Debunking Top
Pearl Harbor Myths

No moment in history would be complete without conspiracy theories and legends—especially not a moment as important as December 7, 1941.

By Amanda Carona

In the 70+ years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, people have assigned memories and meanings to the iconic images of the raid that are emblazoned in our national memory. But with the passage of time, memories and meanings can start to shift and blur. The story is so detailed, sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between fact and fiction. That is how myths and legends are born, and Pearl Harbor has its share.
Here are some of the myths most frequently associated with the events of December 7, 1941.

Myth: The Japanese fired the first shot in the war with the United States.

Fact: On December 7, 1941, the Japanese sent five midget subs to attempt to enter Pearl Harbor and wreak havoc on the ships there. One of these midget subs was spotted at 6:37 a.m. by the destroyer USS Ward (DD-139), which was on patrol that morning. The Ward promptly dropped depth charges, fired at the sub, and reportedly sank it. So, it was the Americans who fired the first shot in the war between the United States and Japan. (Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, did not receive a call about the Ward incident until 7:40 a.m., just 15 short minutes before the attack began.)

Myth: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto believed that if the Pearl Harbor attack succeeded, Japan would ultimately win the war.

Fact: Yamamoto, who was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor, believed that although Japan’s navy was strong, American military capabilities were much greater. Yamamoto’s hope for the Pearl Harbor raid was that it would cripple US forces in the Pacific long enough for Japan to seize the resource-rich islands in the southern Pacific without having to battle against intervening US forces. Japan grossly underestimated the Americans’ ability to bounce back, however. By June 1942, Japanese forces were already on the defensive.

Myth: The approach of the Japanese planes was reported from the Opana Radar Station to Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, but he decided not to act upon the warning.

Fact: When Privates George Elliot and Joseph Lockard noticed a fleet of aircraft approaching from the north on their radar equipment on Opana Ridge, they immediately called the information center at Fort Shafter. Lieutenant Kermit Tyler received the call. Knowing a flight of B-17s was due in from the mainland that morning, Tyler replied, “Don’t worry about it.” Kimmel never received the radar report. (The B-17s did fly in at 8:15 that morning, straight into the attack. Most crash-landed on Ford Island.)

Myth: The battleships in Pearl Harbor were always the primary targets of the Japanese attack.

Fact: When planning for the raid began in July 1941, the Japanese knew the era of the battleship was giving way to the era of the aircraft carrier. Consequently, they focused their planned attack on the US aircraft carriers that were supposed to be in Pearl Harbor on December 7: Lexington (CV-2), Enterprise (CV-6), and Saratoga (CV-3), all home-ported at Pearl Harbor with the Pacific Fleet. Fortunately for the United States, the Lexington was on her way to Midway Island, the Saratoga was in San Diego, and the Enterprise was returning from Wake Island. All three escaped damage on the day of infamy.

Myth: All ten Japanese sailors manning the five midget submarines launched on December 7 perished in the attack.

Fact: The Japanese midget submarines were launched from mother subs several miles off the island of Oahu and tasked with wreaking havoc in the harbor. These tiny, battery-powered craft were manned by two submariners each. All but one was lost in the attack. The remaining midget sub lost control and power early in the attack. Her crewmen, Ensign Sakamaki and Petty Officer 2nd Class Inagaki tried to destroy their disabled sub by lighting a fuse, but were unsuccessful. Inagaki was swept out to sea, while Sakamaki was captured by the 298th Infantry Regiment. Sakamaki became the first prisoner of war.

Myth: The Japanese planned only two waves of attack, one for the airfields and one for the ships in the harbor.

Fact: There were actually three waves of attack planned for the morning of December 7, 1941. The first wave, at 7:55 a.m., consisted of 183 planes—Kates (B5N torpedo-bombers) to attack the battleships with bombs and torpedoes, and Vals (D3A dive-bombers) and Zeroes (A6M fighters) to attack the air bases. The second wave, arriving at 8:54 a.m., consisted of 167 planes (Kates, Vals, and Zeroes) that focused their attack on the airbases. The third wave was designed to destroy Pearl Harbor’s fuel storage, maintenance, and dry dock facilities. It was cancelled because US forces began mounting a significant defense, and Admiral Chūichi Nagumo believed more Japanese aircraft would be lost, now that the element of surprise was gone.

Myth: The USS Arizona is a decommissioned ship.

Fact: In December 1942, when salvage operations at Pearl Harbor were coming to a close, the USS Arizona was taken off the Naval Vessel Register. But she was symbolically recommissioned on March 7, 1950, when the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet began the tradition of raising the colors over the sunken ship.

Myth: The USS Arizona Memorial’s 21 openings represent a 21-gun salute to the men who died aboard the Arizona.

Fact: Architect Alfred Preis designed the openings in the Arizona Memorial specifically to lessen the structure’s weight. The memorial spans the hulk and does not touch the ship in any place, so it had to be carefully designed and constructed. Preis did include symbolic elements in his design, and the shape of the openings is symbolic; it represents marines standing at eternal parade rest, watching over those entombed below. The number of openings, however, represents nothing.

Amanda Carona is a historian based in Honolulu, Hawaii. This article originally appeared in Pearl Harbor Stories, a special issue from America in WWII. [Pearl Harbor Stories is sold out, replaced by updated special issue Pearl Harbor Remembered. To order, click here.]  To get more articles like this one, subscribe to America in WWII magazine.