Defense Media Network

Pearl Harbor: The Attack

Target Array: The Americans on Hawaii

Despite popular notions, strategically the Japanese attack was a failure before it even began. The most precious and irreplaceable American targets, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers, were absent from Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. Saratoga (CV 3) was off San Diego after a refit, while Lexington (CV 2) was ferrying a reinforcement of Navy planes to the island base of Midway. Enterprise (CV 6), delayed by bad weather, was returning to Hawaii after delivering 12 Marine F4F-3 Wildcat fighters to the remote Wake Atoll. Nevertheless, the sprawling Pearl Harbor naval base and the entire island of Oahu was target-rich, vulnerable, and utterly unprepared.

The vulnerability was a product of divided command; the Army and Navy shared overlapping responsibilities for the defense of the islands. Unpreparedness stemmed from strategic failures of intelligence and communications, but above all failure of imagination. Few events in American history have been documented and studied in such exhaustive detail; the transcript of the wartime congressional investigation alone runs to 37 massive volumes. Conspiracy theories and dark hints of cover-ups have abounded, but ultimately the men in command simply lacked the imagination to anticipate the audacity and creativity of Yamamoto’s plan. This was despite a number of staff studies and so-called “fleet problems” that indicated that such an event was not only possible but probable.

Conspiracy theories and dark hints of cover-ups have abounded, but ultimately the men in command simply lacked the imagination to anticipate the audacity and creativity of Yamamoto’s plan.

The fleet commander was Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1904 and spent most of his career in battleships. In February 1941, he was promoted over 32 more senior officers to be Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), relieving Adm. James O. Richardson, who had vigorously opposed the fleet’s transfer from the West Coast to Hawaii.

CINCPAC had long been the Navy’s largest and most prestigious command, but already there was an expectation that the real action in the coming war would be fought in the Atlantic, against Germany. The newest ships and the first priority for scarce resources were earmarked for the undeclared war against Hitler’s U-boats.

Aichi D3A1 "Val"

An Aichi D3A1 “Val” pulls up at the bottom of its dive, its bomb gone and dive brakes still retracted. Japanese aircraft thoroughly worked over the airfields spotted around the island as well as the fleet in the harbor. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Despite this, Hawaii was a vital way station for expediting reinforcements to the Philippines and Far East, where any Japanese attack was expected to fall first. It was also an isolated, expensive tropical backwater initially lacking the infrastructure to sustain the entire fleet and its personnel. Nevertheless, there was an impressive array of naval facilities, including radio and cable stations. Pearl Harbor was a sheltered (though crowded) harbor, with dry docks big enough for the largest battleships and aircraft carriers, oil storage tank farms, several Navy and Marine air stations for land-based aircraft and seaplanes, a submarine base, hospitals, maintenance shops, and supply warehouses. Total Navy and Marine personnel on Oahu numbered about 50,000.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. Pacific Fleet had more than 150 warships assigned. Of these, about 100 lay at anchor, or in drydock, in Pearl Harbor. All told, eight battleships, six heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, 30 destroyers, four submarines, one gunboat, nine minelayers, 14 minesweepers, and 27 auxiliaries were in harbor. This included the old battleship Utah (AG 16), which had been disarmed and converted into a target ship under the terms of the 1930 London Naval Treaty. More than 200 “serviceable” naval aircraft were present on the island, though a high portion were trainers or observation planes of little or no combat value.

While the leaders on Oahu may have been lacking in imagination, they were not completely naive to the prospects for war in 1941.

While the leaders on Oahu may have been lacking in imagination, they were not completely naive to the prospects for war in 1941. Some weeks earlier, U.S. radio monitoring sites had lost track of the First Air Fleet and its carriers, making their location a priority.

At his morning briefing on Dec. 2, Kimmel pointedly asked where the missing Japanese carriers were. His intelligence officer, Cmdr. Edwin Layton, said, “I think they are in home waters, but I do not know for sure where they are.” The admiral replied by saying, “Do you mean to say they could be rounding Diamond Head and you wouldn’t know it?” Layton could only reply, “I hope they would have been spotted before now.” Prophetic words indeed.

USS Arizona

An armor-piercing bomb detonates the Arizona’s forward magazine. The ship suffered the greatest individual loss of life during the attack, and remains a war grave today, entombing more than 1,000 of its sailors. National Archives photo

The problem was that the Navy lacked enough long-range search planes to patrol in all directions, and aircraft were only scouting westward and southwesterly, toward the nearest Japanese base in the Marshall Islands, 2,000 miles distant. Moreover, there simply was no suspicion of a threat from due north, and technically, defense of the island and the fleet was the responsibility of the Hawaiian Department, which was an Army command.

Commanding the department was Lt. Gen. Walter Short, who was commissioned in 1901 after graduating from the University of Illinois. Short served in France as a training officer during World War I, and in effect was in charge of a corps headquarters on the islands. Total Army strength on Oahu was about 45,000, including the understrength 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions, a large Coast Artillery Command, and the Hawaii Army Air Force. Maj. Gen. Frederick Martin commanded the force, with the 18th Bombardment and 14th Pursuit Wings split among four main bases: Hickam, Wheeler, Haleiwa, and Bellows Fields. Serviceable Army aircraft totaled 51 bombers and 147 fighters, though at Hickam and Wheeler the planes were parked wingtip to wingtip, sitting in the center of the fields, unarmed and unfueled, to protect them from the imagined threat of Japanese saboteurs.

The Japanese submarine I-72, scouting near Maui, reported that the American deepwater anchorage off Lahaina was empty, making Pearl Harbor the target for the coming strike.

Local anti-aircraft defenses included 26 fixed four-gun batteries of 3-inch guns and 15 mobile batteries, all with their ammunition locked safely away in central armories. On weekends, the guns were unmanned. To provide early warning against air attack, six mobile SCR-270 radars ringed the island. Badly sited, with inadequately trained crews and unreliable generators, the radar crews relied on commercial telephone lines to report tracking data to a central plotting station. Three more powerful fixed SCR-271 radar sets had been received in July 1941, but Army engineers had been too busy with other tasks to install them by Dec. 7.


The Night Before: Dec. 6, 1941

Early on Dec. 6, Kido Butai crossed the “last hurdle” of its journey: the 700-mile range limit of Navy PBY Catalina seaplane patrols from Oahu. Luckily for the Japanese, no patrols were scheduled that weekend, and the seas north of Hawaii were calm enough for a final underway refueling. The Japanese submarine I-72, scouting near Maui, reported that the American deep-water anchorage off Lahaina was empty, making Pearl Harbor the target for the coming strike.

USS Arizona

Arizona burns, her forward superstructure fallen over the gaping hole torn out of her by the magazine explosion. National Archives photo

That afternoon, the force turned due south, making an economical 12 knots toward the dawn launching point about 230 nautical miles north of Pearl Harbor. From the halyards of flagship Akagi, Nagumo broke out the famous flag signal that Togo had flown before the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. It read, “The Fate Of The Empire Rests Upon This One Battle; Let Every Man Do His Utmost.” Kido Butai was now ready for battle.

That evening, Martin had arranged to pay the Honolulu commercial radio station, KGMB, to remain on the air all night so that a squadron of unarmed B-17 bombers flying in from the West Coast could use the soft music being broadcast as a navigational beacon. The bombers were on their way to reinforce the defenses of the Philippines, and were stopping on Oahu to refuel and rest their crews. Unfortunately, the Japanese were also homing in on the signal, amazed and delighted by this stroke of luck, which indicated that the enemy suspected nothing. The Japanese were entirely correct in their assessment.

All over Oahu that night, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were enjoying themselves, taking advantage of the storied pleasures of the island. For many ship commanders and their senior officers, this meant a night ashore and home with wives and loved ones. This left many vessels and installations in the hands of junior officers, many just a few years out of West Point, Annapolis, or college. Enlisted personnel were also out that night, enjoying pleasures ranging from the fleshpots and bars of Honolulu to a final “battle of the bands” competition among ships in port. Nobody doubted that war was coming, for there had been many alerts and warnings over the past weeks. On Dec. 6, though, war was the furthest thing from the minds of Americans on Oahu.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

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