Countdown to Pearl Harbor, Part 2 of 2
By David Lippman
August 2015

Japan's first act of aggression on 6 December 1941 is not the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but the laying of mines off the coast of Malaya to cover the invasion. Shortly after 3 a.m. local time, Japanese infantrymen of the Imperial Guards Division come ashore in Malaya, and run into stiff machine-gun fire from British and Indian troops of the 8th Indian Brigade.

Meanwhile, at 9 a.m. in Washington, the last part of the 14-part message arrives. The missing piece does not mention the attack, it merely says negotiations have come to a standstill and must be ended. Another message follows: the 14-part telegram must be delivered to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull by 1 p.m. Washington time, 7:30 a.m. in Hawaii.

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo commanded the attack on Pearl Harbor.


The Japanese Embassy staff have enormous difficulty decoding the message and translating it into English. They do not know it must be delivered at 1 p.m. or why. Their typist, Katsuzo Okaumura, a junior diplomat, is a two-fingered typist at best, and makes numerous mistakes. Convinced his typing will lose him face, he wastes time re-typing the entire message.

Lt. Cdr. Alvin Kramer and Army Col. Rufus Bratton spend a hectic morning trying to alert someone in authority. Kramer fails, but Bratton finally locates Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, who determines that the Japanese mean to attack. He sends out an alert message to all Army commands, urging it be passed on to the Navy as well. But atmospherics prevent it from reaching Hawaii. Marshall orders the message sent as a telegram.

While this is going on, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo hoists a battle flag on his carrier Akagi's signal block, the same one Adm. Heihachiro Togo flew at Tsushima in 1905. Shortly after that, his six carriers hurl 366 planes in two waves at Pearl Harbor.

The lead wave, led by Cdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, is guided in by KGMB radio, still playing Hawaiian songs.

As the bombers roar in, the Americans have more chances to be alerted. The U.S. destroyer Ward, under Cdr. William Outerbridge, spots and sinks one of the midget submarines with depth charges. But her captain's report is dismissed by his superiors. After all, this is Outerbridge's first patrol on his first command.

Army radar picks up Fuchida's incoming planes. But the fighter controller on duty, hearing the report, says, "Well, don't worry about it," figuring it is the incoming B-17s. The radar crews shut down their machine and go to breakfast.

Meanwhile, Marshall's warning arrives in Honolulu. It's not marked "urgent," so messenger Tadao Fuchikami rolls out on his Indian Scout motorcycle to deliver the telegram on his normal rounds.

At 7:50 a.m., Fuchida's lead Val dive bomber swoops in on Pearl Harbor to find the defenses unmanned, no AA fire or fighter patrols. "We've made it!" he says, and sends the famous "Tora, Tora, Tora," message, which is heard on Akagi and in Japan. His planes roar in on their attack courses, amazing American sailors and Marines, who are busy preparing for 8:00 a.m. morning colors. At 7:53, the first bomb falls at the foot of the seaplane ramp at Pearl Harbor. In Washington, the Japanese are still typing up their message for Cordell Hull.

At Pearl Harbor, Oree Miller is reading letters from home in his office aboard USS Arizona. On USS Nevada, Lt. Joe Taussig, the officer of the deck, is wondering which size American flag to fly. On Arizona, SA Carl Christiansen waits with his brother, SN E.L. Christiansen, to go on liberty. E.L. remembers that he's left something behind, and goes below to find it. On USS Oklahoma, QM1 H.S. Kennedy, father of NASU's last CO, is standing by his rack after returning from his morning shower. On USS Maryland, SK3 Felder Crawford is reading the Sunday funnies, in which Navy Bob Steele deflects an unknown air attack on his destroyer. SN Leslie Vernon Short is addressing Christmas cards in the battleship's foretop. Pharmacist's Mate William Lynch, aboard California, hears a shipmate call: "The Russians must have a carrier visiting us. Here come some planes with the red balls showing clearly." In Ford Island's CPO family housing, Chief Albert Molter does some housework. On the north side of the harbor, 14-year-old Don Morton finds the fish are biting. At the front gate, the Marine guard stands tall as local photographer Tai Sing Loe readies his camera.

The Japanese swing in simultaneously from three directions, grooving torpedoes up the harbor. They sink five battleships in 20 minutes. Arizona meets her fate when a bomb hits her magazine, killing 1,177 sailors, including Rear Adm. Isaac Kidd and E.L. Christiansen. The force of the blast shakes Mitsuo Fuchida's plane overhead, and hurls Radioman Glenn Lane clean off the battleship's quarterdeck.

Oklahoma takes 12 torpedoes and capsizes, trapping 125 men. Only 32 are ultimately pulled free. California and West Virginia are torn apart by bombs and torpedoes, and sunk. After a gallant effort to break out, Nevada is forced to ground herself on Barber's Point. 188 American aircraft, lined up in the center of their runways to guard against sabotage, are destroyed on the ground.

'The War is On'

The immediate American reaction is shock, horror, and disbelief. Army officers at Hickam Air Base think the Marines are doing "realistic maneuvers" against the Navy. A Marine at MCAS Ewa yells, "Some Army pilot has gone nuts, he's diving on HQ and shooting!" A Navy officer shouts about another Army "SNAFU." But the Americans soon get the picture. A chief on the cruiser Honolulu tells his men, "The war is on, the Japs are here!" One of his sailors, charging up the ladder, mutters, "I didn't even know they were sore at us."

There are numerous examples of valor on both sides. One Japanese pilot flies his damaged plane into the side of the seaplane tender Curtiss, becoming the war's first Kamikaze. The tender survives to sail on Operation Deep Freeze II in 1956. Two midget submarines penetrate the harbor, giving destroyer crews a scare, but doing no damage before they are rammed and sunk.

American valor is enormous. Sailors, marines, airmen, and soldiers show no signs of panic, calmly manning their stations. Capt. Mervyn Bannion fights his battleship West Virginia until well after he is mortally wounded. Steward Dorie Miller, an African-American, mans a machine gun and knocks down an enemy plane, even though he was never trained to use the weapon. Ensign Nathan Asher, a Jew, senior officer on the destroyer USS Blue, conns his ship out of the harbor. Lts. Robert Taylor and Charles Welch get their antique P-40 fighters in the air and shoot down four enemy planes.

Chaplain Howell Forgy tells his men on USS Honolulu that services are cancelled, but to "praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." AOC John Finn, lying in bed when the raid begins, runs out to the Kaneohe Naval Air Station flightline, sets up a machine gun, and opens up on enemy planes. "Although painfully wounded many times, he continued to man his gun and return the enemy's fire vigorously, and with telling effect through the enemy strafing and bombing attacks, and with complete disregard for his own personal safety," reads his Congressional Medal of Honor citation.

On Maryland, Leslie Vernon Short does a double-take when he sees the Japanese planes, and opens fire with the ready .50-caliber machine gun, helping to save his ship. On Arizona, Oree Weller races to his battlestation, a searchlight tower on the mainmast, reaching it just before the ship's magazines explode. The noise is deafening, the vibration like an earthquake. Weller calmly disconnects and stows his sound-powered phone before climbing down the mainmast, and swimming through oil-covered water to a rescue launch. SN Don Stratton is burned over 60 percent of his body, and has to climb hand over hand to the repair ship USS Vestal, moored alongside.

On Oklahoma, H.S. Kennedy and his shipmates are trapped by rushing water. At the Navy Hospital, LT Harry Walker, the cruiser New Orleans' doctor, hobbling on a cast-wrapped leg, stays on his feet for six hours, tending the wounded. RMC Thomas Reeves manhandles ammunition in a smoky passageway on California until he falls unconscious and dies. MM2 Robert Scott stays at his post, feeding air to the five-inch guns as water fills his compartment, and dies at his post.

On Maryland, CAPT W.R. Carter, Chief of Staff for BATDIV Three, tells CDR W.F. Fitzgerald, "We can't do much good up here. Let's go down to the guns and give them a hand." The two officers then help man AA batteries. Yard worker Harry Danner drops his boring bars to man a gun crew.

On the 110-foot garbage scow YG-17, BMC L.M. Jansen trains his craft's sole fire hose on the blazing West Virginia.

Some folks cling to routine. At Wheeler Field, an ordnance sergeant refuses to issue weapons without written authorization. Lieutenant Robert Overstreet bellows, "Hell, man, this is war," and the noncom gives in. Shipyard worker Ed Sheehan, urgently summoned to the Shipfitter's Shop, stops to punch the time clock before going to 1010 dock to burn holes in the capsized minelayer Oglala. Ensign Bill Ingram, who swims from Oklahoma to Maryland to man a flak gun, is rebuked by Maryland's officer of the deck for failing to wear his cover at his battle station.

On West Virginia, Marine Corps Field Musician Dick Fiske blows "General Quarters" into the loudspeaker. On USS Maryland, the bugler tries to do the same, but the officer of the deck, finding the bugle too make-believe, tosses the trumpet into the harbor and yells into the 1MC instead. A Nevada bandsman, manning his AA gun, puts his trumpet to even worse use: he loads it accidentally into the gun and shoots it at the Japanese. At Schofield Barracks, Bugler Frank Gobeo can't even remember the call for "Stand to," so he blows "Pay Call," instead, which brings the men hurtling out of the barracks.

On Nevada, a bomb blast costs ENS Joe Taussig his leg, but he determinedly stays at his post as officer of the deck. American AA shells, improperly fused, whistle off towards downtown Honolulu and hit flyweight boxer Toy Tamenahaha, who loses both his legs. Ashore, American naval officers can only stand and watch helplessly, among them officers from the blasted Arizona and Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, CINCPAC.

Some ships make a dash for it—most notably Nevada, which is forced to beach herself—but others make it to sea during or after the attack, among them the cruiser Phoenix, which will survive World War II to be sold to Argentina, becoming the General Belgrano. She is ultimately sunk by the British nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror in 1982. USS Honolulu gets out after her deck crew jettisons her captain's beloved hand-crafted main brow, hurling it on the dock with a splintering crash.

Around 9:45 a.m., the Japanese withdraw. They leave behind battleships that are broken, crippled wrecks, spouting orange flame and black smoke. Arizona, her superstructure tilted crazily, is covered with oily clouds. At Kaneohe Naval Air Station, AOC John Finn recalls, "After the last plane passed over, there was absolute silence, other than planes crackling and burning."

When the Japanese aircraft return to their carriers, they expect to be refueled and re-armed for a second attack, to eliminate Pearl Harbor's drydocks and fuel tanks. But VADM Chuichi Nagumo says, "We may conclude that the anticipated results have been achieved." He fears counterattack by American submarines and carriers. He won't press his luck. He orders his fleet to withdraw.

While Nagumo makes up his mind, in Japan, Adm. Yamamoto, following the battle by radio, whispers, "Admiral Nagumo is going to withdraw." Minutes later, Yamamoto gets word of Nagumo's decision.

Later that day, the carrier USS Enterprise sails into Pearl Harbor. Had the Japanese launched a second attack, they would have caught her. Instead, Enterprise refuels during the night, is underway by dawn, and goes on to an unparalleled war record.

Marshall's warning message arrives hours after the attack begins. Army Gen. Walter Short, reeling from the disaster, sends a copy to his Navy opposite number, Kimmel, then tosses the message in the garbage.

No Warning

The human toll is 2,330 Americans, including 34 pairs of brothers on Arizona alone. The Japanese lose 29 aircraft, five midget submarines, and 64 men. Ens. Kazuo Sakamaki, unable to find Pearl Harbor, abandons his malfunctioning sub, swims ashore, collapses from exhaustion in front of National Guard Sgt. David M. Akui, and becomes America's Prisoner of War No. 1.

All across the Pacific the war begins with authority. Japanese ships and planes attack Guam, Wake, and Midway. 24,000 troops invade Malaya. Japanese bombers smack Singapore that night, which is fully lit. In the chaos of war's outbreak, nobody can find the keys to turn off the master switch. At Hong Kong, Japanese bombers swoop down on Kai Tak Airport, and destroy all five Royal Air Force planes on the ground.

In Shanghai, the Anglo-American-ruled International Settlement, surrounded by Japanese forces, falls quickly. The British gunboat HMS Peterel, commanded by New Zealand Lt. Steve Polkinghorn, is scuttled. However, the U.S. gunboat USS Wake, after a stiff fight, is captured and pressed into Japanese service. U.S. Marines in Tientsin are swiftly arrested by Japanese troops.

In Rastenburg, Germany, Adolf Hitler learns of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. "Now it is impossible for us to lose the war!" he tells flunky Walter Hewel. "We now have an ally who has never been vanquished in 3,000 years!" Hitler summons his admirals to order them to deploy U-boats off the American coast. The admirals and generals, however, suggest that Hitler should not anger the United States. The Fuhrer dismisses their position, saying that America is only capable of making razor blades, chewing gum, and Hollywood starlets.

The same day, the Nazis begin their long-planned campaign of gassing Jews to death at their extermination camps in Poland. 700 Jews are taken from the small Polish town of Kolo, driven to Chelmno, and placed into special vans, which drive off. By the time the journey is over, 80 Jews are dead, gassed by exhaust fumes which have been channelled back into the van. The bodies are flung into a specially dug pit, and the van is sent back to Chelmno. It takes eight or nine trips to gas all the Jews.

And, due to the outbreak of war, SS leader Reinhard Heydrich postpones a conference set for Berlin's Wannsee Hotel, to discuss the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," until January.

In Britain, Winston Churchill is dining with U.S. Ambassador John Winant, when he gets the news. Churchill's butler hears it on the radio. "We are all in the same boat now," Churchill says.

In the United States, the news of Japan's attack floods across the country like a shock wave. Many football fans find out when a Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants game is broken up (as Bruiser Kanard tackles Ward Cuff's kickoff return at the 10-yard line) in a radio flash. Among those at the game in the Polo Grounds is Henry Kissinger. John F. Kennedy is at another football game in Washington when he learns of the attack. Richard Nixon finds out as he's leaving a movie theater with his wife, Patricia.

Franklin D. Roosevelt finds out when he gets the call from Navy Secretary Frank Knox, while working on his stamp collection. Secretary of War Henry Stimson orders troops to set up AA guns on the White House roof, then plunges into a series of conferences to get the war organized.

New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia orders his city blacked out and warns his citizens to stay calm, that the city might be attacked. CBS radio reacts by cancelling a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado and replacing it with HMS Pinafore, "in honor of the Royal Navy."

In Washington, a superpatriot chops down four Japanese cherry trees in the Tidal Basin.

Long lines pile up in front of recruiting offices. When one New Yorker finds the Army line too long, he switches to the Navy. More than 28,349 will enlist by year's end.

Brig. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, just off maneuvers in San Antonio, Texas, gets the call from his boss, Gen. Walter Krueger, and tells his wife, "I have to go to headquarters. I don't know when I'll be back." It will be four years.

In Norfolk, news that the U.S. is in the war is greeted aboard USS Washington with excitement. Some officers make jokes about the Japanese being myopic and buck-toothed. But Lt. Cdr. Hank Seely, gun boss, a China veteran, tells his shipmates that he has seen them in action around Shanghai, and "These guys are really tough." The radio plays the "Star Spangled Banner," and all stand and sing the anthem. Then, without word from the bridge, the battleship's crewmen all go calmly to their battlestations to check their ship's equipment.

In Japan, the war is announced as an Imperial Rescript, by radio. All citizens are told to face their radios in a "respectful manner." The rescript, read in Court Japanese by an official, blames the U.S. and Britain for the war. The Tokyo stock exchange soars after the message, and members of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association go to the Palace to celebrate and pray for the Emperor. "100 Million Bullets of Steel!" blares the Asahi Shimbun. "We cannot lose!"

Italy's Ambassador to Japan issues a statement hailing the attack, then drives over to a shop to buy out Tokyo's last supply of English Dunhill pipes. A Japanese writer notes that while he feels the excitement of the attack, he can't help noting that Japan's automotive industry is a disaster, and the only decent vehicles in the Japanese military are Chevrolet and Dodge trucks captured in China. Takashi Hiraoka, then a schoolboy, today the mayor of Hiroshima, has a more personal reaction. He's gleeful, because he thinks a scheduled English language exam will be postponed. It isn't. "I realized that life was never simple," he says later.

Isoroku Yamamoto.


At 2:30 p.m. in Washington, an hour after the attack begins, Japanese Ambassador Saboru Kurusu finally presents his note to Cordell Hull, who knows of the attack. Hull does not bother to ask the Japanese to sit. Hull is stunned that the Japanese should attack first and declare war later. "In all my 50 years of public service," he tells Kurusu, "I have never seen a document more crowded with falsehoods and distortions—on such a scale that I never imagined any government on this planet was capable of uttering them." He then orders the Japanese to leave.

In the wardroom of the Japanese battleship Nagato, the day's tally is brought to Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet. He expresses approval that the American battleships have been sunk, but notes that the Japanese declaration of war reached the Americans well after the attack began, although the Emperor had insisted on a half-hour's warning.

"I cannot imagine anything that would infuriate the Americans more," Yamamoto tells his officers.

Pick up Great Pacific War and attack or defend Pearl Harbor

David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.