2 Page Essay On Pearl Harbor

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941 one of the worst attacks ever on the United States occurred. More than 3,000 people lost their lives or were injured that morning, and the attack propelled us into war against the Axis Alliance. Through the misjudgement of numerous U.S. armed forces personnel, the Japanese were able to carry out this terrible attack, which crippled the United States' Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In 1887, the United States government obtained exclusive use of the inlet called Pearl Harbor, and the right to maintain a repair and coaling station for ships. The area was established as a naval base in 1908, then in 1911 dredging of a channel from the sea was completed, across a sandbar and a coral reef at the mouth of the harbor. This made that channel accessible to the largest naval vessels, as it was now 35 feet deep, with a maximum depth of 60 feet. During the Japanese attack, this center for United States military action in the Pacific Ocean was nearly completely destroyed.

Between the middle of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Japan looked to transform itself from a closed, feudal society into a modern industrial and military power. In the early 1930's, the Japanese army engaged in battles with the Chinese in Manchuria and prevailed. Because of their losses in these battles, Manchuria became a part of the Japanese political system. In 1937, conflict again began between Japan and China, this time near the Marco Polo bridge in Beijing. This conflict led to a full-scale war known today as the Sino-Japanese War, which was one of the bloodiest in history and lasted until the defeat of Japan in 1945.

In 1939, World War II began with a string of German victories. These successes included the defeats of Poland, France and England. Many European nations that Germany now controlled had control of important colonial empires; the East Indies and Singapore in Southeast Asia. These empires were of interest to Japan because they had the natural resources oil, coal, rubber and tin that Japan desperately neaded.

Japan began their expansion with the seizure of Indochina in mid-1941. To this, the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in strict opposition, but many others in America wanted to leave the situation alone. So the United States provided materials to countries who were at war with Germany and Japan, but tried to stay neutral and prevent war. This was not effective, however and President Roosevelt created an embargo on the shipment of oil to Japan. Without this critical resource, Japan's industrial and military forces would quickly come to a halt, so they viewed the embargo as an act of war. Only a few months later in September, Japan formed the Axis Alliance along with Italy and Germany. Things were beginning to look worse for the United States.

Officials in the United States tried to come to a resolve with Japan over their differences. Japan wanted America to lift the embargo and allow them to take over China. The United States refused to do either, and saw Japan's refusal to budge on their stance as a sign of hostility. Because of neither nation's willingness to compromise, it seemed that war was now inevitable.

The most powerful and important part of the United States' defense in the Pacific Ocean was the Pacific Fleet, which was usually on the west coast but made a training cruise to Hawaii every year. Because of the overshadow of war at the time of its training cruise in 1941, the fleet was moved to Pearl Harbor naval base. This was a perfect location because it was halfway between the U.S. west coast and Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands.

The Pacific Fleet arrived at Pearl Harbor on April 2, 1940 and was scheduled to depart and return to the United States mainland around the 9th of May. However, this plan was seriously altered because of the increasing activity in Italy and Japan's attempts to expand in Southeast Asia. President Roosevelt's theory was that the presence of United States forces in Hawaii would deter any Japanese attempt at a strike on American forces. Admiral James O. Richardson of the Pacific Fleet was in complete opposition to the proposed long stay at Pearl Harbor. However, when Admiral Stark suggested to him the idea of anti-torpedo nets, after British torpedo bombers launched an attack on Taranto Harbor in Italy, he thought they were neither practical nor necessary. Unfortunately, all of Richardson's protests and meetings with the president only got him dismissed and in February of 1941 he was officially replaced by Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. Kimmel also didn't like the idea of his fleet in Pearl Harbor, but kept his objections to himself after seeing what had happened to Richardson.

The Pacific Fleet was to be used as a defensive measure to direct Japan's attention away from Southeast Asia by:

"a) Capturing the Caroline and Marshall Islands

b) Disrupting Japanese trade routes, and

c) Defending Guam, Hawaii and The United States mainland." (The Attack on Pearl Harbor. Brill.acomp.usf.edu/~mportill/assign.html)

Kimmel was supposed to prepare the fleet for war with Japan.

Because of the United States' presence in the Pacific, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of his country's Combined Fleet needed to be careful of his positions there. If he allowed his forces to be too concentrated, the mainland was susceptible to and attack from a European nation or America. Yamamoto created a plan which involved a strong opening blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and offensive attacks against the British, U.S. and Dutch forces in Southeast Asia. His main purpose was to cripple the United States while he quickly gathered the natural resources of Southeast Asia. He hoped that his opening attack would demoralize American forces and require us to sign a peace settlement, thus allowing Japan to remain as the strongest power in the Pacific. Only one month after the British attack on Taranto Harbor, Yamamoto reasoned that if war was inevitable with the United States he would launch a carrier attack on Pearl Harbor.

In January of 1941, Yamamoto began to commit to his strategy, planning the attack and showing it to other Japanese officials. He developed eight guidelines for the attack, and they are as follows:

"1) Surprise was crucial

2) American aircraft carriers should be the primary targets.

3) United States aircraft there must be destroyed to prevent aerial opposition

4) All Japanese aircraft carriers should be used.

5) All types of bombing should be used in the attack

6) A strong fighter element should be included in the attack for air cover for the fleet

7) Refueling at sea would be necessary

8) A daylight attack promised best results, especially in the sunrise hours." (The Attack Pearl Harbor. brill.acomp.usf.edu/~mportill/assign.html)

General staff members were in opposition to the attack but continued preparations despite their knowledge that the attack would be difficult.

Secrecy and surprise were the two most important elements to the success of the Japanese plan. However, the flow of information around the Japanese Imperial Naval staff was not completely secure. On January 27, Joseph C. Grew, the United States Ambassador to Japan wired Washington that he had discovered information that Japan, in the event of problems with the United States, would plan a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, no one in Washington believed this information, but if someone had, it is possible that the terrible attack could have been prevented. Instead of an attack on Pearl Harbor, most United States officials thought that the Japanese would attack Manila, in the Philippine Islands. During this time period, American intelligence officers continued to monitor secret Japanese messages.

American scientists had previously developed a machine, whose code name was "magic," that gave intelligence officers the ability to read top secret Japanese message traffic. "Magic" provided the United States much high quality information, but because of ignorant ideas in Washington, most of this data was not followed up on and important pieces of the attack puzzle were missed. Japanese consular traffic was also intercepted, which provided the United States with even more important information. Although America had enough essential information to paint itself a crystal-clear picture of Japanese intentions, there was an internal struggle between the Office of Naval Intelligence and the War Plans Division, and the information was lost in the shuffle. In Japan, Admiral Nomura informed his superiors that he thought Americans were reading his message traffic, but no one believed him and their code was not changed.

In addition to listening in on Japanese message traffic, the United States also knew that Hawaii was full of Japanese intelligence officers. Because of our constitutional rights however, very little could be done. One such spy was Takeo Yoshikawa.

Yoshikawa was a Japanese naval reserve ensign. He retired after only two years of service, then contemplated suicide. The navy offered him a job with its general staff's intelligence division, and over the next four years Yoshikawa studied English as well as the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. Wisely, he did not overuse any one observation post or method as he carefully watched goings on in Pearl Harbor and Hickam Airfield. He used many different costumes during his spying years, but never illegally entered military bases or stole confidential documents. Due to American openness, he received nearly all the information he needed by legal methods. He turned out to be one of the best sources of information for the Japanese military, but at the end of his career received neither honors nor pension, and was left asking, "Why has history cheated me?"

As the United States began to fear more and more the Japanese attack, they increased peace negotiations, which occurred up until about November 27, 1941. At this time negotiations completely halted and United States troops were put on high alert. On December 6, President Roosevelt made a final appeal for peace to the Japanese Emperor. Late the same day American intelligence officers decoded thirteen parts of a fourteen part message which brought forth the possibility of a Japanese attack. Around 9:00 a.m. on December 7th, the last piece of the message was decoded, which stated a severance of Japanese ties with America. One hour later a Japanese message was decoded, instructing their embassy to deliver the same 14-part message at 1:00 p.m., Washington time. Upon receiving this message, Washington sent a commercial telegraph to Pearl Harbor because communications were down. However, this message was not received until noon Hawaiian time, three hours after the bombing had been completed.

At this time, Pearl Harbor was not on a state of high alert. Senior commanders had concluded that there was no reason to believe an attack in the near future is inevitable. For this reason, aircraft were left parked wingtip to wingtip on airfields, anti-aircraft guns remained unmanned, and many ammunition boxes stayed locked in storage in accordance with American peacetime regulations. There were no torpedo nets protecting the Pacific Fleet anchorage. Because the 7th of December was a Sunday and it was early in the morning, most officers and crewmen were leisurely ashore.

The Americans were taken completely by surprise by the attack. The attacking Japanese planes came in two waves, the first of which took off from carriers located 230 miles north of Oahu around 6:00 a.m. This wave consisted of 183 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes. The previous night, about 10 miles outside the entrance to Pearl Harbor, five midget submarines were launched, each carrying two men and two torpedoes. It was their mission to remain submerged and once the attack got underway, cause as much damage as possible. Meanwhile in Pearl Harbor, the 130 vessels of the Pacific Fleet sat calmly. At 7:02 a.m., two army operators at Oahu's norther shore radar station detect the Japanese air attack approaching, but their junior officer disregarded their reports, thinking they were American B-17 bombers, which were expected to arrive from the west coast. At 7:15 a.m., the second wave of 160 planes took off from their carriers. In the event that followed, thousands of lives were lost, as well as incredible amounts of American naval property.

Around 6:40 a.m., the crew of the destroyer USS Ward spotted the conning tower of one of the midget submarines. The submarine was by depth charges and gunfire, and Ward radioed the news to headquarters. At 7:53 a.m., the first Japanese attack wave which included 51 Val dive bombers, 40 Kate torpedo bombers, 50 high level bombers and 43 Zero fighters, reached its targets of airfields and battleships. Meanwhile the attack leader, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida was sending coded messages "Tora, Tora, Tora," informing the fleet that the attack had begun and that absolute surprise had been attained. During this attack, Hickam Airfield's mess hall received a direct hit, killing 35 men who were having breakfast.

While the attack on the harbor grew increasingly intense, many other United States military installations on Oahu were hit. Hickam, Wheeler and Bellows airfields, Ewa Marine Corps Air Station, Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station and Schofield Barracks were all damaged, with hundreds of planes destroyed on the ground.

After about five minutes, American anti-aircraft fire began to register hits, but they did not amount to much of a resistance. After a short pause, like in the eye of a hurricane, the second attacking wave reached its targets of ships and shipyard facilities at 8:55 a.m. This attack brought continued destruction, and reduced the American's ability to retaliate. However, Army Air Corps pilots managed to take off in a few fighters, and may have shot down up to ten enemy planes, but this was obviously too little too late.

At approximately 8:10 a.m., the USS Arizona received a direct hit from a 1,760 pound bomb, which penetrated the ship's forward ammunition magazine. This created a catastrophic explosion, which ripped apart the ship's sides. Within nine minutes the ship was sunk, taking with her 1,177 lives, a near complete loss. The USS Oklahoma was also hit by several torpedoes and completely rolled over, trapping inside over four hundred crew members. One surviving crew member of the USS Arizona relives his nightmare:

"I was about three quarters of the way to the first platform on the mast when it seemed as though a bomb struck our quarterdeck. I could hear shrapnel or fragments whistling past me. As soon as I reached the first platform, I saw Lieutenant Simonson lying on his back with blood on his shirt front. I bent over him and taking him by the shoulders asked if there was anything I could do. He was dead, or so nearly so that speech was impossible. Seeing that there was nothing I could do for the Lieutenant, I continued to my battle station...A terrible explosion caused the ship to shake violently. I looked at the boat deck and everything seemed aflame forward of the mainmast...{After being told to abandon ship,} I started swimming for the pipeline which was about one hundred and fifty feet away. I was about halfway when my strength gave out entirely. My clothes and shocked condition sapped my strength, and I was about to go under when Major Shapley started to swim by, and seeing my distress, grasped my shirt and told me to hang to his shoulders while he swam in. We were perhaps twenty-five feet from the pipe line when the Major's strength gave out and I saw that he was floundering, so I loosened my grip on him and told him to make it alone. He stopped and grabbed me by the shirt and refused to let go. I would have drowned but for the Major." (Attack at Pearl Harbor, 1941. www.ibiscom.com/pearl.htm)

By 9:55 a.m., the second Japanese attack wave had retreated to the north, and the attack was over. By 1:00 p.m., the carriers that had launched the planes from 274 miles off the coast of Oahu were headed back to Japan with a victory under their belts. In actuality however, they had sealed their own fates, as shortly after the attack the United Stated entered World War II and eventually defeated Japan.

Although the attack caused much damage, it was not a complete success. Most of the Pacific Fleet was destroyed, but its aircraft carriers had not been in port at the time of the attack and were still afloat. Surprisingly, Pearl Harbor was very much intact. Although fuel tanks along the Kamehameha Highway and North Road were incompletely camouflaged and visible to Japanese attackers, they were spared because they were not targets. This allowed what was left of the Pacific Fleet to continue operating at Pearl Harbor and not withdraw to the United States west coast. Among the dead from the attack were 2,335 servicemen, 68 civilians and a total of 1,178 injured. A complete account of damage and casualties can be found in the following table.

"December7, 1941 Losses

United States Japan

Personnel Killed

Navy 2,388

Marine Corps 1,998 64

Army and Army Air Corps 109

Civilian 48

Personnel Wounded 1,178 unknown

Navy 710

Marine Corps 69

Army and Army Air Corps 364

Civilian 35

Ships

Sunk or beached** 12 5

Damaged* 9

Aircraft

Destroyed 164 29

Damaged 159 74

*Figures are subject to further review

**All U.S. Ships except Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma were salvaged and later saw action."

(USS Arizona Memorial. www.nps.gov/usar/ExtendWeb1.html)

As can be seen from this table, United States losses were considerably greater than

those of the Japanese.

The Pearl Harbor bombing rallied Americans behind President Roosevelt in declaring war on Japan the next day. Roosevelt called December 7, "...a date which will live in infamy." (Franklin D. Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor Speech. bcn.boulder.co.us/government/national/speeches/spch2.html) On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, dragging us into a global conflict. Seven months after the attack, the fuel supplies that had not been targets in the attack helped in the defeat of the Japanese carrier task force by the United States Pacific Fleet at the battle of Midway, the battle that turned the war around. The United States later dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan and their Axis Alliance partners to completely surrender on August 14, 1945.

Soon after the attack, President Roosevelt appointed a commission of inquiry to determine if negligence had contributed to the success of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Their report found that naval and army commanders of the Hawaiian area, Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Major General Walter C. Short were guilty of "derelictions of duty," and "errors of judgement." The two subsequently retired from the armed forces. A bipartisan congressional committee opened an investigation in November of 1945 in which testimony from many people was heard, and the attack was reviewed. The committee reported in July, 1946 that primary blame was to be placed on Short and Kimmel, who were not declared guilty of derelictions of duty, only errors of judgement.

Fifty-nine years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it remains one of the worst defeats of the United States in our history. At many points along the time line of events could this tragedy have been prevented, but through a series of errors and poor decisions, nothing was done until it was too late. Today, fifty-nine years after the attack the USS Arizona National Memorial now stands above the remains of the battleship, commemorating those Americans who died. Despite the tremendous losses that day, the patriotism of many Americans only increased, and pride was not lost. The crews on many of the ships at Pearl Harbor were on the decks for morning colors and the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. Although one band was interrupted by the gunfire and bombing from Japanese planes, not a single crew member moved until the last note was sung.

Bibliography

1) Deac, Will. The Pearl Harbor Spy... www.thehistorynet.com/WorldWarII/articles/1997/05973_text.htm

2) Attack At Pearl Harbor, 1941. www.ibiscom.com/pearl.html

3) Attack on Pearl Harbor, The. brill.acomp.usf.edu/~mportill/assign.html

4) Commander, Navy Region Hawaii. www.hawaii.navy.mil/New%20Homepage/7Dec98/virtour.htm

5) Franklin D. Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor Speech. bcn.boulder.co.us/government/national/speeches/spch2.html

6) The History Place World War Two in Europe. www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/pearl.htm

7) Pearl Harbor. encarta.msn.com/find/Concise.asp?ti=046f8000

8) Road to Pearl Harbor. history.acusd.edu/gen/WW2Timeline/RD-PEARL.html

9) USS Arizona Memorial. www.nps.gov/usar/ExtendWeb1/html

The Pearl Harbor Myth

By Alan D. Zimm


In a Photograph taken aboard a Japanese carrier before the attack, A Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bomber is cheered on by the carrier's crew. (National Archives)

 

As a wave of shock surged from Pearl Harbor’s burning waters, the nation stood in awe of the destruction wrought by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “The incredulousness of it all still gives each new announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack the unreality of a fairy tale,” a young naval aviator stationed in Virginia wrote just hours after the attack. “How could they have been so mad?… If the reports I’ve heard today are true, the Japanese have performed the impossible, have carried out one of the most daring and successful raids in all history.… The whole thing was brilliant.”

In just 90 minutes, the Japanese had inflicted a devastating blow: five battleships were sunk, three battleships, three cruisers, and three destroyers were damaged, and nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed. The most devastating loss was the 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 wounded. Michael Slackman, a consulting historian to the U.S. Navy, described the attack as “almost textbook perfect” in his book Target: Pearl Harbor (1990). Gordon Prange, the battle’s leading historian, judged it “brilliantly conceived and meticulously planned.” Another prominent historian, Robert L. O’Connell, author of Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (1995), likened it to the perfection of a “flashing samurai sword.” Even the recorded narration on a Pearl Harbor tour boat says the attack was “brilliantly conceived and executed.”

Yet a detailed examination of the preparation and execution of the attack on the Pacific Fleet reveals a much different story. Even after 10 months of arduous planning, rehearsal, and intelligence gathering, the attack was plagued by inflexibility, a lack of coordination, and misallocated resources. A plan for a likely contingency was cobbled together by three midgrade officers while en route to Hawaii. The attack itself suffered significant command blunders. Though armed with enough firepower to destroy up to 14 battleships and aircraft carriers, the Japanese landed killing hits on only three battleships; luck, combined with American damage control mistakes, added two more battleships to their tally. Not only was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor far from brilliant, it also narrowly avoided disaster.

High Command and Aviators Disagree on Primary Targets
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, thought he saw a way to win an impossible war, beginning with a surprise attack against American battleships. He believed battleships possessed “intangible political effects internationally as a symbol of naval power.” Sinking them, in tandem with capturing the Philippines, would so shock and demoralize the American people that their will to continue the war would sink along with the shattered battlewagons. The Japanese Naval General Staff wanted to sink battleships, too, but for a different reason: they calculated (from some faulty initial assumptions) that crippling four of the eight battleships in port would prevent the Pacific Fleet from sailing to relieve the Philippines for six months, allowing the Japanese to secure the flank of their southern advance.

The aviators involved had other target priorities. The operation’s main planner, Commander Minoru Genda, was a brilliant and iconoclastic fighter pilot known as “Madman Genda” for his belief that battleships were anachronisms. While a student at the Naval Staff College, he had called for the Imperial Navy to scrap all battleships and build only carriers. When assigned in early 1941 to plan an attack to sink battleships at Pearl Harbor, he instead plotted to aim the bulk of the attack at any carriers that might be in port. His fixation would come close to disrupting the entire attack.

The plan finally presented to the admirals called for a first wave of 40 Nakajima B5N carrier attack bombers (later code-named “Kates” by the Allies), each carrying a Type 91 aerial torpedo, to open the assault on Pearl Harbor. According to the Japanese Official History, they were to first attack four designated battleships, then shift their attention to carriers. After crippling or sinking these ships, the attack would shift to the remaining battleships, then shift again to cruisers.

It was an overly complex, impossible scheme, likely constructed merely to brief the admirals, who were largely ignorant of aviation tactics and would not know that such an orderly progression through the targets was unworkable. Genda and the planners were well aware that the torpedo bombers had to fly low and slow as they approached their targets, making them extremely vulnerable to antiaircraft fire.

The plan they intended to use split 90 Kates between two roles: torpedo and level bombing. Genda then divided the 40 acting as torpedo bombers into four formations. They were to travel together to a point north of Pearl Harbor, where 16 torpedo bombers in two formations would separate to approach from the west and attack the carrier moorings, while 24 torpedo bombers in two formations would attack Battleship Row from the east. Immediately after, 50 more Kates acting as level bombers would attack from high altitude, dropping massive 1,760-pound armor-piercing bombs on the battleships sheltered from torpedo fire by other ships or dry docks.

The plan emphasized surprise; all 40 torpedo bombers could deliver their attacks in less than 90 seconds, before the enemy defenses could respond. It would be impossible for the torpedo bomber aircrews to methodically ratchet through a complicated target prioritization scheme because they would not be in a position to observe or evaluate the attacks of the aircraft that went before them. Each aircrew could only do their best to identify a good target, launch a torpedo, and get out as quickly as possible. They were instructed to concentrate their attacks to ensure that ships would be sunk rather than just damaged, but at the same time avoid “overkill” on ships already sinking, as any such hits would be a waste and better applied to other targets.

A second wave of the attack was to be launched about an hour after the first: 81 Aichi D3A dive-bombers (“Val”) armed with 550-pound general-purpose bombs—which were unable to penetrate battleship deck armor—had the carriers as their primary targets. They were to stay on those targets, even if the carriers had been sunk or capsized by the torpedo bombers.

Genda, true to his philosophy, assigned twice as many torpedo bombers per carrier than per battleship, despite the fact that fewer hits would sink a carrier. In other words, he allocated more than enough firepower to sink the carriers, but sent only enough firepower to cripple the battleships. He wanted to guarantee the carriers would never be salvaged.

Inadequate Rehearsal Sets the Stage for Gaffes
The Imperial Japanese Navy had begun preparing for the Pacific War in earnest in 1938. They grounded their hopes that their smaller navy would prevail through better tactics, better weapons, and better training. Realism, not safety precautions, drove their intensive preparations. Destroyers practiced torpedo attacks at night and in poor weather at high speed, resulting in some catastrophic collisions. Night bombing attacks were practiced while searchlights dazzled the pilots, resulting in midair collisions. The cost in airplanes and lives was deemed acceptable.

Yet the attack on Pearl Harbor went forward without a realistic dress rehearsal. Each mission type—dive-bomber, level bomber, torpedo bomber, and fighter—trained independently. The Japanese simply did not practice combined arms doctrine, which utilizes different types of units in complementary ways to achieve an objective. There was no combined training until the very end, when the Japanese staged two practice attacks against target battleships at anchor in Japan’s Inland Sea, and against a nearby airfield. But the ships were not arrayed as in Pearl Harbor, the sun angle and geography were different, and the approaches were nothing like Oahu’s narrow lochs. The torpedo bombers apparently did not even employ the attack formation they would later use. On top of all that, they repeatedly concentrated on the easiest targets; no corrective action was taken.

Poor Planning Neglects a Likely Contingency
On the eve of their departure, the planners realized that everything they had devised and practiced was based on achieving surprise. What if the Americans were alert?

Genda met with Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the strike commander, and Lieutenant Shigeharu Murata, the torpedo bomber commander, in the flagship’s wardroom after departing from Japan. They devised a modification to the master plan: Fuchida, leading the first wave, would fire one flare for “surprise achieved” or two flares for “surprise lost.” If the Americans were on the alert, the first-wave dive-bombers—which, in the original plan, were to orbit north of the harbor until the torpedo bombers finished their attack—would surge ahead and bomb Ford Island and Hickam Field to draw antiaircraft fire from the torpedo bombers.

This last-minute change held the spark of chaos. It was formulated without any flag officer or senior staff captain present; Genda and Fuchida were probably embarrassed that they had neglected such an obvious contingency. Murata objected to the plan, unwilling to risk his vulnerable torpedo bombers against an awakened defense, but was overruled. Reflecting the lack of a combined arms approach, the new plan was cemented without input from the fighter or dive-bomber leaders.

Another key contingency emerged at the last minute—and was ignored. The day before the strike, Japanese intelligence reported that there were no carriers in Pearl Harbor. Genda could have redirected the attack to focus on battleships and cruisers. However, a staff officer expressed hope that the carriers might return in the few hours remaining before the attack. Genda brightened: “If that happened, I don’t care if all eight battleships are away.” The plan remained unchanged.

Communications Blunder Distorts Attack Plan
As the first wave neared Oahu’s northern shore just after 7:30 a.m. on December 7, clouds blocked the route down the center of Oahu. Fuchida veered, leading the way down the island’s west side. After the massed formation cleared the clouds, he made no attempt to regain the planned track.

Spotting no sign that their presence had been detected, Fuchida fired a single flare to activate the “surprise” attack plan. When the fighters did not take up their assigned positions, however, he assumed they had missed the signal and fired another—without considering that the observers might take this as the two-flare signal. He groaned as the dive-bomber leader, believing that surprise had been lost, raced ahead of the torpedo bombers to make his diversionary attack.

Fuchida later told Gordon Prange, the author of At Dawn We Slept (1981), that he “ground his teeth in rage [but later] realized that the error made no practical difference.” He also diverted blame onto the dive-bomber leader—“that fool Takahashi, he was a bit soft in the head.”

Fuchida’s blunder did in fact make a monumental practical difference: with half the aviators trying to execute a different plan, order disintegrated as the dive-bombers and torpedo bombers raced each other to the harbor like horses released from the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. The dive-bombers arrived first, without climbing to standard bombing altitude, which reduced the accuracy of their attacks. Their bombs, exploding on Ford Island and Hickam Field, awoke American defenders aboard ships in the harbor.

Because the attack groups split up west rather than north of the harbor, the torpedo bombers assigned to strike the carrier moorings commenced their attack about five minutes before their counterparts assigned to Battleship Row. This granted still more reaction time for the defenders; on average, around 25 percent of each vessel’s antiaircraft guns were manned and stocked with ammunition as the attack began. As a result, the first torpedo bomber to attack a battleship was met with heavy fire. Most of the torpedo planes were hit, and five of the last seven to arrive were shot down, all due to Fuchida’s mistake.

Torpedo Bomber Formation Errors Result in Chaos
The planners had selected a long single-file attack formation for the torpedo bombers, with 500-meter (7-second) intervals between aircraft, which they believed suited Pearl Harbor’s long, narrow lochs. It proved a poor choice.

In the confusion following Fuchida’s blunder with the flares, and the pilots’ apparent lack of practice in changing from cruise to attack formation, up to 1,800 meters (30 seconds) stretched between aircraft, and miles opened between the two formations that were to attack Battleship Row. Pilots lost sight of their leaders, or even the aircraft ahead, and had to gain altitude and circle to get their bearings. Some broke away from their formation leader and attacked independently. There were mistakes, aborted runs, misidentified targets, and at least one near collision that forced a bomber to jettison its torpedo.

Instead of a tightly timed attack lasting 90 seconds, the torpedo attack stretched out over 11 minutes, with torpedo bombers spaced far apart, allowing the defenders’ antiaircraft fire to concentrate on each in turn.

At this point, Japanese fighters had detached to strafe nearby airfields. Had American fighters been aloft over the harbor, instead of grounded by communication issues, the scattered torpedo bombers could easily have been slaughtered.

With no carriers in port, nearly half the torpedo bombers fell into disarray over which ships to target.

Lieutenant Hirata Matsumara, leading 16 torpedo bombers, struggled to identify targets against the early morning sun’s glare—a challenge the rehearsals had not prepared him for. Impatient aviators surged ahead and Matsumara’s formations disintegrated. Six torpedo bombers misidentified the demilitarized battleship Utah as a frontline battleship and attacked, scoring only two hits. One torpedo missed Utah so badly it hit the light cruiser Raleigh in an adjacent berth. Considering that this first wave was unopposed by enemy fighters and flew the easiest approach—similar to rehearsals, when 83 percent of the torpedo bombers hit their targets—it was a miserable performance.

The remaining 10 bombers in the carrier attack group swung south of Ford Island looking for battleships; none of the aviators wanted to come home from the most important battle in Japanese history to say they had attacked a secondary target. Five misidentified the backlit silhouette of the old minelayer Oglala, moored outboard of the light cruiser Helena, as a battleship; only one torpedo hit. In all, 11 of the 16 torpedoes from the group assigned to attack carriers—more than a quarter of the 40 torpedoes in the entire attack—were launched at misidentified targets.

The Battleship Row attackers made their runs under heavy fire, further hampered by the remaining bombers from Matsumara’s group that were trying to squeeze in their attacks at the same time. All were desperate to drop their torpedoes before the defending antiaircraft fire became more intense and, just as in rehearsals, aimed mostly at the easiest targets—the battleships Oklahoma and West Virginia. Of the 19 total torpedo hits, these two battleships absorbed 12—nearly two-thirds of the hits. Four of these were overkill, wasted torpedoes that would have been more effective against the battleships California, which received only two hits, and Nevada, which received just one.

Only 11 torpedo hits were against properly identified targets that were part of the objective; the score rises to 13 if the accidental hits on the cruisers Raleigh and Helena are included. Thus, at best 33 percent of the torpedoes brought to the battle were effective—far short of the 67 percent Genda had expected.

Just before the 81 second-wave dive-bombers launched, the pilots were informed that the American carriers were not in port. Rather than turning their focus to the secondary targets—cruisers—word was circulated that they were to finish off ships damaged in the first attack. Many of the pilots took this vague declaration as an order to strike battleships, despite the known ineffectiveness of their general-purpose bombs in this role.

While the second wave approached the harbor, Fuchida—after dropping his armor-piercing bomb (a miss)—spent 30 minutes circling the harbor. He could have identified targets for the dive-bombers and directed their attacks. Instead, he did nothing. The most senior aviator over Pearl Harbor was a passive observer.

The dive-bomber pilots, left to select targets, wasted most of their ordnance. Forty percent of the dive-bombers went after battleships. Another 7 dropped their payload on destroyers misidentified as cruisers, 16 attacked auxiliary vessels misidentified as cruisers or battleships, 8 bombed a destroyer in dry dock, 2 attacked an oiler in the channel, and 1 attacked an ammunition ship. One may even have attacked the Dutch liner Jagersfontein in Honolulu Harbor, 10 miles away. Only 14 of the 78 bombers that arrived at Pearl Harbor attacked appropriate targets—cruisers.

The Japanese expected their dive-bombers to land 49 hits, a 60 percent success rate; even with a charitable definition of what constitutes a hit, they achieved only 15 hits, or 19 percent. Three bombs that had been aimed at battleships missed so badly they hit destroyers, so only 15 percent of the bombs actually hit their intended targets—another miserable performance.

Five hits were scored on the battleship Nevada, a ship already sufficiently damaged by a torpedo strike in the first wave. These hits triggered a damage control blunder by the Americans, which ultimately sank the ship. Single hits on California and Pennsylvania caused little damage.

The remaining second-wave dive-bombers contributed nothing to Japan’s objective of immobilizing the Pacific Fleet for six months. There was only one direct hit on a cruiser, Raleigh, but like the Nevada it had already been torpedoed and would be out of the war for six months. A near miss caused some flooding aboard the cruiser Honolulu, quickly repaired. Three hits landed on a destroyer in a floating dry dock. Another hit on an aircraft tender was later mended in a single day at the San Diego shipyard.

Overall, the Japanese attack fell far short of its potential. There were eight battleships and eight cruisers in port; four of each were accessible to torpedo attack. The Japanese had more than enough armor-piercing bombs to sink the ships inaccessible to torpedoes, along with two of the four battleships that were either double-berthed or in dry dock, and enough general-purpose bombs to sink all of the cruisers. But instead of destroying 14 of the 16 priority targets, they dropped killing ordnance on only three: Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona. Two other battleships —California and Nevada—later sank because of flooding, damage control errors, and poor construction. This raised the score to 5 of the 16 priority targets, or only 31 percent—a poorly planned and executed attack, no matter how it is dissected.

Lessons of a Flawed Victory
Its flaws aside, however, the attack’s results are all too familiar. Japan succeeded in taking the United States by surprise. Five battleships sank; the loss of American lives shook the nation to its core. December 7, 1941, will never cease to live in infamy.

But examining the attack’s planning and execution blunders offers a key perspective on the Pacific War. Defeat forces change; victory entrenches the current system, with all its faults.

By celebrating its success at Pearl Harbor, Japan sheltered myriad problems. Victory obscured poor planning, to be seen again at Midway; poor staff procedures were evident later at Guadalcanal. Poor target selection, attack tactics, and accuracy appeared again in the carrier battles; poor aerial command and control manifested throughout the war. Victory perpetuated a samurai approach to aerial combat that led to horrendous losses.

Most significantly, Pearl Harbor cemented the Japanese belief that they could achieve stunning victory against all odds—that with sufficient will and the favor of the gods they could achieve the impossible. This sustained Japan when defeat was inevitable; it prolonged the war; it nurtured the Bushido warrior spirit—and its dark side, the kamikaze. Paradoxically, the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor firmly entrenched the seeds of the destruction of their navy, and near destruction of their nation.


Alan D. Zimm heads a section of the Aviation Systems and Advanced Concepts Group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He is a former surface line officer in the U.S. Navy. His book The Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deception was released in May 2011 by Casemate Publishers.

 

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