The United States had been at peace for twenty-three years and was unprepared for war when the Japanese launched their devastating surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.The isolationism that had pervaded the United States prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was swept away by anger at Japan's perceived treachery, and replaced by a fierce determination to avenge the loss of so many American lives and ships.


The B-25 Mitchell bomber flown by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle in the famous Halsey-Doolittle raid on Japan is shown flying over the carrier USS Hornet from which it was launched. The B-25 carries a gift for Japan's Emperor Hirohito in return for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Although it produced little physical damage, the Halsey-Doolittle raid threw Japan's strategic planning and priorities completely off balance.

Permission to illustrate this section of the Pacific War Web-site with this superb painting was generously given by internationally recognised and award-winning American artist Stan Stokes. A range of his aviation and marine art can be viewed on-line at The Stokes Collection.

Buoyed by easy initial victories produced by surprise attacks on British and American outposts in the Pacific region which were unprepared for war with Japan, many Japanese military leaders believed that Japan's samurai warrior tradition made their nation invincible in war. Japan's army leaders were especially prone to this delusion. They believed that Americans lacked courage, fighting skills and discipline, and having inflicted heavy damage on the United States Pacific Fleet during their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, they assumed that the United States Navy would thereafter adopt a largely defensive posture in response to further Japanese military aggression.

This simplistic view of Americans was not shared by two senior naval commanders, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, and Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, commander of Japan's 4th Fleet or South Seas Force. Yamamoto was well aware of America's industrial strength, and he hoped that a peace settlement favourable to Japan could be reached before the United States was able to gather its full military strength. Based at Japan's major Pacific naval base at Truk in the Caroline Islands, Inoue's 4th Fleet was responsible for absorbing any counter-thrust that the Americans might be capable of mounting in response to Pearl Harbor. The dismissive attitude of the Japanese towards American military capabilities was reflected in the fact that the largest warship allocated to Inoue was a light cruiser.

When the Americans began to demonstrate from January 1942 that they were not prepared to accept the defensive posture contemptuously assigned to them by Japan's army dominated government, and launched bold hit-and-run carrier raids against Japanese targets, Yamamoto and Inoue would play vital roles in shaping Japan's strategic priorities during the first six months of 1942.


The United States adopts a "Germany First" war strategy

The US Navy refuses to adopt a defensive posture in the Pacific

Admiral Nimitz is ordered to attack the Japanese with his aircraft carriers

The Carrier-launched Halsey-Doolittle Raid on Japan

Historical sources

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