Just before 8:00 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, the first of two waves of attacking aircraft swept over Pearl Harbor. Barely 15 minutes later the most powerful battleships of the mighty U.S. Pacific Fleet were either sunk or burning wrecks. The California was half submerged, with her keel lying in the harbor’s mud. Nearby, the West Virginia had her port side torn open. Her twisted metal was burning, but for now she was still afloat. Two other ships, the Tennessee and the Maryland, were battered, but in better shape than their sisters. Beside them, the Oklahoma had been struck by a barrage of torpedoes and capsized. The U.S.S. Nevada was the only battleship to get underway that morning, but she was damaged and had run up onto the beach. The worst fate was suffered by the U.S.S. Arizona,which blew up and sank, taking over 1,000 of her crew with her.
The following day, President Roosevelt went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. At the time, he could not have known that the attack on Pearl Harbor was only the beginning of a Japanese offensive that would conquer most of the Western Pacific. Wake Island fell two weeks later, after a truly heroic stand, and only five months after Pearl Harbor the half-starved “battling bastards of Bataan” also surrendered. Fortress Corregidor, in Manila Harbor, withstood a brutal siege for another month before it too fell, but only after the soldiers of the 4th Infantry Regiment fought off several attacks in hand-to-hand combat. By the time Corregidor was lost, 120,000 British soldiers had already surrendered Singapore to an inferior Japanese force. Furthermore, the British Army in Burma was in full retreat toward the Indian border. Capping this run of victories, the Japanese seized New Guinea and Indonesia and launched devastating air raids on northern Australia.
In those dark first months after the Pearl Harbor disaster, it was not apparent to many that Japan had already lost the war. For, despite sinking much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Japanese had missed a couple of crucial targets. Foremost among these were the huge oil-storage facilities on Oahu. Their loss would have delayed the American counterattack in the Pacific by as much as a year. One can only imagine how much more costly the conquests of Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa would have been had the Japanese had another year to fortify them. Just as important as the oil facilities were the American aircraft carriers, which were at sea when the Japanese attacked. The first of them to return, the Enterprise, sailed into Pearl Harbor the day after the attack. Surveying the wreckage from the bridge, Adm. William Halsey could not hide his dismay and anger. When asked later about how America would recover, Halsey replied, “When this war is over the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.” America had found the first of its fighting admirals.