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Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack.

Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack.



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Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack.


Nope, ‘God & The 3 Mistakes’ is not what happened after Pearl Harbor

I’m known among my friends as a bit of a heartless cynic (#NotPopularAtParties #PleaseStopInvitingMe #HowManyOfTheseDoIHaveToRuinToBeLeftAlone). Maybe that’s why We Are The Mighty’s president and CMO, U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Harper, sent me this heartwarming story about Admiral Nimitz arriving at Pearl Harbor after the attack.

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, a bold and brave man too busy being optimistic for your “history facts” or his own notes.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The story is entitled God and the 3 Mistakes, and it makes the rounds on the internet every once in a while. Here’s a version of it from armchairgeneral.com:

Tour boats ferry people out to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii every thirty minutes. We just missed a ferry and had to wait thirty minutes. I went into a small gift shop to kill time. In the gift shop, I purchased a small book entitled, “Reflections on Pearl Harbor” by Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat–you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters every where you looked.

As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, “Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?” Admiral Nimitz’s reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice. Admiral Nimitz said, “The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?”

Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked, “What do mean by saying the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?” Nimitz explained:

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

Mistake number two: when the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.

Mistake number three: every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That’s why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make or God was taking care of America.

I’ve never forgotten what I read in that little book. It is still an inspiration as I reflect upon it. In jest, I might suggest that because Admiral Nimitz was a Texan, born and raised in Fredricksburg, Texas –he was a born optimist. But anyway you look at it–Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.

President Roosevelt had chosen the right man for the right job. We desperately needed a leader that could see silver linings in the midst of the clouds of dejection, despair and defeat.

There is a reason that our national motto is, IN GOD WE TRUST.

Look, an optimistic photo of a re-floated battleship. Let’s all go get coffee and not read the rest of this.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Stop here to remain happy. No? Alrighty, then.

Was that heartwarming and satisfying for you? Good. Stop reading. Go away. Be happy. Don’t let my factual poison into your soul. Ignore the holes and historical discrepancies and return to the world as a satisfied human being.

Or, let’s go through this together and destroy joy.

(Author’s note: For some of the debunking done here, we’re turning directly to Adm. Nimitz’ notes from December, 1941, compiled in his “gray book,” which the Navy put on the internet in 2014. Citations to that document will be made with a parenthetical hyperlink that will give the PDF page, not the printed page number. So, “(p. 71)” refers to his December 17 “Running Summary of Situation” that is page 71 of the PDF, but has the page numbers 9 and 67 printed on the bottom.)

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

That phone call on December 7 didn’t happen

First: “Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was … told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Nope. At the time, no one knew exactly what had happened or who to blame, and Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was still very much in charge. How screwed up would it have been if Roosevelt’s first action, while the fuel dumps were still burning and sailors were still choking to death on oil, was to fire the guy in command on the ground rather than shifting supplies and men to the problem or, you know, investigating what happened?

The bulk of the losses at Pearl weren’t even announced until December 15 (p. 51) because no one, even at Pearl, could be sure of the extent of the damage while the attack was ongoing.

In reality, Nimitz wasn’t ordered to Hawaii until December 17, the same day that Kimmel was told he would be relieved (p. 71).

National ensign flies from the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack.

No, it wouldn’t have been worse if the Japanese had lured the ships to sea

The single most non-sensical claim in this story is that Nimitz was glad Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack.

What? Nimitz thought he would’ve lost more men if the Japanese had lured them into a fight near the island? Does anyone believe that he had that little belief in the skills of his men?

If the Japanese had tried to lure the American ships to sea, we would’ve only sent the ones ready to fight, with full ammo loads and readied guns with crews. We would’ve tried to recall the carriers conducting exercises at sea. Yes, losing 38,000 sailors is worse than 3,800, but we’ve never lost 3,800 in a fair fight.

At the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the U.S. took combined losses of about 1,000 killed while inflicting losses against Japan of about 4,000. At the Battle of Savo Island, “the worst defeat ever inflicted on the United States Navy in a fair fight,” according to Samuel Morison, the U.S. lost 1,100 sailors.

Meanwhile, at Pearl, the U.S. lost over 2,000 killed while inflicting less than 100 enemy deaths. Who the hell would be glad it was a surprise attack?

In his notes on Samoa dated December 17, Nimitz specifically cites Japan’s use of surprise as to why it had been so successful (p. 64).

The largest fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor did survive the attack, but they weren’t enough.

Yes, Japan did ravage America’s fuel dumps and hit drydocks

Nimitz, when he got the actual call on December 17, quickly tied up his duties in Washington, D.C., and reported to Pearl Harbor. (He arrived Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve.)

There, he found an island still burning and heavily damaged. The Japanese planes absolutely did hit fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor. They hit drydocks as well, heavily damaging three destroyers that were in the docks at the time.

Luckily, Pearl Harbor didn’t have “every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war” in December 1941 as the story says, but the other dumps were under attack as Nimitz was supposedly giving this pep talk. Fuel dumps on the Philippines and Wake Island were destroyed or isolated by the Japanese attack in the days and weeks following December 7.

(Seriously, how would you even run a Pacific fleet if your only gas station was in Hawaii? That would mean ships patrolling around the Philippines and Australia would need to travel 10,000 miles and over three weeks out of their way every time they needed to refuel.)

It is true, though, that Japan failed to hit the largest and most important fuel tank farms on Pearl and didn’t destroy the doors to the drydocks. That was a major strategic error on the part of the Japanese.

But, what damage was done to these facilities was important, changing the strategic calculation for America at every turn.

On December 17, Nimitz wrote a plan to reinforce Samoa that specifically cited the lack of appropriate fuel dumps being ready or filled at Pearl or Samoa (p. 63 and 70). It even mentioned how bad it was to shift a single oiler from replenishing Pearl to getting ships to Samoa. The fuel situation was dire, and Nimitz knew it.

Two heavily damaged U.S. destroyers sit in a flooded drydock. Both destroyers were scrapped and the drydock was damaged, but it did return to service by February 1942.

The ship repair situation was worse

If the fuel situation was bad, the repair situation was worse. Drydocks were attacked during the battle. Two ships were destroyed in Drydock number one, and Floating Drydock number 2 was sunk after sustaining damage. Both were back in operation by February 1942.

Other drydocks were safe or only lightly damaged and were up and running by the time Nimitz arrived at Pearl. Yes, that’s a big deal logistically. But that still left too few drydocks for the sheer number of ships heavily damaged in the attack.

But the number of drydocks wasn’t the biggest factor in whether a ship could be repaired at Pearl, because there weren’t nearly enough supplies and skilled laborers in and around the harbor, anyways. Capt. Homer N. Wallin, the head of the salvage effort from January 1942 onward, lamented shortages of firefighting equipment, lumber, fastenings, welders, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, and pumps for the duration of salvage.

That’s why three battleships left Pearl Harbor for repairs on the West Coast on December 20, and ships were heading back to the continent for repairs as late as the end of 1942, nearly a year after the attack, because drydocks had insufficient space or supplies to repair them on site.

In fact, in his history written in 1968, Wallin specifically remembers Nimitz touring the wrecks on Dec. 31, 1941, and being pessimistic about repairs, especially the viability of the USS Nevada. The Nevada was back in combat less than a year later, despite Nimitz’ pessimism.

But the worst problem facing Pearl Harbor was invasion

But the most naive claim of this entire story is that Nimitz was optimistic as to the situation in December 1941. His actual notes from the period paint a much grimmer picture of his mind.

In the wee hours of December 17, hours before Nimitz was ordered to replace Kimmel, Nimitz sent Kimmel a message on behalf of himself and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Kimmel was ordered to “reconsider” his beliefs that Pearl Harbor was safe from further attack (p. 74).

Knox and Nimitz wanted Kimmel to keep ships out of the harbor as much as possible, to reinforce defensive positions. Most importantly:

Given that Nimitz was actively cautioning about how vulnerable Pearl Harbor was on December 17, it would be odd for him to feel cocky and optimistic on December 25 (the earliest he could have actually taken this supposed boat tour).

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.

But he was still a great leader

The fact is, Nimitz was not some famed optimist. He was a realist. And he was in command of a fleet crippled by a sneak attack but backed by the most industrialized nation in the world in the 1940s. American industrial might was so strong that, by the end of the war, the U.S. was producing half of all industrial goods and weapons in the world. And the Japanese had failed to hit the submarines, something that did give Nimitz hope.

While it took most of 1942 and 1943 to fully ramp up America’s wartime production, the seeds were all in place in 1941 thanks to Roosevelt’s Cash-and-Carry and Lend-Lease policies. Nimitz was no fool. He knew he could win, even though the challenge facing him on Christmas 1941 was still daunting.

We can honor him, the sailors lost at Pearl Harbor, and the stunning achievements of the greatest generation without sharing suspect anecdotes about a Christmas Eve boat ride.

(As an added side note: The book this story supposedly came from wasn’t actually by Nimitz, it’s an “oral history” by William H. Ewing. And it was published five years after Nimitz died. Maybe it is a faithful account of Nimitz’ words at some point, but it doesn’t match his notes or the tactical situation in 1941.)

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Blinded by the Rising Sun: Japanese Radio Deception Before Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor achieved as nearly complete a surprise on an opponent as any in military history. Ever since the first bombs fell along Battleship Row on December 7, 1941, historians have pondered how that could be. Explanations have run the gamut from the incompetence of the U.S. military commanders in Honolulu to racial hubris and on up to conspiracy among the Roosevelt administration’s innermost circle. The real answer, however, is far more reasonable.

Simply put, Admiral Husband Kimmel was caught with his pants down that day, not only because of shortcomings in U.S. radio intelligence, but also because an elaborate scheme of radio denial and deception developed by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s general staff and its Combined Fleet blinded Washington to Tokyo’s intentions to precipitate conflict. With a great deal of foresight and planning, the imperial navy’s leadership had enacted a synchronized strategy for the attack on Pearl Harbor that combined radio silence, active radio deception and its own effective radio intelligence to be assured that the Americans remained in the dark throughout the final moments of peace.

For two decades before 1941, the bulk of Japan’s navy typically took a defensive posture in any fleet exercises simulating a conflict with the United States and its Pacific Fleet, while allowing other smaller naval forces to attack targets elsewhere in the Pacific—usually to the south. During the 1930s, as the navy expanded and modernized its aircraft carrier arm, its major exercises continued to feature that defensive doctrine while its commanders visualized a decisive battle against the Americans occurring farther east, near the Mariana Islands.

U.S. naval intelligence was aware of Japan’s defensive outlook and had come to accept it as absolute. The Americans believed wholeheartedly that in any future conflict the majority of Emperor Hirohito’s naval forces would choose to remain in home waters rather than run the risk of leaving Japan undefended. In January 1941, however, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto proposed that the decades-old strategy be scrapped in favor of one calling for a first strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. It was not a completely new idea, having been considered with some regularity by the popular press and war college students. What made it different was that this time the idea was coming from a senior member of the naval establishment. Someone of Yamamoto’s stature could not be ignored.

Initially Yamamoto was rebuffed, but by the late summer of 1941 he was able to bring the navy’s general staff around to his way of thinking. Among the changes resulting from this new direction was the organization of Japan’s carriers into a single unit. For more than a decade, the carriers had been arranged into divisions comprising two flattops and their escorts. In maneuvers, those divisions were parceled out to the various fleets to serve as escorts or scouts. Under Yamamoto’s direction, however, in April 1941 all eight of the emperor’s carriers would serve together.

This gave the Combined Fleet a permanent mobile air force of nearly 500 planes. The 1st Air Fleet was a radical departure from naval practice at that time, and was well beyond anything being considered by either the American or Royal navies. As radical a change as it was, however, U.S. naval intelligence failed to notice. It intercepted a reference to the “1st AF” in November 1941 but was unable to discern what that meant. All intelligence officers could conclude was that the 1st AF “seemed to be in a high position” in the Japanese naval aviation hierarchy.

Yamamoto was too experienced to believe that such oversight would last for long and, as part of his new strategy, pushed for a denial-and-deception effort that would keep the change shrouded in mystery. Communications security had been a major concern of the imperial navy as far back as the Russo-Japanese War, and it held the American and British radio intelligence offices in particularly high regard. It was for this reason that communication security was a feature of every navy exercise throughout the interwar period.

By late 1941, however, American and British radio intelligence had mixed capa bilities. The countries’ code-breakers had been able to recover only about 10 percent of the code groups of the latest version of the main Japanese naval operational code, and intercepted messages often could not be understood in full. That meant the majority of American efforts were focused on direction finding (D/F) and traffic analysis—i.e., the scrutiny of Japanese naval communications, less the messages.

American ability in this area was good but subject to limitations. While one monitoring station in Cavite, Philippines, known as “Cast,” could take single-line bearings on Japanese ships and stations, the rest of the direction-finding effort was not, according to Navy cryptologist Lt. Cmdr. Joseph John Rochefort, “as efficient or productive of results as it might have been.” The stations lacked men and equipment, and the long distances involved (more than 2,000 miles) rendered most results difficult to act upon.

U.S. traffic analysis was totally dependent on the level of Tokyo’s communications. Even then, Rochefort’s fleet communications unit in Hawaii, called “Hypo,” sometimes differed with Cavite’s analysis. Both radio intelligence units reported their findings on a nearly daily basis—Cast’s reports were known as TESTM, while Hypo produced what was called H Chronology. The often-conflicting reports were routinely sent to Kimmel in Pearl Harbor as well as to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C. To further muddy the waters, Kimmel’s fleet intelligence officer, Commander Edwin Layton, would compose his own daily Communications Intelligence (COMINT) summary, which was largely a synthesis of the Cast and Hypo reports. A complete lack of human intelligence sources meant that the Americans had no way to supplement, replace or verify the conflicting reports. The almost total reliance on intercepted radio traffic meant that all the Japanese had to do to give the Americans the slip was add new levels of security to their naval communications system.

The first step was to initiate the new fleet signal system HY009 (kana-kanak-number), which was put into effect on November 1, 1941. More important, five days later the imperial navy changed the way it addressed radio traffic. Previously, messages were addressed openly to the recipient, usually with the latter’s call sign in the message transmission. The new system, however, replaced those calls with single general or collective call signs that equated to groupings such as “all ships and stations” or “all fleet elements.” The specific addresses themselves were buried in the encrypted part of the message. This simple change nearly crippled American analysis of Japanese naval messages.

The Japanese Strike Force also received supplementary instructions for its communications. Representatives from the naval general staff, 1st AF, Combined Fleet, 11th Air Fleet and other high-ranking officials were probably briefed at a conference on fleet communications in Tokyo on October 27, 1941. Although records of the conference are mostly missing, we can reconstruct the major elements of the deception plan that was discussed.

The first part of the plan was to forbid communication from the Strike Force’s ships. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the Hawaiian Operation (as the Pearl Harbor attack was named), controlled his communications within the stipulations of Yamamoto’s “Secret Order Number One,” which took effect for the Strike Force on November 5. Nagumo emphasized to the ship’s captains that “all transmissions [among Strike Force vessels] are strictly forbidden,” and to ensure that his orders were followed, he had transmitters on all of his ships disabled, secured or removed entirely.

While the ships were silent, however, it was still necessary to supply them with up-to-date intelligence, weather and orders. The naval general staff accomplished this by setting up a radio broadcast system that stressed redundant transmission schedules and multiple frequencies. The broadcast was a one-way method of transmitting messages. The recipient—in this case, the Strike Force—did not acknowledge receipt of the messages, which were simply repeated to ensure that they were received.

To further assure reception of all necessary traffic, Nagumo required every ship to monitor the broadcast. Certain vessels, such as the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, were tasked with copying every message. These were then relayed to the other ships by either semaphore flags or narrow-beam signal lamps.

The Japanese knew, however, that if the ships assigned to the Strike Force suddenly went silent it could alert the Americans. Some sort of radio traffic had to be maintained. Their solution to this problem was simple but effective. During a Tokyo-directed communications drill that ran from November 8 to 13, Hiei, the carrier Akagi and the destroyers of the 24th Division were instructed to contact Tokyo three times a day on set frequencies. Two days later, new pages of drill call signs were issued to the entire fleet— except for the stations and operators imitating the ships of the Strike Force, which continued to use the old signs.

To ensure the authenticity of the old signs, the radio operators from the capital ships of the Strike Force were sent to shore at the Kure, Sasebo and Yokosuka naval bases to deliver this traffic. These operators, whose familiar “fists” were easily identified by the Americans, were critical to the deception. The Americans would connect the known fists of the operators with direction finding on the call signs of ships such as Akagi and believe that the carriers and other ships were still in Japanese waters.

In addition, as the carriers departed the Inland Sea, aircraft from the 12th Combined Air Group arrived at the newly vacated bases. Their role in the deception was to keep up air activity and associated radio traffic with the carriers and bases as though they were just continuing the earlier training.

The final part of the plan was a radio-monitoring effort to ensure that the Americans remained unaware of the approaching threat. Tokyo tasked its radio-monitoring units with listening to American communications being sent from Pearl Harbor to confirm that their ploy was working. The main station responsible for that was the 6th Communications Unit at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The unit copied communications from the U.S. command and ships at Pearl Harbor, paying special attention to the communications of Navy and Army patrol flights taking off from the base. Through analysis of this intercepted traffic, the Japanese were able to confirm that most of those flights were staying to the south of the island.

In the two weeks preceding its redeployment to the Kuriles, the ships and planes of the Strike Force were busy with last-minute training, supply and planning for the attack. The misleading shore-based radio traffic began on November 8 and continued through the 13th. All the while, ships of the force began to rendezvous at Saeki Wan in the Oita Prefecture on northeast Kyushu.

The Americans, who were monitoring the drill, correctly reported Akagi at Sasebo in the November 10 Pacific Fleet Communications Summary. Two days later, the site at Cavite reported a D/F bearing that placed Yamamoto’s flagship, the battleship Nagato, near Kure, which was very close to its actual location.

On November 14, Cavite located Akagi near Sasebo. The carrier, however, had left the previous day for Kagoshima, more than 300 miles to the southeast. Meanwhile, the Pacific Fleet Communications Intelligence Summary stated that the carriers were “relatively inactive” and “in home waters” from November 13 to 15, which was true.

For the next two days, all of the ships of the Strike Force assembled at Saeki Wan (Bay) or at the port of Beppu on the northeast shore of Kyushu. Only Hiei was absent. It was steaming to Yokosuka to pick up an officer from the naval general staff with detailed intelligence on Pearl Harbor. The Pacific Fleet summaries noted that the carriers were either in Kure or Sasebo, or in the area of Kyushu.

In the late afternoon of November 17, after Admiral Yamamoto’s final conference with the commanders and staff of the Strike Force, the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, along with their escorts, slipped out of Saeki Wan, headed southeast out of the Bungo Strait past Okino Shima Island and then turned northeast toward Hitokappu Wan in the Kuriles. The rest of the force followed in groups of two or four ships.

For the next few days, U.S. naval radio intelligence seemed uncertain about the activity of the carriers and their escorts. The November 16 Pacific Fleet COMINT summary placed unspecified carrier divisions in the Mandates (Marshall Islands) with the 1st Destroyer Division. The summary of November 18 put other carrier divisions with the 3rd Battleship Division and the 2nd Destroyer Squadron. The same summary indicated, with reservations, that the 4th Carrier Division—Shokaku (call sign SITI4) and Zuikaku—was near Jaluit Island in the Marshalls. Cavite disagreed with this analysis.

After the Strike Force left, the imperial navy sent out orders for another communications drill to begin on November 22, while an air defense drill involving the Sasebo-based 11th Air Fleet started as well. Three days earlier the carriers, battleships and destroyers of the force were ordered to maintain radio watch on high and low frequencies for specific types of “battle” and “alert” messages.

By this time, it was becoming clear to the Japanese that their deception efforts had borne fruit. The November 19 COMINT summary noted that Hiei “appears today at Sasebo.” In reality, the ship was in Yokosuka on the east coast of Honshu, some several hundred miles to the northeast of Sasebo.

From November 20 to 23, Nagumo’s ships rendezvoused in the Kuriles anchorage. There they received the detailed intelligence from Tokyo, and Commander Minoru Genda put the aerial squadrons through flight and tactical training sessions. On November 22, Cavite took a D/F bearing on Akagi of 28 degrees, which placed it in Sasebo. The station also took a bearing on the fleet call sign of the 1st Air Fleet commander in chief placing him in Yokosuka. The next day, Cavite reported a bearing of 30 degrees on Zuikaku, which put it in Kure. According to that day’s COMINT summary, the carriers were “relatively quiet.”

On the 24th, Cavite took another D/F bearing of 28 degrees on Akagi and now asserted that it was in Kure—this despite the fact that the station had placed the same carrier in Sasebo two days earlier. Nevertheless, it was still in “Empire waters,” which seemed to be good enough for the Americans. The intelligence summary went so far as to establish that it had minimal information on the carriers’ whereabouts. For some reason, the summary went on to indicate that one or more carrier divisions were in the Mandates. The next day, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence released its weekly intelligence summary that placed all Japanese carriers in either Sasebo or Kure.

On that day, Tokyo broadcast Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet Operational Order No. 5 instructing the Strike Force to depart with the “utmost secrecy” on the following day and advance to its standby point northwest of Hawaii by the evening of December 3. At 0600 hours the next day, the Strike Force raised anchors and sailed into the northern Pacific.

U.S. radio intelligence reports illustrate the continued effectiveness of the Japanese deception measures. The commander of the 16th Naval District (Philippine Islands) noted on November 25 that he could not support Hawaii’s belief that Japanese carriers were in the Mandates. His message added, however, that “our best indications are that all known 1st and 2nd Fleet carriers are still in the Kure-Sasebo area.”

Meanwhile, Rochefort’s Fleet Intelligence Unit in Hawaii reported that Kirishima was in Yokosuka and that several carriers, including those of Division 4, were near Sasebo. The unit added that Japanese carriers had been heard on a tactical frequency using their drill call signs, which indicated they were still in home waters.

Perhaps the most critical deceptive transmissions were reported on the last day of the month. Cavite heard Akagi and an unidentified Maru on a bearing of 27 degrees, seemingly putting the carrier near Sasebo. Those calls had been received from the same tactical frequency five days earlier. To Rochefort, it confirmed that some sort of exercises or maneuvers were underway.

On December 1, the imperial navy changed its service (or fleet) call-sign system, leading both Rochefort and Layton to conclude that Tokyo was preparing for “active operations on a large scale.” However, no one could find any evidence of a Japanese move against Hawaii, only signs of naval movement to the south. Layton, in his report for the day placed four carriers near Formosa and one in the Mandates. When pressed by Kimmel about the others, he said he believed they were in the Kure area refitting from previous deployments.

For the next six days, the U.S. Pacific Fleet command and the respective radio intelligence centers continued to maintain that the principal Japanese flattops were in home waters near Sasebo, Kure or in the Kyushu area and that a few light or auxiliary carriers had deployed to Formosa or the Mandates. They continued to believe this right up to the last moment. In fact, just as the first wave of Japanese aircraft appeared over Oahu, Cavite reported that Akagi was in the Nansei Islands, south of Kyushu. The surprise was complete, the destruction almost total.

Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.


Contents

When the United States Navy decided in 1919 to establish a major naval base in Pearl Harbor, the southeastern side of Ford Island was ceded from control of the Army Air Service at the behest of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Due to its location in the center of the harbor, where the water was deepest and the potential for maneuvering greater than along the shores, this coast of Ford Island became the de facto mooring location for the Pacific Fleet's battleships and took on the nickname "Battleship Row".

Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and West Virginia were sunk during the attack. Arizona suffered the most serious damage and loss of life, an explosion in a forward magazine breaking the hull in two. Of the other four, West Virginia and to a lesser degree Nevada had serious damage. [1] Pennsylvania was in dry dock, making attack difficult, and as a result was relatively undamaged. Vestal was also damaged. Battleship Row was not visible from Hickam Field because of the thick black smoke. Following the attack, operations immediately commenced to refloat and repair the damaged ships. The first to be completed was Nevada on April 19, 1942. By the end of the war, all except Arizona and Oklahoma had returned to service. Each of the six surviving battleships saw service in the Pacific island hopping campaign. Nevada also served in the Atlantic and supported the invasion of Normandy. All six were decommissioned soon after the war was over. Nevada and Pennsylvania were expended in atomic bomb tests in the Pacific. [1] The rest were scrapped in the late 1950s. Oklahoma was eventually refloated but not repaired, and capsized and sank while being towed back to the mainland for scrapping. Arizona's hull remains a memorial, one of the most popular tourist attractions on the island. [1]

Utah was in port at Pearl Harbor, but was not moored with the rest of the battleships, as she had since been converted to a target ship. However, she was still sunk within a few minutes of the battle. [1]


Pearl Harbor: Your History Book Forgot the Underwater Attack

Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki failed as a midget submarine commander at Pearl Harbor but lived to tell the tale.

During the early hours of December 7, 1941, five midget submarinesof the Imperial Japanese Navy waited to enter Pearl Harbor, the anchorage of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Their mission was to complement the attack of naval aircraft in dealing a crippling blow to the American naval presence in the Pacific. This ambitious plan failed. Only one craft survived, HA-19, along with one member of its two-man crew, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, who became “Prisoner No. 1” of the United States in World War II.

The Midget Submarines

Sakamaki grew up in a tradition-bound Japanese culture that showed deep reverence for family, teachers, and Emperor Hirohito. He later explained, “We were taught, and we came to believe, that the most important thing for us was to die manfully on the battlefield—as the petals of the cherry blossoms fall to the ground—and that in war there is only victory and no retreat.” So, he applied for admission to the Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima and became one of 300 chosen from 6,000 applicants. After graduation, he spent a year at sea, then was promoted to ensign and ordered in April 1941 to report to the Chiyoda, a converted seaplane tender, at the Kure naval shipyard.

Sakamaki had been chosen to take part in the development of a secret weapon, the midget submarine, and would join an elite group called the Special Attack Naval Unit. Cadets received training on the island of Ohurazaki, along with a theoretical education at the Torpedo Experimental Division of the Kure Navy Yard. Classes were also held on the tug Kure Maru and seaplane tenders Chiyoda and Nisshin. This intense training program, which was observed and monitored, caused some cadets to drop out and others to commit suicide. Only the finest survived.

Sakamaki and his fellow crewman, Warrant Officer Kiyoshi Inagaki, learned the ins and outs of their special craft. Each sub held two crewmen because of cramped space. The only entrance was through a 16-inch hatch in the conning tower. The Imperial Japanese Navy called these minisubs Ko-Hyoteki, but those attached to units used the mother sub’s name, such as I-24’s midget. Paul J. Kemp says in Midget Submarines that these were “perhaps the most advanced midget submarines in service with any navy during the Second World War.”

Built in 1938, these cigar-shaped minisubs stretched nearly 80 feet with batteries arranged along each side. They could travel at a speed of 23 knots surfaced and 19 knots submerged, but battery charges lasted only 55 minutes. None of the craft carried generators, so they required recharging by a tender or mother submarine. The torpedo room housed two 18-inch torpedoes, each with around 1,000 pounds of explosives in the warhead. The Japan Optical Manufacturing Company perfected a specialized 10-foot-long miniaturized periscope in secrecy.

In fact, great secrecy shrouded the entire project. The Japanese eventually produced over 400 vessels of four types in a special factory near Kure. Of these, around 60 Type A submarines, the type commanded by Sakamaki, were built. Only key commanders knew details. Dispatches called the craft Special Submarine Boats Koryu (dragon with scales) and other creative names to avoid revealing the true nature of the machines.

When the subs first arrived, one seaman recalled, “After we secured, a barge came alongside each submarine. The barges were carrying strange objects heavily screened by black cloth and guarded by armed sailors and police. The objects were hoisted onto the casing and secured in the cradles—still wreathed in their coverings. We, the ship’s company, were not informed what the objects were. It was only when we proceeded to sea for trials in the Sea of Aki that we learned what we were carrying. The morale on the submarine was incredible.”

Piggy-Backing to Pearl Harbor

In mid-October 1941, maneuvers around islands in the Inland Sea shifted from mid-ocean strategies to invading narrow inlets at night. “When Captain Harada told us to pay particular attention to Pearl Harbor and Singapore,” Sakamaki recalled, “we thought that one group would probably be used against Pearl Harbor and another group against Singapore.” After crewmen graduated and received a 10-day leave, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet, spoke to them aboard the battleship Nagato and emphasized the importance of their secret mission against Pearl Harbor.

Five submarines, I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22, and I-24, were to carry midget submarines behind their coming towers. Each minisub would travel piggybacked to the large submarine’s pressure hull with steel belts and was to be released while the mother ship was submerged, enabling it to avoid exposure to the enemy. Some officers opposed the daring plan to use midget submarines to attack American ships in the narrow confines of Pearl Harbor. Captain Hanku Sasaki, commander of the First Submarine Division, wondered if the big submarines could handle so much weight. “There was too much hurry, hurry, hurry,” he criticized after the war.

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the air attack against Pearl Harbor, scoffed at the entire plan. Others thought the midget submarines rolled and pitched too much. Their conning towers were exposed, and they depended on mother ships for equipment and maintenance. Besides, the element of surprise, which was essential to the success of the air attack, might be compromised if the midget submarines were discovered.

Sakamaki’s minisub was strapped to submarine I-24, which was a long-range reconnaissance type, 348 feet long with a 30-foot beam. Nine thousand horsepower enabled them to reach a surface speed of 22 knots. A telephone line from HA-19’s conning tower connected the two craft, and an attached cylinder between the boats allowed crewmen to stock supplies and make periodic equipment checks en route. On November 18, 1941, Sakamaki wrote home, “I am now leaving. I owe you, my parents, a debt I shall never be able to repay. Whatever may happen to me, it is in the service of our country that I go. Words cannot express my gratitude for the privilege of fighting for the cause of peace and justice.”

The five I-class mother ships and their Special Attack Force minisubs left Kure and headed across the North Pacific to Pearl Harbor on a moonless night. They traveled slowly because of cargo and rough weather, running submerged during the day to avoid detection and surfaced during the evening, maintaining a distance of about 20 miles from each other. Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, skipper of I-24, remembered many troubles during the ocean trip to Hawaii, including clogged pumps, defective valves, and gear malfunctions.

Once I-24 nearly sank because of a stuck blow-valve, which was freed at the last moment. After surfacing, the crew found a crushed torpedo on Sakamaki’s midget sub and worked all night to replace it with a spare. Hashimoto later said, “This operation may sound easy enough, but in fact, it was far from simple. The lack of space on the narrow upper deck made transporting something weighing over a ton to the after-end of the boat no mean task, say nothing of having to dispose of the damaged torpedo quietly over the side.”

“We were Members of a Suicide Squadron”

The five midget submarines were to be launched off the coast of Oahu where they were to quietly enter Pearl Harbor, navigate around Ford Island counterclockwise, and strike the U.S. battleships moored in the shallow water of the harbor. The minisubs were initially expected to attack between the first and second waves of the air attack. When the American battleships attempted to get underway and escape to the open sea, they might be crippled and clog the mouth of the harbor. “I was astonished and felt as if suddenly petrified,” Sakamaki remembered of the moment the details of the plan were revealed to him. “The effect was like a sudden magic blow.”

Although the plan called for the midget submariners to rendezvous with their mother subs to be recovered on December 8, 1941, about eight miles west of the island of Lanai, Sakamaki realized that the mission was suicidal. The midget submarines lacked battery power to travel such a distance after the assault.

Sakamaki said, “We were members of a suicide squadron. We did not know how we could ever come back.” Rear Admiral Hisashi Mito, who commanded a division of submarine tenders, also remarked after the war that all minisub crewmen “were prepared for death and not expected to return alive.” The name “Special Naval Attack Unit” was a euphemism for suicide attack in the Japanese language. These submariners predated later kamikaze attack units.

By the night of December 6, the mother ships neared Hawaii, and the flickering lights along Oahu’s Waikiki Beach were visible. Landing lights at Hickam Field on Ford Island blazed. Jazz music floated from radios and bars. Everything appeared calm. The large subs fanned out within 10 nautical miles of Pearl Harbor’s mouth and waited for the moment to launch their midget submarines.

“On to Pearl Harbor!”

Shortly before the launch, Sakamaki wrote a farewell note to his father, made a will, and cut the traditional fingernail clippings and lock of hair for the family altar. Then, he put on his uniform, a cotton fundishi (breech-cloth), leather jacket, and a white hachimaki headband. He and Inagaki also sprayed themselves with perfume of cherry blossoms, and both were now ready to die honorably according to the Bushido code of conduct for Japanese warriors.


Pearl Harbor

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Pearl Harbor, naval base and headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Honolulu county, southern Oahu Island, Hawaii, U.S. In U.S. history the name recalls the surprise Japanese air attack on December 7, 1941, that temporarily crippled the U.S. Fleet and resulted in the United States’ entry into World War II. (See Pearl Harbor Attack.) Pearl Harbor centres on a cloverleaf-shaped, artificially improved harbour on the southern coast of Oahu, 6 miles (10 km) west of Honolulu. The harbour is virtually surrounded (west to east) by the cities of Ewa, Waipahu, Pearl City, Aiea, and Honolulu. It has 10 square miles (26 square km) of navigable water and hundreds of anchorages and covers a land area of more than 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares). Its four lochs are formed by the Waipio and Pearl City peninsulas and Ford Island. Pearl Harbor Entrance (channel) connects its virtually landlocked bay with the Pacific Ocean.

Pearl Harbor was called Wai Momi (“Pearl Waters”) by the Hawaiians because of the pearl oysters that once grew there. In 1840 Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy made the first geodetic survey and urged the dredging of the coral-bar entrance to the harbour. About 30 years later Colonel John McAllister Schofield further recommended that the United States secure harbour rights. A subsequent treaty (1887) granted the United States the exclusive use of the harbour as a coaling and repair station, but work was not begun until after 1898, when the Spanish-American War indicated its strategic value as a Pacific base. A naval station was established after 1908, and a drydock was completed in 1919.

During the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1941 the USS Arizona sank with a loss of more than 1,100 men a white concrete and steel structure now spans the hull of the sunken ship, which was dedicated as a national memorial on May 30, 1962. Present facilities at Pearl Harbor include a naval shipyard, supply centre, and submarine base. The naval supply centre is on Pearl City Peninsula. Pearl Harbor Entrance is bounded on the east by Hickam Air Force Base and on the west by a naval reservation. During the Korean and Vietnam wars the harbour complex was a staging area for forces and equipment bound for the combat zones.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy McKenna, Senior Editor.


Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?

The U.S. and Japan had been butting heads for decades and it was inevitable that things would eventually culminate into a war. Japan had imperial ambitions to expand to China to solve some demographical and economical problems and to take over the Chinese import market. When in 1937 Japan decided to declare war on China, America was very against this aggression and responded with trade embargoes and economic sanctions. Specifically, the oil embargo that America organized with the British and the Dutch was a thorn in the side for Japan, which imported 90% of its oil. Without oil Japan’s military could not function and all war efforts would come to an end. Negotiations had been going on for months between Washington and Tokyo, without any resolution, so Japan decided to attack first.


Attack on Pearl Harbor

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a brief affair, lasting only a couple of hours, but it stunned America, which did not expect such advanced naval and aviation strategy from the Japanese military. The attack led to America’s involvement in World War Two and immediately triggered calls for massive wartime production.

Date
7th December 1941

Location
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

War
World War Two

Combatants
Japan VS United States

Outcome
Japanese victory

At 6:00 a.m. Hawaii time on Sunday, December 7, 1941, six Imperial Navy aircraft carriers steamed into gray, spume-swept Pacific swells. The ships steadied up directly into the wind and began launching aircraft with a precision born of arduous training.

With practiced skill 183 planes assembled by aircraft type—forty Nakajima B5N torpedo planes, forty-nine B5N level bombers, fiftyone Aichi D3A dive bombers, and forty-three Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. Pearl Harbor lay 230 statute miles south. Meanwhile, a scout from the cruiser Chikuma snooped the harbor, radioing that the Americans seemed unwary.

The first wave was timed to arrive over Pearl about thirty minutes after Japanese diplomats delivered Japan’s refusal to accept Washington’s demands. But the message from Tokyo took too long to decode, so the mission proceeded as a surprise. The attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated boiling anger throughout America, fueling a surging rage that never abated until V-J Day.

While the leading squadrons winged southward, Kido Butai continued as briefed. At 7:15 the second wave of 168 planes lifted off its decks, comprising fifty-four level bombers, seventy-eight dive bombers, and thirty-six fighters.

The first B5Ns over the target were sixteen from Soryu and Hiryu. Briefed to hit carriers on Ford Island’s northwest coast, they went for alternate objectives, destroying the target ship USS Utah (née BB-31, re-designated AG-16) and damaging a cruiser.

Akagi’s torpedo squadron led a devastating attack. The Nakajimas swept in from the north shore of the harbor, skimming low between Hickam Field and the fuel tank farm, then nudging downward over the water. Making one hundred mph at sixty-five feet, they deployed as per individual briefings and turned onto their attack headings. A quarter mile ahead lay the gray monoliths along Battleship Row.

Of thirty-six torpedoes dropped, probably nineteen found their targets. Hardest hit were West Virginia (BB-48) and Oklahoma (BB-37) moored outboard at the head of Battleship Row. California (BB-44), resting farther ahead of the others, drew further attention and took two hits and slowly settled onto the mud.

Five torpedo planes were shot down, all from succeeding waves as the defenders responded and fought back. After-action reports showed that most ships began returning fire within two to seven minutes.

At 8:40, almost half an hour after the first attack on Pearl Harbor, 167 aircraft of the second wave were led by Zuikaku’s senior aviator, Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki. No torpedo planes participated, but fifty-four Nakajima level bombers struck three air bases. The seventy-eight Aichi dive bombers were assigned any carriers in port with cruisers as secondary goals. Nearly three dozen Zero fighters established air superiority over Hickam and Bellows Fields plus Kaneohe Naval Air Station.

When the second wave departed northward, the entire attack had lasted not quite two hours, from 7:55 to 9:45. In their slipstream the Japanese left Oahu stunned, both physically and emotionally.

The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,335 U.S. military personnel and 68 civilians.

Arizona was destroyed and Oklahoma written off. Pennsylvania and Maryland were lightly damaged and quickly returned to service, but saw no action until 1943. Tennessee and Nevada were refitted in 1942 and ’43 California and West Virginia were refloated and fully repaired in 1944. Three cruisers and three destroyers were repaired or rebuilt from 1942 to 1944. Finally, a minelayer was sunk but repaired and operational in 1944.

Combined Army-Navy-Marine aircraft losses were about 175 immediately assessed as destroyed plus twenty-five damaged beyond repair. Some 150 sustained lesser damage.

The Japanese lost twenty-nine aircraft and sixty-five men, mostly aircrew, but including ten sailors in five miniature submarines.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Pearl Harbor attack. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Pearl Harbor.


Pacific Aviation Museum

Pilots who didn’t survive the day of the attack like Nishikaichi did likely went down with their planes, which were scattered throughout Pearl Harbor and the Pacific beyond. In 2011, an exploration crew found a remnant of the Japanese invasion in the form of a human skull thought to belong to a Japanese pilot.

While the craft downed during the Pearl Harbor attack remained lost, a relic of the event can be found at the Pacific Aviation Museum. The same style craft that Nishikaichi had piloted and crash landed on Ni’ihau island is on exhibit there. The A6M2 Zero, built by Mitsubishi, can be seen fully intact, with a paint scheme identical to Nishikaichi’s aircraft.


Gallery

A photograph of Pearl Harbor and Battleship Row, taken on October 30, 1941

A Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" fighter airplane of the second wave takes off from the aircraft carrier Akagi on the morning of December 7, 1941

Battleship USS West Virginia under attack

Destroyer USS Shaw exploding after her forward magazine was detonated

The USS Arizona under attack

Sailors stand amid wrecked planes at the Ford Island seaplane base, watching as USS Shaw explodes in the center background


Watch the video: President Franklin D. Roosevelt Declares War on Japan Full Speech. War Archives (August 2022).