Aviation History

The Attack on Pearl Harbor: The Second Wave

Attack on Pearl Harbor

The Kido Butai [literally “Mobile Force” (but better translated as “Striking Force”) was the operational component of the First Air Fleet that comprised a combined carrier battle group comprising most of the aircraft carriers and carrier air groups of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), during the first eight months of the Pacific War] was allocated to the attack against the main Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto conceived the Pearl Harbor attack and Captain Minoru Genda planned it. The following article, featuring excerpts from Mark Stille’s book Pacific Carrier War, gives a detailed description of the Second Wave Attack on Pearl Harbor. CLICK HERE to read the story of the First Wave Attack on Pearl Harbor.

Second Wave

The first of the 167 aircraft of the second wave arrived over their targets approximately 25 minutes after the last aircraft of the first wave had departed. The centerpiece of the second wave was the 78 dive bombers from Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu. These were flown by the best dive bomber pilots in the Imperial Navy. Against stationary ships in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese expected impressive results. The force was led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa Takeshige from Soryu who was considered to be the finest dive bomber pilot in the Imperial Navy.

Since there were no carriers present, and the 550lb bombs carried by the dive bombers were unsuited for attacking heavily armored battleships, the prioritization plan called for attacking cruisers. However, only 17 dive bombers attacked cruisers, while some 30 selected battleships, and as many as 16 attacked destroyers, and 12 attacked auxiliaries. Japanese after action reports were inaccurate at best and misleading at worst. Using American after action reports, it remains difficult to account for the attacks of all 78 dive bombers. However, it is clear that the dive bomber attack was unfocused and failed to live up to Japanese expectations.

Just as the Type 99s arrived over Pearl Harbor at about 0850, Nevada was spotted underway. Approximately 14–18 dive bombers attacked the slow moving battleship. Nevada was surrounded by near misses before she was hit by five bombs at 0900. At 0907 more dive bombers arrived and scored another hit. Of these six hits, at least three struck forward of Turret Number 1 and opened holes in the bow, starting fires that soon burned out of control. The forward magazines were flooded which brought the bow down further. At 0910 Nevada was ordered to run aground.

Only California was attacked

The Japanese claimed that the dive bombers added another 21 hits to targets on Battleship Row, but only California was actually attacked. At 0845 between one and three Type 99s attacked the battleship and scored a single hit that penetrated to the second deck before exploding and causing many casualties and a fire. The only battleship not located in Battleship Row was fleet flagship Pennsylvania located in Drydock Number 1. Undamaged by the first wave, she came under attack by as many as nine dive bombers. At 0906 the battleship took a single hit that caused light damage and killed 18 officers and enlisted men. Two destroyers, Cassin and Downes, were located in the same drydock and were hit by the bombs which missed Pennsylvania. After a magazine explosion on Cassin and extensive fires, both ships became constructive losses.

At least ten Type 99s conducted attacks on the Navy Yard area presumably to hit the two heavy and two light cruisers present. Egusa himself selected heavy cruiser New Orleans but missed. Light cruiser Honolulu suffered a near miss that caused light damage, and St. Louis suffered three near misses but no damage. Another four dive bombers attacked Helena at the 1010 Pier but missed. The only other cruiser attacked was Raleigh, still struggling to stay afloat from her earlier torpedo damage. As many as five Type 99s selected her for attack and at 0908 scored a hit that pierced the hull to explode outside. Despite more flooding, the cruiser did not sink.

Attacks hard to explain

Other attacks are hard to explain. Inexplicably several destroyers came under attack. At 0912, as many as eight dive bombers attacked destroyer Shaw in a drydock. Hit by three bombs and set on fire, the ship was abandoned and later destroyed by a magazine explosion. Other Type 99s were reported to have attacked destroyers Dale and Helm while both were underway. Two seaplane tenders also came under attack. A damaged dive bomber crashed on Curtiss and started a fire, and the ship’s hangar was later hit by a single bomb that caused heavy casualties. Seaplane tender Tangier was attacked by as many as five dive bombers but suffered no damage.

The results of the dive bomber attack were extremely disappointing for the Japanese. They claimed 49 hits, but the actual number was probably 15. American antiaircraft fire was fairly heavy during this point in the battle, which resulted in the loss of 14 dive bombers. An accuracy rate of under 20 percent against stationary targets is hard to explain. There was considerable smoke in the harbor area, but the best explanation was the 70–90 percent low overcast over the harbor during the attack.

Poor target selection

In addition to their poor accuracy, the dive bomber pilots were also guilty of poor target selection and grossly exaggerated battle damage assessment reports. In addition to pummeling the ships in the harbor, first and second wave aircraft hit the various airfields located around the island. Beginning at 0751 Zuikaku’s dive bombers attacked Wheeler Field where some 120 fighters were parked in neat rows. Thirty three PBY patrol aircraft were present at Kaneohe Naval Air Station. Between Shokaku and Zuikaku fighters in the first wave and 18 level bombers from Shokaku in the second, 27 of the PBYs were destroyed with the remaining six damaged. Ewa Mooring Mast Field was the home of Marine Air Group 21 with 49 aircraft. At the end of the raid, 33 of Ewa’s aircraft were damaged or destroyed.

Ford Island Naval Air Station was home to two patrol squadrons and many other miscellaneous aircraft. After the work of Shokaku dive bombers and level bombers, aided by Kaga fighters, 33 aircraft were lost including 19 PBY patrol planes. Hickam Field was a key target as it was the principal bomber base on the island. At the beginning of the attack, 12 B-17s, 32 B-18s, and 12 A-20s were lined up in rows. After the work of dive bombers, fighters, and level bombers, five B-17s, seven B-18s, and two A-20s were destroyed and another 19 damaged.

Japanese never considered launching a third wave

Despite a persistent myth to the contrary, the Japanese never seriously considered launching a third wave. Nagumo was content to withdraw as soon as he recovered his aircraft. The first wave began to return at about 0950 hours and immediately began its recovery. By 1115, aircraft of the second wave began their recovery and one hour later the last aircraft was aboard. Heavy seas made the recovery challenging, and according to one Japanese source, as many as 20 aircraft were forced to ditch or were thrown overboard as a result of unrepairable battle damage or heavy landings. Following the recovery, the fleet headed northwest at 26 knots.

The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor accounted for 18 American ships either sunk or damaged. Damage was concentrated on the eight battleships present. Of these, three returned to service in just weeks, one in 1943, and two in 1944 while two (Arizona and Oklahoma) never returned to service. Since slow battleships were not useful in the kind of war the Pacific Fleet now faced, Yamamoto had failed to deal the Americans a knockout blow. The strategic considerations of the attack are beyond the scope of this book, but since the attack galvanized American society and undermined any prospects of a negotiated peace, Pearl Harbor was a strategic disaster for the Japanese.

Striking power displayed by the Kido Butai

What was undeniable was the striking power displayed by the Kido Butai. In return for sinking or damaging 18 ships, destroying 97 USN and 77 US Army aircraft, and killing 2,335 American personnel and wounding another 1,143, Japanese losses were ridiculously small. Aircraft losses totaled 29, consisting of nine Zeros, 15 Type 99s, and five Type 97s. The cost to ravage the Pacific Fleet’s battle line was only five torpedo planes. Only one dive bomber and three Zeros were lost attacking the airfields. Another 17 dive bombers, 11 Zeros, and at least 18 Type 97s were damaged, and some were forced to ditch when they returned to their carriers. Between the destroyed and damaged aircraft, about a third (55) of the 183 aircraft in the first wave were hit.

The second wave suffered more heavily as the volume of antiaircraft fire increased. Of the 167 aircraft, 20 were lost (14 dive bombers and six Zeros) and 16 Type 97, 41 dive bombers, and eight Zeros were damaged for a total of 85 aircraft. These were heavy losses against a surprised enemy and would have made a third attack difficult had the Japanese seriously considered it.

Pacific Carrier War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Pearl Harbor Warbirds. Pearl Harbor Warbirds offers the best Hawai‘i flight adventure tours available. Immerse yourself in the details of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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