In April 1940, obsolescent British Swordfish biplanes, nicknamed “stringbags” for their flimsy construction, struck the Italian fleet at Taranto. Within minutes significant damage was done to Italy’s Mediterranean Fleet. To get around the inability to operate torpedoes in the shallow waters of the harbor, the British attached fins to the tail.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and his staff studied the attack on Taranto, even constructing models of the harbor to study it. Yamamoto was in need of a way to radically change the predominant doctrine that was the hallmark of both the Japanese and Allied Navies — a main force engagement somewhere near the Philippines. Under various war plans, both sides sought a major engagement where the guns of the battleships would be bought to bear on the enemy fleet in a decisive engagement. Admiral Togo had done this at Tsushima in 1905, and his junior officers, now running the Imperial Japanese Navy, wanted to do the same thing to the United States Fleet.
But two new weapons were available in 1941 that Togo did not have in 1905. The aircraft and the submarine changed everything, and only a few officers in both navies knew it. Yamamoto recognized the importance of the aircraft, but not the submarine. His navy possessed more carriers than any other, and his aircraft were the finest shipboard military planes anywhere. The man who led this First Air Fleet, as it was designated, was not equal to the task, but Chuichi Nagumo would carry out his orders and reap the short glory. Yamamoto himself had served as captain of some of the larger ships, and he held those men close to his heart.
Submarines were a different matter. Japan had the best torpedo in the world, unbeknownst to the Allies. The Long Lance was faster, bigger, and more powerful than any Allied counterpart, and America especially had a lack of reliability with theirs. The Japanese fleet submarines were excellent vessels with trained crews. But they were hampered by orders to sink capital ships, not wage unrestricted submarine warfare. But Britain, also an island nation, as well as America knew firsthand how devastating the sub could be. Both nations remembered the Lusitania very well.
With a lack of imagination regarding submarines, the Imperial Japanese Navy developed them as motherships for a tactical combat submarine — commonly known in the west as the midget submarine. The HA series carried a crew of two and two torpedoes, and five of them would be deployed outside the submarine nets to sneak into Pearl and sink whatever targets they could.
Hawaii in 1941 was a very different place than most Americans think of today. It had been the United States Pacific Fleet’s forward base only since October and many facilities for such a large force had not been built yet. Admiral Richardson was fired for protesting the move from San Francisco to Hawaii. He was replaced by Admiral Husband E. Kimmel.
The Japanese American population was so large, they were never incarcerated because the island’s economy would collapse. It was boring duty for many enlisted men.
The fleet sailed from Hiroshima Bay on November 28. It took a week to sail across the North Pacific, hiding in a rain squall. Orders were to turn around if they were sighted. They were 200 miles away from Oahu by 6 AM.
The attack was scheduled on Sunday because it was believed the Navy would be stood down for religious services. A party was held the night before, and the USS Arizona’s band won best honors at the party. Little did they know that most of them would be dead in Turret #2 in a few short hours. By 4 AM most of the sailors had returned to their bunks.
The Navy and Army facilities were thoroughly unprepared for the onslaught they were about to receive. Standard doctrine called for the defense of the Philippines. The idea that the Japanese could get to Hawaii undetected was unthinkable. Army General Walter Short and Navy Admiral Kimmel did not think such an attack was possible. Short’s Army Air Corps P-40s were parked in neat rows to prevent sabotage, but were grouped close together as easy targets for bombs. Kimmel didn’t think torpedoes could work in Pearl’s shallow draft. Actually, during maneuvers, Navy aircraft had successfully attacked, and one officer remarked that with only one narrow entrance, the harbor could be blocked if a single ship was sunk in the right place.
The coming attack was sighted. Richard Sorge, the Russian spy in Tokyo, informed Stalin that the attack was about take place. American intelligence thought Pearl could be a target, but the repeated war warnings did not include Pearl. The USS Ward sank a midget submarine outside the entrance at 4:55 AM. A British-made radar station caught the planes coming in at 7 AM, but the warning was ignored.
The American Flag was raised over the fleet at 7:45 AM. By the time the flag was up, at 8 AM, 359 planes in two waves were either on their way or already attacking Pearl. At 8:15 AM the USS Arizona was hit in turret #2 by a modified 16-inch naval shell dropped from a B5N2 level bomber. The ship’s magazine detonated, and the ship blew up, collapsing the bridge and the forward mast into what was left of the bow. The Arizona “rained sailors.” Almost 1,200 of her crew died.
By the time Arizona was settling permanently into the harbor mud, USS West Virginia was hit by four torpedoes, USS Oglala was capsizing, and the attack had just begun. There were torpedoes and bombs raining down all over Pearl Harbor and the Ford Island Naval Air Station. Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station was being chopped to pieces nearby.
At 8:45 the USS Nevada, under command by a junior officer, ran for the open sea and gave the Japanese a chance to block the channel. She was jumped by dozens of fighters and bombers, and received several hits. She was sinking and her officer beached her to prevent her sinking in the channel.
At 9:30, the second wave came in, and the devastated fleet was more prepared to meet them. Most of the 29 aircraft were shot down in the second wave. They still did major damage to ships and aircraft. Only four or five United States aircraft were able to get aloft, and many obsolescent P-26 and P-35s were destroyed on the ground. By 10:30 the last attacker left. The cleanup began and would last until 1944. The psychological wounds to the United States would last to the present day.
Tactically, the attack was a success. Complete surprise had been achieved and eight battleships, one cruiser, and three destroyers and many other vessels had been damaged or sunk. But lingering questions in the Japanese Naval command and in the minds of historians have led to a reexamination of the success of the attack. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the flight leader, argued for another attack to strike the oil storage facility, which would have crippled Hawaii as a forward base for the United States Navy. Nagumo, fearing discovery and attack on the First Air Fleet, took his carriers away at top speed. The top targets, the American aircraft carriers, were not in port. Failure to destroy these assets would come to haunt the First Air Fleet in a short six months’ time off Midway.
Nagumo had achieved every other objective, and it seemed that nothing could stop the Japanese anywhere. It was believed that the midget submarines had been a great success, and they were hailed as heroes who gave their lives. The airmen were upset that honors were given to the submariners and not their dead comrades, but what would have made them even more upset is that not one midget sub even fired a torpedo. All five were sunk, except for one that beached. One crewman killed himself and the other was Japanese POW no. #1.
On December 31, 1941, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz took command at Pearl Harbor. To everyone’s surprise, he did not fire Kimmel’s staff. The situation was grim for his command, and he privately told his wife that he expected to be fired soon. Without the battleships needed to fight the traditional doctrine of a mainforce engagement, Nimitz built new task forces around his three carriers. Nimitz and his staff were creating new combat doctrine on the spot. The battleship would never again be the primary weapon of the Navy.
Like John F. Kennedy’s assassination 22 years later, or the Challenger explosion, all Americans old enough to remember know the exact moment they heard Pearl Harbor was bombed. Many did not know where Hawaii was, or that America had military installations there. But they could not believe that Japan would attack without a declaration of war. To Americans it was duplicitous, or in the vernacular of the day, “sneaky.” All dissension among the American public disappeared overnight. Yamamoto and his planners never even considered what a surprise attack would do to unite the Americans against Japan. Togo had surprised the Russians at Tsushima, and it was accepted doctrine in Asia. But to the Americans, it was a sucker punch.
Reaction to the attack was electric. United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill got the news and said “so we have won after all.” Hitler also thought the attack on the Americans meant victory for his side. Within four days Germany declared war and before the month was out, U-boats were racking up impressive numbers of sunken freighters off the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean.
In one of the great engineering feats of the war, the Navy returned six of the eight sunken battleships to combat. They were no longer the Queen of the battle line; they now were the escorts for the carriers. Three years later, in October 1944, five of these battleships would sink a Japanese fleet off the Philippine Islands during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Japan never raised any of her war losses. That America could reclaim six battleships and build so many others is an example of her massive war industry.
In 1944 the Court of Inquiry called to examine the cause of disaster made some basic assumptions that were racist in their interpretation of the attack. Clearly, the Japanese were not skilled enough as warriors, their reports implicitly stated. Somehow there was a failure to detect the attack, a dereliction of duty on the part of the commanders. Kimmel and Short were disgraced, and were the public scapegoats. They both retired after a court of inquiry held them responsible. They received death threats for the rest of their lives. Kimmel’s family tried to get his rank reinstated and the charges dropped through the Clinton Administration in 1996.