How Japan Pulled Off One Of The Greatest Surprises Of Military History At Pearl Harbor

How Japan Pulled Off One Of The Greatest Surprises Of Military History At Pearl Harbor
From the beginning of time, every military commander has wanted to pull off a surprise attack. A few have succeeded. Most have failed.

Surprise attacks have become less and less successful with time. Yet Japan pulled off a successful surprise attack on December 7, 1941 against the much bigger and much more advanced United States.

How did that happen? Gordon W. Prange took 37 years to answer that question, reading through the voluminous literature on the topic and interviewing scores of people on both sides of the war. His definitive account, At Dawn we Slept, shows that the attack required brilliant planning and execution on the part of Japan.

Early on, the higher-ups in Japan thought the attack would be impossible to pull off. Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack, knew the US well. Not only had he studied at Harvard, he had also hitchhiked his way across the US.

He said that even if the attack is successful, it would only buy a year’s worth of time before the US would counteract and ultimately prevail over Japan. Sadly, he was a voice in the wilderness. The higher ups in the military command, especially those in the army led by General Tojo, wanted to hit the US hard where it hurt the most.
Of the eight US battleships in the harbor, three were sunk, another capsized and the other four were seriously damaged. Additionally, three light cruisers, three destroyers and other vessels were either sunk or seriously damaged. Luckily for the US, none of its aircraft carriers were in the harbor.

Why did Japan carry out the attack? Historians tell us that Japan wanted to move into the Dutch East Indies and Malaya to get access to their oil and rubber resources. Once America’s Pacific Fleet was destroyed, Japan hoped to also conquer the Philippines.

The attack in the early morning hours of December 7, 1941 caught America totally by surprise. No anti-aircraft guns were fired at the 360 Japanese fighters and bombers that had been launched from six aircraft carriers, nor were any interceptors sent up to shoot down the attacking planes.

Of the eight US battleships in the harbor, three were sunk, another capsized and the other four were seriously damaged. Additionally, three light cruisers, three destroyers and other vessels were either sunk or seriously damaged. Luckily for the US, none of its aircraft carriers were in the harbor.

The US army, which also included the air force at the time, lost 65 of its 231 planes that were parked at its military air bases.

The scale of the devastation suffered by the military in just a matter of hours was unprecedented in scale. Eight major reasons standout as to why the US was caught unawares.

First, even before the Japanese aircraft took off from their carriers, the US had received a coded message in Washington indicating that an attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent. But a communications delay prevented the warning from being received at the US command in Hawaii.

Second, the island of Oahu, where Pearl Harbor is located, had a primitive radar, manned by junior officers. It could not differentiate friend from foe. When the Japanese aircraft were still 150 miles from Pearl Harbor, the radar picked up a large number of incoming aircraft. However, they were mistaken for B-17 bombers that were expected to be reaching Honolulu at the same time.

Third, the attack began just a couple of minutes before 8am on a Sunday. Given Hawaii’s tropical lifestyle, people lived a relaxing life there. Late night parties on Saturdays were common.

Fourth, the anti-aircraft guns did not have sufficient ammunition with them. The army commander, General Shot, had them stored in boxes. He was afraid of sabotage, given the large population of Japanese descent that lived there. Defending against a Japanese air raid was very low on his list of priorities. That does raise the question of why were any anti-aircraft guns located on the island in the first place.

Fifth, all interceptor aircraft were under his command. He had ordered them to be parked wing tip to wing tip to prevent the possibility of sabotage.

Sixth, the US navy, which was responsible for carrying out long distance reconnaissance, failed to detect the incoming aircraft carriers, because they were maintaining strict radio silence. It was tracking the other Japanese fleets which were moving toward the Philippines.

Seventh, a destroyer detected an enemy submarine in the security zone around Oahu. It dropped depth charges and notified the high command. Unfortunately, that threat was ignored.

Eighth, there was little communication between the US navy and the US army.

Given the devastation the attack had caused, the first US action was directed at the large Japanese population not just in Hawaii but also in California. That was quite unfortunate since they had nothing to do with the attack. No sabotage had occurred. Hawaii, which was not a state at the time but a US territory, was put under martial law.

An inquiry was held. The local commanders, Lt.-Gen. Short and Admiral Kimmel were relieved of their commands and charged with dereliction of duty. Several other inquiries were held and ultimately a Congressional Investigation was carried out. It was inconclusive. The two commanders were cleared of the charge of dereliction of duty but faulted for their lack of judgment.

The war intensified in the Pacific and, as expected, Japan soon found itself on the losing side. Admiral Yamamoto’s plane was spotted over the Pacific and shot down, sending him down for an un-ceremonial burial at sea, just like the one that had happened to the sailors aboard the USS Arizona.

Japan surrendered when the US dropped two atomic bombs over Japan in early August, 1945. On September 2, a surrender ceremony was held on the deck of the USS Missouri, which was anchored in Tokyo Bay.

Visiting the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum - Go Visit Hawaii

I visited Pearl Harbor recently. The USS Missouri is docked next to a floating memorial that has been created on top of the sunken USS Arizona. The Aviation Museum is located nearby on Ford Island. US and Japanese aircraft that saw action in the Second World War including the Mitsubishi Zero fighter and the US P-40 Warhawk fighter are on display here. It was ironic to see them parked side-by-side.

Also on display are more recent fighter aircrafts, including three that either served or are still serving in the Pakistan Air Force: F-86 Sabre, F-104 Starfighter, and F-16 Fighting Falcon. Other fighters include F-4 Phantom, F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle and F-18 Hornet.

My legs trembled as I stepped onto the deck of the USS Missouri. Right in front of me was the deck where General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Pacific, had accepted the surrender. A large poster showing the surrender ceremony is posted at the sight. Also shown is the instrument of surrender, framed in a glass exhibit.

After everyone had signed the instrument of surrender, General MacArthur said in a speech: “Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death; the seas bear only commerce; men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace.”

As noted by William Manchester in his biography of MacArthur, American Caesar, the five-star general went on to say that the major warring powers had gathered here to conclude “a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored.” He said it would be inappropriate to discuss here “different ideals and ideologies” or to meet “in a spirit of distrust, malice or hatred.” It was his earnest hope that “a better world shall emerge, one founded upon faith and understanding.”

His remarks drew praise and admiration from the senior Japanese officers who were standing next to him on the deck of the battleship. One said: “What stirring eloquence and what a noble vision! Here is a victor announcing the verdict to a prostate enemy. He can extract a pound of flesh if he so chooses… For me, who expected the worst humiliation, this was a complete sacrifice. I was thrilled beyond words, spellbound, thunderstruck. For the living heroes and the dead martyrs of the war this speech was a wreath of undying flowers.”

Another Japanese officer wondered how was it that Japan, a poor country, had the temerity to wage war against nine major world powers.

In 2014, as I entered the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, the Mitsubishi Zero fighter was displayed there. It had valiantly led the attack on Pearl Harbor. In another room, there was an exhibit giving the Japanese perspective on the attack. As expected, it differed from the American version. It said that Japan was forced to attack the US in order to survive as a nation. There was no mention of how aggressive imperial Japan was at the time, fighting wars with China, Russia, Australia, the UK and the Philippines.

In 2018, I visited Hiroshima which was hit with the world’s first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. The ruins of a domed building were a silent testimonial to the destructive powers of that weapon. Inside the museum, room after room was filled with photographs and exhibits showing how life came to a halt for hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese people. A couple of hours later, I left the museum with watery eyes, as did the hundreds of visitors who were coming out with me.

In the US, the controversy over who to blame for Pearl Harbor continues to this day. As one astute person observed: “Pearl Harbor never dies, and no living person has seen the end of it.”

Yasukuni Shrine: Kamikaze pilot statue and Zero fighter plane among exhibits
Yasukuni Shrine: Kamikaze pilot statue and Zero fighter plane among exhibits

In Japan, the war mongers did not fully understand the implications of what they had done. As Yamamoto noted after news reached him of the success of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The attack was one more instance of a military operation that was tactically brilliant but strategically short sighted.

Sadly, there is no end to such military operations, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine being yet one more manifestation of the sheer folly of war.

The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui