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Posted on Jul 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Pearl Harbor – History’s Most Costly Hit-and-Run

By Jay Kimmel

The severity of the strike upon Pearl Harbor was an extreme shock to the American people. The U.S. administration was likewise shocked but probably for different reasons such as:

1. The declared neutrality of the U.S. should have reduced the potential for being attacked across many fronts. News journalists didn’t ask if FDR was provoking the Japanese. The record showed that he was.

2. A formal declaration of war was anticipated but not yet fully received in the form of the intercepted 14-point message to the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. FDR feared that British-American code breakthroughs would be exposed and therefore lost.

3. U.S. military intelligence was incredibly unsophisticated and grossly under-estimated the Japanese war machine because they were bogged down in an Asian land war. China lacked an effective army, navy, or air force and still avoided being completely overrun by the Japanese military.


4. There were strong prejudicial factors against “technologically backward” Japanese people who exported “junk toys,” were small in stature, were “yellow” in complexion, and possibly could not see well due to “slanted eyes.” Administrations as well as the populous can get caught up in such war-provoking bigotry, but reactions to incidents can be very difficult to predict.

5. The president knew most pre-war Americans were caught up in a decade-old, economic depression, and that few Americans knew where Pearl Harbor was located, or even that their president for more than two terms was mostly confined to a wheelchair. FDR must have known that neither he, nor top members of his administration, could be held personally accountable for 2,403 lives lost at Pearl Harbor.

6. There was the shock of not knowing exactly where the Japanese would strike. The expectation was that the Philippines would be the most likely, sacrificial target. Multiple targets deeply shocked the Roosevelt Administration.

7. The president, being a former undersecretary of the navy, was acutely aware of most naval matters. FDR literally fired Admiral Richardson over a dispute about keeping the fleet in Pearl Harbor and replaced him with Adm. Kimmel when Adm. Nimitz declined. A scandal over motive could have resulted.

8. FDR was aware that one of Japan’s major carrier task forces was at sea in November, 1941, but he did not alert Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Forces, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel [not an immediate relative of this writer]. A leak to the press might have forced FDR’s “blind eye” strategy into the open, or expose Oahu’s MSI-5 unit.

9. FDR also shared enigma code transmissions with Winston Churchill’s government that assaults upon American and British interests in the Pacific were imminent, but did not share that information with the base commanders at Pearl Harbor. That FDR missed both the scale and severity of Japan’s assaults must have been a great shock. The U.S. was truly unprepared for a world war on two fronts. Realization of such vulnerabilities would be shocking to any U.S. administration.

10. New radar systems in Hawaii, under mysterious control of Lt. Tyler, were given a low priority, but might have tipped off the Pearl Harbor commanders. It may have been a distinct shock to FDR if American radar sources had exposed Japan’s plot before it happened. A weak attack on Pearl Harbor might have meant a non-U.S. entry into Europe’s war. Another “failed” incident.

11. A skilled commander-in-chief relies upon intelligence to protect his aircraft carriers, not “luck.” What if the press asked endless questions about the carriers, or FDR’s responsibilities?

12. On hearing the news of the assault upon Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill reported that for the first time in a very long time he had “slept like a baby.” FDR might have been truly shocked if only British targets were assaulted. The biggest shock at that time would have been credible exposure that FDR did have advance knowledge of Japan’s planned attacks in the Pacific.

View from an attacking Japanese plane during the attack

There has been a long-standing debate since 7:55 AM on Sunday, December 7, 1941, about FDR’s advance notice of Japan’s intent to attack Pearl Harbor. Did he know almost everything in advance? Was the president completely naïve, uninformed, blind-sided and completely ignorant of events in the Far East? Many books have addressed such questions under headings such as “Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory.” The answers over the years have varied depending on the political or military orientation of the writers. It’s far too dismissive, however, to ignore good answers based on the notion that “hindsight vision is 20/20,” or that Japan didn’t formally announce their multiple surprise attacks in advance.

There is no debate that Japan’s diplomatic code was being intercepted on the morning of December 7, 1941. A 14-point virtual “declaration of war” was being transmitted to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., as the attack was launched. Details of the intercepts were not shared with the base commanders at Pearl Harbor until long after the attack. The infamous telegram of a war warning was sent by the lowest possible priority, commercial means and could only be interpreted as routine “correspondence.” The key officials in Washington, D.C., understood FDR’s directive to let the Japanese “make the first strike.”

Completely neutralizing a Japanese attack could have left the U.S. fully entrenched in an anti-war stance within less than two years after the fall of France, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia, North Africa, and Indochina. In 1941 there was little reason to believe the British Isles could hold out against the Nazi onslaught. U-boats and bombers were crushing the life out of England. Ecstatic with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler publicly declared war on the United States on December 10, 1941. British interests in the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, were soon to be threatened by the fall of once-impregnable Singapore on the tip of the Malay Peninsula on February 15, 1942. The plan to control most of the world together with Japan, code-named “Orient,” was hatched by geopolitician, Karl Haushofer and Adolph Hitler as they served time in a Munich prison, and was totally on track with the fall of Singapore.

The actual carrier-based air assault on the army and naval bases of the island of Oahu disproved the untested assumption that aerial torpedoes cannot be effectively delivered from the air and detonated in shallow waters of approximately 30’ or less. The destruction of the French fleet in Oran, North Africa (July, 1940), and the Italian fleet in Taranto, Italy (Nov., 1940) by aerial assault kept those vessels from being used by German naval forces.

The concentration of mostly out-dated U.S. warships at Pearl Harbor was both a forward line of defense in the Pacific and comparable to provocation that Japan could not resist. U.S. warships, pushed as far west as possible, were clearly intimidating to Japan’s expansionist plans. Oddly, it has generally been described as “luck” that the three aircraft carriers based at Pearl (vs. Japan’s eight carriers) were well away from the assault on December 7, 1941. These carriers were the true naval fleet defenses that FDR, as commander-in-chief of all U.S. military forces, could not afford to lose.

The aftermath of the attack…

The failure of the Japanese to occupy all of the Hawaiian Islands sealed their ultimate doom. In not taking full advantage of their powerful “sucker punch,” the Japanese failed to control the U.S. submarine bases, millions of barrels of fuel oil, repair facilities, and military bases that would soon have a catastrophic consequence for the Japanese at the Battle of Midway just seven months later when four Japanese carriers were sunk (June 4-7, 1942), and one U.S. carrier lost.

With the main exceptions of the USS Arizona, USS Utah target ship, and USS Cassin and USS Downes (destroyers), most of the Pearl Harbor fleet was re-floated and effectively fought against the Japanese in the Pacific. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a top submariner, assumed command of the Pacific fleet aboard the submarine USS Grayling on December 31, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. The hit-and-run tactic of the Japanese both shocked and infuriated Americans who considered themselves to be at peace, non-provocative, and considered the Pearl Harbor attack to be “a dirty sneak attack.” It mattered little to young American enlistees that Imperial navy officers wore white gloves and adhered to an ancient, chivalric code of conduct in launching a surprise attack. Millions of people either lost their lives or were permanently injured as a direct result of Japan’s surprise attack on military bases on the Hawaiian Islands. The horrible consequences made the attack on Pearl Harbor the most costly hit-and-run in history.

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