What It Was Like to Watch Japan Destroy America's Battleships at Pearl Harbor
One of the defining images of the 20th century is the horrifying moment when the battleship USS Arizona exploded in a cataclysmic fireball at 8:10 am on Sunday, December 7, 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into the most destructive war in human history.
Nearly every American who is old enough can remember where they were and what they were doing on December 7. But there were thousands of young men whose lives and destinies were forever changed in those hours as the Japanese planes tore into the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Today the number of men, survivors who served on the ships moored along Ford Island’s famous Battleship Row is dwindling. Old men now, they are white haired with slow movements and shuffling feet, but their minds, filled with visions of an apocalypse they never imagined, are as sharp as ever.
Target: Pearl Harbor
On that peaceful Sunday morning nearly the entire fleet was in port. The battleship California was moored far ahead of the paired Maryland and Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia, Arizona and the repair ship Vestal, and the lone Nevada. Pennsylvania was in drydock at the Navy Yard near the destroyers Cassin and Downes and the minelayer Oglala. More destroyers and submarines were tied to piers past the Navy Yard.
The target ship Utah and cruisers Helena, Honolulu, Detroit, and Raleigh were on the west side of Ford Island. All in all, more than 90 vessels were in Pearl Harbor that morning.
At 7:55 am the roar of aircraft engines shattered the early morning air. The first attack by 183 bombers and fighters was carefully planned to close in from all directions in a deadly inescapable web of destruction.
The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi’s 1st VT Squadron’s 12 Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers, led by Lt. Cmdr. Shigeharu Murata, swept in a turn from the southeast to line up on the oblivious ships of Battleship Row. Behind them were 12 more from the carrier Kaga. Sixteen Kates from the carriers Hiryu and Soryu came in from the southwest toward the west side of Ford Island. Each carried a 1,870-pound Type 91 torpedo, specially modified to run in the shallow waters of the harbor. They were also fitted with two warheads to defeat the battleships’ armor belt.
Far overhead, 30 Kate level bombers from the Akagi and Kaga put their crosshairs on the scrubbed teak decks of America’s vaunted battle fleet. Under the fuselages of the Kates were 1,700-pound Type 99 armor-piercing bombs modified from 16-inch naval shells.
Lieutenant Commander Kakuichi Takahashi’s 27 Aichi D3A1 “Val” dive bombers from the carrier Shokaku attacked the Ford Island Naval Air Station and Hickam Army Air Field with 550-pound Type 98 general-purpose bombs. Another 27 dive bombers from the carrier Zuikaku went after Wheeler Airfield and Schofield Barracks. Forty-four Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters provided an air umbrella for the attacking bombers.
“Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is Not a Drill!”
None of the American sailors, Marines, soldiers, or airmen knew they were about to go to war. The Vestal was tied up on Arizona’s port side. “We were there to do some work on her,” said Radioman John Murphy of Oxnard, California. “I was coming off my watch, but wanted something to do. The officer of the deck suggested I go ‘next door’ to the Arizona and make a mail run. I had to wait for the OOD (officer of the day) to sign the weather report before I could go over. The sky was clear and quiet. Nothing was happening.”
The Nevada was tied up aft of the Arizona. Her band was just finishing Morning Colors when the Kates bore in and released their torpedoes.
Oklahoma was outboard of Maryland. “I was going to go ashore on liberty and was in the shower,” said Yeoman First Class Ray Richmond. “Suddenly it felt as if someone had picked up the ship, shook it, and dropped it. I hit the overhead.”
Thinking of the Army’s habit of dropping sandbags on ships for practice, he thought. “Oh, those Army planes are dropping really big sandbags on us.”
“But then,” he continued, “the ship shuddered again, and I heard the general alarm and bolted for the door. I was naked as a jaybird, but I went to my battle station on Number 5 Port 5-inch, 51-caliber gun.” Richmond felt the huge battleship start to heel over to port from three torpedo hits. “Then the lights went out.”
John Murphy was waiting for the OOD on Vestal. “We saw these planes coming in low,” he recalled. “One man said, ‘Why is the Army practicing on Sunday morning? Then the bombs began falling. I ran to the radio room and got to work. One of the first messages I picked up was ‘Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill!’ No kidding, I thought.”
Vestal took two hits. “One bomb hit the crew’s mess and the other scored a hit where we stored the steel plate,” remembered Murphy. “If that steel hadn’t been there, the armor-piercing bomb would have gone right through the bottom of the ship.”