It was a pleasant December morning on Oahu as sailors of the US Navy played baseball, slept late, went about assigned chores, or simply enjoyed the beautiful morning sun. Little did they know that just an hour earlier the Destroyer USS Ward had sunk an enemy submarine just outside the ship’s entrance to Pearl Harbor. Yet, with inefficiently routed communications Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the base commander, would not get that alert until his command was well under attack two hours later!
Where they lurked
Less than 200 miles north, the largest modern armada in naval history up to that time led by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo under the Command of Admiral Yamamoto was launching squadrons of Japanese Zero fighters, torpedo planes, dive bombers, and high level bombers with a mission to wipe out the US Pacific fleet and force the Americans to negotiate a treaty allowing Japan to raid the resources they needed from the Asian theater.
In Washington DC the Japanese Ambassadorial staff were slowly typing the final segment of a several part letter intended for FDR’s State Department while their assistants were alarmingly burning files in an obvious attempt at destroying records. Something was afoot, and earlier warnings made by a few ranking officers having been ignored would now come back to haunt the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Intelligence Chief Admiral Stark in particular, who had failed to alert Admiral Kimmel and General Short at Pearl Harbor that Japanese spies were actively observing the US Navy Fleet over the weeks prior to this fateful day.
The declaration of war by the Japanese government-a coded and teletype communique-would not arrive until hours after the attack at Pearl Harbor too late and too overlooked to avert one of the worst tragedies in modern warfare history. Even supposedly on the alert for an eminent war, a surprising litany of errors plagued the US Navy and the lives of our fighting men on Oahu on that terrible morning.
Early warning ignored
At the highest point of Oahu sat one of the first primitive radar installations designed to detect in coming aircraft. While the operators go about their boring duty of monitoring a screen that could not distinguish between a large group of bombers from a flock of birds, a Private makes an important observation. His radar screen indicates an inbound cluster of what appear to be airplanes but is unable to identify who or what they are. The duty officer, a lieutenant at Fort Shafter Information center of the day checks for air traffic notices and sees that Pearl Harbor is expecting a flight of B-17’s from the mainland. Another fateful error is made in the early dawn hours that could have made a difference in the outcome. The radar sighting goes unreported.
Another tip off
Despite warnings by a Russian intelligence agent that Pearl Harbor could expect an aerial assault before the end of the year, his disclosures to FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, are met with skepticism. Hoover does not trust the source of information. Despite the British victory over the Italians at Taranto Harbor, a shallow naval base, much like Pearl, and achieved with obsolete bombers, noted by Japanese intelligence, the crucial information is not acted upon! The Japanese even take from the British the very tactic that allowed their English enemies victory, modified torpedoes. Allowing them to skim the water at a shallow depth to keep from striking the bottom of the sea floor, the Italian shipping is devastated by the Swordfish torpedo bomber a bi-plane first introduced in 1934 and already obsolete!
On December 7th in the year of 1941 America is finally plunged into a global war that had been brewing since the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1932 and Hitler began pushing Europe for territorial concessions in the years quick to follow. Millions will be recruited in the aftermath and America will unleash a manufacturing capability second to none, the very thing that Admiral Yamamoto fears being that he was educated in the United States and knows well the industrial output capacity of America. The Japanese know that if they cannot knock out America early and force a treaty that the ability of the “Sleeping Giant” as Yamamoto labels America, that Japan will simply be overtaken as time goes on as they cannot win a war of attrition.
In less than 3 hours using two waves of attack formations launched from six Japanese Imperial Navy aircraft carriers a total of 408 warplanes assaulted Pearl Harbor shipping and installations. As many as 2,500 Naval and US Army personnel were killed in the surprise attack. Considered to be the greatest military victory in modern history, the Pearl Harbor attack, the brainchild of Admiral Yamamoto, still has his reservations. Of everything launched at Pearl Harbor the Japanese suffered only 59 aircraft lost and one midget submarine. The second known Japanese midget sub later washed up on the Hawaiian shore apparently victim of a mechanical failure. One member of the crew survived and terrorized island residents for a week before being captured.
A silver lining?
Even though the Japanese struck hard sinking or badly damaging 8 main battle ships along with the famous Arizona where 900 officers and seamen were incinerated instantly by an aerial bomb that set off the magazine of the mighty ship and lifted it out of the water as the explosion devastated the crew and their boat, it could have been worse. The staggering toll on lives and material this did prevent recovery efforts from rapidly restoring the fleet! Even with 188 US aircraft destroyed on the airfields of the US Army Air Corps runways and US Marine base at Kaneohe Bay the of Oahu’s defenses were further compromised, but with no follow up landing of Japanese troops precious time had been bought for an American rebound.
Key flaws exploited
Historians looking at the battle have faulted the Japanese strategy for not bombing the repair facilities, the submarine base, and numerous fuel tanks around the island that would have disastrously slowed the rebuilding and repair efforts that miraculously took shape in a matter of weeks as the Japanese were being held off. A third wave of attack was scheduled, but Admiral Nagumo had already executed a great victory and did not know the location of the two US aircraft carriers that were on maneuvers outside of Hawaiian waters. The Japanese were also astonished that the Americans were able to get an umbrella of air defense up and firing within 5 minutes of the initial first wave. Nagumo knew that they would be waiting for his aviators if the third wave were to be launched! Instead, the huge Japanese flotilla withdrew not leaving a trace of where they had come from or where they would return.
You would think that in the years to come the United States would have learned its lesson after the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. Yet, in 1950 the Communist North Koreans poured into South Korea and began a bloody “Police Action” that would rage for 3 years. Some say that the US was in even a worse state of preparedness than before Pearl Harbor in 1941. Thousands of young men were thrown into the meat grinder under equipped and ill-trained as no more than cannon fodder to meet the Chinese supplied armored divisions that invaded into the South Korean terrain. One might only ask why American aircraft carriers dumped perfectly good aircraft overboard into the Pacific by the thousands even US Army Sherman tanks were discarded. Was it that they were obsolete, too much trouble to transport, or perhaps just a stepping stone for defense contractors to sell more armament for the future to the US government? Perhaps a combination of all three reasons would be the answer.
History’s lessons forgotten
And, yet, after these two bloody examples of US unpreparedness came the 9-11 tragedy in New York and the destruction of the Twin Towers along with Building 7 as more than 3 thousand American civilians perished. Some are convinced by the piles of contradictory evidence that it was a planned attack from the inside, others feel that it was the scheme of a former CIA trained Saudi terrorist named Osama Bin Laden who master minded this horrid act of terror. Whatever the case may be, we once again see competing US intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials refusing to share files and withholding crucial information from one another just as in the weeks preceding Pearl Harbor! Some things never seem to change, but we must certainly honor those who gave their lives defending our country. Next time America may not be able to rebound from such a formidable error!