What Happened at Pearl Harbor?

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11167

What is a hero? Unlike ancient myths, heroes are real people caught up in real events. History is best told by people who were there, so listen to and read about survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack.


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Imagine you are enjoying a nice day by the water. It is a warm morning, and the sun is shining.

All of a sudden, the sky is filled with foreign planes, and bombs are being dropped all around you. You do not know to whom the enemy aircraft belong, but you watch in horror as buildings and boats burst into flaming debris, and people all around you are losing their lives.

This is what Americans at Pearl Harbor experienced on the morning of December 7, 1941.

Examine the table below for a sense of the damage that occurred when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor by the Numbers


2,403 People Killed

1,178 People Wounded

350 Aircraft Destroyed or Damaged

19 Ships Sunk or Damaged



  • As you read these numbers, what emotions do feel?

On Sunday, December 6, 1941, an American cryptologist, a person who studies and breaks codes, intercepted a Japanese message. In the message, Japanese military officials asked questions about the positions of ships stationed at Pearl Harbor. The cryptologist gave the intercepted message to a supervisor, who said they would take a look at it on Monday.

Unfortunately, Monday would be too late. Around 8:00 a.m., December 7, 1941, soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor naval base awoke to explosions. More than 350 Japanese aircraft filled the sky, dropping bombs on the harbor. There were also 26 Japanese ships and 35 submarines involved in the attack. Their mission was to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The Americans were completely caught off guard and unprepared for the attack. Despite high numbers of causalities and destruction on the American side, only 129 Japanese soldiers were killed, 29 Japanese aircraft were shot down, and 5 submarines sunk.

During the attack, all of the United States' battleships were destroyed. Of the battleships destroyed, the USS Arizona remains the most infamous due to the number of human lives that went down with the ship. Early in the attack, a bomb was dropped on the USS Arizona. More than 1,000 men were trapped inside the ship as it sank, making up half the deaths that occurred during the attack.

Today, the USS Arizona continues to sit at the bottom of Pearl Harbor as a memorial to those who died. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit the memorial. Learn more about the history of the USS Arizona and the men aboard as you read 5 Facts About Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona.

  • Which facts did you find most interesting?

History is told best by the people who lived it. Watch a USS Arizona survivor share his experience aboard the sinking battleship in the video below. Make sure to pay attention to the pictures of the USS Arizona.

  • Is the ship bigger than what you had pictured in your mind?
  • According to Stratton, what was it like to be on the USS Arizona when the Japanese attacked?

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While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused mass damage and destruction, the Japanese soldiers did not fulfill their mission.

In the 1940s, airplanes were becoming more common in battle. Therefore, aircraft carriers had replaced battleships as the most important type of naval ship. While the Japanese managed to destroy all of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's battleships, they did not destroy a single aircraft carrier.

The Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers were all out at sea on the morning of the attack, and the Japanese could not find them. When the Japanese military leaders learned that the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers had not been destroyed, they became nervous. With the aircraft carriers still operating, they knew the United States would recover and strike back.

  • How might the outcome of the attack been different if the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers were destroyed?

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor killed and injured thousands of Americans.

Continue learning about some of those brave American heroes in the Got It? section.

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