CHAPTER 15

The Bombardment of Pearl Harbor

JAPAN, goaded into decisive action, was unleashing against the world its other major force, its Navy. Hitherto Japan’s Army had been the agent of its dynamism: it was the Army which Japan’s neighbours feared, and it was the influence of the Army upon the Japanese Government that kept the world in anxiety. The Navy, which by tradition was preponderantly officered by men whose Samurai origin lay in clans different from those which were powerful in the Army, was highly conspiratorial: it had tended to deplore the rashness of the Army, and to favour much more cautious policies. It was conservative: it did not feel the same desire to intervene over the whole range of government: it had less connection, though it had some, with patriotic societies. In the Navy, the old feeling in favour of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance lingered on, and there was a nostalgic sentiment in favour of the older basis of Japan’s foreign policy.

But the Navy, like all other institutions in Japan, was divided by factions. One faction had been captivated by the vision of the economic adventure in the South Seas, and by the Empire which it felt lay open for Japan, open to the touch of the Japanese fleet. This section began to think of a war with the British Empire, which it would have to overthrow, as inevitable. It thought, too, that a collision with the United States was certain, for the United States also was likely to block Japanese expansion in this direction. The Navy, or this section of it, gradually came to regard the Anglo-Saxon Powers as the inevitable enemy, against whom war was to be prepared.

This faction identified itself in the vital years with the ‘Go South’ movement. It naturally saw in this an opportunity to reinstate itself with the Army in the public esteem, and to clip the Army’s wings as the instrument of expansion par excellence. The prevailing war, an Army-led war, between Japan and China, would be transformed and eclipsed by being converted into a predominantly naval war, fought by the Navy chiefly instead of the land forces, and with the adversary changed. The war would be in a different terrain, would involve huge distances, vast oceans, distant islands – in all of which, the Navy, and not the Army, would shine.

In calling into action the second of the great weapons of Imperial Japan, the Japanese Government was employing an instrument which had been untested for thirty-five years. The Japanese Navy had won its greatest triumph as long ago as 1905, and had, since then, not fought a serious action. As long as the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty had been in force, the West had been able to inform itself of Japanese naval construction: and Britain, making use of old ties, had kept abreast of Japanese naval thinking. But the link had been severed in 1935: the American and British navies felt themselves incompetent at assembling information about interesting new developments in Japanese naval construction: in 1941, it was a matter of speculation how the Japanese Navy would fare if pitted against those of the other Great Powers. A great spurt in construction of big ships had taken place at the end of the 1930s.

In the twenties and early thirties, while contact lasted, the Japanese Navy had maintained a large battle fleet. It possessed ten large battleships: it was known to have built four more subsequently, though the West was without knowledge of their details. In addition the Navy, from the beginning of the 1920s, had been interested in the air, and had built aircraft-carriers. This was the speciality, not of the Navy as a whole, but of a clique in it, whose most forceful member was a Japanese naval officer, Yamamoto Isoroku, who early on had been attracted by theories of air power. He was openly sceptical about the usefulness of battleships: he thought their value was chiefly prestige, and he compared them to the ancestral scrolls which were hung upon the wall of Japanese houses, proving the piety of their upkeep but not able to guarantee much to the present prosperity of the family.

Yamamoto had, however, a very difficult time in propagating his views. Most Japanese admirals regarded his insistence on air power much as British military officers regarded the use of the machine-gun before the First World War. Some made it a point of honour never to fly in an aeroplane themselves, and to discourage flying by their officers. Yamamoto got his way, largely by becoming commandant of a naval school which trained a considerable number of naval pilots: they were to be the heroes of the coming war. By a characteristically Japanese compromise Yamamoto secured, not the replacement of the existing Japanese Navy by one which was governed by his ideas, but the organization of a separate fleet, which was geared to the air, in addition to the orthodox battle fleet. There was no stringent testing of naval construction in Japan by political commissions from the Imperial Diet, which might have subjected this settlement to criticism on grounds of economy, and the debate over the strategical and financial questions which were at issue took place within much the same channels as we have examined in connection with the related problems of international naval arms limitation.

The air development of the Japanese Navy was one of the things grossly underestimated by the Intelligence of the Anglo-Saxon countries. In 1938 aeroplanes which had bombed Shanghai had flown direct from Kyushu in southern Japan and had returned without refuelling. In spite of the stir which this made at the time, the official judgement in England and the United States continued to be that Japan had made little progress in turning out skilled naval pilots.

Admiral Yamamoto, it should be noted, was not a firebrand. He knew and respected the West, its navies and its statesmen. For many years he had been pivotal within the moderate group, a true disciple of Admiral Katō Tomosaburé, and he had risked assassination in consequence. Yamamoto had risen high in the Navy, by great industry fortified by originality of ideas. He became Vice-Minister of the Navy and exercised a powerful influence towards moderation in the mid-1930s. In the middle of 1939 he was made Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, which removed him from the political centre of civil-military controversies, reduced the likelihood of his assassination, but confirmed his position as one of the three or four men who were responsible for planning naval operations. As relations with the United States worsened, he became convinced that, in the event of Japan being forced into war by the United States – as the Japanese thought – Japan should begin operations with a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet, which was stationed at Pearl Harbor. By doing so, the Navy would be repeating its attack, before the outbreak of war, on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1904. Yamamoto had himself been present at that famous action, and had lost two fingers. The American plans for war were known to be that, upon its declaration, the United States Fleet should advance westwards from Pearl Harbor, and that the war would take the form of great naval engagements with the Japanese fleet in the Western Pacific. Yamamoto’s plan was to make this impossible by destroying the American fleet, by surprise, before it could sail. As a professional sailor charged with advising his Government on great matters, he recommended it to borrow from Japan’s mode of action in the past, and to deal a lightning blow. His advocacy of his bold plan was conditional upon the Japanese Government concluding that no means other than war was open to it. It was to be the desperate means for a desperate situation.

For the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto proposed to use his aircraft-carriers, and to carry out the destruction from the air. No coup of such magnitude had as yet been carried out: it was its boldness which surprised the world. A relatively small operation of the kind had been executed by the British when they had bombed Taranto with twenty-three planes: their success undoubtedly encouraged Yamamoto to proceed. He had the operation studied minutely, and torpedoes were manufactured which were suitable for attacking in shallow waters: the depth of water at Pearl Harbor was little deeper than it had been at Taranto although the speed, height, bombs, torpedo weights and number of aircraft which he would employ made the puny Taranto raid look primitive by comparison. The Pearl Harbor attack plan was conceived in January 1941. Detailed planning of the action to be taken began in June 1941. Yamamoto had the greatest difficulty in getting the consent of the very few naval colleagues whom he had to consult, but whose number was rigidly limited by the need for entire secrecy. An appreciation by the Naval General Staff was that success would depend on surprise, and that the chances of sailing a task force within reach of Pearl Harbor undetected were negligible.

Yamamoto, however, was finally permitted to proceed. His skill in advocacy was great, and it was one of the qualities which made him so conspicuous in the war and in the years beforehand. He assembled a task force of twenty-three surface warships (which included six carriers, two battleships and nine cruisers), a considerable supply force and twenty-seven submarines. In the middle of November, one month before the actual bombardment, this force sailed from Japan to Tankan Bay in the Kurile Islands; from there they approached Hawaii from the north, arriving within 220 miles of it on the night of 6–7 December. Though Yamamoto had supervised in detail the planning and rehearsal of the expedition, he did not accompany it, but remained at his post of command near Hiroshima.

It was understood that the issue of success and of disgraceful and humiliating failure turned upon secrecy. The United States had been warned many times that the Japanese did not exclude an attack on Pearl Harbor. It was not supposed that the Americans were likely to be as extraordinarily negligent as proved in fact to be the case. The idea that the Japanese attacks on 7–8 December 1941 were dastardly acts should be laid to rest: the notion of a Japanese ‘Day of Infamy’ has outlived its usefulness. Surprise attacks, as we have seen, has been the customary practice of states throughout modern times: they were not the exception, but the general rule.

Japan took a formidable risk in relying on the friendless and empty seas of the North Pacific to protect its fleet from discovery. In other ways it had taken security devices which had in some measure deceived the Americans, and were an essential part of the operation. When its fleet sailed from Japan, the fact had been camouflaged by setting up a system of fake radio messages which stilled any American suspicions that ships were on the move. After some time, however, some of the American monitors realized that calls to and from the aircraft-carriers, specifically, had unaccountably ceased. They accepted that the carriers had been moved, but made the wrong deduction that they had been sent south.

The Americans were already aware, from their interception of the code messages between Tokyo and the Japanese Embassy in Washington, that the Japanese were preparing for war in case the vital negotiations with the United States ended in deadlock; and they assumed that the operations would, in the first case, be directed only against Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, or the Philippines. With this inference, the assumption that the disappearance of the aircraft-carriers meant a concentration of force in the South Seas fitted excellently. That the concentration was at that moment directed against Pearl Harbor never seemed to have crossed the mind of anyone in authority.

In the summer and autumn months of 1941, both the Army and Navy refrained from informing their commanders in Hawaii of vital information affecting the likelihood of a Japanese surprise attack. It has been suggested that President Roosevelt and his most senior military and naval advisers were so involved in a gigantic attempt to lure the Japanese into an attack on the United States, using the US Pacific Fleet as an opening gambit, that they were ready to risk the consequences of’surprise’ at Pearl Harbor rather than lose this opportunity to bring America into the Second World War on the side of the British Empire. These are serious charges and thus far the evidence offered in support of this conspiracy theory is exceedingly flimsy. The simplest explanation for the lapses that occurred is that many individuals in the American forces at the time were accustomed to sloppy, unprofessional staff work because the approved administrative procedures were cumbersome, irksome and often unworkable: supervision was capricious and poor. Officials tended to try to avoid taking personal responsibility whenever possible. Record-keeping was often haphazard. The fighting services were expanding rapidly and evolving. When pressure mounted so did inefficiency.

What is certain is that there was no shortage of Intelligence information about Japan’s intentions. Much of the documentary evidence concerning that information has since disappeared. It is charitable but probably safe to assume that misguided efforts by individuals or by their departments to cover up embarrassing omissions or misperceptions have lent undue credence to those who promote the idea that the Federal Administration was involved in treacherous activities.

Shortly after the Pearl Harbor Strike Force sailed from Japan, two experienced radio operators aboard the Matson liner SS Lurline intercepted and logged a stream of radio traffic which they convinced them selves must have been exchanges between a Japanese fleet and Tokyo between 1 and 3 December. War was in the air, and the operators were naturally jittery. Upon docking at Honolulu, however, they immediately took their suspicions and radio log-book information to US Navy Intelligence. No action appears to have been taken.

Far away on the coast of California, an Intelligence officer working on routine Intelligence activities at the 12th Naval District in San Francisco learned that unusual radio transmissions were emanating from west of Hawaii. He telephoned contacts at the wire services and major shipping companies and from these contacts he and a young seaman were able to establish the approximate location of the mysterious signals. They then continued to monitor the position of the transmissions as its source, which they assumed to be a Japanese fishing fleet, continued on its course. It was actually Nagumo’s carrier fleet. By the evening of 6 December the Americans had tracked it to a position only 400 miles north-west by north of Oahu, the Hawaiian island which contains Pearl Harbor. They speculated that if the force was the Japanese fleet, it would attack Pearl Harbor early the following morning. They were content to pass along the information to their Chief of Intelligence, an officer who, according to office chit-chat, knew President Roosevelt well enough to alert him personally and save the country. It was a plan of breathtaking naïvety. In any case, it is difficult to know how to regard these two stories: according to Japanese sources, Admiral Nagumo’s forces maintained radio silence while on their way to Pearl Harbor.

On 2 December 1941 a Dutch Assistant Naval Attaché in Washington, in the course of a routine visit to the Office of Naval Intelligence, was shown a map plotting a Japanese fleet sailing west of Manila on its way down the South China Sea to the Gulf of Siam. Noting that two Japanese carriers were shown at a position half-way to Hawaii, he expressed his surprise. Four days later, on returning to O N I, he asked where the carriers had gone and was shown a position some 300–400 miles north-west of Pearl Harbor. He recorded this in his diary, reported it to his Ambassador and sent word to the Netherlands Government-in-Exile in London.

Dutch cryptographers, meanwhile, working with primitive resources in Bandung, Java, had managed to crack one of the Japanese consular codes. On 2 December they intercepted a message advising the Japanese Ambassador in Bangkok that Japanese surprise attacks on Hawaii, the Philippines, Malaya and Thailand were imminent and informing him of the famous ‘Winds’ signals giving notification of the attack. Upon receiving this information, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Dutch Netherlands East Indian Army, General Hein Ter Poorten, delivered the message, personally, to the head of the American military mission in Java, Brigadier-General Elliott Thorpe, who managed to cable the news to Washington through the senior US Naval Attaché, Commander Paul Sidney Slawson, and the American Consul-General in the Dutch East Indies, Dr Walter Foote, so as to arouse no suspicion from Japanese monitoring the air waves:

When crisis leading to worst arises, following will be broadcast at end weather reports:

1. East wind, rain, war with United States.

2. North wind, cloudy, war with Russia.

3. West wind, clear, war with Britain, including attack on Thailand or Malaya and Dutch East Indies.

The messages were duly acknowledged by Washington, where no notice was taken. Meanwhile, General Ter Poorten had asked the Dutch Military Attaché in Washington to convey the message directly to General Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff, who dismissed the report out of hand. When the ‘East wind, rain’ message was transmitted, it was remarked upon; but the machinery for bringing this information to the attention of American military and naval commanders round the globe was tied up with red tape.

The British authorities, too, had learned of the impending attack. They had been informed by the Dutch Government-in-Exile, who had passed it on to the British Embassy in Washington. Although other hard evidence is lacking, it seems inconceivable that the British would have failed to bring the news to the attention of United States authorities at the highest level. There is, however, no hint of this in the public records, despite the fact that there is an abundance of documentation showing the flow of information between the two Governments concerning the Japanese convoy steaming down the South China Seas on its way to Malaya. The British Cabinet records for the period show that Britain’s uncertainty about whether the Americans would become involved continued to exist right up to the eve of Pearl Harbor. Despite months, indeed years, of effort by the British and Dutch to secure a definite commitment by the Americans to join forces in war against Japan in the event of an attack confined to European possessions in the East, Roosevelt continued to be evasive to the last. To some extent his reluctance was explained by his concern that any such commitment might be leaked prematurely in the American press with dire political consequences. However, at the root of his concern was his apparent and possibly genuine inability to forecast how American sentiment and Congressional opinion would respond to such a guarantee: it is now generally accepted that for some considerable time Roosevelt had lagged behind American public opinion as his country drifted into war. Prime Minister Churchill together with President Roosevelt had become fixed in his belief that only a policy of Anglo-American firmness towards Tokyo could deter Japan from embarking on a Pacific War. Both men recognized, however, that it was one thing to utter warlike cries to undermine the confidence of a potential enemy, quite another thing to plunge blindly into war.

On Friday, 5 December, a United States naval patrol vessel on station north of Hawaii lay in the path of the Japanese fleet. According to evidence put before the subsequent US Congressional inquiry into the Pearl Harbor Attack, the patrol ship unaccountably disappeared from naval records of ship movements and locations the next day: no explanations were given.

On Saturday, 6 December, after having lost contact with the Japanese convoy north-west of Malaya in the fog where the waters of the South China Sea merge with the Gulf of Siam, British reconnaissance aircraft reported elements of the Japanese fleet off the coast of Thailand. The force reportedly included thirty-five transports accompanied by eight cruisers and twenty destroyers: it actually comprised two battleships, eight cruisers and fourteen destroyers backing up a flotilla of nineteen transports carrying troops who had embarked at Hainan only two days before. The Commander of the British Far East Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, who had played such a prominent role in the pre-war naval planning and war preparations of the British Admiralty, was then in Manila for consultations with General MacArthur and the Commander of the American Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas Hart. Upon hearing this latest news, Phillips immediately flew back to Singapore to rejoin his fleet.

Half-way across the globe, the senior United States Army observer in Cairo was informed by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force Middle Eastern Command, that there were firm indications that the United States would be attacked within twenty-four hours. Meanwhile, out in the Aleutians and Hawaii, word came that the reconnaissance flights of the Catalina P B Y s were to be relaxed, allowing their crews a much needed rest after an exhausting period of high alert. The dawn patrols in the morning were reduced. According to testimony before the Roberts Commission, at the time of the attack only three Oahu-based naval patrol aircraft were in the air out of a total available strength of around fifty long-range naval reconnaissance aircraft.

The American monitors intercepted wireless messages between some source in Japan and a Japanese in Honolulu which were mysterious, and should have put them on their guard. After the attack it became clear that these conversations gave minute particulars of the American ships likely to be in port on 7 December. But they were thinly veiled in a code which was subsequently seen to have been quite plain. All that was done with the messages at this time was to refer them to a language unit for a report on them without any indication of emergency.

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The American carelessness of their danger continued on the very morning of the attack. Three outlying Army mobile radar units, whose business it was to track aircraft on the northern approaches to Oahu, picked up clearly the traces of two Japanese spotter aircraft which had been sent out from Japanese cruisers just before the attack, to search for all American carriers. They came on the radar screen at 6.45, one hour before the start of the attack. At that time the Japanese aircraft were some fifty miles away and, if this alert had been acted upon, it would, late though it was, have enabled the battleships to be put in some state of readiness, and the American planes to be in the air. The attack would quite possibly have failed, or the main havoc been averted. A report of this radar sighting was made to the Army aircraft warning service information centre at Fort Shafter but was disregarded. At 7.02 a.m., a quarter-hour later, one of the same three stations reported from Opana that it had found and was tracking a massive formation of aircraft 130 miles away, coming in from the north. But when this radar station, which was manned by an inexperienced but enthusiastic trainee, informed Fort Shafter of what had been observed, he was told not to be alarmed. It was assumed that the unit must have detected reconnaissance aircraft from the American carrier force at sea, or an incoming American flight of B 17s which was due from the mainland in transit to the Philippines.

Similarly one of the Japanese submarines entered through the harbour gates at 4.50 in the morning. It was reported and hunted: but a general alarm was not given; the significance of the news, the fact that it heralded a full naval assault, was not appreciated.

At 1.15 a.m. local time, on the morning of 8 December, Japanese warships off the coast of Malaya fired Japan’s opening shots of the Pacific War in a preliminary bombardment at Kota Bharu which left the way clear for the first of seven landings made by Japanese troops up and down the east coast of Malaya and Thailand over the next two days. In Hawaii, east of the International Date Line, it was 5.45 a.m. on 7 December when the Japanese struck the Malayan Peninsula, a full two hours and fifteen minutes prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Malayan invasion was supposed to coincide exactly with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but because of an officer’s error it took place ahead of schedule. There was no real harm done by this mistake: Britain and America were expecting the blow. The authorities in Hawaii, however, evidently remained unaware that the outbreak of hostilities in Malaya had occurred and took no special precautionary measures.

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Later that morning, a dispatch rider, carrying a detailed warning from General Marshall in Washington to General Short’s Headquarters Command in Hawaii – a warning that had taken an unaccountable time to transmit on the telegraph – was forced to take shelter in a ditch while the raid on Pearl Harbor, which was accurately forecast in the document which he carried, was taking place round him. The warning never reached the authorities who, had it been brought to their attention a few hours earlier, could have taken effective action.

So the evidence, and plenty was at hand, of a coming coup at Pearl Harbor was allowed to pile up, and no counter-measures were taken. The United States was amply served by an acute Intelligence force and given warnings by its Allies. But what is the use of Intelligence if there is negligence and incompetence of mind-boggling proportions over its use and interpretation? What was necessary was that Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who was in command at Pearl Harbor, and General Walter C. Short, who was responsible for the Hawaiian Defence Command, should have instituted air reconnaissance of all the seas around them: but this, after weighing the advice, and with the assent of their staff, they neglected to do. They believed that it was unnecessary. For nothing was done to alert them to the fact that conditions had reached a more critical stage than ever before. On the contrary, they knew nothing about the Purple codes and had been desensitized over a period of months by a long succession of warnings that Japan was seriously preparing for war. Afterwards, the two men were made scapegoats for the failure of others in Washington who were never court-martialled or punished.

Thus secrecy was maintained: the Japanese triumph was assured. To do Yamamoto justice, he had doubts about the propriety of what he was doing, and stipulated that the attack should not be made until thirty minutes after Japan had informed the United States that it considered the peace negotiations at an end. Thereby a punctilious correctness would be observed, even though by a hair’s breadth. Actually the attack, when it came, preceded the notification, and to the outraged Americans it appeared as perfidious as Admiral Tōgō’s assault had seemed to the Russians in 1904. But the Japanese had in fact tried to observe the conventions as well as the customary usages of war. The notification was in a bulky 5,000-word message which it took the Embassy much longer to decipher than had been foreseen in Tokyo. The US Navy codebreakers on Constitution Avenue had cracked the message five hours ahead of the Japanese Embassy staff. It was in a way symbolical of how often the actions of the Japanese authorities were ruined by slovenly or incompetent work in their execution. It was Ambassador Kurusu, the professional diplomat, not Admiral Nomura, the amateur, who insisted on correcting the typing and wording of the Final Note, which in appreciation of its special secrecy was typed up by the Embassy’s First Secretary, who was an inept typist, with the assistance at the eleventh hour of an equally inept translator. When the note was delivered, the blow had already been struck.

In the early hours of Sunday, 7 December, a last radio instruction came from Tokyo. By a quarter past six, the first wave of aircraft left the carriers. The flagship hoisted a flag reminiscent of the signal which Admiral Tōgō had carried thirty-six years before in his victory over the Tsar. The operation was the more hazardous because the Japanese possessed very sketchy information about the forces they were about to assail. It is a myth that they were well supplied by their Intelligence organizations about the American defences. They were uncertain to the end, for example, about whether the Americans had torpedo nets to protect their ships. They only had information, which they themselves mistrusted, about exactly what ships they were to encounter. One of their agents in Honolulu had warned them that the four aircraft-carriers which were normally with the Pacific Fleet were away from port that weekend. To catch the carriers was a vital objective. They had had in consequence serious thoughts of calling off the entire adventure at the last moment, or of postponing it indefinitely. Many of the decisions were made by guesswork.

The air attack force which the Japanese let loose was divided into groups of fighter planes, high-level bombers, torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers. Commander Fuchida Mitsuo, who led the first wave of the attack at the head of the torpedo-bombers, has put on record the sight which met him. It is quoted in John Deane Potter’s book, Admiral of the Pacific:

Below me lay the whole US Pacific Fleet in a formation I would not have dared to dream of in my most optimistic dreams. I have seen all the German ships assembled in Kiel Harbour. I have also seen the French battleships in Brest. And finally I have frequently seen our warships assembled for review before the Emperor, but 1 have never seen ships, even in the deepest deep, anchored at a distance of 500–1,000 yards from each other. A war fleet must always be on the alert, since surprise attacks can never be fully ruled out. But this picture down there was hard to comprehend. Had these Americans never heard of Port Arthur?

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Actually the mooring of the ships was culpably unsafe. It was odd that their radar protection did not afford more effective safety.

The attack lasted two hours. In this short time the Americans had suffered loss or damage to eighteen battleships and auxiliaries, the destruction or damage of 349 aircraft, and had 2,345 sailors, soldiers and marines killed, 1,247 wounded and 103 civilians killed or wounded. By mid-morning the vast and impressive naval base, which had filled the United States with such confidence, was transformed into a huge ruin with flaming ships, a decimated garrison, and a monumental disorganization. The base from which the United States had counted on directing the war was a chaos enveloped in smoke. The Japanese were amazed at the extent of their success and at their enemy’s unpreparedness. Nevertheless, they also noted with concern and respect the speed with which the Americans responded to the attack once it was underway. The second wave encountered very stiff and determined anti-aircraft fire.

To effect this slaughter, the Japanese had used 350 carrier-borne aircraft and the two cruiser-borne reconnaissance aircraft launched earlier. They lost fifteen dive-bombers and high-level bombers, nine fighter planes, and five torpedo-planes in combat, 8 per cent of their total strength, a figure which was surprisingly similar to average losses then being inflicted upon air raiding aircraft by alert defence forces in Europe. In addition a number of other aircraft were badly damaged or crashed on returning to their carriers, and more than twenty aircraft of these had to be written off. The total loss in Japanese naval personnel was fifty-five officers and men. The statistics, however, do not convey the full sense of shock which was felt throughout the world by news of the Pearl Harbor attack. It was the most spectacular triumph of the war. The Americans in Hawaii remained unaware throughout of the source of their attack, and the entire fleet sailed back in safety to Japan.


Impressive as were the results of the raid, humiliating as it proved to be for the American Navy, Japan fell just short of making it the crushing success it was meant to be. The Japanese, inexplicably, did not destroy the vast oil stocks and fleet repair facilities on Hawaii, or, at that stage, seriously consider whether it could seize them. America began the war with oil reserves at Hawaii which were almost equal to the entire supplies of Japan. Japan had them at its mercy: why they neglected to fire them remains inadequately explained. At one stage it had, it is true, been the Japanese intention to try to seize Oahu, and in that case the oil would have passed into Japan’s hands. But this part of the plan had been quickly given up as, among other reasons, it would have demanded troop transports and landing craft which were needed for the operation beginning at the same time in the South Seas. To have made the operation one which would really have altered the fundamental position of both sides, the Japanese would have needed not only to destroy ships but to have seized territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

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Japan did not include among its victims any one of the four major American aircraft carriers which were attached to the Pacific Fleet. These were to prove the decisive weapon in the subsequent struggle in the Pacific, as was well understood by Admiral Yamamoto. Fortunate accidents led to one aircraft carrier being away delivering some planes to Midway Island; to another delivering planes to Guam; another being under repair on the American Pacific coast. The fourth was, as was found out later, trailed for some hours by a large Japanese submarine, but, in the eventual contest with this, the submarine was sunk.

Pearl Harbor contained also one failure of the Japanese which was little noted at the time but which was to have a decisive effect. The plan of Yamamoto had included a submarine attack as well as one from the air: but this was as uniformly a failure as the attack from the air was a success. A special Japanese invention, the midget submarine, a minute submarine operated by a crew of two, was to be let loose inside the harbour among the battleships, and to work what havoc it could. Five of these submarines, which were transported by huge 2,000-ton ocean-going submarines, were inserted through the harbour gates: this was, to all intents and purposes, a suicide mission, for the chances of the crews being picked up again were, though it was just possible, exceedingly slight. In fact all the five midget submarines were destroyed and only one member of the crews survived, falling prisoner to the Americans. (Like most Japanese taken prisoner, he proved singularly talkative, and he disclosed useful information to the Americans.) In the subsequent share-out of the honours for the raid, the submarine commanders felt themselves neglected, and all the credit fell to the airmen. Subsequently, the submarine service was at a discount in Japanese eyes. No further plans were drawn up which devolved any great responsibility on it. Though attention had previously been given to the production of the midget, Japanese inventiveness swung away from the submarine and concentrated on other matters. Japan had begun the war with several very large and technically efficient submarines; they were subsequently engaged on colourful, hazardous action on the American coast and in the fighting at Guadalcanal; but they failed to keep their hold on the imagination of the public, which was fixed upon its navy pilots. So, in war, the issues can be decided by irrational judgement and politics. An unfair inference was that the Japanese Navy, though it possessed an incontestable genius in Yamamoto, did not have staff officers who were capable of recognizing that Japan possessed an asset which it was wasting; who were capable of evolving a strategy which would make use of this instrument; and who simultaneously had the ability to force their views on the attention of the faction-riddled Japanese High Command. What Yamamoto had done for naval aircraft, nobody seemed able to do for the submarine.

Was Pearl Harbor therefore really a success for the Japanese? Taking into account the whole course of the war, this has been doubted. The far from dispassionate or even-handed American naval historian, S. E. Morison, doubted this. He summed up the situation by saying that Pearl Harbor, for all the destruction which it achieved, was really an empty triumph. Looking at the careful Japanese plan which had been evolved for dealing with the expected offensive by the United States Pacific fleet advancing in the Pacific, he speculated that Japan would have done more wisely if it had waited for the attack, and contained it somewhere in the Marshall or Caroline Islands. By fleet action on these lines, Japan would have gained the best chance of surviving. Morison, in other words, believed that the war operations plan to which the Japanese Navy had adhered for twenty years until January 1941 was far more sound than Admiral Yamamoto’s plans for the Pearl Harbor attack operation, which superseded it. Such a view may be hard to credit. Put at the most down-to-earth estimate, Yamamoto had gained eighteen months’, or two years’, respite for Japan, and, though the long-term prospects remained exceedingly black, he had insured that the typhoon should rage over Japan in two years’ time, not rage at once. He gave the opportunity to his own war schemes, and to any others which Japan might produce, or, better still, to her diplomats and statesmen in their ability to work out a peaceable solution, to find a way of averting ultimate catastrophe. Here he felt there were genuine opportunities, making the mistake of assuming that his enemies still preferred peace to war. As for his own side, a close examination of the facts leaves one in no doubt that the Japanese recognized their mortal danger. One perceptive young Japanese historian has gone so far to argue that ‘Not a single Japanese leader, either military man or civilian, believed that Japan could hold out against an Anglo-American combined attack for long, let alone achieve a sweeping victory over the Allies.’

One peculiar circumstance aided Japan at Pearl Harbor. It was to continue in some form throughout the war, and was to handicap American arrangements repeatedly. This was that the High Commands of the US Navy and Army at home were scarcely on speaking terms. The degree of discord varied from place to place, and depended in part on the accident of personalities engaged. But the tension was often an important fact of the situation: as it had been at Pearl Harbor, where there was the minimum cooperation between the Air. Force, which in the United States was part of the Army, and the Navy. Much of the responsibility for friction lay with the Navy. The United States Navy existed in peculiar isolation from American society. It was self-sufficient and self-contained. It had its own politics, outlook, ethos. In war as in peace it was apt to think that its chief enemy was at home, in the rival services which entrenched upon its own liberty of action. The result was peculiarly catastrophic. Due to this self-imposed remoteness, the defence machinery creaked badly. Yet the United States Navy and its subordinate marine command was the country’s only fully efficient fighting service at the outbreak of the war. Its training, weaponry and establishment were all capable of performing the tasks required of it. By comparison, the United States Army was clumsy, out-of-date, ill-equipped, under-strength and lack-lustre. It was scarcely surprising that the Navy regarded the Army with contempt – and preferred to rely upon its own people and their friends in Washington as well as overseas.

There were other defects in the American defence machine. All these stood out clearly at Pearl Harbor. The extension of peacetime bureaucratic controls went so far that the anti-aircraft batteries were obliged to indent for every shell which was fired. As the American wartime machine swung slowly into action, a great many blunders were discovered which had their source in this over-meticulousness of civilian control. It was the natural consequence of a long period of peace – and it was by no means peculiar to the United States.

If the sights are lifted beyond this war, it must be recorded that, by the shrewd blow delivered to the United States (which was so much larger than Japan) and by the superb secrecy which had been preserved in organizing such a complex operation, Yamamoto and Nagumo had given a boost to Japanese self-esteem, which would buoy the people up in future periods of national calamity. One day the Japanese triumph at Pearl Harbor will be regarded in a different light from that in which it was inevitably seen by the opposite side at the time; the memory of treachery will fade: it will stand out as a most memorable feat of arms.

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