What if the US's aircraft carriers had been wiped out at Pearl Harbor in 1941? What if the Nevada had been sunk to block Pearl's entry? What if a third wave had been launched? This post from Francisco Meza at Hoku Tours explores what could have been.
Did the Japanese Navy Cripple US Navy Fleet During Pearl Harbor Bombing?
No! An emphatic No!
Fortunately for the Americans, the US Navy’s aircraft carriers weren’t touched in the Japanese surprise attack. Otherwise, the Pacific Fleet’s capability to conduct offensive missions would’ve been crippled for over a year (assuming no diversions were made from the Atlantic Fleet). The complete destruction of some battleships at Pearl Harbor and the partial damage of some more was a blessing for the Americans. Just six months after Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Fleet had to rely solely on its submarines and aircraft carriers in the most decisive naval battle of WWII, the Battle of Midway Islands. The Americans sunk 4 Japanese aircraft carriers. The US Navy not only halted the Japanese advance but also dealt the Imperial Japanese Navy a stunning defeat from which the Japanese never recovered.
Even before Pearl Harbor, it was evident that the real queens of naval warfare were the aircraft carriers. A single aircraft carrier was capable of sinking half a dozen battleships and winning a naval battle without firing its guns.
The Pearl Harbor Attack
On December 7, 1941, around 8 am, over 350 Japanese fighter planes mounted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a US Naval base. Although the barrage lasted under two hours, it was devastating. The Japanese carrier-based planes destroyed almost 20 vessels, including 8 prized battleships and around 200 aircraft. Over 2,400 US sailors and soldiers died in the attack. One thousand more personnel were injured.
Japan Forces US to Enter WWII Arena
The next day, the US President declared war on Japan. The US had deliberately stayed out of this messy war for over two years. But Imperial Japan’s ambitious ventures in the Pacific region resulted in this foolhardy attack on the world’s number one naval power. Three days later, Germany and Italy, the allies of Japan in WWII declared war on the US. So, the US finally joined WWII in the Atlantic as well as Pacific coasts.
Imperial Japan Inflicts Massive Damage
The Japanese had damaged and or destroyed 18 US warships and almost 200 aircraft. For the US Navy, the most important loss was, of course, over 2,400 personnel who lost their lives and another 1,000 personnel who were wounded.
What if the Japanese planes had been successful in sinking the USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor's entry point?
Fires were raging when the USS Nevada received orders at 0810 to get underway. The USS Arizona had just exploded near her and the spilled oil was burning in the adjacent waters. So this provided the urgency for Nevada to get moving. She got underway at 0840. And Nevada was the sole battleship to get underway!
The Japanese aviators were alerted about any warship attempting to escape from the harbor. They had been specifically instructed to sink any ship attempting to escape in the harbor entrance so that other warships would be effectively bottled. So, when they saw the USS Nevada’s swift sortie, they followed orders. Nevada was targeted.
However, the Japanese target selection was questionable. Even if they had managed to sink the USS Nevada bang in the center of the harbor entrance, there would be sufficient room for another warship to exit the harbor. Eventually, the sinking USS Nevada ran aground deliberately to avoid blocking the channel.
Tactically, the target selection was wrong because even 14–18 dive bombers targeting her would be futile. It’d be almost impossible to sink a massive battleship with just 250 kg bombs. More importantly, the channel’s width of 1,200 feet would make it impossible to bottle up the harbor.
US Warships Bear the Brunt of the Japanese Surprise Attack
Bombs rained onto the warships moored in the harbor. A large bomb that landed on the deck of USS Arizona caused the most devastating damage. The forward ammunition magazine located below the deck caught fire, and the ship exploded. Over 1,100 personnel were trapped inside when the ship sank. This number was almost half the casualty at Pearl Harbor that day.
USS Oklahoma suffered the second-most devastating damage that day. Torpedoes penetrated the shell of this battleship, and she sank with over 400 personnel aboard. Sixty-four personnel were killed when USS Utah was hit by a torpedo and sank. Four personnel aboard USS Maryland died, and the warship was damaged extensively. But the anti-aircraft guns on this ship brought down several Japanese aircraft. USS Maryland returned to WWII action within 6 months.
USS Nevada Draws Many Japanese Planes Away from Pearl Harbor
USS Nevada suffered extensive damage and 60 casualties but downed at least a dozen Japanese aircraft. As USS Nevada attempted to exit Pearl Harbor, the Japanese aircraft tried to sink her at the entry point. They were not successful. The Japanese target selection was faulty as they could not sink USS Nevada despite making a desperate attempt.
USS California was damaged extensively and lost over a hundred men. USS West Virginia suffered extensive damage and lost 66 sailors. USS Pennsylvania was damaged severely and lost 14 personnel. Although USS Tennessee escaped with minor damage, she lost her Commanding Officer and three other personnel. (All the battleships except USS Arizona and USS Utah were subsequently salvaged, repaired and refitted.)
The Japanese Think-Tank
Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto conceived this surprise attack. A strike force of 353 aircraft under Commander Mitsuo Fuchida was used. The attacking planes were launched from 6 heavy aircraft carriers that were accompanied by 24 supporting vessels. Another group of submarines was standing by to sink US warships that escaped the Japanese carrier force. This mission aimed at crippling the US Navy’s might in the Pacific so that the Japanese could seize control of the region.
Imperial Japan’s Intelligence Failure
Imperial Japan’s Navy failed to cripple US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The number one reason for this is that by the 1940s, battleships played a secondary role at best. They weren’t any longer the most crucial naval vessels. Aircraft carriers were the most important naval vessels. And in Pearl Harbor, none of the aircraft carriers belonging to the Pacific Fleet of the US Navy was damaged because none of them were in the vicinity. On December 7, all the carriers were away from their base. The Japanese should have known this and waited for the return of the carriers before launching their surprise attack. This error was a major Japanese intelligence failure.
The Consequences of Japanese Misadventure
Although initial appearances suggested otherwise, the Pearl Harbor attack was a total strategic failure. The Japanese Navy attacked a fleet in port. It’s extremely difficult to cause the permanent loss of a capital warship because repair facilities are available nearby. The Japanese attacked slower, almost obsolete warships. In doing so, the US Navy was alerted beforehand to rely on aircraft carriers in WWII rather than on battleships. The Japanese Navy launched the Pearl Harbor attack without any assurance that the most prized US warships—the aircraft carriers—would be present. All the three US carriers were safe elsewhere. Six months later, at Midway, these same US carriers sank 4 Japanese carriers. The Japanese Navy hurtled downward rapidly after this devastating loss.
Japanese Aircraft Leave Out Vital Targets
Although Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had over 350 warplanes at his disposal, critical base installations including the power station, torpedo storage facilities, shipyard, maintenance facilities, fuel storage facilities and submarine piers were not attacked. The Pacific Fleet’s headquarters building that housed the intelligence section was left untouched as well. These huge blunders permitted the US Navy to rebound quickly from the Pearl Harbor attack.
The Japanese launched only two waves of attack. If they had launched a third wave of attack, they could have inflicted serious damage. The Japanese didn’t launch a third wave fearing a strong backlash from a determined enemy. Consequently, the Japanese Navy was not able to cripple the US Navy Fleet during the Pearl Harbor bombing.
The Pearl Harbor attack only resulted in the US Navy embarking on an Emergency War Building Program. Immediately on entering WWII, the US Navy ordered 16 large aircraft carriers. Also, 15 new battleships and 9 small aircraft carriers were ordered. The US Navy built anti-submarine vessels, escort carriers, and destroyers to counter Japanese submarines in the Pacific. In the next 4 years, around 50,000 combat aircraft were pressed into service. Naval aviation personnel strength increased from 10,923 to 437,524. Barely 6 months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the US Navy managed to sink 4 of the 6 aircraft carriers that participated in the attack at Midway Island.