Air raids; effective…and not

Here’s an obvious question for WWII buffs: Which air attack caused more damage,  the Pearl Harbor attack or the Doolittle raid on Tokyo? Simple, huh? The Pearl Harbor attack involved over 350 airplanes and and wrecked the American Pacific fleet, while the Doolittle raid consisted of only 16 bombers and inflicted very limited damage on Tokyo. Maybe the answer is not as obvious as it seems.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A lot has been written about how the attack backfired because it aroused the Americans to a torrent of fury and war production that doomed the Japanese. This oft-repeated  analysis is certainly true as far as it goes, but the full story is more complex, and more interesting.


The idea of the attack was to knock out the American Pacific fleet so that the Japanese could run wild in the Pacific with little to fear from America. By the time the Americans rebuilt, the theory went, it would be too late because the Japanese would have consolidated their conquests and be impossible to dislodge. The first thing that went wrong for the Japanese was the absence of the American carriers at Pearl Harbor that morning. That meant that an important part of American naval power remained available for a counter blow.

All right, but at least the attack wiped out eight battleships and some cruisers, destroyers and other vessels. That had to be the crippling bow the Japanese were looking for, right? Well, no. Within a couple of months, most of the damaged ships had been repaired and even the sunken ships had been raised and would be restored within the next two years. Only the Arizona the Utah, and the Oklahoma were beyond repair by the war’s end. The other Pearl Harbor ships were back in the war despite the damage they suffered on December 7. When the Japanese delegation was taken to the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay to sign the surrender documents, the Americans made a point of taking them past the anchored USS West Virginia, one of the resurrected Pearl Harbor battleships. So, far from destroying American naval capability, the Pearl Harbor attack only permanently removed three battleships.


On the Japanese side, however, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor was not so good. By the end of the war, every Japanese ship that had participated in the Pearl Harbor attack had been sunk, along with a good number of their crews and pilots. But the worst was yet to come for the Japanese. In addition to getting America solidly into the war, the Pearl Harbor attack roused a burning desire to strike back. The result was the daring Doolittle raid on Tokyo just a few months later. The raid did very little physical damage, but shocked the confident Japanese and made them determined to invade Midway to push their defenses further outward. The result of that decision was the Battle of Midway, the first major defeat of the Japanese navy. They lost four carriers, and those ships would not be raised. From that moment, the Japanese were headed down the road to defeat.


So the massive Japanese attack of over 350 airplanes caused a limited amount of long term damage and was a disaster for the Japanese,  while the much more limited Doolittle raid also caused almost no long-term damage and was also a disaster for the Japanese.

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