Pearl Harbor Day: A timeline of the attack on American soil

Every December 7, Americans observe Pearl Harbor Day to remember the attack that led to the U.S. declaring war on Japan, entering World War II

Pearl Harbor, U.S.
Flaming oil throws a billow of smoke during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), on December 7, 1941.AP
Alonso Martínez

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was a neutral country in World War II. The country was in negotiations with Japan over the future of the Pacific. The Japanese mainly wanted the U.S. to end its sanctions against Japan and to cease its aid to China in the Second Sino-Japanese war. As they anticipated a negative response, Japan sent its naval attack groups near Oahu, in northern Hawaii, an American territory.

The attack was carried out before Japan made any formal declaration of war. Although the military intended to declare war 30 minutes before the attack, the message didn’t got to Washington until hours later.

Americans now observe the National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (or Pearl Harbor Day) on December 7, to remember and honor the Americans who were killed in the surprise attack that lasted around four hours. This is how the events of that “infamous” day were unfolded.

Timeline of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941

3.42 a.m. The USS Condor, an American minesweeper, sights a submarine periscope near the entrance to Pearl Harbor.

Two Man Japanese Submarine used at Pearl Harbour
A two person submarine similar to the ones used by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor.Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

6.10 a.m. The first wave of planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy —with nearly 200 planes— takes off from aircraft carriers around 275 miles north of Oahu.

6:45 a.m. The United States fire its first shots in World War II when the USS Ward shoots on a Japanese submarine.

6:53 a.m. The captain of USS Ward radios The Fourteenth Naval District. “We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area”. The district commandant takes no action believing it to be an isolated incident.

7:02 a.m. A U.S. Army radar operator sights a large formation of aircraft heading towards Oahu.

7:20 a.m. A lieutenant dismisses the radar report, as he believes it was a flight of U.S. planes. Some B-17 bombers were to arrive that day.

7:40 a.m. At this time, the first wave of Japanese aircraft reaches Oahu.

7:48 a.m. The Japanese wave’s commander gives the order for the attack on Pearl Harbor proceeds. The fighter planes begin dropping bombs on the harbor.

7:55 a.m The attack on Pearl Harbor begins.

8.10 a.m. The battleship USS Arizona explodes after an attack. 1,117 officers and seamen are killed, almost half of the casualties of the attack.

USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
The USSS Arizona belches smokes as it topples over into the sea during the attack.AP

8:17 a.m. The USS Helm sinks a Japanese submarine at the entrance of Pearl Harbor.

8.54 a.m. The second wave of Japanese aircraft —around 170 planes— begins its attack.

9:30 a.m. The USS Shaw explodes after an attack.

10.00 a.m. The Japanese turn back to their carriers.

353 Japanese planes were involved in the attack. 29 of those planes didn’t return to their carriers. A total of 2,404 American military personnel and civilians died after the attack, while only 64 Japanese officers and seamen were killed and one was taken prisoner.

The shattered wreckage of American planes bombed by the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbor is strewn on Hickam Field, Dec. 7, 1941
The shattered wreckage of American planes bombed in the attack.AP

The American ships classified as total losses included the battleships Arizona and Oklahoma, as well as the former battleship, later target ship Utah. Despite sustaining damage and sinking, the West Virginia underwent repairs and returned to active service. It was the sole ship attacked at Pearl Harbor that was present during Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945.

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