I was having an interesting conversation about Pearl Harbor and Japans third wave of attack which never occurred with David Thornley in the related question: Was the attack on Pearl Harbor totally unexpected?. It sparked this question.

My Question:
Was a Third Wave of attack part of the original plan of attack on Pearl Harbor? Or are the critics of Admiral Chūichi Nagumo criticizing him for his failure to use his own initiative?


Britanica: Pearl Harbor Attack
On November 26, Vice Adm. Nagumo Chuichi led a fleet including:

  • 6 aircraft carriers,
  • 2 battleships,
  • 3 cruisers, and
  • 11 destroyers

to a point some 275 miles (440 km) north of Hawaii. From there about 360 planes in total (out of 414 planes available) were launched.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was organized around waves of aircraft taking out specific targets.

The first wave had 3 groups and comprised 184 planes (six failed to launch)
here are their composition and targets

Attack on Pearl Harbor

  • 1st Group (targets: battleships and aircraft carriers)[83]
    • 49 Nakajima B5N Kate bombers armed with 800 kg (1760 lb) armor-piercing bombs, organized in four sections (1 failed to launch)
    • 40 B5N bombers armed with Type 91 torpedoes, also in four sections
  • 2nd Group – (targets: Ford Island and Wheeler Field)
    • 51 Aichi D3A Val dive bombers armed with 550 lb (249 kg) general-purpose bombs (3 failed to launch)
  • 3rd Group – (targets: aircraft at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Barber's Point, Kaneohe)
    • 43 Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" fighters for air control and strafing[82] (2 failed to launch)

The Second wave consisted of 171 planes 4 failed to launch.
Here is it's composition and targets. Also comprised 3 groups:

Attack on Pearl Harbor

  • 1st Group – 54 B5Ns armed with 550 lb (249 kg) and 132 lb (60 kg) general-purpose bombs[83]
    • 27 B5Ns – aircraft and hangars on Kaneohe, Ford Island, and Barbers Point
    • 27 B5Ns – hangars and aircraft on Hickam Field
  • 2nd Group (targets: aircraft carriers and cruisers)
    • 78 D3As armed with 550 lb (249 kg) general-purpose bombs, in four sections (3 aborted)
  • 3rd Group – (targets: aircraft at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Barber's Point, Kaneohe)
    • 35 A6Ms for defense and strafing (1 aborted)


Criticism of Admiral Nagumo's failure to launch a 3rd wave to exploit the success of the first two attack waves.

Admiral Chūichi Nagumo
While commanding the First Air Fleet, Nagumo oversaw the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he was later criticized for his failure to launch a third attack, which might have destroyed the fuel oil storage and repair facilities. This could have rendered the most important U.S. naval base in the Pacific useless, especially as the use of the submarine base and intelligence station at the installation were critical factors in Japan's defeat.


Attack on Pearl Harbor
according to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, later Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, "it would have prolonged the war another two years." (destruction of millions of barrels of oil in Pearl Harbor's oil tanks).


Isoroku Yamamoto
Much has been made of Yamamoto's hindsight, but, in keeping with Japanese military tradition not to criticize the commander on the spot, he did not punish Nagumo for his withdrawal..... Yamamoto later lamented Nagumo's failure to seize the initiative to seek out and destroy the US carriers, absent from the harbor, or further bombard various strategically important facilities on Oahu.


Pearl Harbor's Oil Tank: What Could Have Been
Gordon Prange, (General Douglas MacArthur's chief Historian, twice NY Times best selling author, and tenured professor of history) one of the most renowned Pearl Harbor historians, wrote damningly: “By failing to exploit the shock, bewilderment, and confusion on Oahu, by failing to take full advantage of its savage attack against Kimmel’s ships, by failing to pulverize the Pearl Harbor base, by failing to destroy Oahu’s vast fuel stores, and by failing to seek out and sink America’s carriers, Japan committed its first and probably its greatest strategical error of the entire Pacific conflict.”

David Thornley had good questions on the efficacy of a third wave to take out land targets like gasoline farms, submarine bases, dry docks, Pacific Fleet Navel HQ's given Japan only had tactical bombers. Other variables whether a third strike was possible given how much daylight was left, Nagumo's fuel supply for his ships and aircraft. Finally Nagumo had legitimate concerns for the safety of his own carriers given 3 American Carriers were unaccounted for and could strike his group if he loitered. Setting all this aside.

My Question:
Was a Third Wave of attack part of the original plan of attack? Or are the critics of Admiral Chūichi Nagumo criticizing him for his failure to use his own initiative?

If it was planned for that negates a lot of discussion on the efficacy, and daylight, and whether or not it was even a consideration for Japan Navy Admirals in Dec 1941. If it wasn't planned for then I think that further informs and opens the broader discussion on whether a third was was ever really an option and whether Nagumo's critics just are exercising 20/20 hind sight.

Related Question:

1 Answer 1


Any third attack was specifically ordered to be made by carrier attack plane, that is the B5N, carrying torpedoes, not bombs.


"Carrier Striking Task Force Operations Order No. 3

"23 November 1941

"To: Carrier Striking Task Force

"The Hawaiian operations air attack plan has been decided as follows:

"1. The Operation of the Air Attack Forces

"The force will be 700 nautical miles due north of point Z (set at the western extremity of the Island of Lanai) at 0600 hours X-1 Day and advance on a course of 180 degrees from 0700 hours X-1 Day at an increased speed of 24 knots.

"Air attacks will be carried out by launching the first attack units 230 nautical miles due north of Z point at 0130 hours X Day, and the second attack unit at 200 nautical miles due north of Z point at 0245 hours.

"After the launching of the second attack units is completed, the task force will withdraw northward at a speed of about 24 knots. The first attack units are scheduled to return between 0530 and 0600 hours and the second attack units are scheduled to return between 0645 and 0715 hours.

"Immediately after the return of the first and second attack units, preparations for the next attack will be completed. At this time, carrier attack planes capable of carrying torpedoes will be armed with such as long as the supply lasts."

The entire order and others can be found at


Clearly, from the order, any third attack was to be oriented towards continued strikes on warships. If you read the orders through thoroughly you might note that the words "fuel (except where it refers to fueling of Japanese vessels)," "oil," "tanks," "storage," and other words describing the sorts of targets some might wish to assign a third attack in hindsight do not appear. Absent some compelling reason, usually when the plan goes down the tubes, most military organizations tend to follow their orders as written and not make it up as they go along.

  • those aren't the actual orders. They are rough outlines of the orders taken from people's memories 12 years after the fact. They seem pretty vague on the planned 3 wave given the detail they yield on the first two waves. Still I think they corroborate the third wave was planned.
    – user27618
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 4:36
  • it does say all orders for the attack on Pearl Harbor were destroyed before the end of the war. still that's a nice find.
    – user27618
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 4:59

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