Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941


The attack that started at 07:55 with the first of two waves was unique in its size and scope in naval aviation. Sailing from Japan to Pearl Harbor by a route that would take the Japanese Fleet through rough seas and well outside commercial shipping lanes the Japanese had reached the point north of Pearl Harbor where their strike force could be launched. The planes of the first wave dive-bombed and strafed Navy and Army airfields to keep US fighters and other planes on the ground. At the same time, low-flying torpedo planes attacked warships moored on both sides of Ford Island and at the Navy Yard's 1010 Dock. Shortly after 08:00, bombers dropped their armor-piercing bombs on Battleship Row. In 30 minutes, the first wave had completed its task; it headed back to the fleet. Then, about 15 minutes later, the second wave came on. Again, it dive-bombed, strafed, and machine-gunned anything the first wave missed. By 09:45, the second wave turned out to sea back to its carriers; behind them a twisted mass of metal that was the United States Pacific Fleet.


United States

It was a Sunday and like most mornings in Hawaii, it was beautiful. Some men were on liberty and some were sleeping-in after all it was Sunday in paradise. The Pacific Fleet was in harbor for the weekend; except for its three aircraft carriers. The Enterprise and the Lexington were at sea on their way back to port having delivered planes to Wake and Midway islands. The Saratoga was in San Diego under going refit. The band of the Arizona was among those sleeping-in for they had taken second place in a battle of bands the night before. Thus, they were lost along with the Arizona.

No one had any idea what was going to happen, nor that the day they were about to start would make history. At 0700, Army Private Joseph McDonald was manning the switchboard at the Information Center Fort Shafter waiting for his replacement to finish breakfast. Some time after 07:00:

[T]he switchboard buzzed. He inserted the plug into the phone and answered. It was the northern radar station Opana. An excited voice that he could hardly hear asked if the plotters were still around. McDonald said no. The voice from Opana said, There are a large number of planes coming in from the north 3 points east. Joseph replied, I am not sure what to do there is nobody here. At that point, the connection was broken. (Pvt. George Elliott made this call) McDonald looked at the clock to time the message and saw a Lieutenant from the Air Corps sitting at the plotting table. He walked in and said, "I just received a call from 6QN Opana reporting a large number of planes coming in from the north 3 points east." The Lieutenant said that there was nothing to get excited about. McDonald returned to the switchboard and called the man back on the Opana radar unit. McDonald relayed the Lieutenant's lack of concern. The voice at Opana was coming in stronger now. He recognized the voice as his friend Joseph Lockard. Pvt. Lockard was excited and stated that a large number of planes were heading fast towards Oahu ." Hey Mac there is a heck of a big flight of planes coming in and the whole scope is covered." McDonald told Joseph Lockard to hold on. McDonald, infected by his friend’s excitement returned to the plotting table. McDonald said, "Sir, this is the first call that I have ever received like this. This sounds serious! Do you think that we ought to do something about it? Shall I call back the plotters?" The Lieutenant said that it was probably a flight from the states. Pvt. Lockard asked to talk directly with the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant took the phone and my father could hear "Well don't worry about it." 24

That flight was, in fact, the first wave of the Japanese attack. They had taken a route from the Kurile Islands between Japan and Siberia southeast to a point 200 miles north of Pearl Harbor and launched the flight that was picked up on radar. The Lieutenant made a misjudgment. The flight approached Pearl Harbor from the north. The flight of B17s coming from the mainland would have come in from the east and would not have been so large. In fact, the expected flight of B17s numbered only twelve planes. This junior officer did not think it possible that the Japanese would attack United States soil. Thus, he did not report the approaching planes up the chain of command.

Private McDonald asked the Lieutenant if he should recall the plotters or call Wheeler Field he was told, "Don't worry about it." McDonald was still concerned:

He knew that the Lieutenant was inexperienced in the information center's operations as it was only his second day there. McDonald was pretty sure that it was serious. A number of times he grabbed the line for Wheeler Field. McDonald then thought that he could be court marshaled for going around the Lieutenant. Who would listen to a private anyway? At about 7:45 McDonald's replacement arrived. My father was exhausted after working over 14 hours yet the communication from Opana kept gnawing on his mind. He thought that he would call Wheeler from the orderly tent. He passed by the orderly tent and saw the Sergeant using the phone. He returned to his tent to tell his tent mate Pvt. Richard Schimmel "Shim the Japs are coming". McDonald sat on his bunk and recounted the call from the Opana radar. A few moments later, they could hear the drone of planes. Their tent was on a hill overlooking Pearl Harbor . Finally, they could see the planes coming over. There were a lot of them and they seemed to play follow the leader. They were flying in single file. Finally, the lead plane dived and the others followed. They could hear the loud roar of explosions and [see] black smoke.25

Elsewhere that morning Gordon E. Jones got up early and put on his best white uniform. Jones recalled:

My brother Earl had the weekend duty and I had to stay on the base. He was looking forward to playing baseball before going on watch. We had not gone to breakfast yet and some of the men were still asleep. Others were getting ready to go on watch at our seaplane hangar or on the launching ramp to guard the aircraft. A few men were waiting for the motor launch to take them out to the four aircraft that were tied up to the buoys in the bay so they could relieve the aircraft crews for breakfast. Others were getting ready to attend Sunday worship services.26

Jones and his brother were unaware that almost at the same time, they were starting their day; radar had picked up Japanese aircraft approaching Pearl Harbor.


0755 The Attack

At the Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor, LT Ruth Erickson, NC (Nurse Corps), USN had worked the 1500–2200 shift Saturday December 6; Sunday was her day off. Erickson and a few friends went to breakfast, and were talking over coffee she recalled:

Suddenly we heard planes roaring overhead and we said, "The `fly boys' are really busy at Ford Island this morning." The island was directly across the channel from the hospital. We didn't think too much about it since the reserves were often there for weekend training. We no sooner got those words out when we started to hear noises that were foreign to us.

The Lieutenant ran to the nearest window, as she remembered:

Right then there was a plane flying directly over the top of our quarters, a one-story structure. The rising sun under the wing of the plane denoted the enemy. Had I known the pilot, one could almost see his features around his goggles. He was obviously saving his ammunition for the ships. Just down the row, all the ships were sitting there--the [battleships] California (BB-44), the Arizona (BB-39), the Oklahoma (BB-37), and others.

Erickson was able to make her way back to her quarters. Her heart was racing as she recalled:

[T]he telephone was ringing, the chief nurse, Gertrude Arnest, was saying, "Girls, get into your uniforms at once, this is the real thing!"
I was in my room by that time changing into uniform. It was getting dusky, almost like evening. Smoke was rising from burning ships. I dashed across the street, through a shrapnel shower, got into the lanai and just stood still for a second as were a couple of doctors. I felt like I were frozen to the ground, but it was only a split second. I ran to the orthopedic dressing room but it was locked. A corpsmen ran to the OD's [Officer-of-the-Day's] desk for the keys. It seemed like an eternity before he returned and the room was opened. We drew water into every container we could find and set up the instrument boiler. Fortunately, we still had electricity and water. Dr. [CDR Clyde W.] Brunson, the chief of medicine was making sick call when the bombing started. When he was finished, he was to play golf... a phrase never to be uttered again.27

Meanwhile aboard USS West Virginia, Forest M. Jones was on the upper Fire Control level above the navigation deck when, as he recalled:

We saw them coming and knew they were Japs.... As they came across the harbor, we could see they were torpedo planes. I was a first class petty officer at that time and was in charge of the 5"/25 anti-aircraft directors. My crew and I immediately manned our battle stations in the gun directors before the general alarm was sounded. About that, time torpedoes started exploding against the side of the ship. We couldn’t get power to the gun directors or establish communications with the ant-aircraft guns. Realizing that our gun directors were inoperable, I elected to take my two crews to the anti-aircraft gun deck level and help place the 5" guns in operation.

A gunner’s mate and boatswain mate from the gun crew divisions were working to get the guns into operation. I detailed two of my crew to man the fuse setting mechanisms of two of the guns. Two other crewmen worked with me removing 5" ammunition stored in the topside ready service boxes. By this time torpedo, damage and fire forced the abandonment of the guns and adjacent ready service boxes on the port side of the ship. When removing ammunition from one of the ready service boxes, a large bomb struck the top of the ship’s cage mast and would have struck the ready service box where we were removing ammunition, but it was deflected by the heavy metal coaming of the Signal Bridge.

I then went back to the Navigation Bridge to see if there had been any communications from the many shipmates that were trapped below decks without any means of escape except for the long escape tube between the Central Station an the Navigation Bridge. Along with a couple other shipmates, we helped at least thirty shipmates up an out of the escape tube. Captain Bennion was still alive but fatally wounded from bomb shrapnel that hit the No. 2 turret of the inboard battleship, the Tennessee.

Joe Paul, along with an unknown fireman, manned a 40’ motor launch, assisted in taking wounded to the Hospital Point, and also recovered bodies from the harbor. It was a very sad and long day. (Forest M. Jones USS West Virginia).28

The above four personal accounts are snapshots of what many men and women were experiencing during the attack. All the men and women that were under attack stepped up and did what had to be done—nothing less than their duty; and went beyond its call. As SECNAV, Knox stated in his report just days after the attack:

The fighting spirit of the crews aboard ship and ashore was superb. Gun crews remained at their station with their guns in action until they slid into the water from the Oklahoma 's deck or were driven overboard by fires on other ships. Men ashore manned every available small boat and carried on rescue work saving the lives of the men who were driven overboard while the heaviest fighting was going on. Some of the crew of the Utah , swept from the deck of the ship as she capsized, were rescued by destroyers leaving the harbor to engage in an attack on the enemy forces. Although clad only in their underclothes, they insisted on joining the crews of the destroyers, which rescued them and went to sea….

…Once action was joined the courage, determination and resourcefulness of the armed services and of the civilian employees left nothing to be desired. Individually and collectively, the bravery of the defense was superb. In single unit combat, the American pursuit planes proved themselves superior to the Japanese and the American personnel in the air demonstrated distinct superiority over the Japanese.29

Because of the attack Navy and Marine Corps losses were in the thousands 2,117 officers and enlisted men killed, 876 were wounded; another 960 were reported as missing in Knox’s press statement of December 6, 1942. 30The Dorn report of December 1995 put total US losses at 2,403 dead (1,177 of whom are entombed in the Arizona), and 1,178 wounded. 31 Losses on that scale raised many questions from the Government and the American people some that have yet to be answered.


24 George McDonald, “Account of Joseph P McDonald Pearl Harbor Attack December 7, 1941,” accessed July 22, 2023,, 1-2. This account was given to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association by George McDonald McDonald's son, and was the best source that the author could access in 2005. See also Statement of Joseph P McDonald to Second Lieutenant Adam Huggins Signal Corps Summary Court 9 December 1941 PHA Part 30: 2471, 2518; Testimony to Army Pearl Harbor Board PHA Part 29: 2121 -2126. Both McDonald's statement and his testimony prove his son’s account to be accurate.

25 McDonald, 2-3.

26 Gordon E. Jones, Kaneohe VP-14, accessed July 22, 2023, https://keegan.wik, 1.

27 LT Ruth Erickson, (Nurse Corps), USN “Oral History of The Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941” last modified September 21, 2015, - Oral Hstories World War II LT Ruth Erickson.

28 Forest M. Jones, USS West Virginia, accessed July 22, 2023, 1-2.

29 Report by the Secretary of The Navy to the President December 14, 1941, accessed July 28, 2015, - Pearl Harbor Attack Knox, (Hereinafter SECNAV Report); PHA Part 24: 1753, 1756.

30 Office of Public Relations, U.S. Navy Press Release, December 6, 1942, accessed July 28, 2015, - Pearl Harbor Attack Knox; “8 Battleships Hit: Five Big U.S. Warcraft Damaged Badly, but Only One Is Lost Some Back In Action Toll Includes 18 Vessels, 177 Planes, 2,343 Dead and 960 Missing Pearl Harbor Toll Revealed By Navy,” New York Times, December 6, 1942.

31 Dorn Report, Footnote 28, Part 3: 6.