December 7. 1941 with a force of more than 350 carrier launched high-level bombers, torpedo planes, and Japanese Zero Fighters, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an early morning surprise attack that caught the US Navy and Army Air Corps completely off guard. A planned 3 stage attack only needed two waves to achieve one of the most astonishing military operations in the history of war. How could such a staggering defeat have been allowed by US Naval command? Amazingly there were serious warnings from leading military authorities that were disregarded many years before World War II fell upon Pearl Harbor on a clear morning and a seemingly uneventful Sunday.
Future of things to come
The year is 1926. Major General, Billy Mitchell, has been court-martialed for advocating aerial attack as the ultimate warfare to conduct against surface warships. Allowed to test his results against mothballed heavy tonnage old battleships he proves decisively that airpower will win the day at sea. This will also lead to the obsolescence of the mighty battleship, a message that the old guard of aging admirals will not accept. However, the message is clear, huge surface warships days are numbered. Mitchell admits to people around him that he often has nightmares of Pearl Harbor being successfully attacked by forces of Japan, but no one takes his intuition seriously. Like most visionaries, Billy Mitchell will suffer the consequences of a backlash from those who are unconcerned with the truth!
The date is February 7, 1932. American military leadership is aware that tensions between Japan and the US are building and soon theoretical plans for war are being drawn up though no one thinks the Japanese would have the audacity to hit Pearl. A mock-up attack is orchestrated by the Navy to study the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor. Launching just 150 aircraft from 2 different carriers, Rear Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, utilizes some startling similarities that emerge over the tactics deployed between the US Navy and the exact Japanese attack plan prescribed by Admiral Yamamoto 9 years later.
Rear Admiral Yarnell chooses early Sunday morning just as the Japanese did in 1941. Yarnell directs his command to attack all airfields on Oahu first to interdict any reprisals from fighter aircraft parked on the tarmac as several fields used by the US Army Air Corps and US Marines. Not only is the surprise attack effective but this is the same strategy used by the Japanese carrier-launched planes in 1941. The admiralty stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the success of Rear Admiral Yarnell’s aerial success despite the effectiveness of his tactics. For years the US Navy thinks that the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor would hinder the airborne launch of torpedoes that could hit below the iron reinforced belt just below the surface of the water that protects the big battleships from shallow torpedo strikes.
Harbinger of coming disaster
The date is November 11, 1940. The Italian fleet will be the unwitting victim of a surprise attack by the British. The Italian Navy possesses only 6 battleships, and a number of cruisers with accompanying destroyers. Taranto Harbor is protected by hundreds of machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery so a head on daytime attack is not an acceptable risk, but there is another approach. With aerial barrage balloons and torpedo nets alongside the Italian capital ships it appears they are well protected. The shallow waters of Taranto Harbor present a logistical problem for conventional torpedo tactics. The British have only an obsolete carried launched bomber to carry out a surprise attack. The Fairey Swordfish bi-plane will be the aircraft of choice but even though it can carry torpedoes, flares, and aerial bombs attacking a well defended harbor at 150-foot height and operating at low speeds could be a disastrous strategy so a night operation is planned.
The Italians pose a threat to Mediterranean and North Africa supply routes to the much larger British fleet so knocking out the Italian Navy at Taranto is a necessity. The original plan is for 36 aircraft launched from 2 carriers in a first and second wave is proposed, but one of the carriers suffers damage and the British are forced to go ahead with one ship and just 21 planes. That night the Fairey Swordfish bombers launch from the decks in 2 waves. The first with only 12 aircraft carrying bombs and flares and the second wave ready to launch their torpedoes since the flares will guide them. The British do have a trick up their sleeve. A duplex pistol trigger that allowed torpedoes to detonate simply from the magnetic location of the ship’s hull without striking it. The British torpedoes were able to cruise underneath the torpedo nets and explode from underneath the Italian warships. Three battleships were sunk along with several cruisers and destroyers with the loss of only 2 Swordfish planes! Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire the British achieved excellent results with obsolete planes.
The Japanese military intelligence in Berlin ordered an officer to inspect the damage at Taranto from the raid. He was later questioned by Mitsuo Fuchida, who would command the first wave of carrier planes that would later devastate Pearl Harbor a year later. Were the Japanese impressed by the possibility of such carrier attacks deployed by modern attack aircraft and more advanced carriers? It seems to be a given since this was valuable information. A report from the British on the success of the attack eventually found its way to the desk of Admiral Stark in Washington DC. There was the proof that an air raid on Pearl Harbor could succeed even though it was a shallow port. Were Admiral Kimmel or Major Short notified of these developments? No. Why, we can only speculate.
What did the US Navy do in preparation for potential war with Japan? Apparently nothing that was effective. They did find out that a major task force had left Japanese waters but were unable to find it due to the irregular course that was chosen as the fleet neared the Aleutians near Alaska before heading south toward Oahu days later. Sea planes were launched during the day patrolling all around Hawaiian waters but never located the oncoming Japanese carrier force. What did the airfields adopt as a defensive procedure? Thinking that sabotage was the main threat the P-40’s, p-36’s, and B-17’s were clustered together which only made strafing and bombing that much easier for the Japanese Zeroes as they came in at tree top level with their machine guns and cannons blazing. Almost all military airfields on Oahu were rendered into burning metal funeral pyres of men and material.
There were 9 official investigations as to who was responsible for Pearl Harbor tragedy. Who had let their guard down and failed to have anticipated? Major Short, responsible for guarding the airfields, and Admiral Kimmel endured endless interrogations, took the brunt of the blame, and were both demoted as a result. Both were never made fully aware of the situation and had no knowledge of the successful raid by the British at Taranto. Apparently, Admiral Stark was never questioned.
Years later in 1995 a new commission to study the events at Pearl Harbor found the two high ranking officers were neither negligent of their duty or responsible for the success of the sneak attack that claimed more than 2400 lives, 328 Navy and Army Air Corps war planes damaged or destroyed, 6 battleships damaged, 2 of which destroyed, and 4 auxiliary ships destroyed. Admiral Kimmel and Major Short had their ranks restored posthumously and were exonerated.
What could have been
The irony was that before the Japanese attack even started US Naval radar had spotted the first wave of aircraft bearing down on Pearl but mistook them for a flight of B-17’s scheduled to land for servicing. The first attack actually came from the USS Ward, a destroyer, who detected a midget sub and opened fire with a 5-inch gun that knocked out the Japanese vessel. This happened an hour before the main body of attacking aircraft arrived. Why Admiral Kimmel did not receive this report until the main attack was well underway is an example of communication channels that were extremely inefficient. It is said that Admiral Kimmel came out of his headquarter offices, saw the smoke and devastation, and immediately reached up and ripped his chevrons from the shoulders of his uniform in humiliation! For all the devastation on Pearl, the Japanese lost only 29 aircraft, five mini subs, and 129 troops.
Failure to locate the three major US aircraft carriers who were out in the Pacific and unreachable would come to haunt the Japanese at the battle of the Coral Sea and Midway just months after that fateful day of December 7, 1941, when Japan caught the US Navy off guard and unprepared for the consequences of their complacency. Pearl Harbor will forever remain a regrettable page in US history that cost the lives of men who had no idea that on a calm Sunday morning war had come looming down upon them! Vengeance would soon rain down mercilessly upon the Japanese.