Pearl Harbor was attacked by the United States Armed Forces in 1928, 1932, 1933, and 1937. Of course, these were only training exercises, but just the same, the Navy’s assaults on Pearl had caught the defending forces with their pants down each and every time. The 1932 attack even saw the ‘enemy’ planes swoop in at daybreak on a Sunday morning in an eerie premonition of the Japanese raid of December 7, 1941. An officer from the faux ‘attack force’ commented, “We caught them completely off-guard . . . they were supposed to be ready for anything.” In the decades since the ‘real’ Pearl Harbor attack, fingers have been pointed in many directions in search of someone to blame for not foreseeing this devastating event in advance. The truth is, there were so many mistakes and miscommunications found leading up to this day of infamy, the scapegoats were eventually whittled down to Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short. In their well researched book (A Matter of Honor – Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice – 2016 – Harper Books), Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan leave no stone unturned searching for the truth about the real sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
U.S. Army officer William Mitchell had taken a covert trip to Japan thirty years before the Pearl Harbor attack to assess what the Japanese military was up to. His 1911 report to the War College pointedly said that the Japanese expansionism in the Pacific would eventually evolve into a war with the United States. The report was set aside with no action because “Congress lacked the will to spend the necessary money.” When he used his 1923 honeymoon as a smoke screen for a return visit to Japan, Mitchell wrote, “Japan knows war with the United States is coming someday.” He further predicted that that war, “…would start with a surprise attack, first on Pearl Harbor, then the Philippines.” Even described how the attack would start: “Bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island [where the Naval Air Station would be in 1941] at 7:30 a.m. . . . Attack to be made on Clark Field [in the Philippines] at 10:40 a.m.”
Mitchell eventually resigned from the service after being court martialed and demoted for insubordination for publicly accusing military officials with “criminal negligence’ regarding aviation safety. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt dismissed Mitchell’s charges on aviation safety as ‘pernicious.” After Pearl Harbor, then President Roosevelt called for Mitchell’s posthumous promotion to two-star general.” Many now regard Mitchell as the “father of the U.S. Air Force” and the first to sound the alarm about possible Japanese aggression toward the United States forces in the Pacific Theater.
After publicly arguing his point (which echoed Mitchell’s views) with Assistant Naval Secretary Roosevelt (who felt a war with Japan to be ‘unlikely’), British naval spy Hector Bywater did one better than Mitchell. While Mitchell’s report was not for public consumption, Bywater poked back at Roosevelt by publishing a novel about a Japanese – U.S. war titled The Great Pacific War. The novel was published after Bywater’s earlier non-fiction book that had made the same conclusions about a war with the Japanese as Mitchell’s report had. Bywater’s first book was translated by the Japanese General Staff and distributed to senior officers. Later, Isoroku Yamamoto (then an ambitious Japanese naval attache serving in Washington, D.C.) cited Bywater’s ideas in a lecture in Japan. In all of the cases cited above, Hawaii was the focal point of a Japanese – U.S. conflict in the Pacific.
Admiral Kimmel took command of the U.S. Naval forces from Admiral James ‘Joe’ Richardson in February of 1941. The Presidential Proclamation made Kimmel just the fifty-fourth officer to wear the four stars of a full admiral. Hopes were high that the new Commander of Naval Operations in the Pacific would bring the fleet up to the specifications it would need to meet should war commence there. At the time Richardson had taken over as commander in chief, the fleet was dispatched from their home ports in California to conduct ‘training’ in Hawaii. He repeatedly asked when the fleet would be scheduled to return to their support resources located 2000 miles from Hawaii. The administration, however, wanted to keep the large naval presence in Hawaii to act as a deterrent to Japanese expansion in the Pacific region. Richardson reportedly told Roosevelt, “Mr. President, I feel that I must tell you that the senior officers of the Navy do not have the trust and confidence in the civilian leadership of this country that is essential for the successful prosecution of a war in the Pacific.” Roosevelt called then CNO Stark soon after and told him: “Get rid of Richardson.” Kimmel not only inherited the prestigious post but also the same problems that had hastened Richardson’s departure when he had complained about them directly to the President.
As Richardson had pointed out, Hawaii was a long way from the fleet’s homeports and was not a great place for a major naval base. The shape of the narrow harbor entrance at the Naval Station in Hawaii meant ships could only depart like so many sitting ducks: single file. The Army was charged with defense of the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, but General Walter Short was in a similar position in regard to the resources at his disposal. Some analysts tried to paint the Kimmel – Short pairing as a dysfunctional – that they didn’t work together being the major failure of duty that lead to the surprise attack. In truth, Kimmel and Short worked well together and both pleaded with Washington for the resources they would need to protect the bases in Hawaii but these requests were largely ignored. Kimmel had devised a Defense Plan for Hawaii that included 81 measures. With Short and CNO Stark on board, they approved the plan that was so detailed, it was circulated to other commands as a model for defense planning. The only flaw in the plan was the trigger point: the Defense Plan would not kick into gear until there was a mobilization for war, war had actually broken out, or until General Short or Admiral Bloch deemed it necessary. None of these trigger points occurred, so the plan was never put into action.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan sent the following telegram to Washington on January 27, 1941:
My Peruvian Colleague told a member of my Staff that he had heard from many sources including a Japanese source that the Japanese military forces planned, in the event of trouble with the United States, to attempt a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor using all of their military facilities. He added that although the project seemed fantastic the fact that he had heard it from many sources prompted him to pass on the information. Though Ambassador Joseph Grew’s memo was seen by many in Washington, it was largely dismissed for a variety of reasons. The Office of Naval Intelligence concluded, “The Division of Naval Intelligence places no credence on these rumors. Furthermore, based on known data regarding the present disposition and employment of Japanese naval and army forces, no move against Pearl Harbor appears imminent or planned for the foreseeable future.” One of the reasons stated for this assessment by ONI was that it was ‘second hand hearsay from an embassy cook who had been into his cups’. Embassy employees and others with tongues loosened by drink have proven to be useful sources for intelligence agencies since the art of spying was invented so it is unfortunate that in this case, the information was dismissed. The cook in question turned out to be connected with other covert operatives and not just a drunk with loose lips, but the source was still considered ‘unreliable’.
A proper defense of the Hawaiian Islands had to be predicated on air patrols covering a 360 degree arc around the islands out to a distance of at least 300 miles. Admiral Richardson did not have the pilots nor planes to accomplish this and continually begged for the eighty planes and flight crews that would be necessary to do the reconnaissance flights. The need for constant observation flights were hampering pilot training so in the end, only six flights per day were being sent out to cover the 180 degree arc to the west of the islands. Each plane flew a pie wedge slice of ocean approximately 10 degrees in width meaning only 60 degrees (of the 180 degree western perimeter) were randomly covered each day. At the time Richardson was relieved, the daily reconnaissance flights were written out of his duty orders and they were never resumed under Admiral Kimmel’s command. In terms of military preparedness, Pearl Harbor was left woefully under protected by the higher ups in Washington long before Admiral Kimmel was put in charge of the Pacific fleet.
The British were ahead of the U.S. in terms of developing RADAR technology and offered to quietly share their battle tested systems in 1940. In May of 1940, Navy Lieutenant John ‘Jack’ Opie was assigned to the project and arrived in England in civilian attire (in light of the Neutrality Act that banned American citizens from travel within combat zones which of course, he ignored). He reported that the British RADAR systems were indeed superior to the U.S. equivalents and strongly urged that U.S. should get it into service. Five mobile and three permanent units were in the process of being installed in Hawaii prior to the Japanese attack but they were nowhere near operational. Two trainees noticed the Japanese planes on their RADAR scope and reported the information to a young lieutenant who was pulling only his second shift at the information control center that was not yet fully operational. He wrongly assumed they were seeing the blips from returning American patrol aircraft and told them not to worry about.
When questioned about the failure of the RADAR systems prior to the attack, Admiral Kimmel simply noted that General Short and the Army were in charge of the RADAR systems and he had not been informed that they were not fully functional yet. Kimmel had asked for the installation of the RADAR units to be accelerated, but like his other requests for support from Washington, this one was also largely ignored. When the investigation into the Pearl Harbor attack was concluded, both Kimmel and Short would be the two who shouldered the blame. Even though the RADAR at Clark Field in the Philippines detected the advancing wave that was to decimate the main airbase on that side of the Pacific (they also were informed of the Pearl Harbor attack thirty minutes after it started), no one was court martialed or disgraced there as Kimmel and Short would be. Through many administrations up through 2016, Kimmel’s comrades, brothers, grandchildren and other interested parties have tried (and failed) to have his (and Short’s) record cleared posthumously.
Kimmel, for his part, looked on his place in history in 1946: “History, with the perspective of the long tomorrow, will enter the final directive in my case. I am confident of that verdict.” He wrote himself another note a decade later: “The officers and men stationed in Hawaii in 1941 were fine upstanding young Americans who the American people should ever remember with gratitude and honor. In the Japanese attack, they showed themselves to be fearless and self-sacrificing. I shall be proud always of having commanded such men.” I would add Admiral Kimmel and General Short to the list to those who served honorably in Pearl Harbor. One must wonder what the history books would report today if even a few of the warning signs of an impending conflict in the Pacific had been heeded.
Top Piece Video – OKay, not WW II – I am not sure I know many WW II songs about Pearl Harbor, but it is a good cover of Edwin Starr’s iconic song about war