On December 7th, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise military strike into the heart of the United State’s Pacific naval presence. At 7:48 in the morning, a fleet of 6 Japanese aircraft carriers launched over 400 aircraft towards Pearl Harbor with the goal of crippling as the Pacific Fleet and preventing U.S. meddling in the on-going accumulation of Imperial power in Southeast Asia.
At the very center of the ensuing firestorm sat the U.S.S. Arizona: a massive Pennsylvania-class battleship crewed by 1,400 U.S. sailors completely unaware of what was about to happen.
The Super Dreadnought
The construction of the U.S.S. Arizona began in 1914. The massive undertaking was informed by hard-won knowledge gained during the opening naval exchanges of World War I. The changing face of modern warfare showed navies on all sides of this conflict surprised by the sheer immensity of modern war ships…not to mention the incredible distance they could launch volleys of tremendous firepower. The Pennsylvania class battleships, the Arizona and the Pennsylvania, were both “Super Dreadnoughts” built to be bigger, faster, and farther-reaching than any other battleship in U.S. Naval history.
Ships in World War I naval engagements were firing farther, with bigger, more destructive guns, and the Arizona took advantage of this. 12 14″ guns (shells were 14″ in diameter) were mounted into 4 massive triple turrets. Maximum range was set to 21,000 yards (over 11 miles). For defense against smaller boats, the Arizona had 22 5″ guns. Beneath the waves hid 2 21″ torpedo tubes for the destruction of underwater targets. For air defense, the Arizona carried 4 3″ anti-aircraft guns.
Armor used the “all or nothing” principle. The heaviest armor was placed where it was needed most, along the waterline of the ship to face the incoming shells of enemy battleships. Less armor was placed everywhere else, in order to decrease weight and increase effective speed. Unlike many of the World War I-era ships, the Pennyslynaia class used fuel oil (diesel) to increase engine power while decreasing the amount of space necessary for fuel. Nevertheless, the Arizona still required a fuel tank with a capacity of 1,500 tons of fuel. With this capacity it could move at 12 knots (14 mph) for over 6,000 nautical miles.
Pride of the Fleet
The new U.S.S. Arizona were ready for war by 1916, but that turned out to be too late for World War I. The Arizona never joined the British Fleet in Europe, but instead was relegated to defensive patrols along the Eastern Seaboard. After Armistice Day, the battleship became a symbol of American Naval power, sailing to diplomatic hot spots around the world and offering escorts to various U.S. presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover during visits overseas.
During the interwar period, the Arizona was subjected to refitting and modernization, increasing the number of anti-aircraft guns from 4 to 12. The threat of air warfare had became more and more apparent during the many, many training exercises the U.S. Navy conducted. And by 1941, the battleship was sent to Pearl Harbor in anticipation of potential hostilities in the Pacific.
The Day of Infamy
The Japanese carriers struck unprovoked, without warning, and without any formal declaration of war from the Empire of Japan (no declaration of war was published until December 8th).
The air raid sirens on board the Arizona began at 7:55. Approx. 5 minutes later the battleship came under fire from 10 Japanese torpedo bombers, and found itself on the receiving end of 7 bombs, each weighing approx. 1,700 lbs.
The attack resulted in 5 hits and 3 near misses. Many of the hits were directly to the top of the ship, completely avoiding the reinforced armor belt protecting the waterline. The last bomb, which hit just 11 minutes after the first air-raid siren went off, penetrated an ammunition magazine holding the gigantic 14″ rounds used for the Arizona’s main guns. The explosion ripped the ship in half. Of the 1,400 crewmen on board the Arizona less than 300 would escape the explosion, fire and sinking of the giant battleship.
Besides the Arizona, 4 other battleships were sunk. 18 ships total were destroyed. 155 planes had been destroyed while still on the ground. In the aftermath, Japan began attacks in Asia to further drive out American, Dutch, English and French influence. The island nation of the Philippines was quickly overrun along with Malaya and Singapore,
A Terrible Loss points the way to Victory
The group of six carrier aircraft that comprised the secret Japanese strike force achieved their stated aims and more. But rather than destroying America’s morale, the action did the exact opposite. Arizona (and the attack on Pearl Harbor) became a rallying cry under which the remaining U.S. naval forces could wage war against the Japanese fleet, manufacture new ships, recruit and train new sailors.
And, it turned out, the most valuable parts of U.S. fleet were left completely undamaged. While most of the ships in harbor were destroyed, the Japanese aircraft did not take the time to destroy the shipyards themselves. Pearl Harbor’s ability to supply fuel, repair and other support services to the Fleet continued almost completely uninterrupted.
And perhaps even more importantly, all seven U.S. aircraft carriers were away from Pearl Harbor during the attack.
Less than 4 months later, the U.S. mounted a direct attack on mainland Japan in the form of the Doolittle Raid. This was the beginning of America’s fight to take back the Pacific, using its remaining aircraft carriers and submarines to slowly turn the tide.
And the tactics that the U.S. Navy would eventually use were a direct result of Japan’s success at Pearl Harbor.
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, aircraft carriers had rarely been part of larger carrier forces. The attack by Japan’s 6-carrier force proved that by leaving battleships behind, a large carrier group could move quickly and deliver a withering swarm of bombing aircraft faster than most military strategists had thought possible. With its own aircraft carriers grouped similarly, the United States military forces were able to wreck the same devastation time and again across a Pacific where Japanese defenses had been drawn thin thanks to all their earlier successes.
By the Battle of Midway in June of 1942 (about 6 months after Pearl Harbor), the tides had turned and Japan was on the defensive. By 1945, Japan had been driven back to its home territory and the last remnants of the Japanese fleet found the swarms of U.S. bomber aircraft as tenacious as when they had turned them on others.
One of the last engagements of the Pacific War saw the Japanese battleship Yamato unsuccessfully face off against U.S. forces in the defense of Okinawa.
The mega-battleship, the pride of the remaining Japanese Navy, was constructed using the full industrial power of Imperial Japan at its prime. It was even larger than the Arizona at 863 feet long (compared to the Arizona’s 608 feet). It carried 9 enormous 18″ guns. And despite being decked out with 24 anti-aircraft guns, its defense of Japan was transformed into a slow, agonizing death under bombardment from the combined aircraft of the U.S. Enterprise, Yorktown and Intrepid carriers. On April 7th, 1945 after being struck by 12 bombs and 7 torpedoes, the Yamato exploded and sank beneath the waves of the Pacific forever.