Archaeological Institute of America
Smoke pours from USS Arizona on Battleship Row during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Also visible are USS California, listing at left, USS Maryland, right of the plume, with the capsized USS Oklahoma directly beside it, and USS Neosho at right.
The two hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, might be the most heavily documented and studied in history. There are eight official investigations, from a Naval Court of Inquiry to a Joint Congressional Committee, reams of records, and enough books, oral histories, documentaries, and feature films to fill a library. Yet there are still things that can be learned about the morning when 350 Japanese warplanes killed 2,403 Americans, wounded another 1,104, and sank or severely damaged 21 ships in a coordinated attack on military sites around Oahu, Hawaii.
A number of factors have obscured details—big and small—from that day. For example, the surprise of the attack complicated eyewitness accounts. Secrecy shrouded the active war effort on both sides. And, in the aftermath, the United States rushed to rebuild its naval power in the Pacific with the greatest maritime salvage project in history, which returned all but three of the damaged ships to service. This effort begins to explain why there are few archaeological sites directly tied to December 7.
In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completed the first database of submerged cultural resources in the main Hawaiian Islands. Of 2,114 entries, just five come from the attack: two battleships in the harbor, two Japanese submarines in deep water, and a lone American seaplane. All were spared salvage—and in some cases discovery—for decades by some combination of depth, damage, and respect for the dead.
For the United States, Pearl Harbor stands alongside Yorktown, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and other iconic battlefields as a crucible of American identity. But it is different in both its freshness in memory and its inaccessibility, since most of the surviving remnants lie underwater, within active military installations, or both. It was 40 years before the underwater sites became the subject of archaeological inquiry. “We’re gaining a much more detailed understanding of the battlefield and all of its nuances,” says James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, who has been directly involved in several of the archaeological projects at Pearl Harbor. “Seventy-five years on, the view is far more comprehensive and three-dimensional, not just in terms of the major events, but also individual experiences.”
Today there are very few survivors of the attack, and fewer each year. The sites discussed here will soon be the only primary sources about an event that changed the course of the twentieth century. They are being studied not out of historical curiosity, but to ensure their stewardship for the future.
USS Arizona and USS Utah
USS Arizona burns following the explosion of its forward magazine. On the left, USS Tennessee sprays water to force away burning oil.
The broken remains of the battleship USS Arizona, in shallow water off Ford Island, are a war grave, a pilgrimage site, a potential environmental nightmare, and a focal point for the study of shipwrecks around the world and the archaeological landscape of World War II. Arizona, commissioned on October 16, 1916, was the second and last battleship in the Pennsylvania “super-dreadnought” class: 608 feet long, 33,000 horsepower, armed with 12 14-inch guns and around 30 smaller ones, and with armor up to 18 inches thick. It saw little action before it entered Pearl Harbor for the last time on December 6, 1941, and docked in berth F-7, where the repair ship USS Vestal pulled alongside it.
Arizona began to take fire almost as soon as the attack began, and men scrambled across the teak deck fighting fires. There are reports that its bottom was blown out by a torpedo that slid in under Vestal, around the same time that a torpedo fatally struck USS Utah, an older battleship used for anti-aircraft training. Then, at 8:10 a.m., crack Japanese bombardier Noburo Kanai loosed a 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb that penetrated Arizona’s deck beside the No. 2 turret and detonated the forward magazine, killing 1,177 men. At 10:32 a.m., 30 minutes after the attack ended, the ship was declared untenable and abandoned. It burned for days.
Within a week, Navy divers were examining Arizona, and over the next two years they removed turrets, sensitive material, live ammunition, machinery, the masts—and 105 bodies, though those efforts were stopped due to manpower limitations, safety concerns, and the emotional toll on the divers. In December 1942 Arizona was struck from the books of commissioned ships, its remaining casualties declared buried at sea. It was one of the three ships damaged in the attack that did not return to service, along with Utah, which still sits in the harbor, and USS Oklahoma, which was refloated but sold for scrap and lost in a storm in 1947. Dave Conlin, chief of the National Park Service (NPS) Submerged Resources Center (SRC), has led recent studies of the wreck and says, “Had Arizona not been so catastrophically wounded by the attack, or Utah been righted like they were trying to do, there would be almost no indications of what happened here.”
Once the salvage ended, no one systematically examined the wreck until NPS took over management of the site in 1980. Its condition at the time, according to a later NPS report, was “riddled with contradiction and mystery.” The SRC (then called the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit) and the Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One planned a series of dive seasons. The project began in 1983 with an unexpected revelation. It had been thought that all four of Arizona’s turrets had been removed or destroyed. But just aft of the explosion damage, divers found the No. 1 turret—intact. “Three battleship guns in a turret as big as a Greyhound bus, at a depth of 29 feet. How is it that they didn’t know about that?” says Conlin. “Everyone thought all the turrets had been removed. Unbelievable.”
The next year, NPS and the Navy began a foot-by-foot inspection and mapping project to assess the wreck and look for evidence of undocumented operational modifications, battle damage, and salvage efforts. This had never been attempted on a wreck of this scale. There were no guidelines to follow, no relevant experience or technology, save string, clothespins, measuring tape, plastic protractors, and some electronic measuring tools. But they had some expertise, particularly that of NPS’s Larry Nordby, whose work measuring cliff dwellings in the Southwest helped them adjust for the curvature of the ship. Those original measurements, according to Scott Pawlowski, chief of cultural and natural resources at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, “were just damn good.” They found that the hull plates had ripped outward 20 feet at the point of the explosion like an over-pressurized tin can. They retrieved potentially explosive materials, observed items from dishes to a Coke bottle to a fire hose, and could not find evidence of a torpedo strike. Of diving on the wreck during this time, when he was with NPS, NOAA’s James Delgado says, “It connects you to the human events that happened, those details that are intimate and personal, beyond the iconic image of a burning battleship.”
The project continued in the following years with the mapping of Utah, an often-forgotten casualty of the attack, and an unsuccessful scan for crashed aircraft and submarines. Of major concern were Arizona’s structural integrity and the estimated 500,000 gallons of bunker C fuel oil inside. Around a gallon a day still leaks from the wreck, a bright sheen visible to every visitor to the memorial. Another phase of research began around 2000 and applied the latest technology and modeling to understand how the ship is changing. Arizona has since become the best-characterized metal wreck in the world. Working with the Navy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, University of Nebraska, U.S. Geological Survey, and other partners, NPS created a detailed model of the stresses on the ship. They have studied the microbes, chemical decay products, water flow, the sediment and rock beneath it. They’re using sonar, 3-D imaging, hyperspectral cameras. “We’re bringing all these data sets together,” says Pawlowski.
“What we learned is that, yes, Arizona is corroding. Yes, Arizona is rusting. And yes, Arizona is changing,” says Conlin, “but it’s changing very, very slowly, and the best science that we have tells us that Arizona will still have significant structural integrity for at least another 150 years.” The risk of a catastrophic spill is low, he adds. Battleships don’t hold oil in a single tank, but in hundreds of cells. A recent SRC study found that, of the several places where oil emerges from the wreck, only one appears to be closely connected to a fuel storage area. The rest of the leaking oil follows a circuitous path through interior spaces, which suggests that it is distributed around the ship. Furthermore, it is thought that the oil inside inhibits the degradation of the metal and provides a buoyant force for its structure. And there’s no way to remove the oil without deeply impacting or damaging a war grave. “We are getting smarter about how we can understand Arizona,” Conlin says, “and also how we can manage Arizona.”
Another recent project has involved entering the wreck with an innovative new remotely operated vehicle developed by the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which will be used to create 3-D models of some interior spaces of the ship, measure sediment accumulation, and collect microbial communities from inside. Such sensitive work, Conlin explains, is not undertaken lightly and is not just to feed curiosity, but is in service of preservation and stewardship of the wreck and others like it. “What started as an iconic battleship, the way it was in the 1980s, becomes something more,” says Delgado. “The development of the field of marine, maritime, and nautical archaeology—you can really see it in a microcosm with the way work on Arizona has advanced.”
Type A Kō-hyōteki
The first shot of the Pacific War was not fired from a Japanese fighter, but from an American destroyer, more than an hour before the attack began. At 5:45 a.m., the cargo ship USS Antares spotted an object that might have been a submarine in the Defensive Sea Area outside Pearl Harbor. The destroyer USS Ward fired on it twice around 6:37 a.m. The second shot found its mark, and the object sank beneath Ward. On board this secret Japanese submarine, two young operators became the first casualties of the Pacific War.
Sub sightings continued throughout the attack, on both sides of the harbor entrance and even within it, where at around 8:30 a.m. the destroyer USS Monaghan rammed and sank another. Early the next morning, a small sub and a surviving crewman, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, washed ashore on the east side of Oahu. Sakamaki became America’s first prisoner of war, and the Navy got a close look at what they had been firing at.
The subs are known as Type A Kō-hyōteki–class subs, and it is now known that five were deployed in the attack. Just 81 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, with a crew of two and a 600-horsepower electric motor, each “midget” sub was transported, piggyback, on a larger submarine. They fanned out around 10 miles from the harbor entrance early on the morning of December 7. Their plan was to enter the harbor one by one, wait out the attack, and then fire their torpedoes that night. Though their role in the attack was lauded in Japan, they weren’t successful in this particular mission.
The fates of some of these subs have been a mystery. Sakamaki’s is now on display at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. The one rammed by Monaghan was raised and buried at Pearl Harbor in 1942. In June 1960, another was found by a Navy diver at Keehi Lagoon, east of the harbor entrance. The bow was removed and dumped, and the rest sent back to Japan, where it was restored and put on display at the Naval Academy at Etajima (now the Naval History Museum). That left two: the one sunk by Ward and another that may or may not have made it into the harbor.
Concerted searches for the subs began in the 1980s. Most were conducted by the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL), which operates two submersibles that ferry scientists and filmmakers to the deep ocean. Before each season, the subs do a series of dives to test their equipment. Since the early 1990s, HURL’s chief submersible pilot Terry Kerby has used the dives to search for wrecks, the midget subs in particular. “If we could use those test dives in an area where we might find something,” he says, “then we would do it.” They have made dozens of finds this way, from an old Studebaker to a Japanese aircraft-carrying submarine.
In 1992, HURL found the stern section of a midget sub, followed by the midsection in 2000 and the bow in 2001. This sub was not identified at the time, but became known as the “three-piece.” In 2002, while investigating a sonar target just outside the Defensive Sea Area, HURL found another sub, intact. They saw, just where the conning tower meets the hull, the hole made by the first shot of the war. Survey showed that Ward’s shot struck a support frame and deflected downward, creating a vent hole in the bottom of the sub, which explains why it didn’t implode as it porpoised to a soft landing a mile from its fatal encounter. “It took 10 years, but we finally found it,” says Kerby. “It was in perfect condition.”
That left the three-piece. One theory about this sub is that it made it into the harbor, all the way to the backwater called West Loch, where it fired its torpedoes and set off its scuttling charge. Then, following the West Loch disaster, a massive accidental explosion in 1944, it was picked up, cut into pieces, and disposed of. A new analysis by NOAA and HURL, which returned to examine the sub in 2013, proposes an alternate explanation. The cruiser USS St. Louis reported that as it exited the harbor at the end of the attack, two torpedoes were fired at it but struck a reef. NOAA’s James Delgado and his team found a new piece of evidence to support this—a report that a 1950–1951 marine science expedition led by George Vanderbilt III stumbled across a midget sub, blown in half, near where St. Louis had been fired upon. The report, sent to LIFE magazine by an intelligence officer named Captain Roger Pineau, stated that the sub was hauled up, cut further, and dumped. The remains of a Japanese serviceman were found nearby a few days later. Delgado and his coauthors conclude that the three-piece is indeed the final sub from the attack, but that it probably never made the difficult journey into the harbor. It was likely waiting next to the harbor entrance—like the one discovered on the other side in 1960—to block it by sinking ships as they fled the attack.
In the attack, 75 percent of the U.S. planes sitting at airfields near Pearl Harbor were damaged or destroyed. For all the aircraft lost—the Japanese lost 59—there is one that can be linked to that morning. Very few people can gain access to it, and even then only with a military escort, since it lies in the water just off Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay, on the east side of Oahu. During the war, this was the location of a Naval Air Station for PBY-5 Catalina seaplanes, long-range reconnaissance craft.
The Japanese knew that these planes could track them to their carriers north of the island. The PBY-5s had a range of almost 1,500 miles and could be in the air in minutes. So, just before the general attack, at 7:48 a.m., attacking planes strafed the Naval Air Station with 20 mm incendiary rounds and bombs. Of the 36 planes there, three were out on patrol, six were damaged, and the rest were destroyed. Servicemen at Kaneohe Bay scrambled to put out fires and salvage what they could.
In the 1980s, the mooring area was used for training mine-detecting dolphins. That could be when the battered wreck of one of the PBY-5s was first identified. In 1994, students and archaeologists from the University of Hawaii and East Carolina University surveyed the remains. “It was a good start on the submerged story,” says Hans Van Tilburg, who was on that team and is now a maritime heritage coordinator with NOAA. In 2000, the University of Hawaii returned to the site for surveys that turned up aviation-related scraps, but no other planes. It’s possible that the others had been salvaged or drifted into deeper, murkier water. “Our desire is to get back to the bay and continue looking in deeper water,” says Van Tilburg.
The remains of the plane consist of the forward portion of its fuselage, including the cockpit and turret, which lies on its starboard side in about 30 feet of water, the starboard half of the 105-foot parasol wing, and the fragmented remains of the tail 30 feet away. It is likely that fuel tanks in the center of the wing exploded, but the wrecked seaplane holds telling details about the frantic eight minutes of that initial Japanese attack.
There is a large gash in the port side, just where a propeller would have been. Inside the cockpit, the port throttle is in the forward position. Yet the plane is still attached to its mooring line. This all suggests that an attempt was made to scramble at least one of the planes—but that it didn’t get far. The wreck does not provide evidence of what happened to the pilot, or just how many planes were moored at Kaneohe that morning. Some sources say three, others four, and there are six in a drawing by a Japanese pilot. “Every eyewitness account contradicts the other accounts,” says Van Tilburg. “It’s still a bit of a mystery. But this might be the only plane we know of that we can point to and say, ‘This is a December 7 casualty.’”
Timeline of Pearl Harbor attack: What happened on Dec. 7, 1941
The minesweeper Condor is on patrol less than two miles off the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The officer of the deck sees something “about fifty yards ahead off the port bow.” He asks a sailor what he makes of the object. “That’s a periscope, sir,” the sailor replies. “And there aren’t supposed to be any subs in the area.”
The Condor sends a blinker-light message to the destroyer Ward: “Sighted submerged submarine on westerly course, speed 9 knots.”
Already in flight, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who will lead the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, sees the Japanese aircraft carriers rocking on a choppy sea. Crewmen cling to the aircraft to keep the planes from going over the side. The carriers turn into the wind, and the first wave of planes — 183 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes — roars into the sky. Pilots reconfirm their navigation by using a Honolulu radio station’s music as a guiding beam.
The U.S. destroyer Ward, having found the submarine reported by the Condor, moves in for the kill. The Ward’s captain, Lt. William W. Outerbridge, has been in command for only two days. He orders men to open fire. The second shot strikes the submarine at the waterline. The submarine heels over and appears “to slow and sink.”
A message is sent from the Ward to the 14th Naval Headquarters at Pearl Harbor Naval Station: “We have dropped depth charges upon sub operating in defensive sea area.” Then, almost immediately, a second, more detailed message: “We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area.” Outerbridge believes that the message will show superiors that the destroyer had not just seen a submarine but actually had “shot at something.”
The Army’s Opana Mobile Radar Station is one of six radar stations on Oahu. Radar is a new defense tool in Hawaii. One of the two privates on duty looks at the radar oscilloscope and can’t believe his eyes. He asks the other private to take a look — and he confirms the sighting: 50 or more aircraft on a bearing for Oahu. The privates call the Fort Shafter information center, the hub of the radar network.
The Ward had sent out its message about attacking the sub in code. At headquarters, code clerks decode the message. The message gradually makes its way to the top: Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet. Because there had been so many “false reports of submarines” recently, Kimmel decides to “wait for verification of the report.”
An Army lieutenant who is in training at the radio network operations center at Fort Shafter gets the Opana radar station report: “the biggest sightings” the radar operator had ever seen. By now the planes are about 70 miles away. The lieutenant believes that the radar had picked up a flight of U.S. B-17 bombers heading from California to Hawaii. For security reasons, he cannot tell this to the radar operators. All he says is, “Well, don’t worry about it.”
U.S. code breakers have cracked the Japanese diplomatic codes. From a Tokyo-to-Washington message, President Franklin Roosevelt and Gen. George Marshall, Army chief of staff, learn that Japanese negotiators in Washington have been told to break off talks. Believing this may mean war, Marshall sends a warning to Lt. Gen. Walter Short, commander of Army forces in Hawaii. Marshall’s message goes via commercial telegraph. (It will reach Short’s headquarters at 11:45 a.m. He will not see it until about 3 p.m.)
Japanese pilots see “a long white line of coast”— Oahu’s Kakuku Point.
Fuchida, looking down on Pearl Harbor, sees no aircraft carriers, which the Japanese hoped to destroy and thus thwart U.S. retaliation. (The carriers were on missions.) He orders his telegraph operator to tap out: attack. Then other taps: attack, surprise achieved.
At the command center on Ford Island, Commander Logan Ramsey looks out a window to see a low-flying plane. A reckless U.S. pilot, he thinks. Then he sees “something black fall out of that plane” and realizes it’s a bomb. Ramsey runs to a radio room and orders the telegraph operators to send out an uncoded message to every ship and base: AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL. The coordinated attack begins as dive bombers strike the Army Air Forces’ Wheeler Field, north of Pearl Harbor, and Hickam Field, near Ford Island’s Battleship Row. The Japanese, wanting control of the air, hope to destroy American warplanes on the ground. Most U.S. planes have been parked wingtip-to-wingtip in neat rows to make it easy to guard them against sabotage. Most are destroyed.
As part of a U.S. plan to bolster the Pacific forces, 12 B-17s had been ordered to the Philippines. The first stop is Oahu. Unaware that Japan is attacking Oahu, they prepare to land. Because they are unarmed — to save weight — the B-17s can only dodge Japanese fighters and U.S. anti-aircraft gunfire. Most manage to land intact; one touches down on a golf course.
An armor-piercing bomb, dropped by a high-altitude bomber, pierces the forward deck of the USS Arizona battleship, setting off more than 1 million pounds of gunpowder, creating a huge fireball and killing 1,177 men. A sailor on the torpedoed battleship Nevada sees the Arizona “jump at least 15 or 20 feet upward in the water and sort of break in two.” In nine minutes, the Arizona is on the bottom.
Through the flames and smoke, the destroyer Helm speeds to the open sea. As the Helm leaves the channel, a lookout spots a Japanese sub snagged on a reef. The Helm “turned hard right toward enemy submarine,” shoots — and misses. The two-person sub breaks free and submerges. But it snags again. Trying to escape from the foundering sub, one crewman drowns. The other is washed ashore — and becomes the United States’ first World War II prisoner of war.
As the destroyer Monaghan tries to “get out of that damn harbor as fast as possible,” a nearby U.S. ship signals that it has sighted a submarine. The Monaghan heads for the sub at top speed, hits it with gunfire, then rams it and drops depth charges. The charges are so close that when they explode, the blasts lift the Monaghan out of the water but do not damage it. The sinking midget submarine fire a torpedo, but it does not hit anything.
The USS Nevada battleship gets steam up in 45 minutes and, with anti-aircraft guns blazing, heads for the open sea. A sailor sees its U.S. flag flying in the smoke and thinks of the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Nevada was the only battleship able to get under way. Japanese planes of the second wave bomb the ship, hoping that by sinking the ship in the narrow channel it will bottle up the fleet. Rather than risk that, the Nevada deliberately grounds itself off Hospital Point.
The second wave — 35 fighters, 78 dive bombers, and 54 high-altitude bombers — meets heavy anti-aircraft fire. Bombers attack the Navy yard dry dock and hit the battleship Pennsylvania. Another bomber hits oil tanks between the destroyers Cassin and Downes. Onboard ammunition explodes, and the Cassin rolls off its blocks and into the Downes. Bombs hit the light cruiser Raleigh, which had been torpedoed in the first wave. Crewmen jettison gear to keep it from capsizing.
A bomb blows off the bow of the destroyer Shaw; pieces of the ship rain down half a mile away. A photo of the spectacular explosion becomes one of the best-known images of the day. Except for the Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma, every ship sunk or damaged Dec. 7 will sail again.
Japanese fighters rendezvous with bombers off Oahu and follow them back to the carriers. Of the 29 Japanese planes lost, anti-aircraft guns probably shot down 15. Exultant Japanese pilots urge a third strike. If the gasoline tanks at Pearl Harbor are hit, they reason, the Pacific Fleet will be out of action for weeks. But superiors, saying the attack has been successful, rule out a third strike. One reason: the whereabouts of the U.S. carriers is still unknown.
From the ships and airfields come the wounded — some horribly burned, others riddled by bullets and shrapnel. At some hospitals, casualties are laid out on lawns. Medics convert barracks, dining halls and schools into temporary hospitals. For many severely wounded and dying men, all nurses can do is give them morphine. They then put a lipstick M on their foreheads to indicate the painkilling drug. The death toll eventually reaches 2,390.
The Japanese strike force turns for home. In the 44 months of war that will follow, the U.S. Navy will sink every one of the Japanese aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers in this strike force. And when Japan signs the surrender document on Sept. 2, 1945, among the U.S. warships in Tokyo Bay will be a victim of the attack, the USS West Virginia.
All that was for the future; for now, everything was lost in joyful exuberance and a surge of patriotism, the likes of which might not be seen again on that campus or another. During those borrowed years before the unsought war came to America, these students had favored America’s entry into the war, or they had opposed it, or they had not known exactly where they stood, but the differences that had seemed so important didn’t really matter any longer. What needed to be done now seemed very clear.