The Pacific Ocean was the largest theater of military operations in history. Covering nearly one-third of Planet Earth, no bigger
arena is possible. And even discounting more
than half of that surface, which saw no combat
action, leaves about 30 million square miles.
Naval combat did not lend itself to prolonged
engagements as were common in land battles.
Opposing fleets clashed over one or two days,
and generally the issue was resolved. Unlike
aircraft and armored vehicles, warships required
months or years to build, and their losses were
not easily replaced. But inserting the airplane
into the mix changed the combat dynamics,
resulting in Pacific actions ranging from one day
to six months.
Pearl Harbor 1941
Few historians regard the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor, Hawaii, as a battle. But December 7, 1941,
belongs in our aviation survey because it was a one-day event that gave the aircraft carrier a stellar role
on the global stage. Two missions inflicted heavy
damage on U.S. ships and facilities but Vice Adm.
Ch ichi Nagumo, a non-aviator, decided against
a third attack that could have proven decisive.
Pearl’s fuel storage and dry docks were untouched.
Battleships, however, played far less important
roles thereafter in what could have been a clash
of oceanic titans with big-gun ships slugging it
out. Instead, only two battlewagon duels occurred
throughout the Pacific War. The airplane—
whether ashore or afloat—supplanted the
battleship forever after.
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides
of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack. View looks about east, with the
supply depot, submarine base, and fuel-tank farm in the right center distance. A torpedo has just
hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Other battleships moored nearby are
(from left): Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (torpedoed and listing) alongside Maryland, and California. On the near side of Ford Island, to the left, are light cruisers
Detroit and Raleigh, target and training ship Utah, and seaplane tender Tangier. Raleigh and Utah have
been torpedoed, and Utah is listing sharply to port. Japanese planes are visible in the right center
(over Ford Island) and over the Navy Yard at right. U.S. Navy planes on the seaplane ramp are on fire.
Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of
the Navy Ministry. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)