The disintegration of the Chinese Empire under Qing Dynasty and the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad allowed Imperial Russia to coerce the use the warm water Port Arthur on the Manchurian Liaodong Peninsula. The newly expansionist Imperial Japan, fresh from a massive and rapid technological, military, and industrial revolution during the Meiji Restoration, negotiated with Imperial Russia for a free hand in Korea while the Russians occupied Manchuria. The Russians had no respect for the upstart Japanese and even welcomed war with them as a way of reconsolidating Tsar Nicolas II rule. However, Russia was confident the Japanese would not declare war or attack because Russia was vastly superior to the Japanese in every conceivable strategic and tactical category, even 4000 miles away on the Pacific coast.
On the night of 8 February 1904, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet’s base at Port Arthur initiating the Russo Japanese War. Japanese destroyers struck the brightly lit and minimally manned Russian cruisers and battleships in outer harbor with a new weapon, the motorized torpedo. The new torpedoes were unreliable and inaccurate, and only three hit their targets and detonated. Fortunately for the Japanese, they severely damaged the Russian’s two largest battleships and Japanese battleships finished what the small Japanese destroyers started. The remaining Russian ships retreated to Port Arthur’s inner harbor under the protective guns of its landside fortifications. The Battle of Port Arthur relinquished Russian naval superiority in the Pacific to the Japanese. The Japanese invaded Korea the next day, and finally declared war on Russia two days later on 10 February 1904.
The Japanese, with air dropped torpedoes, would repeat the maneuver much more effectively 37 years later at Pearl Harbor.
When the 183 Japanese planes of the first wave approached Pearl Harbor from the north without any resistance from the Americans, LtCmdr Mitsuo Fuchida, the commander of the Japanese air strike, signaled to Adm Nagumo the code words “Tora Tora Tora” (tiger, tiger, tiger) which indicated the attack began with complete surprise. Five minutes later, Cmdr Logan Ramsey, Ops officer of Patrol Wing Two, attempted to get the tail number of a plane he thought was flying recklessly. But he recognized the red “meatball” on the plane’s wing and immediately sent out the radio message in plain English, “Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.”
Fuchida had six objectives for the first wave. The first five were Pearl Harbor’s air defenses: Wheeler and Hickham Army Airfields, Ford Island and Kaneohe Naval Air Stations, and Ewa Marine Air Station. Most of the planes on these airfields were destroyed before they could get off the ground. And many even before the ammunition could be distributed to the anti-aircraft defenses, which despite repeated war warnings was still locked up in distant armories. Nevertheless, in the chaos, men fought back, including mechanics on Wheeler who threw wrenches at the low flying Japanese. Or more effectively, Chief Petty Officer John Finn, who pulled a .50 Caliber machine gun from a damaged PBY and fought through 21 separate wounds to earn the first Congressional Medal of Honor of the Second World War. Or an unknown marine at Ewa who stood in the middle of the runway firing his pistol at the low strafing planes. The official Japanese records of the attack refer to him at “The Bravest American”. The Japanese pilots specifically targeted him, like jousting knights, but as far they knew the young marine survived the attack. A large portion of the Japanese casualties at Pearl Harbor came by way of that most mocked and denigrated Army and Marine rank, the second lieutenant; eight of whom courageously took off into the teeth of the Japanese onslaught in far inferior planes to take them on at 20-1 odds.
While the Japanese bombed and strafed the airfields, Fuchida personally supervised his pilots at his sixth and primary objective – Battleship Row. There the eight battleships of the US Battleship Divisions 1, 2 and 4 sat. The surprise attack caught the ship’s crews preparing for the day. On the USS Nevada, the band played for morning colors just as the Japanese attacked. They finished despite being strafed because, “It was inconceivable to break formation during the Star Spangled Banner.” Specially designed low draft Japanese torpedoes struck the Nevada moments later, along with her sisters the USS Arizona, California, West Virginia, and Oklahoma. The torpedoes sank the West Virginia and capsized the Oklahoma. In spite of the surprise, the sailors were a bit more prepared to fight than their land based brethren as they had their ammunition on board. During Sunday morning mass on the cruiser USS New Orleans, the chaplain Lt.jg. Howell Forgy blessed his gunners, and told them to “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” On the West Virginia, Messmate Third Class Doris Miller manned a .50 Cal in the conning tower, a weapon he was unfamiliar with, until his ammunition ran out. Miller would receive a Navy Cross for carrying many of his wounded comrades to safety before the West Virginia sank.
After the torpedo bombers, Japanese dive bombers dropped specially converted 16in armor piercing battleship shells on the giant American targets. They would damage every battleship on the Row, but one hit in particular caused nearly half of the American casualties that day. Like her sisters, the Arizona was a battleship developed for the last war. Her armored citadel, the area that protects the vital areas of the ship, could withstand a hit from largest shell of that time, 14”. One of the dive bombers managed to place its converted 16in shell right above the forward magazine, where it penetrated. Seven seconds later a catastrophic explosion destroyed the ship, killing 1100 sailors instantly.
The entire island seemed to be on fire. In 90 minutes, eight battleships and eight other ships were sunk or damaged, 300 aircraft destroyed, and 3700 soldiers, sailors, marines, and civilians were killed or wounded by two waves of Japanese carrier based aircraft. Despite the damage done, Fuchida wanted a third attack to destroy the fuel farms, dockyards, and repair facilities. But he was overruled by Adm Nagumo: most of the Japanese losses occurred during the second wave, and the American carriers were not in port and therefore an unknown threat. Also, the fuel situation would be critical if the Kido Butai lingered which it would have to do all day if a third strike was launched. By noon, all aircraft were recovered, and the Japanese were racing home.
Nagumo would regret his decision for the rest of the war.
The 6th of December, 1941 was a typical American Fall Saturday. College football ruled the radio waves. UCLA played their big rivalry game against USC. Tens of thousands tuned in, and were disappointed when the game finished tied at 7-7. There was another big game that day: the Evergreen Bowl in Tacoma, where Texas A&M upset Washington State in a 7-0 nail biter. When the games ended, there was a better than even chance that the first song to emit from the speakers was Glenn Miller’s smash hit, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”. That evening, kids and adults alike flocked to the theater to see the new Tom and Jerry short, “The Night Before Christmas”. And when the kids went to bed the adults saw John’s Huston’s genre launching classic, “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre which was still huge at the box office, despite it’s premier over a month before. The newspapers were filled with bad news: Moscow and Alexandria were about to fall, Japan moved more troops into Indochina, the “Flying Tigers” were having a tough time in China, and U boats were sinking American ships in the Atlantic. So people couldn’t get enough of the Maltese Falcon: it was a dark movie for dark times, and unlike anything they’d ever seen.
That afternoon, about the time Tom was playing on the piano and Jerry, unusually by his side, singing, President Roosevelt made an appeal directly to the Japanese emperor to continue negotiations, which had stalled since the 25th of November. Down the street from the White House, US code breakers were furiously decoding the first thirteen parts of a “14 Part Message” detailing Japanese grievances against the US and Western nations. They had cracked the Japanese “Purple” code months before but this message was to be delivered to President Roosevelt promptly at one pm the next day by the Japanese ambassador, Kichisaburō Nomura. They had to get the text to Secretary of State Cordell Hull before that happened.
Meanwhile, across the world, five Japanese I-boats launched five midget submarines off of Oahu who then began the painstaking process of infiltrating the mouth of Pearl Harbor. Further north, another I-boat, I-72, reported no American ships at Lahaina Roads which removed the last possibility of the Americans detecting the Kido Butai before it launched, as it sailed behind a rain squall. Below decks of the six Japanese aircraft carriers, crewmen rolled the large specially modified torpedoes and armored piecing bombs toward their planes, while pilots continued with ship identification games and route rehearsals for the upcoming attack.