Military history






At the urging of the new and bellicose Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, on November 5, 1941, the Japanese government resolved to launch war against United States, British, and Dutch forces in the Pacific and Far East. During the ensuing days the Japanese warily and vaguely revealed the decision to Hitler, seeking a written pledge of mutual support—that is, a declaration of war against the United States. Hitler welcomed Japan’s decision to launch war, but he haggled over the treaty in an attempt to persuade Japan to launch war against the Soviet Union as well. The Japanese were unwilling to include this in a formal treaty but they left Hitler with the impression that after they had consolidated their Pacific conquests, Germany could count on their support. Meanwhile, Japan would shut off the flow of American (but not Soviet) ships bringing Lend-Lease supplies to the Soviet Union via Vladivostok.

It had always been Hitler’s intention to avoid overt war with the United States. In view of his growing military difficulties in the Soviet Union, there was good reason to adhere to that policy. But, as Admiral Raeder—and indirectly, Dönitz—insisted, from a naval point of view the United States was already waging war against Germany by the occupation of Iceland, by escorting North Atlantic convoys, by arming its merchant ships and allowing them to proceed into the war zone, and by supplying Great Britain and the Soviet Union with an immense flow of Lend-Lease war matériel at no cost. The entry of Japan into the war was bound to draw substantial Allied naval and air forces from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to the Pacific and Asian waters, greatly enhancing the possibilities of decisive Axis maritime victories in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Hence it was in Germany’s best interest to welcome Japan into the war and also to join her arm-in-arm, perhaps even coordinating naval warfare in some areas, such as the Indian Ocean. Moreover, a full partnership would give Germany access to a supply of critical raw materials from the Japanese-occupied territories in Southeast Asia.

There were other considerations. The failure of the German armies to capture Moscow and Leningrad quickly, and to destroy the Soviet armies, had led to uneasiness and doubt in some German quarters. A new fighting partner and a dramatic stroke—such as a ringing declaration of war against the United States—was almost certain to raise spirits and renew energies. The possibility of a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union in the Far East might forestall the transfer of Soviet troops from that region to face the Germans outside Moscow and elsewhere, increasing the chance of a German victory in the Soviet Union when the warm weather returned in the spring.

So it was decided: When Japan launched war against the United States, Germany—and Italy—were to declare war in partnership. Perhaps to justify this fateful decision, which many in his inner circle opposed, Hitler commenced in private an unprecedented outpouring of bile and venom about President Roosevelt and a sinister circle of American Jews who held him captive.

Although the Japanese professed friendship and complete trust, they artfully concealed from Hitler their plan for launching the war. It was ambitious. In the opening phase, Japanese forces were to strike nearly simultaneously the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the United States Asiatic Fleet and Army Air Forces at Manila, and the British fleet at Singapore (mainly the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse), and capture the American islands of Wake and Guam, the British islands of Tarawa and Maiken, and the British colony at Hong Kong. In the second phase, to follow immediately, Japanese forces were to invade and capture the Philippines, Malaya, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Burma, and other British and Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia.

The Japanese attempted to conceal their preparations for war from Washington by pretending to carry on diplomatic negotiations through the ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura. But Washington was not deceived. It was reading the chief Japanese diplomatic code, Purple, currently and fluently, and was fully alive to the deception and anticipated a Japanese attack at almost any hour. The problem was that the Japanese Imperial Navy had recently made a change in its main operational code (JN-25), which American codebreakers had not yet cracked. As a result, they had lost track of the Japanese battle fleet and therefore did not know in which direction the Japanese intended to strike. The prevailing guess was that the Japanese were to go south—perhaps to Malaya. The least likely target on nearly everyone’s list was Pearl Harbor.

The Commander in Chief of the Japanese fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, did not favor war. He had traveled abroad often and had the greatest respect for the industrial potential of the United States. He actively lobbied against war behind the scenes, stating that “[i]f I am told to fight regardless of the consequences, I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.” His arguments carried little weight with Tojo and other hawks, who believed that in view of its naval commitments to the Atlantic, the United States might be reluctant to fight in the far Pacific or, if it did, it would probably soon tire of the fight and enter into negotiations. If it turned out so, one year of naval wild-running was all Tojo needed.

Confronting the growing possibility of war with the United States, Yamamoto had discarded the old Japanese plan of meeting the American fleet in a climactic battle in Far Eastern waters. In its place, he designed a surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, to be carried out by a force of aircraft carriers and supporting vessels. Throughout most of 1941 the naval elements concerned had relentlessly rehearsed various aspects of the plan in utmost secrecy. Meanwhile, Japanese engineers produced special aerial torpedoes (with wooden fins) that would work in the shallow waters (forty feet) of the Pearl Harbor anchorage, and huge aerial bombs, fashioned from 16” armor-piercing battleship gun shells.

After assembling in secrecy at a remote island, Etorofu, in the Kuriles, the Japanese strike force (Kido Butai) sailed on November 26. Commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, it was composed of six fleet carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, three escorting submarines, and a long train of supply ships.* To avoid being seen by commercial shipping, the force traveled far to the north and hugged unfavorable weather fronts. All ships maintained absolute radio silence. The force was preceded by twenty-five large Japanese fleet submarines, which took preassigned patrol stations in Hawaiian waters. Five of the fleet submarines carried 78-foot two-man “midget” submarines, which were to sneak into the Pearl Harbor anchorage when the boom was open and attack capital ships.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Kido Butai launched about 350 aircraft at Pearl Harbor. Striking with complete surprise, the Japanese airmen sank four battleships (Arizona, California, Oklahoma, West Virginia), an old target ship (Utah), and a minelayer (Oglala). They damaged four other battleships (Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee), three light cruisers (Raleigh, Honolulu, Helena), a seaplane tender (Curtiss), three destroyers (Cassin, Shaw, Downes), and a repair ship (Vestal). Two hundred and nineteen American aircraft were destroyed. Fortunately for the Americans, two carriers of the Pacific Fleet, Lexington and Enterprise, were at sea with their supporting ships and escaped damage, and a third carrier, Saratoga, was in California. Inexplicably, Nagumo failed to attack the shore-based fleet oil-storage tanks and the repair shops, thereby making it possible for the surviving elements of the fleet, including the three carriers, to continue basing in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese fleet submarines had no luck; all five midget submarines foundered or were sunk. Only one of the ten crewmen survived.

Japanese aircraft hit and destroyed only one of the approximately forty American fleet submarines based in Pearl Harbor and Manila. Within mere hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Washington directed the others, as well as the six old S boats in Manila, to “wage unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan.” Most left on independent patrols within a few days. Having trained for years to operate with the battle fleet, American submarine force commanders and skippers had never even considered, let alone planned for, an unrestricted war against Japanese merchant shipping, and many found it difficult to adjust to this new role. Furthermore, it gradually became apparent that there were drastic defects in the torpedoes. Like the German torpedoes, the American torpedoes ran much too deep and there were flaws in the magnetic and contact pistols. The upshot was that American submariners achieved little in the first few months of the war in the Pacific.*

The sneak attack of the Kido Butai on Pearl Harbor was a classic, well-executed tactical operation, indisputably a great naval victory. As intended, it crippled the Pacific Fleet, giving Japan virtually a free hand to carry out the planned conquests in Southeast Asia. And yet, strategically it may have been a mistake. The treacherous nature of the attack, which cost the lives of 2,403 American military personnel—and wounded 1,178—outraged Americans and generated hatred to-ward the Japanese to a degree that nullified any possibility that the Americans would ever lose interest in the Pacific war and negotiate a settlement. As the historian Ronald H. Spector put it, “Had [Japan] avoided American possessions and concentrated on the British and the Dutch, Roosevelt would have found it awkward trying to win support for a war in defense of distant European colonies in Asia, rather than leading a righteous crusade to avenge Pearl Harbor.”

The loss of American warships at Pearl Harbor and the extent of the Japanese threat in the Pacific necessitated the rapid transfer of some warships from the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific Fleet. First to shift was Task Force 17, comprised of the aircraft carrier Yorktown and two light cruisers (Richmond, Trenton), which left the Panama Canal Zone December 22. Four modern (1939-1940) destroyers, Hughes, Russell, Sims, and Walke, provided escort. Contrary to published statements implying that upwards of twenty-four American destroyers left the Atlantic Fleet for the Pacific Fleet in December 1941, these were the only destroyers to make the shift that month.

Washington alerted other warships of the Atlantic Fleet to prepare for transfer to the Pacific Fleet in early January 1942. Chief among these were the older battleships Idaho, Mississippi, and New Mexico, which had been in the Atlantic only about six months. These were to be escorted by five modern (1939-1940) destroyers of the Atlantic Fleet: Anderson, Hammann, Morris, Mustin, and O’Brien. All these ships sailed to the Pacific in early January, as did two other modern (1938) destroyers, Sampson and Warrington. Total destroyers transferred to the Pacific in December and January: eleven, nine from Squadron 2 and two from Squadron 9.

These transfers left the Atlantic Fleet with nine capital ships: three old battleships useful only for convoy escort (Arkansas, New York, Texas), two new battleships in extended workup (North Carolina, Washington), and four carriers (Hornet, preparing to leave for the Pacific, Ranger, Wasp, and the “jeep” Long Island). Fourteen cruisers (five heavy; nine light) in various states of readiness made up the rest of the heavy striking power of the Atlantic Fleet, plus, of course, the destroyers, of which more later.

Lastly, Washington canceled the transfer to Argentia, Newfoundland, of a reinforced squadron of about eighteen S-class submarines and the new tender Griffin. Intended originally to augment Admiral Bristol’s Support Force (a dubious assignment), two divisions comprising twelve boats and Griffin went to the Pacific instead. The six boats of the other division were loaned to the Royal Navy.*

The Japanese war plan unfolded with astonishing efficiency and speed. Basing on the island of Formosa, Japanese aircraft quickly destroyed American air power in the Philippines and drove out the Asiatic Fleet, setting the stage for an invasion of Luzon. On December 10, Japanese aircraft from Indochina bombed and sank the Prince of Wales and Repulse at sea, with the loss of 840 sailors out of 3,761. (“In all the war,” Churchill wrote, “I never received a more direct shock.”) The Pacific islands of Wake, Guam, Tarawa, and Maiken and the British colony of Hong Kong fell. Japanese forces invaded Malaya and other forces gathered to strike at Borneo, Sumatra, and Java.

During the final days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, while they were still frantically seeking Hitler’s signature on the treaty of partnership, the Japanese had continued to conceal their war plans, telling Hitler only that “war may come quicker than anyone dreams.” Thus the attack on Pearl Harbor came as a complete shock to Hitler. Viewing himself as the senior partner in the Axis, he was embarrassed and angry that the Japanese had not taken him into their confidence—had, in fact, deceived him to a certain extent—and had not sought his advice or approval, or even assistance, as did the Italians. It was not only a personal slap in the face, but also a signal that Tokyo intended to fight its war as it saw fit and in its own best interest, without consultation with Berlin and Rome.

Nonetheless, Hitler swallowed his pride and fulfilled his pledge to the Japanese. He summoned his puppet legislators to the Reichstag on December 11 and declared war on the United States, publicly spewing bile at Roosevelt. Later that same day, Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo jointly vowed not to lay down arms until the United States and Great Britain were crushed—and not to make a separate peace. In response, Roosevelt asked the Congress to declare war on Germany. But there were no pronouncements from Moscow; Japan and the Soviet Union remained wary nonbelligerents.

For Churchill, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, America’s full-scale entry into the war assured eventual victory (“So we had won after all,” he wrote). On the other hand, American fury at the Japanese raised the disturbing possibility that the Americans might reverse the agreed-upon Anglo-American strategic war plan and go after Japan first, Germany and Italy second. If so, it would prolong British losses in men and resources on far-flung battlefields and oceans, and bring deprivation, discomfort, and danger at home.

To make sure that the Americans stuck to the plan, Churchill hurried to Washington for a second round of face-to-face talks with Roosevelt. He and a large party of senior military advisers left the Firth of Clyde on December 12 on the new battleship Duke of York. Encountering fierce North Atlantic storms, the battleship (on its shakedown cruise) and its escorts turned south and ran through the Bay of Biscay, boldly passing within one hundred miles of Brest and crossing what Churchill described as the “stream” of U-boats entering and leaving French bases. Aware of U-boat positions from decrypted naval Enigma, the Admiralty guided the Duke of York through the Bay of Biscay on evasive courses. Crossing the middle Atlantic, she arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, without incident on December 22. The next day Roosevelt and Churchill and their respective military chiefs commenced a series of meetings on global strategy known as the Arcadia Conference.

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