The Japanese attack on our Pacific Fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, seemed devastating. Of the eight battleships we had in Pearl Harbor that day, all of them were sunk or heavily damaged. Three cruisers were severely damaged. Three destroyers were put out of commission. Nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed. More than 2,400 Americans lost their lives.
The Americans did get lucky. All three of the American aircraft carriers normally at Pearl were at sea far from the attack. Also, the Japanese cancelled a planned third air attack meant to target the fuel tanks, dry docks, and ship repair facilities as they feared adding another attack would force their tired pilots to land after nightfall.
What President Roosevelt called “a date that will live in infamy” was really not at all devastating.
Of the eight battleships hit that Sunday morning, six would be repaired and would put back to sea. All three cruisers would put to sea. Two of the destroyers were total losses, but the USS Shaw (DD-373), its bow blown off in a spectacular explosion, would return to sea within six months.
The Japanese placed a great value on the American battleships they sank, but they targeted the wrong ships.
All of the American battleships were relics dating back before the U.S. even entered World War I. The six battleships that were refloated would accumulate 41 battle stars during the rest of the war, meaning they engaged the Japanese 41 times. However, that would include only two battleship-to-battleship battles at Guadalcanal in late 1942 and Leyte Gulf in late 1944. Most of those battle stars would be won by shelling beaches where the battleships were far out of reach of Japanese shore batteries returning fire. No American battleship was sunk during the war after the attack on Pearl.
The eight heavy and light cruisers at Pearl would do better, accumulating 81 battle stars. Only the USS Helena (CL-50) would be lost in combat.
The ships the Japanese should have feared – and sunk – were the 30 destroyers that were in port that morning. The 28 destroyers that continued fighting accumulated 257 battle stars during the rest of the war. Fifteen other destroyers were away from port that morning. They would accumulate 105 battle stars. There were six former Clemson class World War I-era destroyers in port that had been converted to mine sweepers and seaplane tenders. They would accumulate another 23 battle stars. There were nine even-older Wickes and Clemson class destroyers converted to mine layers that would win 53 battle stars.
The 55 destroyers that called Pearl Harbor home on December 7, 1941, would win 438 battle stars through August 1945. That’s more than 10 times the number of battle stars accumulated by the principal Japanese target – the battleships.