December 7, 1941: How the Japanese Started and Lost the War

Jake Jacobson

Eighty years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Naval Air struck at the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They used six aircraft carriers. They sank eight U.S. battleships, which were lined up in Battleship Row.

In the 1920s, U.S. Air Force General Billy Mitchell gave two demonstrations where U.S. planes sank two old battleships. The Air Force was then a part of the U.S. Army. The high commands of the Army and Navy stated that this would not occur in combat.

The Japanese recognized that planes from aircraft carriers could sink battleships. Therefore, battleships were passé. The Japanese built eight aircraft carriers. The U.S. had two, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic.

Although the Japanese had numerous spies in Hawaii, they elected to do a surprise raid. They had succeeded against both the Russians and the Chinese using this tactic. However, on Dec. 7, the U.S. carriers were out delivering outmoded airplanes to our islands in the Pacific. The Japanese did two raids that day to make sure they sank all eight battleships. They did not attack the ship repair yard, nor the submarine base, nor the fuel tanks. Hawaii has no fuel. It must be sent in.

In 1939, the U.S. built the aircraft carrier Yorktown, followed in 1940 by the Enterprise, and in 1941 was building the Hornet. We also had the Lexington from the 1920s.

In 1942 at the Battle of Coral Sea, the Japanese lost one carrier and had one badly damaged. The U.S. lost the Lexington, and the Yorktown was severely damaged.

At this time, Lt. Joe Rochefort succeeded in breaking the Japanese naval code. We surprised them at the Battle of Midway Island. Pilots from the repaired Yorktown and the Enterprise sank four Japanese aircraft carriers. We lost the Yorktown to a Japanese submarine two days after the battle. The Japanese Navy had only two carriers, and the U.S. had two as the Hornet arrived.

After Midway, the Japanese were on the defensive for the rest of the war. Their industrial output was 30% of ours. Their surprise attack had awakened the U.S. industrial ability to winning the war.