by James Burbeck
In Oahu, Hawaii, early on the
morning of December 7, 1941, the War in the Pacific was already over an hour
old. Nobody in Hawaii knew it yet, just like nobody yet knew that several
flights of Japanese warplanes were already in the air and headed toward the
island. The approaching Japanese aircraft were launched from Japan's six
biggest and best aircraft carriers part of a small task force that had
brazenly steamed to within 200 miles of the American held Hawaiian Islands in
order to execute a key part of the Imperial Japanese government's war
The Pearl Harbor attack plan had two immediate goals; the
destruction of American aircraft carriers known to frequent the area, and the
sinking of as many other capital ships as possible, especially battleships.
With these two tasks complete, Japanese high command hoped to neutralize the
American fleet's ability to project air and sea power in the Pacific Basin for
at least six months. During that time they planned to occupy the East Asian and
West Pacific regions with such firmness that the Allies would be forced to
negotiate a settlement. In pursuit of these attack goals, Japanese naval
officers created a detailed plan which took advantage of known factors such as
the American Navy's habit of returning to its main anchorage at Pearl Harbor
every weekend. Equally detailed alternate plans included options for attacking
the American fleet's deep sea anchorage at Lahaina Roads, or hunting down U.S.
fleet units in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. This later plan was the
worst case scenario for them, because it would require their carrier fleet to
fight its way into the attack zone. They were however, prepared to do this if
necessary and only if discovered before "X-Day" did they have any intention of
withdrawing without a fight.
The core planning for the attack was
conducted by Commanders Mitsuo Fuchida and Minoru Genda, both of whom belonged
to Japan's elite of bright young naval aviators who were sure that the future
of naval warfare would be decided by aviation. As in other navies of the time,
these officers faced resistance by older leaders who disliked change, and who
thought that battleships still represented the pinnacle of naval power. This
was ultimately revealed in the final attack plans, which included both American
aircraft carriers and battleships as primary targets. The plan envisioned
passage of a six-carrier task force through the "vast empty sea" which lay
between Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands. Once north of Hawaii, a scouting
mission of two float planes was to be launched in order to ascertain the
presence of American fleet units at Pearl Harbor, Lahaina Roads and in the
waters immediately around Oahu. Their final reports were to be forwarded to the
Japanese air fleet which by then would be nearing its final deployment point.
Precise timing was required in order to guarantee that the attacking air fleet
would know what vessels to expect and where to expect them. Fuchida actually
hoped to be able to strike the US Fleet at the Lahaina anchorage, where deep
water would prevent salvage of sunken ships. He and Genda had formulated
detailed attack plans in case such an opportunity arose. However, because their
targets would most likely be in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, the
Japanese high level bombers were slated to carry specially converted 16-inch
naval shells capable of penetrating the armored deck of the heaviest American
battleships. It was hoped that these heavy shells would detonate the powder
magazines of their heavily armored targets, thereby causing such colossal
damage as to make salvage impossible. Modifications were also made to the
Japanese aerial torpedoes in order to allow their launching in very shallow
waters. Nothing they could consider was left to chance. They were prepared for
any eventuality. Such detailed preparations helped to counter the heavy weight
of uncertainty which hung over the entire operation. Every senior Japanese
officer knew that if the American Fleet were to avoid contact until they were
discovered, the tables could unpredictably turn against them.
As the days passed and war appeared inevitable
as indeed it was under the circumstances the American government
continued its preparations while struggling to avoid conflict. When political
negotiations broke down, war warnings were sent to all major American commands
in the Pacific, including both Navy and Army commands in Hawaii. From the
American perspective, the main military threat remained in the southwestern
Pacific where over 200 Japanese naval vessels were deploying in an ominous
pre-amble to war just the sort of distraction needed for Vice-Admiral
Chuichi Nagumo's strike fleet already headed for Hawaii. On board this fleet,
Fuchida and Genda constantly sought to raise Nagumo's morale by emphasizing the
need for multiple attacks against the American military bases. Nagumo, who
thought the "Hawaiian Operation" a dangerous gamble, insisted that he would
follow the letter of his orders. These orders required a single heavy attack in
two waves followed by an immediate withdrawal. His conviction that they would
probably be discovered ahead of time by the Americans was a notable contrast to
reality; the Americans were not only unaware of his approach, but barely
considered it a possibility.
|The War Warning
received at Pearl Harbor headquarters over a week before the attack.
Another more explicit warning from Washington DC arrived four days before the
"November 27, 1941 - This despatch is to be considered a war
warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in
the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the
next few days. The number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organization
of the naval task forces indicates an amphibious expedition against either the
Philippines Thai or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo. Execute an appropriate
defensive deployment preparatory to carrying out the tasks assigned in WPL 46.
Inform district and army authorities."
Probably the closest that anyone came to
considering an attack against Oahu was Admiral Husband Kimmel. On November 27,
a large meeting took place in which Kimmel and his staff met with Lt. General
Walter Short, the senior US Army commander in Hawaii. During the meeting, the
army's plan to assume command of the defense of Wake and Midway islands was
viewed with concern by Lt. Colonel James Mollison, primarily because such a
defense would drain valuable aircraft away from Oahu. To this Kimmel responded
"Why are you so worried about this? Do you think we are in danger of attack?"
To which Mollison replied "The Japanese have such a capability."
but possibility?" asked Kimmel.
Immediately he asked the fleet war plans officer, Captain Charles McMorris,
"What do you think about the prospects of a Japanese air attack?"
replied "None, absolutely none."
Still, Kimmel may not have been
completely convinced. He turned down the prospective move of half the island's
army aircraft, keeping them on Oahu just in case.
Very little action
was taken to further counter this tantalizing prospect, even several days later
when Japanese fleet carriers remained unaccounted for in Navy intelligence
reports. Unfortunately the Intelligence bureaus were struggling with a recently
changed set of Imperial Navy call signs while also trying to track the naval
buildup in the south and attempting to relocate Japan's two primary carrier
groups. Because those same carrier groups had been unaccounted for 12 times
since the middle of the year, the most recent blind period failed to cause
alarm. In any case, by November 25 everybody knew there was going to be war, it
was just a matter of where. And in the opinion of the American naval command in
Hawaii, the "where" was the Philippines, Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.
They considered Pearl Harbor's task being to train and prepare men for combat
in the western Pacific, not to spread alarm and bring the entire training and
ferry service to a halt (B-17 bombers being ferried to Philippine command
traveled through Hawaii). Whether this was truly justified in the world before
December 7 will probably never be known. For the reality was that by December
1, Nagumo and his six large fleet carriers were carrying the cream-of-the-crop
of Japanese naval aviation toward a launch point 200 miles north of Oahu,
Hawaii. And once launched, they would not turn back until they had struck the
heavy blow for which they had meticulously trained.