On December 7th 1941 a miracle saved the US Navy. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
No, seriously, the attack on Pearl saved the US Navy.
It was in retrospect a nearly best case scenario, the casualties were 2,403 dead. If the Arizona hadn’t taken a lucky shot, the figures would be closer to 1200 dead.
All those ships sunk and all those men dead, don’t sound like a miracle to me. DH! I heard someone say indignantly.
True, but here’s the thing. Had the frantic reports of the radar station not been misidentified as a squadron of B-17s that were scheduled to arrive that morning AND blown off by the Watch Officer. Had he raised the alarm put the fleet to sea, the casualties would have somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000. This is guess work based on known battleplans played out on computer models but those are likely, reasonably accurate projections.
At Pearl Harbor, when the ships sank, the sailors just jumped overboard when they went down and swam forty feet to shore. Every ship sunk at Pearl was raised and back at sea within eighteen months.*
If those ships had been caught at sea with no air cover the losses would have been a true catastrophe. Those ships and men would have been completely unrecoverable. The war would have gone on in the Pacific for at least two to four years more.**
An even worse scenario would have likely played out if the American Navy had been able to pursue it’s battle plans.
The Pearl Harbor operation wasn’t years in the making, in fact it was nearly a hipshoot mission. Really, it was just supposed to soften us up for the real battle. For a long time the Japanese had planned to fight the US Fleet exactly where we were planning to fight them at the time of Pearl Harbor. Namely, the Philippines.
The US Navy had drastically underestimated the Kaigun at every level. From torpedo ranges to dive bomber accuracy to the fire power of the Yamato and Musashi. The US had it all wrong. Our torpedoes didn’t work and their’s damn well did. Worse still, the US Navy’s “Gun Club” favored as aggressive an attack as possible. The view was that the coming battle would be no Jutland, it would as decisive as possible.
Likely it would have been. The South Dakota class probably had a decent chance against the Yamatos, if they stayed at their maximum range but the toe-to-toe slugging match the US Navy wanted so badly would have looked like a fight between Rhonda Rousey and Brock Lesner. Admittedly this a smoke and mirrors projection but I think the odds heavily favored Japan in this scenario. If we had lost a gun battle at the Philippines it would have been even worse than the previous scenario just outside of Pearl. Possibly taking the US carrier fleet to the bottom along with the battleships.
We could have come back from that but would we have wanted to? A disastrous defeat to hold on to a colonial possession we had decided to give up anyway would have had a much different emotional resonance than the stab in the back at Pearl Harbor.
Regardless this is all speculative. What happened, happened.
And now there is going to be another movie about it.
Roland Emmerich of Stargate and Independence Day fame decided it was time to go mainstream in 2001. He rounded up a bunch of A-listers and put them in a surprisingly boring action movie called Pearl Harbor. It flopped and apparently he hasn’t learned his lesson because…
Possibly he decided that a film that focused on an American defeat was a bad idea and that he would have been better off making one about our most dramatic naval victory. Then again he may have wanted to make it all along but Pearl Harbor was such a bomb (sorry) that he had to wave off for twenty years.
It doesn’t look too terrible and I’ll probably get around to seeing it eventually. In the meantime here is a repost of an old review of mine.
You may feel that Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of Battle of Midway by Jon Parshall and Anthony Tully, has an inaccurate title since few naval battles in history have had more stories written about them than Midway.
After having run the table for six months in 1942. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, draws up plans to capture the island of Midway as a stepping stone for the conquest of Hawaii and then on to the West Coast of the US itself. The Japanese empire is an unstoppable juggernaut at this point in time.
Then Commander Joe Rochefort, breaks enough of the JN-25 code to decipher that Objective AF is in fact, Midway.
Using that intelligence, Admiral Nimitz sends out a task force of three carriers to Yamamoto’s four and in a titanic air/sea battle. By daring and luck, the doomed island of Midway is saved. The Nihon Kaigun loses the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, at the cost of one US carrier, Yorktown. Ending any further hope of Japanese expansion in the Pacific and finally putting America on the offensive.
Funny thing about history, it can not help but tell you lies.
It’s a matter of perception. Thing One leads to Thing Two, which leads to Thing Three and on down the road to the Thing Ten which is the end of that chapter of the history book.
It tends to give you a sense of predestination that was usually never really there at all.
Thing Two might have happened for completely different reasons than Thing One.
Thing Two might have happened independently on it’s own, regardless of what Thing One did or did not accomplish.
For starters, Japan was not really all that unstoppable. Every single one of Hitler’s early victories acted as a force multiplier. Czechoslovakia got him the Skoda works. Poland got him the Polish national treasury. Belgium got him Fabrique Nationale and France more than doubled his production capacity. But the only thing Japan’s early conquests got them was more peasants and rice paddies The Pacific Rim was basically un-industrialized at that time.
Every territorial expansion was an added drain on Japan’s economy. Every freighter that took supplies out to the troops came back with empty holds.
The USA’s sanctions imposed after the Rape of Nanking tend to be underappreciated. They were so backbreaking the Japanese honestly felt they had no alternative. It’s hard for a Westerner to appreciate the thought process that went on behind the decision to attack an enemy that could utterly demolish them. The short story is that Japan was in Walter White’s situation, past a certain point there was no going back.
Their culture of Face forced them into a failure loop. Once a policy had been decided by everyone it couldn’t be changed. No matter how bad it was. The Japanese East Asia Coprosperity Sphere. Poured wealth out of Japan like piss out of a horse. This early experiment in the forced elimination borders was already bleeding Japan white in December 1941. Their rapid conquests after December 7, only made Japan’s overall strategic situation worse.
Assuming they could take Midway at all that was as far as Japan could reach. The plan was to threaten Hawaii and hope we’d cry, Uncle! Taking the Hawaiian Islands was pretty much out of the question.
Also Midway was hardly doomed.
There was no Japanese Marine Corps (not in any serious way). All landings were conducted by the Japanese Army. What successes they had at amphibious operations were due to a complete lack of opposing forces. Interoperability between the Japanese Army and the Navy was kept to an absolute minimum due to their mutual hatred of each other.
There is always a degree of rivalry between a country’s army and navy, it can in fact be healthy. In Japan’s case however the relationship had turned utterly toxic. They actively and openly loathed each other to the point of actively sabotaging each others ongoing operations.
The invasion troops would have “landed,” (if that is even the word for it,) on a coral reef that was two hundred meters from the beach. They would have been wading in chest deep water for six hundred feet at a speed that was absolutely perfect for target practice. No specialized equipment, no amphibious doctrine and no real training for this kind of frontal assault. Waters around Midway would have been blood red as the Japanese soldiers climbed over the floating mass of their comrades trying to make their way to the beach.
Now it would have still been possible to take the island if operational surprise had been absolute. But it wasn’t
And the real tell here is that the Japanese knew that surprise wasn’t in play.
There was a Japanese reconnaissance submarine parked just outside of Midway. Her captain’s reports should have wholly altered the operational plan or canceled it entirely. Yamamoto’s Operation MI was heavily dependent on catching his OPFOR completely off guard.
The American PBYs at Midway were all gone from dawn to dusk. Which meant the Americans were patrolling heavily and at great range. There were construction lights and heavy equipment activity running through out the entire night, every night. Which meant the Marines were digging in and digging in deep. Beaches were being mined and barricaded. The surf was also being mined and barricaded. The Marines were entrenching their lines of communication, as well as entrenching themselves. This was not the pointless activity of an ambitious base commander, hoping to be noticed. The Marines were clearly and obviously expecting a hell of a fight.
There would be no operational surprise. The Japanese amphibious troops were doomed. The initial, prolonged and thunderous barrage only resulted in six American casualties. . Even if the Japanese fleet had won. They wouldn’t have been able to take the island.
And yet Operation MI proceeded as if surprise was still in play, even though it was obvious that it wasn’t.
The plan depended on overwhelming fire power and yet Yamamoto went into battle with the minimum force necessary because of frivolous operations around the Pacific rim.
Coral Sea should have been an overwhelming victory but the air arm had been so unsupported that two fleet carriers were put out action for months. Those two carriers could have made all the difference at Midway.
The Aleutians, often believed in the West to have been an integral part of Operation MI, was no such thing at all. It was simply a defensive perimeter expansion that was conducted concurrently. And one that sucked up resources that should have been used at Midway.
Lastly there was the operation itself. Genda’s plan featured an overly complicated deployment that had three task forces. An amphibious task force. The carrier task force. And finally the main body battleship task force. The desire to give dreadnoughts a role to play when they no longer had one is indicative of the penultimate problem the Japanese Navy had prior to engagement at Midway.
The Victory Disease.
Shattered Sword is a compelling, well constructed and very engaging read, that tells a well known story in a very new way. And shines a light at a new angle on the most important naval battle in the Pacific. I highly recommend this book.
USS Oklahoma, built before WWI was raised, righted and written off. She was stripped and sold for scrap. She foundered and sank enroute to a California wrecking yard.
USS Utah, built before WWI. hopelessly obsolete and being used as a trainer before the war. An attempt was made to raise her if only to get her out of the way. She started to slide towards Ford Island and the Navy gave up on her there and then. She has stayed in that spot ever since.
USS Arizona, built during WWI. Worst damaged of all ships at Pearl due to her magazine exploding. Too obviously damaged to attempt to raise. And since she still had (and has) live ordnance aboard, too dangerous to dismantle.
** Since someone is going to bring it up, no, I don’t buy into the Roosevelt planned the whole thing conspiracy theory. It fails for one big reason, FDR wanted into the war in Europe.
Japan is not in Europe.
When all is said and done, this theory rests on Roosevelt successfully reading Adolph Hitler’s mind.
The Tripartite Pact was defensive in nature. The signatories were obliged to go to war if the US declared war on any of them FIRST. This is known to have been quite a worry for the Japanese prior to the attack. Hitler could have easily said, “Sorry, you voided the treaty when you declared war on America, first but thanks for getting my biggest strategic problem off my mind. Good luck, you’re gonna need it!”
If Pearl had taken place on January 7th 1942, Hitler might well have done just that. After all maneuvering the United States into a war with Japan at a time and place of Germany’s choosing had been a foreign policy goal since the Russian Fleet was destroyed at Port Arthur.
But Hitler was so victory drunk with his successes in Russia. He ignored every common sense argument about going to war with America. Namely that there was no possible way to invade and conquer the United States. He couldn’t bomb our factories or invade our shores. Declaring war on a country you can’t harm is nothing short of insane.
When all is said and done there was no way in hell Roosevelt could know if Hitler was really that crazy.