What If Imperial Japan Sunk America's Aircraft Carriers at Pearl Harbor?

Robert Farley

Key point: There was no overcoming America's industrial might.

What if the aircraft carriers of the United States Navy had been present at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941? 

The question has bedeviled historians since World War II, as the devastating attack left the most lethal warships of the U.S. Navy intact to fight off the oncoming Japanese offensive. What if some, or all, of the aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet had been at Pearl during the attack? What impact would the sinking of those critical ships have had on the rest of the war?

The American Carriers

At the beginning of 1941, the United States operated four aircraft carriers in the Pacific; USS Lexington, USS Saratoga, USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown. USS Wasp and USS Ranger served in the Atlantic for the entire year. USS Hornet entered service in October 1941, but remained in the Atlantic working up until early 1942. Worries about impending war reduced the active carrier strength of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific over the course of the year. USS Saratoga entered refit in January 1941 and would remain in Bremerton until late November. She would not return to Pearl until mid-December, after picking up her airgroup in San Diego. Because of growing concerns about war with Germany, USS Yorktown left Pearl Harbor in April with a large task force. She would remain in the Atlantic until after the beginning of the war.

Consequently, the only two carriers actually available for service in the Pacific were Lexington and Enterprise, both of which were operating out of Pearl in late November. Unfortunately for the Japanese, they were considered among the most useful vessels in the fleet, and consequently were often at sea.

The Timing

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