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Posted on Sep 22, 2004 in Stuff We Like

Pearl Harbor – An Alternate History

By Wayne Cassell

The Japanese expected stiff resistance and were prepared. Most of the American fighter attacks did little to disrupt the bombers and torpedo planes as they approached their targets. Now it was up to the fleet to defend itself with anti-aircraft fire. The fleet was ready; steam up, anti-aircraft guns manned, watertight doors closed and latched. At 0755, the first wave of 24 KATE torpedo planes flew in low over the buildings of the Southeast Loch. Lining up on battleship row, they were met with a hail of .50 caliber machine gun fire. They were so low only a quarter of the 5-inch anti-aircraft guns on board the battleships were able to engage the incoming torpedo planes. Even this limited fire, in addition to numerous 3-inch guns and .50 caliber machine guns, had an effect. Six KATEs were hit by fire from the ships in the Southeast Loch. As the Kates make their final run, another five were brought down by the concentrated fire from the battleships. The remaining 13 dropped their torpedoes achieving 10 hits, three hit Oklahoma, two hit California, three hit West Virginia, and two hit Neveda. One torpedo passed forward of Arizona ending up on Ford Island while the remaining two torpedoes dove straight into the bottom. Two more KATEs were shot down as they flew over the battleships and Ford Island after making their run.


Simultaneously, eager Japanese pilots dropped six torpedoes at Utah, the cruisers Raleigh and Detroit, and the seaplane tender Tangier berthed on the north side of Ford Island. All six torpedoes hit leaving Utah and the cruisers listing but still afloat. The remaining ten KATEs in this formation realized the mistake and flew around the western tip of Ford Island, heading toward the Ten-Ten Dock. They were met by anti-aircraft fire from the minelayer Oglala, and Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock, as well as by machine gun fire from Ford Island Naval Air Station. Two KATEs were destroyed and the formation was disrupted although two torpedoes passed under Oglala, hitting the cruiser Helena which was berthed inboard. The concussion from the explosions ripped open the starboard side of Oglala and she began to settle.

While the torpedo planes were attacking, nine VAL dive bombers screamed down from 10,000 feet, targeting the hangers and aircraft on Ford Island. They were met by 5-inch anti-aircraft fire from those guns on the battleships that could not engage the torpedo planes. Three VALs were initially hit and two more were damaged by machine gun fire after they pulled out of their dives. Hangers 6 and 38 were hit and a number of PBYs and float planes were damaged.

This attack proved to be lucky for the Americans. Not only did it cause few casualties, it focused the attention of the 5-inch anti-aircraft gunners on the next wave of KATE high-level bombers. The KATEs, already having trouble discerning their targets due to smoke and clouds, now met heavy anti-aircraft fire from the seven battleships on battleship row. although all the outboard battleships had been struck by torpedoes, efficient damage control and fire fighting kept the ships relatively level and still able to fight. The ten flights of five bombers over-flew the battleships dropping their 1600 pound armor piercing bombs. California took one hit forward; Maryland, inboard of Oklahoma, took two hits; Tennessee, inboard of West Virginia received three hits; and Arizona took two bombs. Vestal, the repair ship moored outboard of Arizona, took three bomb hits and began to burn. On Arizona, the first bomb glanced off the No. 4 turret and penetrated three decks before exploding in the crew quarters. The second bomb hit to the right of the No. 2 turret, penetrated three decks, and exploded on the deck above the forward main gun magazine, which held 60 tons of powder. Fortunately, all water tight doors were secured so the magazine did not explode. Damage control parties quickly flooded all the forward magazines to prevent an explosion.

The intense anti-aircraft fire had an unintended consequence. One KATE was hit and dropped her bomb early. It hit the tanker Neosho, moored between California and Maryland, and half-full of volatile aviation fuel. The bomb penetrated Neosho’s stern and exploded in the engine room causing a huge fire aft. While desperate crew members fought to keep the fire from spreading to the gasoline tanks, the tug Hoga moved in to tow the burning tanker away from Ford Island. They were only partially successful. As they cleared Oklahoma, the tanker blew up in a tremendous fireball. The stern just disappeared while the bow rose up 90 degrees before settling on the harbor floor. Thirty feet of the bow remained above the water, looking like a grave stone. The blast capsized Hoga and the fireball swept over the three nearest battleships, killing gun crews and starting numerous fires. Burning debris fell on Ford Island, starting numerous building fires and destroying aircraft. The blast blew out most of the south facing windows on Ford Island, inflicting many casualties from flying glass. The burning fuels added to the smoke rising over battleship row.

Simultaneously with the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the other airfields were attacked. Wheeler airfield was attacked by 25 VAL dive bombers at 0753. All of the flyable P-40s were airborne and by now and fighting for their lives against superior numbers. None were available to defend the base. Many remaining fighters, mostly the older P-36s and P-26s were caught on the ground and were destroyed or destroyed while trying to take off. The non-flyable planes that had been moved to revetments received some damage, mostly from flying debris. Most of the hangers were hit and planes that had not been moved when the alert sounded were destroyed. Again, prepared anti-aircraft fire took a toll on the Japanese, both in actual planes shot down or damaged and in throwing off the aim of the attacking pilots. While Schofield Barracks was not a target, machine guns and 3-inch guns engaged Japanese planes making their run on Wheeler and contributed to upsetting the cohesion of the Japanese attack. Six VALs were shot down and many damaged during the attacks.

The defense of Hickman Field was aided by the anti-aircraft fire from Pearl Harbor and Fort Kamehemeha. All 12 B-17s were targeted by the dive bombers and destroyed or damaged. Most of the older B-18s bombers parked in revetments were damaged by nine ZEROs that strafed the field. The dive bombers concentrated on the hangers and buildings, damaging all the hangers and starting numerous fires. One ZERO was shot down by machine gun fire as it strafed the planes in their revetments and two VALs were destroyed.

Bellows Field was ignored in the first wave of attacks. It is not known why. The P-40s dispersed to Bellows had gotten airborne and intercepted a group of dive bombers heading for Hickam Field. All of the ground personnel were waiting to get attacked, watching the smoke rise from Pearl Harbor to the west and Kaneohe to the north. The crew chiefs and mechanics stayed in the slit trenches, waiting to repair and rearm the returning fighters.

Ewa Field was considered a threat by the Japanese because dive bombers were based there. Thirty ZEROs and many dive bombers attacked from the north, damaging half of the SBD dive bombers in their revetments. All 16 F4F fighters based at Ewa were already airborne and in the fight. They intercepted the first wave of Japanese heading for Ewa and the survivors reformed off of the west coast while looking for new targets.

By 0830 the first wave was retiring to the north. The senior commanders were at their headquarters assessing the damage. Nevada was trying to get underway. She was damaged but not pinned in by other ships. Navy tugs were trying to move the burning Vestal away from Arizona with little luck. All of the other battleships were damaged and incapable of moving. The burning hulk of Neosho blocked the south channel. The cruisers Phoenix and St. Louis had cleared the harbor as had a number of destroyers. They formed a task force about five miles south of Oahu and awaited instructions. The ten PBYs that had successfully cleared Kaneohe NAS before the attack were ordered north to search along a line roughly 40 degrees on either side of north in an attempt to locate the Japanese fleet. The ships that had escaped Pearl Harbor were formed up into two Task Forces and ordered to head north around the west coast of Oahu. During the lull, many of the damaged fighters started returning to their air fields. In addition undamaged fighters, low on ammunition, were returning to rearm. Fortunately, the Japanese had not bombed the runways. Haleiwa was also a popular landing spot because it had not been hit. As General Martin assessed the damage, Opana Point radar reported a second wave inbound from the same direction as the first wave. He ordered all remaining fighter to intercept this raid over Kahuku Point but there was never a chance of coordinating a defense. Of the approximately 76 fighters that had gotten airborne before and during the first wave’s attack, over half had been shot down. Many of the remaining were damaged or low on ammunition. The only bombers that could have launched a counter strike were burning at Hickam Field. General Murray established numerous infantry patrols to start searching Oahu for downed Japanese pilots. The 3-inch mobile guns had finally gotten all their ammunition and were waiting the next attack. Everyone was alert. No one thought this was over.

Messages were sent to Washington informing them of the attack. There was little else the senior commanders could do. A couple of cruisers and some destroyers had sailed but no battleships were at sea. No one knew specifically where the Japanese fleet was; just that it was north of Oahu about 200-300 miles. The navy estimated there were at least four if not six carriers given the number of enemy planes. That was a stronger force than the Pacific fleet could muster. There would be no counterattack by land-based bombers; they were burning in their revetments at Hickam Field and Ewa. Most of the fighters had been damaged or destroyed, either on the ground or during combat with the first wave. All of the undamaged bombers that could fly took off and headed south to loiter over Maui until a target was identified or the raids were over. But the anti-aircraft gun crews were not cowed. They had fought one raid and, in the Darwinian world of warfare, the survivors were now battle tested. During the first wave, action overcame fear. The gun crews were too busy to be scared. They were also too nervous, and many anti-aircraft shells were fused incorrectly. Some landed in Honolulu, causing damage and civilian casualties. After the first wave, a curious calm washed over these same crews. They had survived the first assault. They were veterans and this realization, along with their training helped them overcome their fear as they waited for the second wave. They would not make the same mistakes.[continued on next page]

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  1. I strongly disagree.

    While I am no historian I do believe that if the citizens knew Pearl Harbor were prepared for a sneak attack they would be less incline to believe in FDR’s push to join the war and likely protested harder knowing Pearl Harbor did it’s damn best.

  2. What a total ass! He should’ve kept it (Our US Navy) in San Diego far out of reach of any possible attack and closer to back up from air support that’s always there!

    It doesn’t take a pair of geniuses to figure out that putting our navy in one spot in the middle of the Pacific far from outside help is a dangerous path at best. If not from WW2 a different event would’ve done it later such as Korea maybe.

    At least in San Diego the fuel carriers of the Japanese had no chance of penetrating that far without worry of fuel loss and since it’s in mainland would be much closer to resistance if San Diego were attacked for whatever reason our US Air force would be right there!.

    It would be pure suicidal to Japan both it’s people and economy (whatever was left of it) to attempt a sneak attack on San Diego.

  3. BTW: Did you know weather forecasting other then basic temps of yesterday’s high and low and precip was banned due to war measures?