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.)


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