By William Hopkins, from The Pacific War: The Strategy, Politics, and Players That Won the War
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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as a tremendous shock to the American public. Most believed that if war came it would be against Germany and Italy, and most Americans failed to recognize that the United States was unprepared to fight an aggressive war. Most believed the nation was much stronger militarily than was the case and that no nation would dare attack. War became inevitable with the change of command in Tokyo on 16 October 1941. With Emperor Hirohito’s blessing, Gen. Hideki Tojo, the Japanese army’s strongest advocate of war and the main opponent of withdrawal from China, became the prime minister. He relieved Prince Fuminaro Konoe. In his letter of resignation, Konoe pointed out that on four separate occasions he had sought to withdraw troops in order to preserve peace with the United States, while Tojo had opposed both the action and its purpose. “With the China incident unresolved, he, as a loyal subject of the emperor, could not take on the responsibilities of entering into a huge new war whose outcome could not be foreseen.”
On 16 October, Otto Tolischus, in reporting to the New York Times, said that the director of Japanese naval intelligence had declared that the relations of the United States and Japan were “now approaching the final parting of the ways.” From Shanghai on the same day came a dispatch stating that the Central China Daily News, organ of the Japanese-sponsored regime in Nanking, had asserted that war between Japan and the United States “is inevitable.”
As negotiations between the United States and Japan continued to worsen, on 27 November General Marshall warned MacArthur:
Negotiations with Japan appear to be terminated to all practical purposes with only the barest possibilities that the Japanese government might come back and offer to continue. Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense. Prior to hostile Japanese action you are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary but report measures taken to defend the Philippines. Should hostilities occur you will carry out the tasks assigned in Rainbow 5 so far as they pertain to Japan. Limit dissemination of this highly secret information to minimum essential officers.
Similar warnings were dispatched to other top commanders in the Pacific, especially those at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after General Marshall’s warning, Admiral Stark sent a dispatch to Admirals Hart and Kimmel. His message said:
This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.
The number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organization of naval task forces indicate an amphibious expedition against either the Philippines, Thai, or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo.
Execute an appropriate defense deployment preparatory to carrying out the tasks assigned in War Plan 46 (Rainbow T). Inform District and army authorities. A similar warning is being sent by War Department. SPENAVO [Special Naval Observer in London, Vice Adm. Ghormley] inform British. Continental districts, Guam, Samoa directed to take appropriate measures against sabotage.
Both before and after the Pearl Harbor attack, the best information on the whereabouts of the Japanese fleet as well as merchant ships derived from the Fourteenth Naval District’s Combat Intelligence Unit on Oahu, called Station Hypo. Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Rochefort was the chief cryptanalyst; Lt. Cmdr. Edwin T. Layton, the intelligence chief. On 2 December, Layton informed Adm. Husband Kimmel that, “As there had been no radio traffic from four Japanese carriers for fully fifteen and possibly twenty-five days, their location was unknown.”
On the night of 3 December, British intelligence in Manila sent an urgent cable to British intelligence in Hawaii, saying:
We have received considerable intelligence confirming following developments in Indochina.
1. Accelerated Japanese preparation of airfields and railways.
2. Arrival since Nov. 10 of additional 100,000 repeat 100,000 troops and considerable quantities fighters, medium bombers, tanks and guns (75mm).
Estimate of specific quantities have already been telegraphed Washington Nov. 21 by American military intelligence here.
Our considered opinion concludes that Japan envisages early hostilities with Britain and U.S. Japan does not repeat not intend to attack Russia at present but will act in South.
You may inform Chiefs of American Military and Naval Intelligence Honolulu.
Again, on 3 December, Admiral Stark sent another dispatch to Hart, Kimmel, and the naval district commandants in Manila and Honolulu. He informed them that Japanese diplomatic and consular posts at Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia, Manila, Washington, and London had been ordered to destroy their codes. Stark thought this urgent order by the Japanese to demolish their codes, ciphers, and secret documents to be “one of the most telling items of information we had received and our dispatch . . . was one of the most important dispatches we ever sent.” War was obviously near.
On 6 December, Joseph C. Harsch, the correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, met with Admiral Kimmel and his staff at fleet headquarters. Those present recall the following exchange:
Harsch: Admiral, now that the Japanese have moved into Indochina . . . what do you think they will do next?
Kimmel: I don’t know. What do you think?
Harsch: Well, do you think they will attack us?
Kimmel: No, young man, I don’t think they’d be such damned fools.
Kimmel’s hubris was like that of most Americans at the time.
On the night of 6 December, thirteen parts of a fourteen-paragraph message from Tokyo were decrypted and delivered to President Roosevelt. These showed Japan intended to break off diplomatic relations. Roosevelt instinctively knew this meant war. He now knew Japan was going to strike, but he didn’t know where. The fourteenth part of the decrypted message gave the time of delivery to Secretary of State Hull as 1:00 P.M. Washington, D.C., time, which was 7:00 A.M. in Honolulu. Although this information was known in Washington some hours prior to 7:00 A.M. in Hawaii, through a series of errors, the warning did not reach Honolulu in time to prevent disaster.
No American old enough to remember can forget where he was and what he was doing that Sunday, 7 December 1941, when he first heard over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. All knew this meant war and that great damage had been done, the full extent of which was not revealed to the American public until months later.
I had finished midday dinner at the KA (Kappa Alpha) House in Lexington, Virginia, when I first heard the news. There were eighteen fraternity brothers in my senior year class at Washington and Lee University. A couple had already been drafted. Everyone knew that each would soon be going into some branch of the U.S. armed services. Having completed two platoon leader’s classes in the previous summers, I would soon be called up for marine officer’s training at Indiantown, Pennsylvania. All afternoon, we listened attentively to the radio news in the hope of getting an assessment of the full extent of the damage. Of course, this was not to be.
Virginia law forbade the Sunday sale of alcoholic beverages in any form, including beer. Someone got the idea of purchasing some white lightnin’ from a bootlegger located a few blocks away. We obtained ice and fruit juices from the kitchen and mixed them in a huge bowl with the whiskey. In a somewhat somber mood, we speculated on our future as we listened to the radio and sipped drinks into the wee hours of the morning.
Although the radio did not report the full damage, eight American battleships had been hit, along with three destroyers and three light cruisers. After the Japanese planes completed their final run, more than 2,400 soldiers, sailors, and civilians had lost their lives.
President Roosevelt was sitting in his study with Harry Hopkins when Secretary Knox called to say, “It looks like the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” Hopkins thought the news was a mistake, as the Japanese would never attack Pearl Harbor. All doubt was settled a few minutes later when Admiral Stark called to confirm the attack.
Winston Churchill called the White House. “Mr. President, what’s this about Japan?”
“It’s quite true,” Roosevelt replied. “They have attacked us at Pearl Harbour. We are all in the same boat now.”
Churchill later wrote, “To have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy.” Churchill thought of a remark British politician Sir Edward Grey had made more than thirty years earlier. He said the United States was like “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.”
At a cabinet meeting at 8:30 P.M. that Sunday night, Roosevelt said, “I’m thankful you all got here,” after which he described the devastation at Pearl Harbor. Twice he turned to Knox, “Find out, for God’s sake, why the ships were tied up in rows.”
Knox replied, “That’s the way they berth them!”
After again describing the damage to the fleet, Roosevelt then said half the planes in Hawaii had been destroyed “on the ground, by God, on the ground.”
At 10:00 P.M. congressional leaders joined the gathering. Roosevelt again told what was known of the damage to the U.S. Army and Navy in Honolulu. Senator Tom Connally, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, posed the question that some Americans still ask: “How did it happen that our warships were caught like tame ducks in Pearl Harbor?” Secretary Knox explained to the president that both Gen. Walter Short and Adm. Husband Kimmel felt certain that such an attack would take place nearer Japan’s base of operations—that is, in the Far East. He had not planned on the ingenuity of Admiral Yamamoto.
In February 1941, Yamamoto ordered Cmdr. Genda Minoru, an air staff officer of the Japanese 1st Air Fleet, to make an investigation on the feasibility of the Pearl Harbor attack. Thorough studies and meticulous planning followed. In October, the liner Taiyo Maru sailed the chosen route for the Japanese attack fleet without sighting a single ship.
In November, Yamamoto addressed about a hundred officers on the flight deck of the Akagi:
Although we hope to achieve surprise, everyone should be prepared for terrific American resistance to this operation . . . [Kimmel is] no ordinary or average man. . . . We can expect him to put up a courageous fight. . . . Moreover, he is said to be farsighted and cautious, so it is quite possible that he has instituted very close measures to cope with any emergency. Therefore, you must take into careful consideration the possibility that the attack may not be a surprise after all. You may have to fight your way in to the target. [emphasis his]
On 22 November 1941, the Japanese fleet assembled at Hitokappu Bay in the Kurile Islands, immediately northeast of Japan proper. This attack force set sail four days later, running slowly eastward through fog and gales while always maintaining radio silence.
The core of this mobile fleet was based on six carriers in three divisions with a total of more than four hundred planes. A light cruiser led a screen of nine destroyers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, plus a train of eight tankers and supply ships. Three submarines provided reconnaissance together with two extra destroyers to watch out for American planes based on Midway Island. However, the route selected was outside the pattern of America’s patrol planes at Midway. Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi was in overall command.
On 3 December the formation reached a point 900 miles north of Midway, then turned south. On 7 December it proceeded due south, after parting company with the tankers. All warships put on speed until the carriers reached the designated point of launch 275 miles due north of Pearl Harbor just before 6:00 A.M. Hawaiian time. Execution of Yamamoto’s well-planned attack on Pearl Harbor then followed. It crippled the U.S. Fleet to the point it could not move west to interdict the Japanese main thrust southward to the Netherlands East Indies. Yamamoto envisioned that his submarine fleet would play a major role as his chief of staff noted that he “expected that more damage would be inflicted by submarine attacks which would be continued over a longer period, than by the air attacks, which would be of comparatively short duration.”
The twenty-five Japanese regular submarines plus five midgets in Hawaiian waters did only minimal damage on 7 December and the following few weeks. At 6:30 A.M. Hawaiian time, the net in Oahu opened to admit the USS Antares, an old freighter. Casually watching Antares pass, a helmsman on the nearby destroyer Ward noticed a strange object that appeared to be a buoy. The Ward captain immediately identified the object as the conning tower of a submarine. Ward opened fire with 4-inch guns, followed by depth charges. The midget expired at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
Ward sent a message to headquarters of the Fourteenth Naval District: WE HAVE ATTACKED, FIRED UPON AND DROPPED DEPTH CHARGES ON A SUBMARINE OPERATING IN THE DEFENSIVE SEA AREA. Admiral Kimmel was immediately notified, but it was already too late to avert disaster. By 7:30 A.M. Japanese planes roared over Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Navy put the other four midget submarines out of action without damage to any American ship. On the afternoon of 10 December planes from Enterprise sank the Japanese I-170 with all hands. The Japanese submarine’s failure to live up to expectations greatly disappointed the high command.
In spite of previous warnings, lack of readiness characterized every aspect of the base at Pearl Harbor. On the same day, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, Malaya, Wake Island, Guam, and Hong Kong. On the bright side, all four U.S. aircraft carriers plus five cruisers as well as most destroyers assigned to the Pacific were on missions away from Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack proved to be a blessing in disguise. For the remainder of the war, U.S. naval planners elevated the aircraft carrier above the battleship as the best offensive weapon for the Pacific Fleet.
At noon on 8 December, Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress where he declared that 7 December was a day that would “live in infamy” and that “this form of treachery shall never endanger us again. The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” He was greeted with deafening applause. Both chambers approved a declaration of war against Japan with only one dissenting vote, that of Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana. Roosevelt did not request, nor did Congress approve, a declaration of war against the other Axis powers. Four days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Japan had succeeded in doing what the president up to this point had been unable to do: it unified the American people as they had never been before or since.
The news media reported Guam as having fallen the first day, and only on Wake Island and the Philippines were American fighting men opposing Japanese invaders. The Japanese added to the Pacific defense perimeter by capturing the cluster of British islands known as the Gilberts on 10 December 1941.
The Greek poet Aeschylus observed that “When war begins, truth is the first casualty.” Although he wrote the words 500 years before the time of Christ, they still held true in 1941. In the world of politics there is often a gap between the perception of the public and the reality of events, yet a false perception usually shifts under the examination of the free press. In war, especially World War II, strict censorship under the guise of national security prevented the public from learning the truth in a timely fashion. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the flow of communiqués from the Philippines in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.
Near Manila, the U.S. Navy at Cavite received the first word that the war had started. Admiral Kimmel had announced to all ships at sea and to all U.S. Navy bases: RAID ON PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
No one at Cavite bothered to tell the U.S. Army. Major General Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, had attended a party given for Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commander of U.S. Air Force Far East, at the Manila Hotel. MacArthur and his family occupied a penthouse atop the hotel’s roof. When Sutherland arrived home he learned of the disaster at Pearl Harbor from a radio news broadcast at 3:40 A.M. He contacted MacArthur immediately, but the United States of America had been at war for almost two hours.
Ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, almost eight hours after MacArthur had been informed that the country was at war, disaster struck at Clark Field. Some historians place full blame on MacArthur, while others have him sharing it with Brereton or Sutherland. In the early morning, Brereton had tried to reach MacArthur for a decision but was prevented from doing so by Sutherland. Eighteen of the thirty-five B-17 Flying Fortresses had previously been sent to Del Monte Field in Mindanao, out of range of the Japanese bombers at Formosa. The remaining B-17s plus numerous other aircraft were sitting in the open in neat lines waiting to be serviced. MacArthur appeared to be frozen in thought while Brereton and Sutherland failed to take the initiative in removing the planes from harm’s way. At this point in time, MacArthur had a totally unrealistic view of Japanese air capabilities. On 5 December, just three days before the Japanese attack, he told British Vice Adm. Tom Phillips: “The inability of an enemy to launch his attack on these islands is our greatest security,” which “leaves me with a sense of complete security.”
At 12:25 P.M., most airmen had finished lunch and were awaiting orders when the Japanese planes arrived. No American fighters rose to meet them. The anti-aircraft guns were either unattended or silent as fifty-four Japanese bombers and thirty-six Zero fighters moved into the attack. The parked bombers and fighters were easily destroyed. At Iba, forty miles north of Clark Field, Japanese aircraft destroyed all but two of a squadron of P-40s, which had just returned from patrol. By 1:30 P.M., MacArthur’s air force had ceased to exist as an effective element of defense. With eight hours’ warning, the Philippines was even less prepared than Pearl Harbor, which had no warning at all. Twenty-nine enemy planes were shot down at Pearl.
Fortunately for MacArthur, the American public and press focused on the debacle at Hawaii. Secretary Frank Knox was immediately sent to Hawaii on a fact-finding mission. There he talked to Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of the U.S. Army, Hawaiian Department. He delivered his report to President Roosevelt on 14 December. In it, he said:
There was no attempt by either Admiral Kimmel or General Short to alibi the lack of a state of readiness for the air attack. Both admitted that they did not expect it, and had taken no adequate measures to meet one if it came. Both Kimmel and Short evidently regarded an air attack as extremely unlikely. . . . Both felt that if any surprise attack was attempted it would be made in the Far East.
On 16 December, both Kimmel and Short were relieved of their commands.
The Pearl Harbor disaster brought into the open the inadequacies of command by mutual cooperation with divided responsibility. It defied the maxim of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who declared “two commanders on the same field are always one too many.” As early as February 1941, General Marshall complained that old army and navy feuds in Hawaii were becoming confused with questions of national defense. Both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy objected violently to being placed under the jurisdiction of the other service. Different training, years of competing for its share of inadequate funds in the defense budget, and the annual Army-Navy football game caused jealousies and rivalries to run deep.
Recognizing the dangers of divided command, on 12 December 1941, President Roosevelt ordered his military and naval advisors to establish a unified command in Panama under the U.S. Army, much to the chagrin of high-ranking naval officers. On 17 December the U.S. Navy was given command in Hawaii. Marshall explained to the U.S. Army commander in Hawaii that “the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy were determined there would be no question of future confusion as to responsibility . . . Both Stark and I were struggling to the same end.”
Although fixing responsibility under one commander at Pearl Harbor for most of the Pacific theater was a giant step forward, inter-service rivalry did not disappear, either there or in Washington, D.C.
Excerpted with permission from The Pacific War: The Strategy, Politics, and Players That Won the War.
Excerpted with permission from The Pacific War: The Strategy, Politics, and Players That Won the War.
Copyright © 2008, 2010 by William B. Hopkins.
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