Throwback Thursday: USS Wisconsin, January 2015

Since I have a wealth of photos saved up from my trips to various WW2-related museums and events, I’ve decided to do a monthly thing where I post some of the better ones. To start off, here’s some pics from almost two years ago, when I visited the venerable USS Wisconsin down in Norfolk.


Wisconsin, affectionately nicknamed “Wisky”, was the fourth and last of the Iowa-class battleships. She was commissioned too late to take part in World War 2, but you might recognize her sisters; notably, Missouri, on whose decks the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Most of her WW2 service was in assisting the occupations of various Asian territories captured from the Japanese, then bombarding Okinawa and the home islands. Afterwards, she went on to serve in Korea, did a stint as a training ship, then was placed in the “mothball fleet” in 1948. But changes in policy led to her being recommissioned in 1988, after she was given a full remodel to bring her up to par with newer ships, including missile launchers and a helicopter pad. She briefly participated in the Gulf War of 1991, and finally retired to become a museum ship in 1992. Now, Wisconsin can be visited at the Nauticus Maritime Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. The museum itself is actually very interesting on its own; they have all sorts of exhibits not just on the battleship, but on ships and sailing and the history of the Chesapeake Bay area. But this post is about Wisky, so that’s what I’m going to focus on.

Funny story, I wasn’t originally in Norfolk to see the ship. I got tickets to a Norfolk Admirals game for Christmas, but my dad and I didn’t want to take the two-hour trip down there from Richmond just to spend a couple hours with our asses in a seat, so I went looking for other things to do before the game. That’s how I found out about Wisconsin being docked there, and even though the weather wasn’t great for it, I just had to check her out.


Once you’ve walked through most of the museum, you come into a big gallery with a panoramic view of the ship. This leads you down the stairs to the gangway.


It was a damp, chilly January day, but I had to stay out on the deck long enough to get a dramatic low-angle shot of the cannons.


From the deck, we went inside on the lowest level of the superstructure, which houses the wardroom, office, and officers’ quarters. This is a typical officer’s stateroom. (The sign on the bed said something like “do not sit on the beds” if you’re curious.) It actually seems rather comfortable; they even had a small sink, though it’s out of frame.


Another officer’s desk is strewn with various items that have probably been there since the Gulf War. Casette tapes, some old magazines, a memo pad, and of course a coffee mug and ash tray. I liked that each desk came with a little safe to store valuables.



Here’s a computer in the ship’s office. These suckers are so old they don’t even use a mouse. I’m pretty sure they’re still using them in some government offices.


Finally, here’s some nice tourism posters in the wardroom. From left to right: San Francisco, Trinidad & Tobago, Cuba, Spain, and Rio de Janeiro.

At this point in the tour we got sidetracked talking to some old vets who were hanging out at one of the tables, so we ended up having to leave before seeing belowdecks; we couldn’t go up to the bridge, either, because it’s restricted to guided tours and we had arrived too late to catch the last one. I hope to go back someday and see the entire ship. Preferably on a warmer, less windy day.

Day of Infamy

*stumbles in three days late with coffee* Whoops, sorry, time got away from me. I had to wrap up my finals, and then I got hit with some weird combination of PMS and seasonal depression that’s making me want to go into hibernation.

…Anyway, let’s talk about Pearl Harbor. No, not the movie, although that was a travesty in its own right. As I love to say in every post, like all historical events, it’s actually a lot more complicated than “Japan walked up and punched Hawaii in the face”. It could almost be a comedy of errors on the American end, if it weren’t for the fact that people got killed. Since I explained the historical and political background on the Japanese side, it’s about time I segued into the actual event. So here’s what happened.

Obviously, all of this started with the Pacific Fleet being relocated to Pearl in the first place. The fleet was originally based out of San Diego, which was a prime location, really. Easy access to the mainland for supplies, lots of room to move around, deep water, highly defensible. But it wasn’t close enough to Asia, and like I explained in the previous post, we were trying to put the pressure on Japan. Tensions were running high because of their war in southeast Asia, as well as the 1937 USS Panay incident(1) and a number of other diplomatic blunders. From a certain point of view, it made perfect sense to put our battleships and carriers as close as reasonably possible. But it was just barely reasonable. The thing is, Pearl Harbor is a shallower harbor than most naval stations, and the main entrance is a fairly narrow strait. It would be incredibly easy to sink one big ship there and leave everyone boxed in for weeks. Anyone could see that except for the people who ordered the move in the first place.

 Pictured: Pearl Harbor in 1941. Not Pictured: Escape routes. (Image by US Navy archives)

And then there’s the diplomatic end of things. We already had a series of embargoes in place, starting with one for scrap iron and aircraft supplies(2) after Japan invaded China, then extending to oil when they hit Indochina. None of this convinced Japan not to sign the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. We responded by sending money and military equipment to China (and other friendly nations in the area, including Britain). Further negotiations fell through, mainly for three reasons: one, they refused to break off their pact. Two, they still believed that they were the divinely-mandated lords and masters of southeast Asia, and therefore it was their right to control it. Three, they didn’t want to pull out of China without keeping their puppet state in Manchuria. Their final proposal, on November 20, required that Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States all cut off their aid to China and lifted their sanctions. This was obviously ridiculous, so we made the counter-proposal that Japan just get the hell out of China and sign non-aggression pacts with their Pacific neighbors.

Meanwhile, back at the harbor, the U.S. military raised their alert status. As diplomacy soured, everyone was more or less convinced that war was imminent. But preparations were lackluster at best, because no one knew where they would attack first if they attacked at all; and even if they did, no one thought it would be Hawaii, rather than the Philippines or Guam. No active alert status was ordered. All of their aircraft were obsolete compared to what the Japanese were flying at the time, and moreover they were all parked wingtip-to-wingtip due to fears of sabotage by the local Japanese immigrants, with only a few flying regular patrols.(3) There were no torpedo nets or other anti-submarine defenses installed in the harbor, because no one believed that a torpedo attack was feasible in such shallow water. Even though that exact thing had just happened in Italy a few months earlier.(4) In order to avoid alarming the public by dispersing the anti-aircraft guns around the island (which also would have meant getting permission to place them on private property), they were left unmanned on the base, and the ammunition stores were locked up. When the station finally got an air radar array, the National Park Service refused to let the Army put it on the one mountaintop where it would have done the most good. And while we had broken the Japanese ciphers, the trouble was getting the messages decrypted and translated fast enough, because the team in charge of that was seriously undermanned. This would end up screwing us even further.

On the eve of the attack, the Japanese plan was to formally break off diplomatic relations and deliver an ultimatum exactly thirty minutes before the Nagumo Task Force’s aircraft were expected to arrive over Pearl Harbor. The Foreign Office in Tokyo sent this to the embassy in Washington, in the form of a long, encrypted, fourteen-part telegram. But on top of the time it took to decrypt the message and type it out (they had a very slow typist), they forgot to mark it as “urgent”. The complete telegram wouldn’t be delivered until more than two hours after the attack.

Then, at 03:42, the first Japanese craft was sighted by the minesweeper USS Condor: a single minisub, hidden except for its periscope, southwest of the entrance to the harbor. They warned the nearby destroyer Ward to be on guard. When Ward encountered another minisub at 06:37 and promptly sank it, the captain called headquarters to warn them… but since there were no other military ships in visual range confirm the sighting, he was brushed off. Meanwhile, the radar post (relocated to the northern tip of the island) detected a large mass of aircraft. But they also brushed it off, because they were already expecting a flight of B-17 bombers from the mainland. Also because it was Sunday morning and getting close to shift change, so nobody gave a shit.

Now, this post isn’t a play-by-play the attack itself, because that’s already been done a thousand times. So I’m going to skip that part and go right on to describing how the Japanese fucked it up.

Here’s the first thing. The orders of the Nagumo Task Force were to attack only aircraft, hangars, and ships, prioritizing the biggest targets (battleships). Even though the submarine base, drydocks, ammunition stores, and oil tanks were right there, they were so confident that they could end the war quickly that they didn’t think it would matter if they left the infrastructure standing. If they had attacked our drydocks and supplies, we would have been hamstrung; instead of repairing our ships at Pearl, we would have had to tow them to San Diego, and even then most of our surviving ships would have been stranded for lack of fuel. They also ignored the old headquarters building, which was being used as a base for the cryptanalysis unit. They and the submarines survived, meaning that the sub fleet was able to more or less lock down the Japanese supply lines with the help of the codebreakers. Said codebreakers also contributed to warning us about the coming ambush at Midway, which would come just a few days later.

Another thing: the carrier fleet was out on maneuvers the morning of the attack, and didn’t get home until after it was over. (Enterprise was close enough to throw a few planes at the Japanese, but not to much effect.) That was probably what saved us. The Japanese were still convinced that battleships were the end-all, be-all of naval warfare, so they weren’t concerned about missing the carriers. This despite the fact that they were trusting their own carrier fleet to launch a major air raid. Aircraft carriers were still somewhat experimental at the time, rather than the keystone of strategy that they are today; it took a lot of convincing from Yamamoto and his friends just to get approval for this operation from headquarters. Leaving the American carriers afloat would come back to bite them all on the ass when we sank most of their navy with our bombers.

So, once again the Japanese were too blinded by their own hubris to realize that they were setting themselves on the road to ruin. The IJA fucked themselves over in China, and the IJN fucked themselves over in Hawaii. And while they sank a whole lot of ships, most of them were refloated eventually. All they really accomplished was pissing the Americans off. Yes, it was horrible. Yes, a lot of people got killed, and afterwards thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were marched off to “internment camps” out of fears of sabotage. But in the grand scheme of things, the raid actually failed to accomplish any of its objectives.

From this we can learn two things. If you want to successfully take over the world, don’t get involved in a land war in Asia, and don’t raid your enemy’s base without destroying the infrastructure.

Sources/Further Reading
* Day of Infamy by Walter Lord – A very detailed explanation of the lead-up and the raid itself, put together from eyewitness accounts some fifteen years after the fact, when memories were still clear.
* Tora! Tora! Tora! – As well as explaining the Japanese side’s reasoning, this film does a great job of illustrating how half-assed the American preparation was.

(1) The USS Panay was a gunboat that had been anchored in the Yangtze River outside of Nanjing. When the Japanese invaded the city, they sank it, and later claimed not to have known that it was an American ship (despite the painted bigass American flags painted on its sides and deck).
(2) Parts, tools, fuel, et cetera.
(3) Incidentally, General Mitchell had published a book in 1925 about his thoughts on the future of aerial warfare, which included a discussion of the possibility of an air attack on Pearl Harbor. This was promptly ignored by everyone, because once again, the Navy was still convinced that carriers didn’t matter that much.
(4) The British attacked an Italian naval base with only a bunch of old biplane torpedo bombers, sinking several ships. (The Japanese actually took note of this, unlike the Americans, and that’s why they decided to bring TB’s to Pearl.)

Hakkou Ichiu

We go forth in universal brotherhood
to guide the people of the four seas
and establish a righteous peace
so that the ideal may blossom like a fragrant flower.
Aikoku Koushinkyoku (“Patriotic March”), my translation

No, this isn’t a pro-Japanese Empire post. I just thought that this particular piece of imperialist propoganda made for a good window into the mindset of the times.

So, since tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day, this is the first post in a two-parter about Pearl Harbor, starting with a summary of how Japan got to the point of pillaging and burning their way through the Pacific in the first place.

In order to dissect the massive clusterfuck known as the early Shouwa period[1], we need to backtrack all the way to the beginning of the Meiji period. Now, the first thing you need to remember is that Japan was a highly insular country. This caused them to develop a certain sense of nationalism, especially after that sort of thing came into fashion in the 20th century. They valued their Japanese-ness intensely, to the point of feeling a degree of superiority to other peoples. In order to maintain their Japanese-ness, they figured out how to adopt foreign concepts and methods while still putting a distinctly Japanese spin on them. Their writing system is a good example. They didn’t just adopt kanji wholesale — they adapted it, adding a syllabary to make it fit their language better, then even added some new kanji to fill in the lexical gaps.

So, it stands to reason that when Perry busted down their door, they adapted to the “modern world” in their own way. There were still some identity crises involved, but in time they found ways to hang the trappings of a Western-style democracy on their stubbornly monarchist framework. Their constitution was built on a Prussian model; there were elections and parties, but in practice the only people getting elected just so happened to be the former noblemen. Meanwhile, the Emperor still ran everything.

Also meanwhile, the nation’s economy advanced at breakneck speed. The country was industrialized within a few short decades, and soon both Russia and China had been defeated by this tiny island nation’s growing military — turning over Taiwan and Korea in the process. The whole country collectively patted themselves on the back for their ingenuity. Who could come so far in such a short time but the magnificent Japanese? Clearly, this meant that they were the chosen people, destined to one day rule over all of Asia.

Then the First World War happened.

Come on, you knew I was going to reference that video at least once.

I think many people in the West don’t even know that Japan was involved there at all. My middle school history classes didn’t mention it except in passing, if they ever did. Well, that’s because we Westerners collectively forgot all about them. Their main role was way over in the Pacific, where they helped the Allies seize Axis colonies in Southeast Asia, cutting them off from their rubber plantations and copper mines and so on. They were also involved in the Siberian Intervention.[2] A vital contribution, but one well out of sight of the rest of the world, who had their eyes fixed on Europe. When the Japanese delegation arrived at Versailles, they were constantly overlooked. They got the invitation to the big Everybody Hates Germany Party, but no one remembered sending it. In the end, all they got out of the treaty were a few German ships and a big, ugly bruise on their collective ego.

Remember what I said about the Japanese feeling superior? Yeah, that was still very much a thing. On top of that, at the same time their industry started growing, so did Japan’s military. Their victories against China and Russia only served to swell their egos. Meanwhile, big things were happening in the government, starting with the death of the Meiji Emperor. His successor, the Taishou Emperor, was a rather frail man, so he delegated most of the governing to elected officials. This was generally a good thing, but it allowed the military to gradually take over his government from the inside, even influencing his son Hirohito. And while the government was being taken over by the military, the military was being taken over by imperialistic nationalists. By the time Hirohito ascended as the Shouwa emperor, the transformation was just about complete.

Back down in the civilian realm, things were getting rougher. As we all know, Japan is a small island nation. Militarism requires industry, and industry requires resources. But the islands could only produce so much metal, wood, and coal to feed this growing beast, and importation was painfully expensive. The economy began to suffer, and with it, so did the people. So, the Japanese reasoned, they would have to find a way to cut costs. And what’s the fastest way to make foreign resources cheaper? Why, just take them for yourself, of course! Never mind that League of Nations nonsense.

And so we have the circumstances that led to Japan’s 1937 invasion of China. At the time, China was in the thick of a civil war between the nationalist and communist factions, and even when they decided to call a temporary truce, Japan still steamrolled the hell out of them. Or so it looked for a while, but we all know that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia. The Imperial Army succeeded at invading Manchuria and establishing a puppet state there (on the pretense of forming a new, ethnically Manchu country[3]). The hard part was pushing into the mainland. After a few victories, the campaign stalled out by 1939, mainly because their lines of supply and communication were stretched hair-thin across literal thousands of miles.


Meanwhile, Germany and Russia invaded Eastern Europe together, until Germany turned around and stabbed Russia in the back. Japan, down to just a few months’ worth of fuel and supplies in China, decided to take advantage of the ensuing chaos in Europe to do the exact same thing they did in the last war: invade the East Indies. With all of the European powers busy wrestling each other, they could barely spare the manpower to defend their delicious, resource-rich Pacific colonies. So Japan sent their Navy along with what they could spare of their Army, and carried out a swift campaign to snap up these islands. They acquired the Dutch East Indies’ oil fields, the Malayan rubber plantations, and the tin and copper mines in both. In a matter of months, the only place left to conquer was the Philippines.

I think you can see where this is going. The Japanese generals weren’t fools; they knew the U.S. would try to defend their territory in the Philippines. So while the Army geared up for invasion, the Navy assembled a task force for the sole purpose of crippling the U.S. Navy’s ability to counterattack. They would launch coordinated air, naval, and submarine strikes on major naval bases such as Midway, Wake Island, and of course, the U.S. Navy’s main anchorage at Pearl Harbor, where they kept most of their battleships and carriers.

What they didn’t account for was the sheer force with which the United States would counterattack once they recovered. With several times more scientific advancement, industrial capacity, and manpower, the U.S. outclassed Japan thoroughly. If they hadn’t been so greedy, they might have succeeded in uniting “eight nations under one roof” (hakkou ichiu), but that just wasn’t happening with America in the picture. By bombing Pearl Harbor, invading the Philippines, and smashing up the United States’ Pacific bases, all the Japanese managed to do was shoot themselves in the foot.

And we all know how that turned out in the end.


Sources/Further Reading
*The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict – A detailed summary of wartime Japanese culture, written for the military by a cultural anthropologist.
*Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography by Stephen F. Large – Explains the Emperor’s role in all this.
*If you want another look at how the Emperor factored in, the movie Emperor is about a diplomat’s effort to determine whether he could be held responsible for his military’s war crimes, and if so, what to do about it.
*The film Tora! Tora! Tora! also does a good job of explaining how the Japanese military rationalized the Pearl Harbor raid.

[1] The reign of Emperor Shouwa (born Hirohito), which lasted from the death of his father Emperor Taishou (Yoshihito) in 1926 to his own death in 1989. I refer to them by their regnal names because that’s the custom.
[2] During the First World War, the Allies sent a small expeditionary force into Russia, in an attempt to assist the “White Russians” in the revolution and evacuate friendly units who had been caught in the crossfire. Japan’s forces were sent unilaterally, under their own command, rather than cooperating with the Allies; some elements in the military had planned to annex Siberia to create a buffer state between them and the new Soviet Union. I will probably write about this in the future.
[3] China is a lot more ethnically diverse than Western depictions would have you believe. The Han are the most common, with Manchu in fourth place; however, the Manchu actually ruled China for a few hundred years until they were overthrown by the 1912 revolution. Afterwards, the Republican regime painted the Manchu as outside colonizers, causing ethnic tensions between them and everyone else. The Japanese capitalized on this to get the Manchu on their side when they started invading the region.


Allow me to introduce myself and my humble corner of the internet. I’m Jess, history nerd and amateur writer. For the last five years I’ve been studying the early half of the 20th century, the Second World War in particular, and in doing so I learned that a lot of people want to know more than what their history class taught them.

It started about two years ago, when I was watching the documentary miniseries The World Wars with my parents. When we got to the episode about Pearl Harbor, my mom turned to me during the commercial break and asked me why, exactly, Japan attacked the US in the first place. I thought I could answer it, being the resident history nerd and japanophile, but I realized that my knowledge fell a bit short of satisfactory. So I set about researching the topic until I had basically written an essay about it. That was the first of several. I started picking topics, researching, and writing them out in an essay-like format to help solidify the knowledge in my mind. I was about three or four deep before I hit on the idea of starting a blog. But I’m a bit timid about putting my work out for the public to see, so it took me a very long time to get started.

So by now you’re probably wondering about the title. It’s a play on the phrase “close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades,” and an old poem about a horseshoe nail. The poem was about how small things can change history: a horse loses a shoe to a loose nail, throws its rider, who was carrying an important message, which causes a major battle to be lost, and the kingdom to fall. All because of a horseshoe nail. History is like that. It’s an endless chain of cause and effect, constantly twisting in unexpected directions for unexpected reasons. One little nail can change everything.

This blog won’t just be about the stuff you learned in history class, and it won’t be written in an “academic” tone. You can expect lots of weirdness, interesting people, occasional book and film reviews, and even a bit of music. (And some strong language. Fair warning.) History is so much bigger than a dusty textbook. I think it should be fun. The sheer size of it can be overwhelming, but that’s what makes it so great. You’ll never run out of things to learn. That’s what this blog is for: it’s a place to share my explorations. If I can teach someone else a thing or two, all the better!

Anyway, since my first essays were about Pearl Harbor, that’s where this blog will start off as well. I’ll post the first one, which is about the context and leadup to the attack, early next week; the second one, about the actual event and why we survived it, will be posted on December 7 (the 75th anniversary). After that, who knows? You’re welcome to leave suggestions, because I have so many possible topics that I don’t know where to start. Drop your ideas here in the comments, or visit me on my Tumblr. See y’all later.