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Posted on Sep 22, 2004 in Stuff We Like

Pearl Harbor – An Alternate History

By Wayne Cassell


December 7th, 1941, a day that will live in infamy, was a defining moment in the history of the United States and the world. The United States forces on Oahu were surprised and suffered serious casualties as a result of decisions made by the senior commanders in Hawaii. But what would have happened if other decisions had been made?

The senior commanders at Pearl Harbor did not make their decisions in a vacuum. They were given a mission by the War Department (Army and Army Air Force) and the Chief of Naval Operations (Navy). They balanced these directives from Washington with the resources available and issued orders to accomplish the mission. Their staffs provided information attained through a variety of sources. Some information was straight data, facts, and figures. But other information, especially intelligence, was interpretation. What if the senior commanders and staffs in Hawaii had interpreted their information differently? How would a different decision affect the events on the morning of December 7th, 1941?


This paper will present an alternative series of decisions, culminating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. It covers a brief time span, November 27th through December 7th, a period of just 11 days. It will address the dilemmas facing the senior commanders, that is, the balance between mission and resources available, in the form of narrative staff meetings. From these staff meetings, orders will be issued to subordinate commands. It will discuss how the subordinate commands then work to execute their orders. Finally, it will describe the attack on Pearl Harbor given the new parameters which are based on different decisions being made prior to the attack.


Over the past ten years, a new genre has appeared in the history section of book stores called “alternative history”, and informally known as “what if?” This genre takes actual events in history for example, a battle, alters some aspect in the decision making process, and re-fights the battle with the new alterations. This has been a staple of wargamers since Avalon Hill published the first commercial wargame in 1962. There are certain criteria for this type of writing:

• The altered decision has to be feasible and logical.
• The altered decision has to be historically possible and fit within the general geopolitical and social beliefs of the period.
• The altered decision has to match the personality of the individual making the decision.

Pearl Harbor would appear to have numerous “what if?” scenarios. Many of them do not meet the criteria established above. For example, if the Japanese fleet had been discovered on December 5th or even early December 6th, Admiral Nagumo had orders to return to base and not attack (McComas 48). Thus, a scenario involving the United States attacking the Japanese fleet before December 7th is not reasonable since the United States would not have attacked first.

This article is not meant to discuss strategic implications of an alternate history of the attack. Could the Japanese have followed up the attack with an invasion? Possibly, but that would entail discussions of a strategic nature and beyond the scope of this article. If the Japanese had focused their attack on the infrastructure of Pearl Harbor (the dry docks, the tank farms (fuel), and the submarine base), the strategic situation in the Pacific would have been quite different. So too, if the American carriers had been in port and sunk.

This paper’s focus is on what could have been done differently by the commanders on the scene. What actions could they have taken, what decisions could they have made differently, and how would that alter the outcome of the battle? Would any other decisions have significantly altered the battle’s outcome? Let’s return to paradise, to swaying palms, sunny beaches, and tropical breezes, to a time of inadequate intelligence, insufficient resources, and mixed messages from Washington, a time when commanders were making the best decisions they could with the resources available, ever aware of the darkening clouds of war approaching.

November, 1941, The Defenses of Hawaii

Pearl Harbor was established as the primary United States naval base in early 1941. President Roosevelt decided to move the navy from its base in San Diego in response to continued Japanese aggression in China and Indo-china. He thought moving the fleet 2000 miles closer to Japan would prove a deterrent to Japanese expansion in the central Pacific.

On February 1st, 1941, the newly named Pacific Fleet was officially based at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel assumed command on February 7th, 1941. He was responsible for the fleet but not the base. He was also charged with assisting the army in the defense of the fleet while in port. The defense of Pearl Harbor, and all navy bases in the Hawaiian area, was the mission of the 14th Naval District, commanded by Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch. His defense responsibilities included anti-submarine patrols and long-range reconnaissance patrols.

On February 5th, 1941, General Walter Campbell Short arrived to take command of the army’s Hawaiian Department. The mission of the army was to defend the fleet from air and naval attack in accordance with Navy war plan WPL-46. In fact, defense of the fleet was the core mission of the Hawaiian Department.

“The fullest protection for the fleet is THE rather than A [Marshall’s emphasis] major consideration for us.” General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff (Gannon 14)

When the fleet arrived in February, 1941, defenses were inadequate. All three commands reported their concerns to Washington and proceeded to correct the deficiencies with the means available. In the Navy’s view, the Army was woefully unequipped to perform the task (Gannon 13). This was a reflection of the times. The United States was unprepared for war. The Hawaiian Department received the majority of support in the Pacific (more than the Philippines and the Panama Canal) though this was still inadequate.

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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?