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Posted on Jan 26, 2007 in Armchair Reading

Pearl Harbor article misses the point

By Jim Stobie

I was deeply troubled with the total lack of historical understanding or scholarship when I read Jay Kimmel’s "Pearl Harbor–History’s Most Costly Hit and Run". His account of the attack AT Pearl Harbor is full of distortions and historical inaccuracies.

First, Pearl Harbor was not the intended target; it was the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) would much rather have attacked the Pacific Fleet at the Lahaina anchorage than Pearl Harbor (aircraft from an escort surveyed the Maui anchorage prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor). Mr. Kimmel’s distortions are truly abound in his paragraph questioning why they did not follow up their attack on Pearl Harbor. The primary objective of the attack at Pearl Harbor was to remove the threat of the Pacific Fleet on the flank of the Japanese attack on the Southern Resource Area, the Netherlands (or Dutch) East Indies and Malaya. Attacks on the Pacific Fleet and the Philippines protected the flank of the attack and the route of the critical resources they would exploit from the East Indies.


Second, Admiral Yamamoto was the major force behind the planning of the attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, not the reluctant officer as depicted in Mr. Kimmel’s essay. Many other admirals continued to fight against the attack. When it was approved with only four carriers, Yamamoto threatened to resign unless all six fast carriers were tasked with the attack.

Third, Clark Field was not struck "the following day," but several hours later. The international dateline separated the Philippines and Hawaii. While bad weather delayed the aerial attack on the Philippines, the major reason why the assaults were not simultaneous is daylight. Mitsuo Fuchida discusses this after the war.

Fourth, the CNO war warning dated 27 November 1941 listed three possible targets for Japanese aggression: the Philippines, Thai or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo. The Thai or Kra Peninsula (which today is Thailand and Malaysia) was attacked one and a half hours BEFORE the Pacific Fleet at Kota Bharu in British Malaya. The Philippines were attacked (aerial attack on Clark Field and landings on Batan Island) hours after the attack on the Pacific Fleet. British Borneo (the northern portion) was attacked 15/16 December when escort vessels became available after the Malaya landings.

While racist views of the Japanese convinced everyone, intelligence professionals and warfighters, that the Japanese could not conduct these simultaneous operations, it was uncharacteristic for the IJN to tackle more than one enemy at a time (the book KAIGUN highlights this).

Fifth, he discusses the convenience that the American aircraft carriers were underway at the time of the attack; therefore, they were spared.

SARATOGA was being repaired stateside. The other two carriers, HORNET and LEXINGTON, were shuttling aircraft to Wake and Midway. Both of these islands were attack in that first day of war, with Wake eventually falling to the Japanese after a stout defense by the Marines.

Sixth, comparing the code of World War II Japanese to the code of feudal samurai is truly a stretch. Better histories and comparisons show that these were false comparisons exploited by the government of Japan. There are plenty of interviews with Japanese pilots who flew on the Pacific Fleet who stated they did not know there had been no declaration of war.

The 14-part message was to be delivered at 1:00 PM Washington DC time (7:30 AM in Pearl Harbor), giving the US effectively 30 minutes of warning. Errors and incompetency prevented Ambassador Nomura from delivering the message until after the attack (strangely, American intelligence decrypted, typed and distributed the 14-part message prior to the Japanese).

Seventh, Mr. Kimmel should read Edwin Layton’s AND I WAS THERE. Layton was the Pacific Fleet intelligence officer under Richardson, Kimmel, Pye and Nimitz. In early December, Layton estimated the position of the missing Japanese aircraft carriers as in home waters with a question mark (David Kahn explains in detail how this assessment came about in his many articles on Pearl Harbor). Kimmel asked pointed if Layton had no idea where the carriers were, that they could be rounding Diamondhead and he wouldn’t know it. Layton responded yes, but he would hope that they would have been spotted by then.

There are plenty of much better histories that discuss the attack. The poorly named PEARL HARBOR BETRAYED by Michael Gannon does a moderate job with the history, but discusses decisions from the view of Kimmel as he learned things. PEARL HARBOR by H.P. Willmott is probably the best single source one could read about the attack.

Very Respectfully,

Jim Stobie

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The Author responds:

Perhaps the most critical issue is the question of a U.S. president’s right to commit the U.S. to war. It is the position of my article that FDR assumed that responsibility within a tight circle of subordinates and that he did so for the purpose of protecting humanities’ essential rights from anti-democratic forces that had the potential to subjugate most of the world’s people. FDR was in a position to accurately observe the critical nature of that threat and his actions proclaim that he helped to orchestrate international events to bring that threat under control. I do believe that FDR was profoundly shocked by the severity of the loss of life at Pearl Harbor, just as other Americans were shocked, but in the context of a total world crisis, it was a sacrifice that he had to assume without taking direct responsibility. As the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, FDR was in no way blind-sided, deaf, dumb, naive, or even negligent in a way that he could admit. When FDR responded to the intercepted, 14-point message from Japan by saying, "This means war," he knew what the consequences were likely to be at Pearl Harbor, yet he kept his military commanders there in the dark, on alert for sabotage, and his three critical aircraft carriers out of harms way.

Point #1
Obviously, it was the U.S. fleet in the Pacific that the militant new government of Japan wanted to neutralize. There was good reason to believe that one or more of the U.S. carriers would be destroyed within the bottlenecked harbor and certainly on the open seas given Japan’s numerical superiority in carriers and support ships. The "to be announced" surprise attack against U.S. forces in the Pacific was a reaction to perceived acts of war when the U.S. embargoed oil and scrap metal to Japan and strong convictions that Japan held the superior forces numerically and technologically to effectively defend their acts of aggression. Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 had convinced that nation of their new world position relative to European and American colonial interests. The failure to occupy Hawaii following the success of their hit-and-run "sucker punch," however, meant that million of gallons of fuel were lost, the ship repair facilities were lost, the submarine bases were lost and the launching pad for the attack at Midway and other Japanese interests would soon contribute directly to Japan’s defeat.

Point #2
Admiral Yamamoto had spent enough time in the U.S. to have great respect for the industrial capacity and numerical capacity to make war against the far smaller nation of Japan. Yamamoto’s expressed concern that they had awakened a sleeping giant relates to his promises of victories for the first six months and great uncertainty after that. Japan’s military superiority in the early months of the war in the Pacific was recognized as temporary and intended to be such a powerful defensive position that the U.S. would not pay the price to take back each of Japan’s conquests.

Point #3
The attack on the Philippines was technically the "next day" because of the mystic of the International Dateline and therefore allowed the U.S. media to focus on the dastardly deeds of Sunday, December 7th without pressing the American public to comprehend skill and effectiveness of the small nation of Japan in simultaneously attacking target throughout the Pacific. It was due to fog that General MacArthur had up to nine hours of real time notice that Japan was at war with the U.S. and the profoundly tragic situation in the Philippines was very much overshadowed by the events at Pearl Harbor.

Point #4
The war warning memo of November 27, 1941, can be readily interpreted in many different ways depending on the context of the situation. In the complete absence of other information that the U.S. government possessed at the top levels, the war warning suggests a strike in the southwest Pacific and that the enemy should be allowed to make the first strike. Fear of sabotage was still the greatest concern at Pearl Harbor because of the high percentage of residents of Japanese ancestry on the islands. According to Admiral Ernest King, commander of all U.S. naval forces, the severity of Japan’s simultaneous attacks left top officials in Washington in a severe mental fog for a full week following December 7, 1941.

Point #5
For budgetary and political reasons the U.S. was massively under-prepared to engage in broad-scale military actions at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor and for many months afterwards. The most valuable resources (small numbers of aircraft carriers and B-17 bombers) were far too valuable to lose in a single engagement. It is routinely described as "luck" that the three carriers in the Pacific on December 7,1941, were safely away from Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. With the information that FDR had at his disposal prior to Japan’s attack, it is without question that any one of those carriers would have been sacrificed. Only a declared war would mobilize the resources and priorities to build additional aircraft carriers and improved quality carrier planes to stand any chance of an open confrontation in the early months of 1942. The U.S., in fact, did not have a reliable torpedo in the early phases of the war because of the same anti-war and Great Depression mentality that made the U.S. so vulnerable to attack by other nations.

Point #6
The Japanese had a very long history of not being defeated in military battles with another nation and it contributed to a sense of superiority at a time when "Western Cultures" viewed Asians as inferior. This same "bushido" code was reinforced in the extreme with Japan’s defeat of the Russian navy in 1905. It was the same bushido code of honor that guided Japanese pilots to perform at their utmost and to feel betrayed that the declaration of war had not been received at least thirty minutes prior to the attacks in Hawaii.

Point #7
The U.S. government continues to classify some documents relevant to the attack on Pearl Harbor. There continues to be controversy about the timing and quality of interception of Japan’s military and diplomatic codes prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The value of those interceptions for the phenomenal victory at Midway just six months later is beyond debate. There is real potential that the radar placements in Hawaii were disrupted through simple bungling or perhaps covert interference. Obviously, the commanders at Pearl Harbor were not adequately informed of the known threats, and the top level of the FDR administration was fully aware of the base commander’s misinformation. Both commanders have been posthumously cleared of dereliction charges by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and await a signature by the president of the United States to put some closure to a very tragic event in world history.


Jay Kimmel

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