorder, but the damage was actually minimal enough that things were sorted out in time for the fleet to sail out the next day against Japanese Admiral Tôgô, discouraging him from a direct attack against the harbor. Both damaged battleships were soon raised and repaired. They were ready when the Russians would sail out and be caught in the Battle of the Yellow Sea (August 10, 1904), from which most ships returned to Port Arthur, later to be sunk by Japanese army guns or be scuttled rather than captured (including the Retvisan, which was raised and recommissioned in the Japanese Navy -- the Tsessarevitch was interned in China after the Battle of the Yellow Sea). The Russian Baltic Fleet, sailing to the rescue, would later be destroyed at the Battle of Tsushima (May 27-28, 1905), to the astonishment of the world.

At 10:55 PM on November 11, 1940, five desperate months after the Fall of France to Nazi Germany, twelve British Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, launched from the aircraft carrier Illustrious, arrived over the Italian naval base at Taranto, Italy. Six planes dropped torpedoes and scored three hits, one on the battleship Conte di Cavour and two on the battleship Littorio. Right at midnight, five more Swordfish dropped torpedoes, scoring a hit on the battleship Caio Duilio and two more hits (with one dud) on the Littorio. Two British planes had been shot down. The crew of one died, of the other, captured. At 4:45 AM, the Caio Duilio was beached, sinking. By 5:45, the Conte di Cavour had been run aground, sinking, and was abandoned. The modern Littorio was itself beached, sinking, at 6:25. The Italian Navy had been "Copenhagened." The remaining battleships fled to Naples, perhaps safe from British attacks, but also distant from the tactical scene in the Mediterranean. The Littorio and the Caio Duilio were raised and returned to service in 1941, but the Conte di Cavour, although raised, was never completely repaired. After the night action defeat in the Battle of Matapan, March 28, 1941, the Italian navy avoided forays against the British. Ironically, the Fairey Swordfish aircraft used by the British were among the most obsolescent of World War II. They were actually biplanes. Newer models were not ready because British Naval aviation was the concern of the Royal Air Force, to whom the "Fleet Air Arm" was, to say the least, secondary.

Carrier Division One,
Strike Force, Kidô Butai
Flag
Vice Admiral Nagumo

Akagi ("Red Castle,"
a mountain), Flag
First Strike, Commander Fuchida

Zero

"Kate"

"Kate," torpedo
91512
Second Strike, Lt. Commander Shimazaki

Zero

"Val"
918

Kaga ("Increased Joy,"
a province)
First Strike, Commander Fuchida

Zero

"Kate"

"Kate," torpedo
91412
Second Strike, Lt. Commander Shimazaki

Zero

"Val"
926

At 7:53 AM, Hawaiian Time, December 7, 1941, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, in charge of the first air strike, radioed back to Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, on the aircraft carrier Akagi, the signal "Tora, Tora, Tora" (tora, ="tiger"), signifying that surprise had been achieved in the attack. Indeed. The Imperial Japanese Navy was about to "Copenhagen" the United States Pacific Fleet in their advanced base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. Nothing quite on this scale, or with this audacity, had been attempted in previous such attacks. Where the Illustrious had launched 22 aircraft against Taranto, at least 350 Japanese planes swarmed over Oahu. Five American battleships were sunk. The back of the Arizona was broken in a catastrophic explosion, actually captured on film. It remains today a memorial to the attack. The Oklahoma rolled over and was eventually righted but never returned to service. The battleships California, Nevada, and West Virginia all sank much like the Italian battleships at Taranto, and all were raised and returned to service by 1943. The Pennsylvania was seriously damaged but, being in drydock at the time, was much easier to repair. The Maryland and Tennessee endured moderate to serious damage but did not sink. A sixth battleship, the Utah, was also sunk, but it was already only being used as a target ship. The Japanese pilots, warned not to waste ordinance on the Utah, hit it anyway.

Nothing at the time infuriated the American public so much as the surprise nature of the attack. The Japanese strategy in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 had been to rely on the Russians losing the will to continue the War. But after the "sneak" attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had the will to fight several wars against Japan. The mastermind of the Japanese action, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was well aware of the resources and character of the United States. He can have been under no illusions about the psychological effect of the attack, as he was under no illusions about the ability of Japanese to sustain a long conflict. Yamamoto, therefore, can only have hoped for the attack to deliver an immediate advantage. It did. The United States never even attempted to relieve its garrison in the Philippines, or elsewhere. A counterattack would be launched, with minimal resources, only against Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in August of 1942, very far from the Philippines, from Hawaii, from Japan, or from the United States.

Fury at the "sneak" attack, although certainly heartfelt at the time, now looks more than a little naive. When Israel attacked the Arab states in June 1967, or when the United States itself invaded Panama in 1989, it was without the niceties of a declaration of war, or of any other kind of warning. The tactical advantage conferred by surprise is so great, that polticians and military men now would probably consider themselves negligent of the lives of their own men, let alone their own cause, if they did not take advantage of it. The United States, after turning away in disgust from the Real Politik of Europe after World War I, suffered a rude awakening when it was abruptly reintroduced to such merciless calculation on a quiet Sunday morning in 1941. The history of the United States, and of the world, has never been the same since.

 
Carrier Division Two,
Rear Admiral Yamaguchi

Sôryu
("Blue Dragon")
First Strike, Commander Fuchida

Zero

"Kate"

"Kate," torpedo
8108
Second Strike, Lt. Commander Shimazaki

Zero

"Val"
917

Hiryu ("Flying
Dragon"), Flag
First Strike, Commander Fuchida

Zero

"Kate"

"Kate," torpedo
6108
Second Strike, Lt. Commander Shimazaki

Zero

"Val"
817
While the situation Japan had gotten into, occupying a large part of China, was foolish, irrational, and vicious in the exteme, the choices that faced the Japanese Government in 1941 left few alternatives. The United States, Britain, and the Netherlands had imposed a boycott of scrap metal and oil in retaliation for the acts of Japanese aggression, not just against China, but more recently in the peaceful but coerced occupation of French Indo-China -- ruled by the pliant Vichy Government of the part of France left unoccupied by the Germans. Japan had some resources to draw on in Manchuria, but the oil was a very serious matter. If the boycott continued, and if Japan did not seize some source of oil, then Japan's ability to function, let alone to defend itself, or attack, would vanish. At the time of the Arab oil boycott of the United States in 1973, many regarded that as virtually an act of war and a suitable pretext for American action. The United States, however, had a great deal of its own oil, and it was actually not that difficult for Americans to buy oil from middlemen who were buying it directly from the Arabs. Japan was in a much tighter position. The Roosevelt Administration certainly must have realized that Japan had been put in a strategic bind where it must either attack or, as it would seem to the Japanese (or anyone), surrender. In retrospect, the oil boycott, whether an act of war or not, was a strategic move on behalf of China and France that could predictably and certainly have led to war. Ever since, conspiracy theorists have held that Roosevelt knew exactly what he was doing, and was in fact deliberately maneuvering Japan into war, so that the United States could enter the European war against Germany without Roosevelt needing to break campaign promises to stay out of it.

Admiral Yamamoto thus conceived a daring coup with which to stagger the ability of the United States to contest the Japanese project of seizing oil rich Indonesia and the strategic areas around it. It hardly seemed credible. American planners themselves really did not believe that a Japanese strike in strength against Hawaii was possible. It was too far from Japan. A detached force would not have that kind of range. Indeed, Yamamoto knew that the ships would have to refuel at sea, a trickly business that no one had ever attempted during a real, and a secret, military operation. Even after the attack, the United States Navy still did not believe that the attacking force could have come across the thousands of miles of open ocean north of Hawaii. It must have come from the south, from the Japanese islands, like the Marshalls, in the central Pacific. Only after the war was the truth undeniable. Of course, in the aftermath of the attack, the popular belief in the United States was that the Japanese Navy would straightway be appearing before San Francisco. The panic in California was palpable, and all it took was one Japanese submarine shelling an oil refinery (parodied in the [not very good] 1979 movie 1941) for all the fears to be confirmed.

The Strike Force -- Kido Butai, -- would consist of the largest number of aircraft carriers ever to operate together. The Akagi and Kaga, a reconstructed battlecruiser and battleship, were the Japanese equivalent of the American Lexington and Saratoga. The Hiryu and Sôryu were the Japanese equivalent of the American Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet. The newest Japanese carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, were roughly the equivalent of the American Essex class. It was originally thought that the latter would not be ready for the operation. All the Japanese ships were smaller than the American equivalents since Japanese construction was heavier, still using rivets, for instance, instead of welding. The rest of the force consisted of a "support" group, the fast battleships Hiei and Kirishima,
with the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, commanded by Rear Admiral Mikami, and a "screen" force of nine destroyers,
the Isokaze, Urakaze, Tanikaze, Hamakaze, Arare, Kasumi, Kagero, Shiranuhi, and Akigumo, commanded by Rear Admiral Omori in the light cruiser Abukuma. Two other destroyers, the Ushio and Sazanami, were detached to bombard Midway Island. Oil tankers and several submarines (I-19, I-21, and I-23) completed the force. Submarines carried several midget, two-man submarines, which were supposed to enter Pearl Harbor itself. Admiral Yamamoto himself originally prohibited the operation, since he did not believe (ironically, in light of later events) in suicide attacks. He allowed it only when persuaded that it would not be a suicide attack -- in fact it was; all the men died except those captured from a sub that got stuck on the reef (though recently it has been determined that at least one sub did make it into Pearl Harbor and did fire torpedoes).

 
Carrier Division Five,
Rear Admiral Hara

Shokaku ("Soaring
Crane"), Flag
First Strike, Commander Fuchida

Zero

"Val"
626
Second Strike, Lt. Commander Shimazaki

"Kate"
27

Zuikaku
("Auspicious Crane")
First Strike, Commander Fuchida

Zero

"Val"
525
Second Strike, Lt. Commander Shimazaki

"Kate"
27
Three kinds of aircraft operated from the Japanese carriers. The Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, or "Zero," would be the standard carrier based naval fighter for all of World War II. It was agile without peer, and a terror in the early days of the War, but was obsolete by the time the War was over. The Zero had an American code name ("Zeke") but at the time was simply called the "Zero" by one and all -- named after the Japanese year in which it became operational (2600 = 1940). The Nakajima B5N bomber, called the "Kate" in American code, would remain the standard carrier bomber and torpedo bomber for most of the war. Many of the Kates in the first strike against Pearl Harbor were fitted with torpedoes, and these were modified with special fins so that when dropped they would not sink and stick into the mud of the harbor bottom. Finally was the Aichi D3A, the "Val," a dive bomber, already somewhat compromised by landing gear that did not retract. Each plane was marked for its air group, a group being the squadrons (of a single type) carried by a single aircraft carrier. The groups of the first carrier division were marked with red stripes, one for the Akagi, two for the Kaga. The groups of the second carrier division were marked with blue stripes, one for the Sôryu, two for the Hiryu. While the single stripe was usually for the flagship of the division, the Sôryu may have been given precedence because "blue" was in its name. The groups of the fifth carrier division were marked with white stripes, one for the Shokaku, two for the Zuikaku. The white would have been suggested by the color the crane, symbolic of the Emperor, in the name of both ships.

In the first wave, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Sôryu only sent Zeroes and Kates, with the Kates not fitted with torpedoes intended, of course, for horizontal bombing. The Shokaku and Zuikaku only sent Zeroes and Vals. In the second wave, the distribution was reversed, with the first four ships sending Zeroes and Vals, and the other two only Kates. There were no planes equipped with torpedoes in the second wave. The principal targets of the strikes were not just the ships in the harbor, though that was primary, but also the airfields, both to suppress opposition and just to eliminate the aircraft. Since planes had been parked closely together on the Hawaiian airfields, to make protecting them from (imaginary) saboteurs easier, they made excellent concentrated targets for air attack. Few American planes got off the ground. In the end, nine Zeroes were lost in the attack, fifteen Vals, and five Kates. Besides the planes in the stikes, there were, of course, a few planes left on the ships. This importantly included at least 36 Zeroes, most of which were needed for the "Combat Air Patrol" (CAP), the fighters kept in the air all the time over the fleet to intercept any enemy air attacks.

The American fear of local saboteurs and Japanese sympathizers among the Japanese immigrant population of Hawaii quickly generated many rumors about actual acts of sabotage, like arrows cut into sugar cane fields pointing towards Pearl Harbor (as though this was even necessary on the small island of Oahu). All such rumors were closely investigated in the following months, as Hawaii itself was put under martial law. Not a single story turned out to be true, but even forty years later some American suvivors of the attack (over 2000 men had died) were still repeating them. The only actively hostile Japanese agents in Hawaii were those at the Japanese consulate in Honolulu.

Athough the Japanese had no interest in attacking Honolulu or other civilian areas, stray ordinance, especially American anti-aircraft shells falling back to earth, hit a few private homes. In Pearl City, right next to the harbor, some people found bullet holes in their refrigerators.

Once the moral indignation is set aside, and the Japanese attack is criticized for its military conduct, the issue that usually comes up is the failure of the attackers to hit the oil tanks or the drydock facilities at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese priority, indeed, was warships and airplanes. A third air strike, however, might have gone after other such targets. Admiral Nagumo decided against a third strike. The Strike Force was, after all, in a very vulnerable position. War games of the attack had predicted that the Japanese would be found and carriers could be lost. That this had not happened was very good fortune, but the matter wasn't over until the Japanese left the area. And Nagumo knew that the American aircraft carriers (the Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga were with the Pacific Fleet) were not in Pearl Harbor. There was no telling where they were or what they were doing, except that they were known to be in the area. With the attack so successful in its primary mission, Nagumo was not going to hang around and tempt fate. It was a bit of bad luck that there were no carriers in the harbor at the time of the attack, but there was nothing the Japanese could do to remedy that. Looking for aircraft carriers at sea, when they know you are around, gives them as good a chance of finding you as you of finding them.

The American carriers by themselves would exact considerable revenge for Pearl Harbor. At the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 8, 1942), the first naval battle in history where the opposing ships never even saw each other, the Yorktown and Lexington turned back the Japanese invasion force headed for Port Moresby in New Guinea. The small Japanese carrier Shoho was sunk, and the Shokaku and Zuikaku damaged, but the Lexington itself was lost -- a very heavy price to pay for what the battle accomplished. Much, much more decisive was the Battle of Midway (June 4-5). Admiral Yamomoto conceived another of his daring operations, to occupy Midway Atoll at the far north-west end of the Hawaiian Islands. Unfortunately, Japanese over-confidence was at its height, even as the Americans had begun deciphering Japanese code. The operation and the target became known and preparations were made. Since the Shokaku and Zuikaku were being repaired after the Coral Sea, only the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Sôryu were ready for the operation. On the other hand, the Yorktown, also damaged at the Coral Sea, was repaired in round-the-clock efforts at the (undamaged) Pearl Harbor port facilities. This meant that the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown were ready to ambush the Japanese force.

The Japanese Strike Force was found, but the torpedo attacks and high altitude bombing attacks against it all failed. The American torpedo bombers, the luckless Douglas TBD "Devastator," were all but annihilated. However, the Zeroes in the Combat Air Patrol, drawn down against the (as then seen) principal threat of the torpedoes, thus left the sky clear, just as the American dive bombers, the great Douglas SBD "Dauntless," showed up. In one of the supreme moments of World War II, the Dauntlesses headed down for the Japanese carriers, planting bombs on decks that were packed with planes that had just been rearmed and refueled in peparation for a strike at the just discovered American carriers. The Akagi, Kaga, and Sôryu were quickly ruined and left sinking by explosions. The Hiryu got off its strike, which grievously damaged the Yorktown, but then it was fatally hit by a later American strike. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, who had attended Princeton University (1921-1923), invited his flag captain to view the moon with him on the sinking ship. The Yorktown, under tow, was sunk on June 7 by the Japanese submarine I-168. The Midway operation had been a catastrophe for the Japanese Navy.

Two carrier battles remained in 1942, both near Guadalcanal. At the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24), with the Shokaku and Zuikaku as all that was left of the original Strike Force, against the Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp, the small Japanese carrier Ryujo was lost. On August 31, the Saratoga was torpedoed by the submarine I-26. She returned to Hawaii for repair and was out of the campaign. On September 15, the Wasp was sunk by the submarine I-19. At the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (October 26), the Shokaku and Zuikaku were joined by the smaller Zuiho. All survived, with heavy damage. Of the American ships, the Hornet was sunk, leaving the Enterprise for some time as the only operational American aircraft carrier in the Pacific. But by then, the Japanese were nearing exhaustion. There would not be another carrier battle until 1944.

The Japanese waited until the United States attacked what was regarded as the "inner" defense perimeter of Japan, Saipan Island in the Marianas. The invasion took place on June 15, 1944. The defense was conducted by, of all people, Admiral Nagumo, who commited suicide, as the island was falling, on July 6. The Japanese fleet, with the new armored carrier Taihô (, generationally like the American Midway class, the first American carriers with an armored deck, which had become standard on British aircraft carriers), sailed out to the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19-20). Now, neither surprising or being surprised, it was simple disaster. The Taiho and Shokaku were sunk. Japanese pilots, young and poorly trained, were massacred -- the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" to American pilots. At the Battle for Leyte Gulf (October 24-26, 1944), the remaining Japanese carriers were simply used as diversions. Off Cape Engaño on October 25, the Zuikaku, last of the Pearl Harbor Strike Force, and Zuiho, neither even operating aircraft, were sunk.

Admiral Yamamoto himself, conscious that the war would probably be lost, and haunted by all who had aleady died, was shot down and killed on April 18, 1943, over Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. His whereabouts had been discovered by the code breakers.

Bibliography

The Battleship Kongô

The Treaty Cruisers

Advanced Japanese Destroyers of World War II

A Guadalcanal Chronology, 7 August 1942 - 6 March 1943

Naval Aircraft Designations of Japan and the United States

Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao

Waterline Models

Philosophy of History, Military History

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Pearl Harbor Strike Force, Note

In this era, the standard meridian for Hawaiian Standard Time was 10 hours 30 minutes behind Greenwich, at 157.5oW. This meridian passes down the Kaiwi Channel between the islands of O'ahu and Moloka'i, neatly bisecting the Territory of Hawaii. Today, Hawaiian Standard Time is exactly 10 hours behind Greenwich. The standard meridian is 150oW, well east of the Island of Hawai'i, which means that O'ahu and Kaua'i, whose nautical Zone Time would be 11 hours behind Greenwich, are in effect on Daylight Time year round -- an hour advanced from Zone Time.

Standard time zones that are 30 minutes displaced from Zone Times still exist around the world. The entire Republic of India, for instance, is 5 hours 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich. This is now unfamiliar, however, in the United States; and translating the times of the Pearl Harbor attack gives results that now seem odd. 7:53AM Hawaiian Time was thus 18:23h Greenwich Time. That was then 1:23PM (13:23h) Eastern Standard Time and 10:23AM Pacific Standard Time. Instructions to the Japanse Embassy in Washington were to deliver the message breaking off relations between Japan and the United States no later than 1:00PM EST. When this message was intercepted and decrypted by American code-breakers (by 10:20 EST), it was immediately understood that an attack would probably follow somewhere. That this would be 7:30AM in Hawaii was suggestive, but there was too little time, and too little certainty, for its significance to be communicated in timely warnings. As it happened, delays in decoding and preparing their own message at the Japanese Embassy resulted in its not being presented to American Secretary of State Lordell Hull until 2:20PM EST. Altough it is sometimes thought that a timely delivery of the message would have kept Japan within the rules of war and diplomacy, it was not a declaration of war. The attack on Pearl Harbor still would have been a preemptive, surprise attack.

Japan itself was and is 9 hours ahead of Greenwich. The attack thus occurred on 8 December at 3:23AM Japan Standard Time. Since all Japanese military forces used Japanese time, clocks on the Japanese ships therefore showed this time.

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