Pearl Harbor, the Missing Carriers: USS Enterprise, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga


On the morning of December 7th 1941 8 of the 9 Battleships assigned to the US Pacific Fleet were in Pearl Harbor. Seven, the USS California, USS Maryland, USS Oklahoma, USS Tennessee, USS West Virginia, USS Arizona and USS Nevada were moored on Battleship Row. The USS Pennsylvania was in the massive dry dock which she shared with the destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes. The USS Colorado, a sister ship of Maryland and West Virginia was at the Puget Sound Naval Yard being overhauled.


USS West Virginia sinking at left and USS Tennessee burning at Pearl Harbor

At the time both the United States Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy still viewed the Battleships as the heart of the fleet and the essence of naval power. Aircraft Carriers were still viewed as an adjunct and support to the traditional battle line.

Japanese-carriersJapanese Aircraft preparing to launch at Pearl Harbor

Thus as the Japanese Carrier Strike Group, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo approached Pearl Harbor and intelligence reports came in indicating that the carriers were not present the Japanese were not overly concerned. The lack of concern was in a sense ironic because the force they assigned to destroy the Battleships of the Pacific Fleet was the carrier strike group, not their battle line.


The Kido Butai enroute to Pearl Harbor

Comprised of six carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku the force embarked over 300 first line aircraft. The aviators of the air groups aboard the carriers had been training for months to attack Pearl Harbor. Their aircraft had been specially outfitted with Type 91 Model 2 aerial torpedoes designed to run in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor and Type 99 Model 5 armor piecing bombs modified from battleship shells. These weapons would be employed with a devastating effect on the morning of December 7th 1941.

The three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet, the USS Saratoga, USS Lexington and USS Enterprise had been dispatched on missions that took them away from Pearl Harbor that fateful Sunday.


USS Lexington

The Lexington and Task Force 12 had departed Pearl Harbor on December 5th to ferry 18 SB2U Vindicator Dive Bombers of VSMB-231 to Midway Island. Saratoga was entering San Diego to embark her air group and Enterprise which had left Pearl Harbor on November 28th to deliver VMF-211 to Wake Island was due to return to Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December. As such none of these ships were in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Their absence helped save the United States and Allied cause in the Pacific.


USS Saratoga

The United States had other carriers but all were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet due to the belief that Nazi Germany was a greater threat than Japan. The USS Yorktown was at Norfolk in between deployments in support of the Neutrality Patrol. USS Ranger was returning to Norfolk from a patrol, USS Wasp was at Grassy Bay Bermuda and the newly commissioned USS Hornet was training out of Norfolk. The USS Long Island, the first Escort carrier was undergoing operational tests and training out of Norfolk.

cv-6-01USS Enterprise at Midway

Had any of the three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet been in Pearl Harbor on the morning of the Japanese attack the results would have been even more disastrous for the United States. Instead the carriers began operations against the Japanese almost immediately. Carriers based on the East Coast including Hornet, Yorktown and Wasp were transferred to the Pacific. In the perilous months following the Pearl Harbor attack the US carriers took the fight to the Japanese conducting raids against Japanese held islands. In April 1942 the Enterprise and Hornet, the latter with 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle struck Tokyo.


USS Hornet launching the Doolittle Raiders

The result was that Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto decided to attack Midway Island to force the US fleet and its carriers into a decisive battle. Although the Japanese had lost a good number of aircrew from Shokaku and Zuikaku at the Battle of Coral Sea, while sinking the Lexington Yamamoto remained committed to the decisive battle. That battle was decisive, but not in the way Yamamoto had planned. Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu were sunk by aircraft operating from Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet. Yorktown was lost in the battle bat it was a decisive defeat for the Japanese.


Sinking the Akagi at Midway

In the succeeding months in the vicious battles around the Solomon Islands the remaining US carriers proved decisive. Although Wasp and Hornet were sunk in those battles and both Saratoga and Enterprise often heavily damaged they held the line. The carriers that the Japanese missed proved decisive in turning the tide and winning the war.


Raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor the USS West Virginia in Tokyo Bay

Though Yamamoto did not realize it the attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the end of the supremacy of the Battleship and the ascendency of the Aircraft Carrier. By 1943 Battleships were regulated to escorting the fast carrier task forces or conducting shore bombardments. The ultimate irony was that the last battleship engagement in history was won by the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Raised from the mud the West Virginia, Tennessee, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania joined by the USS Mississippi rained destruction on two Japanese task forces attempting to penetrate Leyte Gulf and destroy the US invasion force transports at the Battle of Surigao Strait.

The ironies and intricacies of war. They are amazing.


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

24 responses to “Pearl Harbor, the Missing Carriers: USS Enterprise, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga

  1. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padre Steve's World…Musings of a Passionately Progressive Moderate and commented:

    Friends of Padre Steve’s World
    One of the most interesting things about the Pearl Harbor attack is what ships were not present, the American aircraft carriers. In 1941 the aircraft carrier was still considered by most naval leaders to be a support to fleets of battleships. Despite the fact that Admiral Yamamoto relied on his carrier strike force for the attack on Pearl Harbor, even he did not recognize that the day of the battleship’s supremacy was at an end. So here is the story of the ships that were missing on December 7th 1941.
    Padre Steve+

  2. Ann Hancock

    My father served on the Enterprise in 1941. He never talked much about what went on but I know it was a hard fought war. Thank you to all who served your country owes you a debt of gratitude.

  3. Phil Croylw

    My father served on the lexington at the tfime of the pearl harbor and at the time of battle of the coral sea.He mentioned returning to pearl harbor after december 7. Do you know what date the lex would have returned to Hawaii from their detail at midway?

    • padresteve

      December 18th 1941 and she departed again on the 19th to relieve Wake with Saratoga. She returned to Pearl 27 December. I hope that helps!

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  6. I believe Pearl Harbor was a False Flag Operation just like 9/11. Could it be those ships were gone because they knew full well what was about to take place? Thanks.

    • padresteve

      You are crazy and you know nothing about history. Never comment here again because I will block your ass.

      • Mike

        That question has been asked before by others but researching the carriers would dispel that train of thought.

        The Lexington and Task Force 12 left Pearl December 5. Their mission was to deliver Dive Bombers to Midway. Some might argue that was close enough to suggest a conspiracy but the orders for an operation that big had to have been given at least two weeks prior, a month is more likely. Saratoga was at San Diego. That trip took at least three full days and again, orders had to have been given at least a couple weeks prior. Enterprise had left Pearl Harbor on November 28. It was delivering planes to Wake Island was due to return to Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December. But problems arose and the fleet was detained so they didn’t arrive until after the attack. That is why the Enterprise was not at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. It is possible the Japanese were close to the Lexington but not close enough to see it. If they had seen it they probably would have sunk it and that would have been devastating. Those two US carriers were reinforcing the islands because the military feared Japan might try something big and they would need those islands as places to operate from. So no, no false flag there. Those were legitimate military operations that had to be planned long before anyone could have guessed Pearl Harbor would be attacked.

      • padresteve

        I am not one of them and I agree with you.

  7. Colleen Test

    My dad joined the Navy in 1938, and he left with a carrier group a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor attack and then he was with the carrier that was with General Doolittle and his crew, and he also was at Coral Sea and at Midway. My dad served World War 2, Korea, and part of Vietnam he retired from the Navy in 1967. My dad told me we was on the battle ship when the singed the peace treating 1945. My dad passed way in 2011 and I will never for get all he told me and tough me. I miss him and thank him and all the people that served and still serving in the military. Thank yo and God Bless.

  8. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on A tribute to Richard "Chick" Harmer and US Navy Night Fighter Squadron VF(N)-101 and commented:
    The US aircraft carriers on December 7, 1941

  9. Richard A Ulrich

    So I saw Midway yesterday and now looking into the real story. My search brought me here and what a fascinating story about the USS West Virginia
    Thank you
    Now a question for you
    The movie showed part of the Enterprise’s Air Wing flying into the air battle over Hawaii. I’ve never heard about this and I believe it not to be true.
    Am I correct?

    • padresteve


      Some of their aircraft arrived shortly after the attack and were shot at by American defenders. Things got a bit sporty for them, but they did not take part in the battle itself. Check out Walter Lord’s classic “Day of Infamy” for one of the best accounts of the battle. Lord was a great historian who could also craft the story.



      • Richard A Ulrich

        Thanks, that’s what I thought.
        Yes Lord’s book is excellent, I read it many years ago. I should re-visit it as I know it’s in my bookcase somewhere.
        My focus these days is the Normandy Campaign but it’s good to take a brake from that and head back to the Pacific

    • Steven

      Mr. Ulrich,

      However….it is worth noting that members of the Enterprise Air Wing were authorised to wear the Pearl Habour Battle Honour (I forget what the US calls those at the moment).

      The aircraft flew in during the brief lull in fighting between the two Japanese attack waves, and were fired upon by the Ack-Ack crews in the harbour and aboard the ships of the Fleet still in harbour. Those sailor-airmen injured or killed by the action are considered KIA/WIA.

      The aircraft that managed to land safely were promptly shot up by the Japanese second wave.

      FYI…it was, and remains, American doctrine to “fly off” the Air Group prior to bringing a carrier into her berth (or almost any port or anchorage).

      Enterprise SHOULD have been in Pearl Harbour on the morning of the attack. Problems with refueling—to remain a sore spot with the US Navy into mid-1942—delayed her approach sufficiently to delay her arrival until the morning of the 7th (local).

      Gordon Prang and his associates also put together a great book on Pearl Harbour, if you are interested.

      A great book on Midway is “Shattered Sword” by Anthony Tulley. But it is a tough read if you are not a Professional (Naval Officer or Rating), because it spends a lot of time on the fundamentals of early carrier warfare—doctrine, deck operations, carrier contruction, etc… I loved it, even though it has errors like any other book.


      • padresteve

        Steven, Very good and detailed reply to him. The references you cite are excellent.

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  11. super390

    There is a deeper problem with the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory.
    By definition, the commanding Admirals of 1941 did NOT view carriers as being more valuable than battleships. Even Yamamoto did not think of them that way, raised as he was in the battleship-soaked dogma of Kentai Kessen. Both these navies still believed that their old, slow battle lines were the decisive weapon of a Pacific war. Our 7 fleet carriers were not built to carry the load of an all-out naval war by themselves, though they were forced to improvise until dozens of new carriers replaced them. (The Wasp and Ranger were considered unfit for Pacific service for good reason.) Navies of the time still used their faster battleships to escort carriers, but the US had none of those yet ready for combat duty.

    So if any ships were going to be magically evacuated in advance of the sneak attack, it would have been the battleships. I doubt that even Roosevelt would have believed that carriers could wage war on their own.

  12. Richard Kirschenbaum

    Of the pursuit pilots that managed to get aloft on December 7. George Welch and Ken Taylor operating out of Haliewa Field took on the Japanese in their P 40s and managed 6 confirmed kills and 3 more probables. They were up for the medal of honor but denied it because of having taken off without orders. The got the distinguished service cross instead I always wondered it it had anything to do with Welch’s real name being Schwartz.

    • padresteve

      That may be the case. It is sad.

    • padresteve


      I didn’t know that Welch’s real name was Schwartz. One has to wonder about that being a possibility as to why they were denied the Medal of Honor. Whether Americans want to admit it or not there was a lot of antisemitism in the United States of 1941, as there is today.

      Thank you for posting.



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