When the Japanese Navy launched its devastating surprise air attack on the American Pacific Fleet at its Pearl Harbor base on 7 December 1941, the United States was not prepared for war. The American army and navy had not experienced actual combat against an enemy since 1918. By contrast, Japan's army and navy had been waging a brutal war against China for four years, and using that war to provide its naval aviators and soldiers with combat training to support Japan's military aggression.


The "Dauntless" SBD: The naval aircraft that changed the course of the Pacific War

One bright spot in the American naval arsenal in 1941-42 was the Douglas SBD "Dauntless" dive bomber. It was underpowered,
short on range, and nearing obsolescence, but it was a very accurate dive bomber and feared by the Japanese Navy.

The United States withdraws into isolationism in the 1930s

In the early 1930s, the United States entered a lengthy period of isolationism that ranged from outright pacifism to unwillingness to be involved in foreign issues that did not directly affect American national interests. Despite strenuous efforts by the Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, Congressman Carl Vinson, and the strong support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his committee, the United States Navy and Army were starved of funds throughout the 1930s. This would result in the United States entering the Pacific War with a large number of obsolete warships, only six front-line aircraft carriers to deploy in the Pacific and Atlantic, a large number of obsolescent military aircraft, and air and sea-launched torpedoes that often failed to explode on contact with a target. The eight elderly battleships in Pearl Harbour at the time of the Japanese attack in December 1941 were launched between 1914 and 1921.

Japan builds a powerful navy and army in the 1930s to support aggression

By contrast, during the 1930s, the militarist dominated Japanese government had forcibly seized huge areas of Chinese territory, and when Western governments failed to support China, the militarists were emboldened and resolved to seize the resource-rich colonies of Britain, France, and the Netherlands in South-East Asia. To this end, the Japanese government spent heavily on the Imperial Navy and Army throughout the 1930s. This was easier for a Japanese government because of Japan's strong militaristic tradition and the intense nationalism drilled into that country's citizens from childhood. Most Japanese felt intense pride in the growing power of their Imperial Navy and Army. By the beginning of 1940, Japan had the largest and most powerful navy in the Pacific Ocean. Japan's fifty army divisions were well equipped and well trained for military conquest.

The Japanese naval aviation service

Japan's interest in naval air power dated back to 1923 when Britain agreed to assist Japan to develop aircraft carriers. During the 1920s and 1930s, Japan built up the largest and most effective naval aviation service in the world. This elite service was provided by the Japanese government with the best aircraft for the new attack role being developed for aircraft carriers.


The sleek Japanese Zero was the best fighter aircraft in the Pacific in 1942. Unlike their American opponents, many
Zero pilots had extensive combat experience gained in Japan's unprovoked and brutal war against China.

At the beginning of the Pacific War in December 1941, Japan possessed the most powerful aircraft carrier force in the world. The Japanese Imperial Navy had ten front-line aircraft carriers. The Japanese aircraft carriers were manned by 1,500 highly trained and dedicated aviators, who had honed their fighting skills since 1937 in Japan's unprovoked and brutal war against China. Japanese naval fighters, and torpedo and dive bombers, were equal to and mostly better than those of other countries in the Pacific region. In December 1941, the Commander-in-Chief of Japan's Imperial Combined Fleet was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Unlike the commanders of most of the world's major navies, who clung to a belief in the power of the battleship as the supreme naval weapon, Yamamoto had noted the decisive power of aircraft carriers while observing naval exercises in the United States, and he was an enthusiastic advocate of naval air power.

The American naval aviation service

The United States Pacific Fleet possessed only three of its four aircraft carriers when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Those ships were USS Lexington, USS Enterprise and USS Saratoga. The fourth carrier, USS Yorktown, had been detached from the Pacific Fleet for convoy service in the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Lexington and Enterprise were at sea, and Saratoga was at San Diego on the American west coast. Although these three American carriers were large, fast, and powerful, many of the American Navy pilots lacked the training and combat experience of their Japanese counterparts. The American Navy pilots often experienced difficulty coordinating attacks by torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighters even when launching from the same aircraft carrier. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, American torpedo bomber pilots were not trained under conditions simulating actual combat, and when faced with heavy anti-aircraft fire, they tended to drop their torpedoes too high and too far from the target ship.


The stubby little Grumman F4F "Wildcat" lacked the speed and agility of the Japanese Zero,
but its rugged construction and superior armament made it a dangerous opponent.

Equally troubling for the American admirals was the state of their aircraft and weaponry. The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 aircraft, code-named "Zeke" but popularly known as "Zero", was the best naval fighter in the Pacific in 1941-1942. It offered high performance, long range, and extraordinary manoeuvrability in a light airframe. Its major weakness was its lack of defensive protection for the pilot and fuel tanks. The Zero was primarily designed for attack, and it tended to crumple up and explode when hit by a well-aimed burst.

The American aircraft carriers were equipped with the Grumman F4F "Wildcat" fighter to protect their carriers, and their torpedo and dive bombers. The Wildcat was a stubby little fighter that lacked the speed and agility of its Japanese counterpart, the Zero. The Wildcat's saving graces were its rugged construction and superior armament which made it an increasingly tough opponent for Japanese pilots as the Americans painfully developed battle skills. Despite its design weaknesses, by comparison with American naval torpedo bombers in 1941, the Wildcat was almost a "state of the art" aircraft.


A Douglas TBD "Devastator" torpedo bomber drops its torpedo. Although obsolete, it was used in the Battles of Coral Sea and
Midway. Its slow speed and short range made it a death-trap for its aircrew. Its torpedoes frequently failed to explode on impact.

The Douglas TBD "Devastator" torpedo bomber used aboard American carriers in the Battle of the Coral Sea and Battle of Midway was obsolete. Its slow speed and short range made it a death-trap for American pilots. To compound the problems facing the United States Pacific Fleet in 1942, the air-launched torpedoes used by American torpedo bombers in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway often failed to explode on contact!

One bright spot in the American naval arsenal was the Douglas SBD "Dauntless" dive bomber. Although underpowered, short on range, and nearing obsolescence in 1942, it was a very accurate dive bomber and feared by the Japanese Navy.

All of these serious flaws in the American naval aviation service, typical of neglect of armed services in the world's democracies prior to World War II, would be exposed during the great naval battle at Midway in June 1942.

Code-breaking: An equalizer for the United States and Australia!

Despite the overwhelming advantages possessed by the Japanese Imperial Navy in number of aircraft carriers, training of pilots, and superior equipment, the Americans held one important advantage denied to the Japanese. The combined efforts of American, British and Australian code-breakers had produced considerable success in deciphering the Japanese Navy's signal code JN 25. This access to Japanese naval signal traffic would prove to be a vital asset for the United States and Australia prior to the Battle of the Coral Sea and the decisive test of strength between the United States and Japanese Navies at Midway.