Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • In 1941, following months of economic embargo, Japan prepares to open its war against the United States with a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.

  • This dramatic retelling of the Pearl Harbor attack details everything in the days that led up to that tragic moment in American history. As United States and Japanese relations strain over the U.S. embargo of raw materials, Air Staff Officer Minoru Genda (Tatsuya Mihashi) plans the preemptive strike against the United States. Although American intelligence agencies intercept Japanese communications hinting at the attack, they are unwilling to believe such a strike could ever occur on U.S. soil.

  • In 1941 the Japanese are at odds with the United States on a number of issues which they are attempting to resolve via their Washington embassy. In case this diplomacy fails, the military are hatching plans for a surprise early Sunday morning air attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbour. American intelligence is breaking the Japanese diplomatic messages but few high-ups are prepared to believe that an attack is likely, let alone where or how it might come.

  • The path to war in December 1941 is retold from the appointment of Isoroku Yamamoto to command the Imperial Japanese Navy on through the execution of his most ambitious and audacious plan - an attack by carrier aircraft on the US Navy station at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. As the Japanese First Air Fleet sorties to Hawaii, diplomatic efforts by both nations continue, but intercepts of Japanese diplomatic messages show Japan is practicing deception and planning aggression - but there is no clue as to where Japan will strike.

  • In the summer of 1941, the United States and Japan seem on the brink of war after constant embargos and failed diplomacy come to no end. "Tora! Tora! Tora!", named after the code words use by the lead Japanese pilot to indicate they had surprised the Americans, covers the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which plunged America into the Second World War.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Tokyo, 1941. As World War II rages in Europe, a change-of-command ceremony takes place aboard the Japanese battleship Nagato, the flagship for the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Soh Yamamura). He takes command from the departing Fleet Admiral Zengo Yoshida (Junya Usami). In Yoshida's cabin, the two of them discuss America's current trade embargo that starves Japan of raw materials including oil due to the war Japan has been waging in China since 1937.

    While both agree that a war with the United States would be a tragedy for Japan, a meeting between Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, and the hot-headed War Minister General Hideki Tojo (Asao Uchida) reaches a consensus that the time is now ripe to attack the US; Matsuoka believes the U.S. to be pre-occupied with the war in Europe and when Konoye warns that the US has an army in the Philippines and has moved its Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Matsuoka argues that it is all the more reason to prepare for war.

    The fear of war in Admiral Yamamoto increases when Militarist Japan signs the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in Berlin, making Japan the third member of the Axis Powers - Saburo Kurusu, at the time Japan's ambassador to Germany, is the direct signatory of the pact. Yamamoto orders the planning of a preemptive strike, believing Japan's only hope is to annihilate the American Pacific fleet at the outset of hostilities. Even then, Yamamoto warns that even if that was achieved at the start, he warns Japan would have the advantage for perhaps six months (A prediction that would prove ominously true when the Japanese Navy suffered a crippling defeat at Midway, almost six months to the day after the Pearl Harbor attack).

    When planning the attack, the Japanese commanders debate Pearl Harbor's exposure to a torpedo attack, but realize that torpedoes dropped from an aircraft will fall and submerge at least 75 feet (23 meters) below the surface. Since Pearl Harbor is only 40 feet (12 meters) deep, the Americans feel they have a natural defense against torpedoes. This belief is reflected in conversation while overflying the harbor between Admiral Husband Kimmel, the new Commander of the Pacific Fleet, and his predecessor Admiral James Richardson, bitter because he'd opposed moving the Fleet from San Diego.

    But the Japanese devise a plan to overcome this obstacle; they fit small wooden stabilizers to aerial torpedoes, making them effective in the shallow harbor; they also retrofit armor-piercing battleship shells, converting them to aerial bombs effective against the American ships.

    In a major intelligence victory, American intelligence in Washington, through the Navy Department, manages to break the Japanese Purple Code, allowing the United States to intercept radio transmissions the Japanese think are secret. American intelligence in Washington, in the persons of Navy Lt. Commander Alvin Kramer and Army G-2 Lt. Colonel Rufus Bratton (E.G. Marshall), is seen collecting increasingly threatening radio intercepts and conveying their concern to a White House staff that seems strangely unresponsive. The American response to high quality intelligence in general appears lax, although Pearl Harbor does increase air patrols and goes on full alert well before the raid.

    Japanese commanders call on the famous Air Staff Officer Genda Minoru (Tatsuya Mihashi) to mastermind the attack.

    At Pearl Harbor, although hampered by a late-arriving critical intelligence report about the attack fleet, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel (Martin Balsam) and General Walter C. Short (Jason Robards) do their best to enhance defenses. Short orders his aircraft to be concentrated in the middle of their airfields to prevent sabotage (leading to a pointed bit of dialogue between two officers when one objects to the order by saying, "Suppose there's an air raid?") To his credit, General Short also arranges more radar stations, a very new air defense technology for that time for that old soldier, and overcomes conflicting administrations like the Parks department to make that possible.

    In Japan, Yamamoto tries to avoid an attack and blames the Japanese Army for pushing too hard for war when peace is still an option. Yamamoto stresses that the United States is a mighty foe who would be extremely dangerous to provoke. In order to defeat the United States, he claims, destroying the U.S. fleet or even capturing Hawaii would not suffice Japan would have to invade the mainland and dictate terms of U.S. surrender on the White House steps, an eventuality Yamamoto clearly sees as impossible to achieve.

    In Washington D.C., diplomatic tensions increase between the U.S. and Japan as the Japanese ambassador to the United States is seen asking Tokyo for more information to aid in negotiations to avoid war, but getting little or nothing to work with in return. Tojo adamantly opposes any last minute attempts at peace, and by December 6 Japan commences a series of 14 radio messages from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy in Washington that will conclude with the declaration of war. But the Americans are translating the radio messages faster than the Japanese embassy, whose own reception and processing of their own government's message is frustratingly slow. Hence, the Americans know some kind of attack is coming before the Japanese ambassador informs them.

    On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941 decision makers in Washington and Hawaii are seen enjoying a leisurely routine while American intelligence works feverishly to interpret the coded transmissions and learns the final message will be received precisely at 1:00 pm Washington time. Colonel Bratton notes that the final message instructs the Japanese Ambassador to destroy their code machines after they decode the last of the 14 messages as well as destroy all written documents at the embassy in preparation for imminent internment... an ominous point. Bratton's frantic attempts to convey this message to American commanders fail because they are enjoying a Sunday of playing golf and horseback riding.

    Bratton manages to contact Commander Kramer (Wesley Addy), about the last part of the 14th message. Kramer then relays it to Chief of Naval Operations Harold Rainsford Stark (Edward Andrews) who is informed of the increased threat, but decides not to inform Hawaii until after calling the President first... although it is not clear if he takes any action at all.

    Finally, at 11:30 a.m. Washington time, Bratton convinces the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall (Keith Andes), that a greater threat exists, and Marshall orders that Pearl Harbor (and all other Pacific installations) be notified of an impending attack.

    Meanwhile in Hawaii, an American destroyer, USS Ward, spots a Japanese two-man midget submarine trying to slip through the defensive net and enter Pearl Harbor. The destroyer attacks and sinks the submarine, and notifies the base. Although the receiving officer, Lieutenant Kaminsky (Neville Brand), takes the report of an attempted enemy incursion seriously, the pompous Captain John Earle (Richard Anderson) at Pearl Harbor demands confirmation before calling an alert. Admiral Kimmel later learns of this negligence and is furious he was not told of this enemy action immediately. Rather then call a high alert, he decides to call for an emergency meeting of his officers at headquarters at 8:00 am.

    Just after 7:00 am, two U.S. Army privates posted at the remote radar station, Joseph Lockard and George Elliot, spot the incoming Japanese aircraft and inform the Hickam Field Information Center, but the Army Air Forces Lieutenant in charge, Kermit Tyler, dismisses the report, thinking it is a group of American B-17 bombers coming from the mainland, and he is frankly too tired to care after a night of drinking.

    The Japanese intend to break off negotiations (they do not intend to issue a formal declaration of war) at 1:00 p.m. Washington time, 30 minutes before the attack. However, the typist for the Japanese ambassador is slow, and cannot decode the 14th part fast enough. So Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura (Shôgo Shimada) decides to postpone his meeting with the Secretary of State.

    A final attempt to warn Pearl Harbor is stymied by poor atmospherics and bungling when the telegram sent by General Marshall is not marked urgent; it will be received by Pearl Harbor during the attack. The incoming Japanese fighter pilots are pleasantly surprised when there isn't even any anti-aircraft fire as they approach the base. As a result, the squadron attack leader Commander Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura) radios in the code phrase marking that complete surprise for the attack has been achieved: "Tora, Tora, Tora."

    Once the Japanese attack planes commence fire, the soldiers and sailors at Pearl and nearby bases respond and return fire, but with surprise achieved resistance against the Japanese planes is desperate and only partially effective. Upon seeing the Japanese low-level bombers, an American officer instructs his colleague to get the tail numbers so the pilot can be reported for safety violations; he thinks they are American aircraft. The sight of the offending aircraft then deliberately dropping a bomb on the base dispels that misconception. At that shock, he and his companion sprint to a telegraph officer to send what would be a famous telegram to raise the alarm; "AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NO DRILL."

    The aircraft security precautions by General Short prove a disastrous mistake that allows the Japanese aerial forces to destroy the U.S. aircraft on the ground with ease, thereby crippling an effective aerial counter-attack: all the aircraft on the runways at the major airfields are destroyed spectacularly either as they took off or while they were still parked.

    Amid the mayhem the force of B-17 bombers Lt. Tyler mistakenly believed was the earlier radar contact, a force commanded by Major Truman Landon, arrives at Oahu per schedule and is immediately attacked by both Japanese fighters and gunners from US ships mistaking them for enemy craft, forcing the bombers to scatter and try to make emergency landings. As if this crisis wasn't enough for Major Landon's unarmed and low-on-fuel bomber squadron, the Major's own plane's landing gear cannot deploy completely and he has to crash land at an airbase, although apparently with no injuries.

    Even in this debacle for the US Navy, there are still acts of American heroism such as Doris Miller, an African-American seaman who goes above and beyond the call of duty (especially considering he was not allowed to be trained in an on-board combat role due to the US Navy's racist policies) to take command of an unattended machine gun to help defend the base. There were also two American fighter pilots, Ken Taylor and George Welch, who race to remote Haleiwa and manage to take off to engage the enemy, as the Japanese have not hit the smaller airfields. Taylor and Welch engage several Japanese planes over Oahu and manage to shoot down several Japanese fighters and bombers while escaping scot free.

    The catastrophic damage wrought by the attacking Japanese air fleet is well detailed, with sailors fighting as long as they can and then abandoning sinking ships and jumping into the water with burning oil on the surface - the sight of the wreckage also enables Lieutenant Kaminsky to deliver comeuppance to the horrified Captain Earle when he arrives at the base and sees for himself the havoc wrought by the Japanese. Admiral Kimmel fares little better considering that when he is helplessly watching his base being ravaged, a spent bullet penetrates a window and hits him with little physical harm, but the shame of this debacle under his command and the knowledge that he will likely be unfairly blamed for it leaves him commenting that it have been merciful if it killed had him.

    The pivotal point of the attack comes amid a plethora of torpedo hits delivered to several US battleships - a Japanese bomber, sporting one of the converted armor-piercing shells, closes on its target - identified via a newspaper photo taped to the cockpit's side - the USS Arizona. The bomb lands on the ship's armored deck near one of the main turrets, smashes through, detonates forward magazines, and the malestrom of explosions erupts into one catastrophic blast whose shockwave rocks even the bomber. In addition to that loss, the sinking of the battleship sinks on the underwater pipes below that supply water for firefighters, impeding their effort to prevent fires from reaching the base's massive oil storage facilities and potentially causing catastrophic new fires and explosions that could destroy much of the entire base.

    At the end of the attacks, Fuchida and all surviving Japanese planes return to their carriers to insist a third wave be launched against Pearl Harbor in a late afternoon or evening strike. But the Japanese fleet commander, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Eijiro Tono), refuses to launch the third wave of carrier aircraft out of fear of exposing his six carriers to increased risk of detection and destruction from the still-absent US carriers.

    (Through the years, this action has been debated as having given the Americans a major break in their efforts to recover from the attack. A third wave would have likely struck the large oil tanks as well as destroyed the dry docks and repair facilities, potentially serious blows which could have crippled the U.S. Pacific Fleet for months by themselves.)

    Despite strong protests by Fuchida as well as most of the naval officers on board the carrier flagship Akagi (including Genda) to mount another attack against Pearl Harbor, Nagumo overrules all of them and orders the Japanese fleet to sail for home.

    With the U.S. base in flames, its frustrated commanders, General Short and Admiral Kimmel, finally get the War Department's telegram warning them of impending danger. In Washington, the US Secretary Of State, Cordell Hull (George Macready), is stunned at learning of this brazen attack and urgently requests confirmation of it before receiving the Japanese ambassador who is waiting just outside his office. The distraught Japanese ambassador Nomura, helpless and at a loss of words to explain the late ultimatum and the unprovoked sneak attack, is bluntly rebuffed by Hull, who coldly replies to the final Japanese communique: "In all my fifty years of public service, I have never seen a document crowded with falsehoods and deliberate distortions on a scale so huge that, until this day, I would have thought no nation on Earth capable of uttering them!" Ambassador Nomura leaves Hull's office to return to the embassy where he and his staff will presumably be detained by the authorities.

    At Pearl Harbor, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, arrives several hours after the attack where Admiral Halsey (James Whitmore) observes the devastation of the harbor and orders his officers to have the ship refitted and to set out at nightfall.

    In the final scene, back in Japan, Admiral Yamamoto is seen lamenting the fact that the Americans did not receive the declaration of war until 50 minutes after the attack started, noting that nothing would infuriate the Americans more. He is quoted as saying: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

    The closing credits roll over the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in flames.

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