The Harbour of Hell: The extraordinary minute-by-minute stories of horror, courage and incompetence behind the Pearl Harbour attack 75 years ago  

At the beginning of December 1941, Britain was dreading imminent attack from Japan on its overseas territories. The Soviet Union was retreating from the Germans on the Eastern Front.

Yet America remained resolutely out of the war — until the Japanese conceived a devastating raid that would reshape the future of the world.

Almost exactly 75 years ago, fearing America would intervene in its military actions in the Far East, the Japanese targeted the home of the vast and powerful U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.

The events of that day remained seared onto the soul of America, and yet for Churchill they represented a turning point that would see Hitler eventually defeated, as this dramatic minute-by-minute reconstruction reveals . . .

Fearing America would intervene in its military actions in the Far East, the Japanese targeted the home of the vast and powerful U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii

Fearing America would intervene in its military actions in the Far East, the Japanese targeted the home of the vast and powerful U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii

Saturday December 6, 1941

14.00: Dorothy Edgers, a member of the U.S. Navy’s Cryptographic Department, intercepts a secret Japanese diplomatic message requesting details about ship movements at Pearl Harbour, the base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on Oahu Island, Hawaii.

Alarmed, she takes the message to her boss, but is told: ‘We’ll get back to this on Monday.’ By then it will be too late — a vast Japanese attack fleet is already stealthily on its way.

Sunday, December 7, 1941

03.00: Just over 200 miles north of Hawaii, the Japanese fleet is sailing towards Pearl Harbour at 20 knots through stormy seas. The weather is so bad a number of sailors on look-out have been swept overboard. The fleet consists of two battleships, nine destroyers, three cruisers — and six aircraft carriers bearing a total of 360 fighters and bombers.

On the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, Lieutenant Commander Kanjiro Ono is listening to Bing Crosby singing on the radio, but it’s not the music he’s interested in. The song ends and the announcer gives a weather report: ‘Today will be partly cloudy, with good visibility.’ This is the news Kanjiro has been waiting for. They have perfect weather for their mission.

03.30: On board the Japanese carriers, the pilots are eating a breakfast of rice with tai — a fish traditionally eaten on a day of celebration.

04.00: The biggest ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet are moored in the middle of the harbour in a line known as Battleship Row. On the USS West Virginia, Shipfitter Louis Grabinski is taking in the night air on the boat deck. He’s just read a newspaper from home and discovered that his girlfriend has married someone else. Louis feels strangely liberated — he loves the West Virginia and he loves his job. He decides then and there to stay in the Navy for 20 years.

05.50: It is time for the first Japanese planes to be launched. The carriers turn east into a fierce wind. In the swell the decks are rising and falling through 40ft. If it were an exercise, the launch would have been cancelled for being too dangerous.

06.15: On the USS Arizona, moored on Battleship Row, Seaman Martin Matthews wakes early, excited to be on such an impressive battleship. He is stationed nearby and is visiting his friend William Stafford who had persuaded him to join the Navy in the first place. Martin lied about his age to enlist — he’s only 15.

07.02: At a radar station 25 miles north of Pearl Harbour, Private Joseph Lockard is staring wide-eyed at his screen. He can see a blip that is bigger than anything he’s ever seen before; at first he wonders if the equipment is broken, then he realises it can only be one thing — a large number of planes.

07.20: Private Lockard gets a message back from the officer in charge of the radar operations centre, Lt Kermit Tyler: ‘Don’t worry about it . . .’ Tyler is convinced the radar is showing a dozen B-17 Flying Fortresses due to fly in from the mainland that morning. But Lockard is worried. He has calculated there are more than 50 planes heading straight for them.

07.48: The commanding officer of an air station north-west of Pearl Harbour is drinking coffee at his breakfast table. His 15-year-old son is reading a Superman comic.

On the cover, Superman has come between a German gunboat full of Nazis and a lifeboat full of helpless civilians. He grunts ‘Uh-huh’ as his son reads from the comic.

Suddenly they hear the sound of planes and rush to the window. Three flights of low-flying aircraft are making a sharp turn towards the air station.

‘Look, Dad! Red circles on the wings!’

07.49: Japanese air attack commander Mitsuo Fuchida is looking down with a pair of binoculars at Pearl Harbour from his torpedo bomber (a type of aircraft which carried torpedoes that were launched from the undercarriage down into the sea, and then continued underwater).

He can see Battleship Row below him. Fuchida orders his radio operator to signal to the other bombers. The operator taps out the prearranged signal ‘To to to’ — the repeated first syllable of totsugekiseyo, which means ‘Charge’.

07.53: Mitsuo Fuchida’s radio operator is sending a message to the Japanese attack fleet: ‘Tora tora tora’ meaning ‘Surprise achieved’.

On the USS Maryland, Seaman Leslie Short is sitting by his machine gun writing his Christmas cards.

At Chequers, the British Prime Minister’s country residence, Winston Churchill is in a despondent mood. Although he has a house full of guests, he’s spent much of dinner with his head in his hands.

Churchill is concerned that Japan is about to attack British territories in the Far East and that America will merely stand by, leaving Britain to fight both Germany and Japan alone. One of the guests, the American ambassador, had offered no guarantee of support when pressed by Churchill that evening.

07.55: On Battleship Row, sailors on the USS Nevada waiting for an officer to start the morning flag ceremony notice dark spots in the sky.

On the stern of the Arizona, under-age seaman Martin Matthews has just been given a tour of the ship by his friend William Stafford. They are wearing their dress whites as they are about to go ashore for a sightseeing tour. Martin has loved his time on board. ‘I wish I could get duty aboard a battleship,’ he says.

Then the boys hear a noise. Planes are flying across the harbour.

Pearl Harbour was a 2001 film directed by Michael Bay and starred Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale 

Pearl Harbour was a 2001 film directed by Michael Bay and starred Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale 

07.56: Dive bombers and fighter planes begin attacking the boats at the Naval Air Station on Ford Island, in the middle of the harbour. The first bomb misses and falls harmlessly into the water, but within minutes, 33 of the base’s 70 aircraft are destroyed.

07.58: On the Nevada, the ship’s band are playing the Star Spangled Banner when a Japanese plane sprays the deck around them with machine-gun bullets.

After only a moment’s hesitation, the conductor carries on — it’s disrespectful to stop playing the National Anthem partway through.

A message is being sent from Ford Island Naval Air Station: ‘Air Raid Pearl Harbour. This is not a drill.’

Over the tannoy on the USS Oklahoma on Battleship Row, the message is more direct: ‘Man the anti-aircraft batteries! This is an air raid — and no s**t!’

08.00: As her crew head to action stations, the Oklahoma is hit by three torpedoes dropped from bombers in quick succession.

The old battleship rolls over until her masts touch the harbour floor. Hundreds of men are trapped inside her hull.

08.01: The USS Utah is struck by two torpedoes, while another hits the USS Helena amidships. The Helena immediately starts to list to port. Machinist’s mate Melvin Bacon runs out of her engine room and through the sleeping quarters where he is stunned to see a friend still asleep.

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, is standing at an open window of his headquarters watching the attack in horror.

Suddenly a 50-calibre bullet hits him on the chest, striking the glasses case in his pocket.

The bullet falls harmlessly on the ground. ‘It would have been merciful had it killed me,’ Kimmel mutters. He knows his navy career is finished.

He leaves the room and when he returns he has removed the four stars on his shoulders and replaced them with two stars. He has demoted himself to Rear Admiral.

‘Oh no, Admiral,’ an aide says.

‘Hell, yes, son,’ Kimmel replies.

On the West Virginia, ship’s cook Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller is spotted by an officer who orders him to the bridge to help move the captain Mervyn Bennion, badly wounded by shrapnel. The West Virginia has been hit by bombs but also torpedoes fired from a midget submarine that slipped into the harbour.

08.04: An armour-piercing bomb hits the Arizona and the ship explodes in a massive fireball. The ship jumps 20ft out of the water, then breaks in two. Almost 1,000 of her crew are killed instantly. On the Arizona’s bridge, Rear Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd is incinerated. His Naval Academy ring is welded to the Arizona’s metal bulkhead.

The blast from the Arizona shakes the Japanese planes in the sky above and extinguishes a fire on a ship moored alongside.

A group of 20 sailors are trapped inside one of Arizona’s gun turrets. All the lights have gone out. A hot blast of air envelops the turret and smoke and gas start to seep inside.

Someone finds a torch and the men make their way half choking up the ladder to the top hatch.

Actor Ben Affleck (pictured) starred in the film which was based on the events in 1941

Actor Ben Affleck (pictured) starred in the film which was based on the events in 1941

The hatch is opened to reveal a mass of twisted metal and bodies strewn over what is left of the Arizona’s deck. Men are running from the flames and over the side into the harbour. Some have been burned completely ash-white.

To Marine James Cory they look just like zombies. Martin Matthews is terrified. He jumps off the Arizona into the water.

08.10: The Utah capsizes taking 64 of her crew with her. The Nevada has started to get up steam — she’s a sitting duck if she stays on Battleship Row — but is hit by a torpedo on her port bow. Her gunners shoot down the bomber responsible.

The West Virginia is half submerged, and on fire. Scores of men are trapped below decks. On the bridge, Captain Mervyn Bennion is dying — he has refused to leave the bridge.

When the West Virginia is repaired and refloated the following year, the bodies of 66 men will be found.

Some will be recovered where there had been pockets of air, three found in a storeroom where they had survived on emergency rations. According to a calendar found with the bodies, they had lived until December 23 — 17 long days.

08.15: Martin Matthews has swum away from the burning Arizona and is clinging to a buoy; his white uniform is black with oil. The buoy is covered in algae and barnacles and hard to cling on to, but Martin feels safer there than on the ship. He stares in horror as hands, legs and fingers float past him.

08.19: The Arizona sinks with the loss of 1,177 men, out of a crew of 1,512. Her bridge and masthead stay above the water.

On the West Virginia, ship’s cook Miller has been shown how to load ammunition into an anti-aircraft machine-gun. Not content with simply loading, he begins firing it.

As a mere cook, he has never used a machine-gun before, but he shoots until he runs out of ammunition. In 1942 Miller will become the first African American to receive the Navy Cross for his bravery.

08.45: Martin Matthews lets go of the buoy he’s been clinging too and swims towards Ford Island in the middle of the harbour. The 15-year-old staggers onto the shore, black with oil from head to foot.

A nervous sentry runs forward with his rifle raised. Martin shouts: ‘I’m Navy! I’m with the United States Navy! Don’t shoot!’ The sentry lowers his gun.

08.50: President Franklin D. Roosevelt is having lunch at his desk in the Oval Office when the Secretary of the Navy telephones with a message from Admiral Kimmel: AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOUR THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

‘No!’ the President exclaims.

Pearl Harbour is full of men trying to swim to safety. Chief Petty Officer Albert Molter wades into the water to help a young ensign who has passed out close to shore.

Then Molter sees a sailor swimming feebly towards him using only one arm. Molter assumes he must be helping someone else, but when the man staggers up the beach he is clutching a large canned ham.

08.59 (20.59 GMT): At Chequers, Frank Sawyers, Churchill’s valet, brings a portable radio into the sitting room, still full of weekend guests. The Prime Minister is slow to turn the radio on so they miss the Nine O’clock News headlines.

At the end of the bulletin, the announcer gives the main headline — the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbour. No one can quite believe it, then Frank Sawyers says: ‘It’s quite true, we heard it ourselves outside. The Japanese have attacked the Americans.’ Churchill heads for the door, saying: ‘We shall declare war on Japan!’

09.30 (21.30 GMT): Churchill telephones President Roosevelt: ‘Mr President, what’s this about Japan?’

‘It’s quite true. They have attacked us at Pearl Harbour. We are in the same boat now.’

09.45: The attack on Pearl Harbour is over. Air attack commander Mitsuo Fuchida is the last to leave, his plane guiding two damaged planes towards the fleet of aircraft carriers. Some of the Japanese bombers flew so low during the attack they are trailing telephone wires from their undercarriages.

10.00: The Nevada has run aground and is on fire. Above the flames and smoke, towards the stern, her Stars and Stripes can just be seen fluttering in the breeze.

11.00: At the local Army Hospital, nurse Ada Olsson has been tending the wounded all morning. There have been so many casualties that existing patients have got out of their beds to help.

Ada is feeling scared for her fiancé Gordon who is a pilot at a nearby airfield. Sadly Gordon is already dead. He had taken to the air soon after the Japanese first attacked and destroyed four aircraft before he was shot down.

12.00 (17.00 in Washington): Grace Tully, Roosevelt’s private secretary, walks into the Oval Office. The President takes a drag on a cigarette and says calmly: ‘I’m going to Congress tomorrow. I’d like to dictate my message. It will be short.’

‘Yesterday comma December 7 comma 1941 dash which will live in world history dash the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan period paragraph . . .’ Once finished, Roosevelt asked Grace to change ‘world history’ to ‘infamy’.

For Winston Churchill the incident represented a turning point that would see Adolf Hitler (pictured) eventually defeated

For Winston Churchill the incident represented a turning point that would see Adolf Hitler (pictured) eventually defeated

12.15: The USS Phoenix is leaving Pearl Harbour to join a small flotilla belatedly searching for the Japanese carriers. The Phoenix has survived the attack unscathed.

Forty-one years later her luck will run out. Renamed the General Belgrano by the Argentine navy, which acquired her in 1951, she will be sunk by the Royal Navy submarine HMS Conqueror.

The last Japanese plane lands back on its carrier. The fleet turns for home.

13.00: Japanese submariner Kazuo Sakamaki is lying unconscious on a beach near Pearl Harbour. He is a crewmember of one of the two-man midget submarines released that morning.

His vessel had run aground on a reef and, as they swam to shore, his fellow crewman drowned. Kazuo Sakamaki will be captured the next morning and become the United States’ first prisoner of war.

15.30 (20.30 in Washington): Roosevelt’s Cabinet is sitting in the Oval Office discussing the attack with a group of congressional leaders. Senator Tom Connally cannot contain his anger — he leaps to his feet, bangs his fist on Roosevelt’s desk and shouts: ‘How did they catch us with our pants down?’

‘I don’t know, Tom. I just don’t know,’ Roosevelt says quietly, his head down.

Nineteen U.S. Navy ships were sunk or seriously damaged on December 7, 1941, including eight battleships; 183 planes were destroyed, 159 damaged; 2,403 Americans died — almost half that number on the Arizona, which remains on the harbour floor to this day as a tribute to those who perished. The Japanese lost 29 aircraft, five midget submarines and 64 men.

On Monday, December 8, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Three days later Hitler declared war on the United States.

After the war, Churchill wrote that December 7 was a longed-for turning point. ‘After 17 months of lonely fighting and 19 months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. England would live . . .’