The attack on the United States’ naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, was a catastrophic and surprising military attack that would change the course of history. The Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese was a short-term cause that immediately drew the United States into the Second World War. Between 1939 and 1941, the United States had supported their allies from overseas and had no direct involvement in the war until the devastating Pearl Harbor attack took place.

In honor of our brand new Pearl Harbor book, created from genuine newspaper articles, we explore these newspaper articles that were printed in the Los Angeles Times just after the attack happened in more detail. From looking at these reports, we can see how the attack on Pearl Harbor was written about by journalists and presented to the public at the time. We can understand how people from the time would have read about the attack in their morning newspaper, providing a particularly interesting insight into the event. If you’d like to read a genuine, original newspaper from the time, you can explore our 1941 newspapers by entering your chosen date. 

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Summary of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor

The attack on Pearl Harbor is considered one of the most pivotal moments in American history. Bringing the United States into another major world war, the attack by the Japanese army was considered a deliberate act of aggression against the nation, which gave the United States no choice but to declare war on Japan. Before the attack, the United States was supporting its allies from overseas, providing resources and materials, and had avoided being directly involved in the fighting.

While the attack itself was a surprise, tension between the United States and Japan was far from sudden. Both nations had conflicting interests in Asian markets and natural resources decades before the war, and in 1940, President Roosevelt had cut off shipments of certain resources to Japan. Japan’s preparation for an attack on British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies forced Roosevelt to stop all Japanese assets in the United States, which ultimately prevented Japan access to American oil on which it relied. 

The Japanese army then created a secret plan to attack Pearl Harbor. Ships, with the aircraft carriers on board, set off on November 26, 1941 with the intention of destroying the US naval base. They maintained strict silence in order to attack by surprise. Their silence was then broken by a bomber who shouted “Tora! Tora! Tora!” meaning “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”, which indicated the bombers had caught the Americans at the base off-guard. After that moment and for the two hours that followed, bombs fell down on the servicemen and ships at the naval base. 

The attack was very destructive, but the damage was lessened by the American fuel-oil tanks and repair shops remaining intact. On the day of the attack, December 7, 1941, there were also no aircraft carriers at the base. The Japanese continued to destroy other naval bases after Pearl Harbor in order to gain supremacy in the Pacific. 

Unfortunately, a warning message had not reached the naval base in time due to a communications error and a report had been ignored declaring that many planes were heading in their direction. Eventually hearing of the attack, President Roosevelt immediately planned to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, and spent his afternoon planning his address. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor had forced the President to prepare his country for fighting in a war that he and the public had been hoping to avoid.

pearl harbor attack

The United States naval base at Pearl Harbor just after the attack.
Image: Flickr

“Japs Open War On U.S. With Bombing of Hawaii”

Exploring Pearl Harbor newspaper articles from 1941 is a fascinating way to see how the public learned about the attack, as well as the desire for the President to enter the nation into the Second World War. Our newspaper analysis focuses on articles originally published in the Los Angeles Times, showing how journalists of the time reported on the attack and its immediate consequences. 

A Los Angeles Times reporter states: 

“Japan assaulted every main United States and British possession in the Central and Western Pacific and invaded Thailand today (Monday) in a hasty but evidently shrewdly-planned prosecution of a war she began Sunday without warning.”

pearl harbor attack newspaper articles

Los Angeles Times front page, December 8, 1941

The reporter immediately makes the public aware that the attack was a surprise, planned in secret, to devastate the belongings of the Allies. The newspaper also states that war was declared by Japan very soon after the attack, which suggests the nation were confident about gaining and holding onto supremacy in the Pacific:

“Her formal declaration of war against both the United States and Britain came 2 hours and 55 minutes after Japanese planes spread death and terrific destruction in Honolulu and Pearl Harbor at 7:35 a.m., Hawaiian time (10:05 a.m., P. S. T.) Sunday. 

pearl harbor attack newspaper articles

Los Angeles Times front page, December 8, 1941

The newspaper report claims that there were multiple attacks on Pearl Harbor, with the intention of the Japanese to gain supremacy in the Pacific: 

“From that moment, each tense tick of the clock brought new and flaming accounts of Japanese aggression in her secretly launched war of conquest or death for the land of the Rising Sun.”

The reporter also includes details of the death and injury count:

“The first United States official casualty report listed 104 dead and more than 300 injured in the Army at Hickam Field, alone, near Honolulu. An N.B.C. observer in Honolulu reported the death toll at Hickam was 300.”

“There was heavy damage in Honolulu residential districts and the death list among civilians was large  but uncounted.”

The article makes immediate reference to how critical the attack was by making the general public aware of the fact this could, and would most likely, lead to a United States declaration of war: 

“A formal United States declaration of war could not come until today at the earliest, and Britain summoned her Parliament to meet today for similar action.”

While informing readers of the United States’ position, and the possibility that the nation will be brought into the Second World War, the reporter also makes readers aware of Germany’s possible next steps: 

“A Tokyo radio broadcast said informed Japanese sources believed Germany will declare war on the United States within 24 hours, but the Germans left this point entirely open since their alliance with Japan calls for aid only in case Japan is attacked.”

Since Japan and Germany were fighting on the same side during the war, this shows the alliance between the two countries with Germany willing to declare war on the United States. This declaration appears particularly aggressive, especially since the Japanese army had attacked the United States’ naval base, and not the other way round. Clearly, Germany was aware that this attack was destined to bring the United States into the war. 

The newspaper report includes details of the attack: 

“An N.B.C. broadcast said Japanese planes – estimated as high as 150 in the opening assault – struck at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy’s mighty fortress of the Pacific, and dropped high-explosive and incendiary bombs on Honolulu itself.”

pearl harbor attack newspaper articles

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1941

Pearl Harbor attack newspaper articles also recognized the severity of the attack, since it was the final explosion that really made the Second World War into a “world” war: 

“Thus the war that Adolf Hitler started in September, 1939, exploded at last into a real World War, with the great navies of the United States and Japan seemingly destined to play the major role in what probably will be largely a sea campaign.”

“Jap Raid Believed Hindering Action” – Maj. George Fielding Eliot

Maj. George Fielding Eliot, after serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Australian army during the First World War, became an author of political and military affairs throughout the 1930s until the 1960s. He frequently wrote columns on military matters, and made appearances on CBS News and on the radio during the Second World War. With the United States being drawn rapidly into the war, Eliot wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times, commenting on the action:

“Tonight the war becomes a World War in grim earnest, as Japan, desperate and surrounded by foes, strikes savagely at the United States.” 

Eliot reports on what he has discovered thus far about the surprise attack:

“The attack has been launched from aircraft carriers. The number and type of plans reported (fighters, light bombers, heavy bombers) could have come only from carriers, as Japan possesses no land bases near enough to permit such an operation by such types of aircraft.”

“The first attacks were made on the naval air station on Ford Island, base of the Navy’s giant patrol bombers, and on the Army base at Hickam Field, home of the long-range bombardment squadrons of the Army Air Corps.”

The Declaration of War

The main (and almost immediate) consequence of the attack on Pearl Harbor was the United States’ declaration of war on the Axis powers, and preparations to enter the conflict. This was the moment that the nation was brought directly into the war and was no longer holding onto its isolationist policy the nation maintained throughout the 1930s. 

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times on December 8, 1941, stated:

“Tokyo later announced its declaration of war on this country, and Great Britain as well.”

pearl harbor attack newspaper articles

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1941

This shows that the declaration of war from Japan did not come long after the attack, and Great Britain, already heavily involved in the war, was ready to come to the United States’ aid. However, President Roosevelt was already preparing behind the scenes: 

“…President Roosevelt hardly waited for the Japanese declaration. As soon as he heard of the bombing he ordered the Army and Navy to carry out previously prepared and highly secret plans for the defense of the country.”

While an official declaration was being prepared, the Los Angeles Times reporter made the public aware that entry into the war was inevitable: 

“…there was no doubt that the country is at war. The capital went onto a full wartime basis within an hour after the attacks were reported. In addition to the President’s orders to the Army and Navy, Secretary Stimson ordered the mobilization of all military personnel. All officers were ordered to report in uniform.”

These preparations reported by the newspaper made it clear that the United States was soon going to enter the conflict – a world war it had tried desperately to avoid.

pearl harbor attack newspaper articles

Images from the Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1941

It would be the following day when a formal declaration of war would be announced by both the United States and Britain. As the newspaper states on December 9, 1941: 

“Britain, like the United States under Japanese attack, today declared war on the Tokyo government without waiting for Washington first to formulate an American declaration.” 

pearl harbor attack newspaper articles

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1941

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the time, claimed: 

“It only remains now for the two great democracies to face their tasks with whatever strength God may give them.”

It would not be long after that the United States would follow suit and declare war on Japan officially:

pearl harbor attack newspaper articles

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1941

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times reports on the President’s address: 

“The President’s pace slackened, his tone grew dark as he brought Congress bad news.”

The President himself stated: 

”The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces.  I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.”

”I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”

Jeannette Rankin, the Representative for Montana and the first woman to hold federal office in the United States, was the only Representative to vote “no” to the President’s wishes for a declaration of war in Congress. 

The article also includes a few quotes from Speaker Rayburn, who claimed that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at a time that both nations were at peace, and were negotiating to continue that peace. He also believe that:

“…the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks” ago.

Our Pearl Harbor Newspaper Book

Our Pearl Harbor newspaper book brings together the articles analyzed above, as well as many more to capture the attack of Pearl Harbor as it was reported in the press. Our book can be personalized with a name and special message, and has been created especially to celebrate the 80th anniversary of this pivotal moment in history. Take a look at the book here

pearl harbor anniversary book