Tuesday, December 7, 2010

December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor Raid Destroys Two Carriers

At 7:48 AM, Hawaiian time, the air raid on the American fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor began as the Japanese Operation Z came to completion. For several hours, cacophony and pandemonium reigned over the base, with more than three thousand killed, thousands more wounded, and nine ships sunk with another dozen damaged. It was truly a date that would live in infamy, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt would report to the American public the next day as Congress began its proceedings to vote a declaration of war that would bring the United States into World War II.

What was a haven of misfortune for the American Pacific Fleet became even worse as fateful flukes brought two of America’s three aircraft carriers to the harbor. Bad luck had haunted the USS Lexington as it had prepared to venture with Task Force 12 to carry marine aircraft in reinforcement of Midway Island, long expected to be the battleground for a Japanese attack, if any. Engine troubles had kept the Lexington at Pearl Harbor with engineers baffled and working to improve repairs that had been overly hasty some time before. The Enterprise, meanwhile, had seemed to carry good luck, arriving into port a day ahead of schedule on December 6 thanks to catching favorable current from a distant storm. The two carriers were well placed near Battleship Row for the Japanese torpedo-bombers to destroy both.

By afternoon of December 7, the USS Saratoga was the only American carrier in the Pacific. It raced into action to reinforce Wake Island, stopping at the devastated Pearl Harbor along the way only long enough to refuel, but was forced to turn back when the Japanese conquered Wake with the remainder of its attacking fleet on its return from Hawaii. Running patrols and hoping to recoup, the States soon launched the USS Hornet, which had been laid down in 1939 and commissioned only two months before. In a strike that would be tactically negligible but key to American propaganda, the Hornet would serve and the launching platform for the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo on April 18, 1942,, showing the American and Japanese public alike that the US could strike wherever it wished.

In retaliation for Tokyo, Yamamoto realized the need for a strong buffer from US ships and determined to strike at Midway. The US Navy had always anticipated the attack, and the battle would be the second large-scale altercation of the Pacific War after the devastating loss at Coral Sea. Despite having broken Japanese code and inflicting heavy losses, the Americans would be forced to surrender with the sinking of the Hornet as they simply did not have the manpower to throw back the Japanese attack, much as had happened at Coral Sea the month before, where the Lexington had been sunk.

With these two major losses, the Japanese Empire stood almost unopposed in the Pacific. The Aleutian Campaign saw brutal US Marine defense against a Japanese island-hopping campaign that inflicted frustration among commanders. Meanwhile in the South Pacific, the Japanese fleet transported its army into swift invasions of New Zealand and Australia. While principle population centers such as Sydney and Auckland and important resources such as Australian copper mines were firmly controlled, the Aussies and Kiwis launched guerrilla campaigns from the mountains and Outback. Japanese soldiers would struggle through the war simply to maintain a semblance of control amid ambushes, sabotage, and assassination, which were traded by death-marches through the Australian desert and bitter treatment in prisoner-of-war camps.

It would not be until 1944 that Allied fortunes in the Pacific began to change for the better. The successful taking of the Gilbert Islands led to a new campaign that brought the liberation of New Zealand that June, followed by Australia that August. Challenging the Japanese oil supplies from the Dutch East Indies, General Douglas MacArthur finally made good on his promise to return to the Philippines in the counter-attacks of the fall of 1945. That December 7, four years after the war had begun, at President Truman’s authorization, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. A second would be dropped shortly after, and the Japanese emperor, citing specifically the pressure of Soviet invasion from occupied Korea, surrendered.

While many speculate what might have happened had the US Pacific Fleet been at full strength with its carriers after Pearl Harbor, it is a somber memory of what did in fact occur. From the agony of occupied Oceana to the jungle warfare of Southeast Asia to the genocide in China and the vicious bloodlettings in the Aleutians, the Pacific theater of WWII serves as a grave reminder of the terrible actions of war-hungry men. Since then, we have seen the marginal peace of the Cold War and Pax Americana interrupted at times by greed and wrath such as communist Korea’s periodic baiting missile-launches toward capitalist Japan.

In reality, neither the Lexington nor the Enterprise were at Pearl Harbor the morning of the seventh. With undamaged carriers and incredible effort in repairing and embiggening the Pacific fleet, the Allies held Japan at Coral Sea and Midway, turning back the tide of war that could have spread its destruction much, much further.

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