A Date That Will Live In World History

pearl-planesToday is the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I’m kind of a World War II history buff, and I always stop and reflect on this day and remember the 2,403 Americans who died in the attack, and the 1,178 that were wounded.  ( I know those numbers from memory.)  It was the largest number of non-combatants killed in an attack until the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Because we were not in a state of war at the time the Japanese raided Pearl Harbor, the dead are considered non-combatants, not military losses.  The military personnel had not even been issued dog tags yet, which made identifying many of them impossible.  There were  700 unidentified soldiers and sailors, and only one of those has been identified to this day.  Sixty-eight  of the 2,403 were civilians, and most of those casualties were the result of friendly fire. 

uss-arizona1,177 Sailors and Marines died on the USS Arizona alone.  It took four direct bomb hits, one which went through four decks and detonated in the powder magazine.  The ship sunk to the bottom in minutes.  The concussion from the blast threw men off the ship like match sticks, and some landed in the water where 4 inches of oil was burning.  Others were thrown clear from the ball of fire to adjacent ships. 

torpedoWhy did the US Navy think it was safe to dock all the battleships in a row off Ford Island?  It was because they felt they were impervious to torpedo attack since Pearl Harbor is only 30-35  feet deep, and they didn’t think the Japanese were capable of an attack from as far away as Hawaii.  The Japanese knew that attacking the fleet with torpedo planes would not work, and high level bombing was inaccurate.  They needed to figure out how to use torpedoes in shallow water.  Torpedoes dropped from low flying aircraft needed 60 feet or more of water to level out to the target.  What they came up with was a plywood fin that would break away upon impact with the water, and the torpedo would skip along just below the surface.   They had to dive bomb, release the torpedo, and then pull up quickly to avoid crashing into the conning tower on the ship.  They still only had limited success testing this modification so they were amazed by how effective it was.   The torpedoes in Pearl Harbor were described as dragon flies skimming on the surface of the water.

When Roosevelt heard of the attack, his first response was disbelief, and then it was full on anger.   He was fully convinced that Hitler was behind the attack, but there is sufficient historical evidence that Germany was just as surprised by the attack as our military in Pearl Harbor.  Not to say Hitler wasn’t pleased, but he had wanted Japan to attack Russia through China and redirect some of the Russian defense off the Eastern Front.  

 I was a full-on conspiracy theorist for a long time about the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I think Roosevelt was fairly certain that a direct attack on American interests in the Pacific would rally the isolationists to support the war, and he desperately wanted that to happen.  What better way to achieve that goal then by ignoring the Japanese threat to the Pacific Fleet?  It certainly had that effect, for only one member  of Congress, a female pacifist  from Montana, Jeanette Rankin, voted against the Declaration of War against Japan.   The vote in the House was 388-1, and the Senate unanimously approved the resolution 82-0.  In 1916, Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress.  She also voted “no” in 1917 to declare War on Germany in WW I.  In reality, it probably would have only taken one American casualty, anywhere in the world, by Japan or Germany, to elicit the same type of war fervor in this country at the time.  There is no historical evidence, however,  that Roosevelt had any prior knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he did know that something was going to come about.  

The United States had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code in 1940, and was intercepting their diplomatic messages, receiving information before their embassy did.   Known as MAGIC, it was set up to combine the government’s cryptographic organizations into one agency.  The Japanese Foreign Office used a cipher machine known as PURPLE which was a modified ENIGMA machine that was given to the Japanese after they signed the Tripartite Pact.  The United States knew months ahead of time that the Japanese were going to end negotiations and were going to attack, but they were only able to intercept and cipher diplomatic traffic and not with complete accuracy.  The Japanese military used a completely different code.  The Japanese Foreign Office was not even aware of the imminent attack on Hawaii.  The military kept it completely secret.  The details were only known by a very few high-level military leaders in Japan.  The pilots on the carriers were not told of their target until December 6th.

The deciphered diplomatic traffic never specified where, or when, and one only needs to look at a map of the Pacific to see what a guessing game that would have been.   Should they have been more prepared in Oahu in December of 1941?  Absolutely.  But only Admiral Kimmel and General Short were charged with Dereliction of Duty and removed from command.  They did not have MAGIC information unless Washington saw fit to supply it.  During one of the eight Congressional hearings on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel made it clear that if he had all of the information from the ciphers he would  have formed an entirely different opinion.

yamamoto Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, known as “Operation Z,” had only one purpose in mind:  To cripple the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl and buy time for their expansionist plans in the South Pacific.  They were hoping for six months.  They got less than two.  All six Japanese carriers used in the attack on Pearl Harbor were sunk by US Forces by the end of 1943.  Admiral Yamamoto’s plane was shot down over the island of Bougainville in 1943 by US P-38s in” Operation Vengeance,” and he was killed.

Although celebrated as a great victory by Japan at the time, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not truly a success for the Japanese.  The American carriers were not in Pearl Harbor on that Sunday morning.  They had miraculously been out delivering material to islands the US Government felt the Japanese were more likely to attack.  And the problem they had solved with the shallow-water torpedoes meant that the US ships were only sunk in about 30 feet of water, not to the bottom of the ocean which would have happened in the open sea.  In the final tally, eight battleships were damaged and four were sunk.  All but the USS Arizona were raised, and the USS Oklahoma was considered too old to repair.  The other six battleships were returned to service and went on to fight the war.  

fdrThe words “A date that will live in world history,” were the first dictation of the famous speech, to his secretary, Grace Tulley.  FDR delivered the speech to Congress on December 8th, 1941.  He changed the words “world history” to “infamy” in his final draft.   Two days after the attack, Japan allied with Germany and Italy, declaring war on the United States.  On December 11, 1941 we reciprocated and declared war on Germany and Italy.  The Senate voted 88-0 and the House voted 393-0 on the declaration of war on Germany, and 90-0 and 399-0 for war against Italy.  Jeannette Rankin chose to vote a non-committal “present” on both resolutions.  If you’re wondering about the difference in the vote tallies, it’s because some members reached the floor too late to vote on the declaration against Germany.

The entire attack lasted an hour and 15 minutes, but has truly been a date that continues to live in infamy.  Seventy-five years later, the world is a totally different place than it would have been had a diplomatic solution been reached at the final hour.  The Japanese had never planned for it to be a surprise attack.  The intention was for the Japanese ambassador to deliver the warning 30 minutes before the start of the attack, and it all came down to a bunch of two-finger typists trying to translate the diplomatic message in time.  Interestingly, many of the Japanese pilots felt dishonored by the surprise attack.  They considered themselves Samurai, and believed you did not attack a sleeping enemy, you woke them up and gave them a sword before you attacked.

“Japanese planes attacking all ships.  This is no shit.”  Shouted over the public address system on the battleship Oklahoma.  Minutes before, at 7:49 am, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, had issued the command “To, To, To,” (Attack).  He later transmitted “To Ra, To Ra, To Ra,” (Tiger), to confirm back to the carriers that they had obtained surprise. 


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2 responses to “A Date That Will Live In World History

  1. Hilary

    Well written. Thank you!

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