December 2016 will be a poignant time on the stunningly beautiful islands that make up the US State of Hawaii. A few precious old men stumble with the aid of walking sticks and frames towards the harbour and with straight backs and tears in their eyes they remember. They remember what started as just another beautifully peaceful day in paradise; that day was 7 December 1941.
Most people will tell you they know the events of the Japanese surprise attack on the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor – but there is always something new to learn – a secret piece of the puzzle that has been declassified after 75 years. The horror and the sheer audacity of the raid does not dim by the retelling – but it is in the eyes of the survivors – the tears they’ve shed every year for 75 years for fallen comrades that truly tells the story of how America, finally, entered the Second World War and how Japan awoke the sleeping giant and unleashed an ungodly fury.
Prelude to the Attack
The first and most astonishing discovery many people make is that America knew it would come under attack; they just didn’t know when or where. They feared the growing military might of the Japanese Empire and put stringent sanctions in place against the Far East nation. These conditions made it extremely hard for the Japanese to expand its industrial heartland and led directly to the policy of seizing islands and territory across the Pacific as they searched for vital resources including rubber, iron ore and most important of all – oil. Japan had been waging a war in China since the early 1930’s and this proved to be costly in terms of resources and men.
In 1940, the US Government announced the Two Ocean Naval Expansion Act that would see the construction of seven battleships, 18 aircraft carriers, 27 cruisers, 115 destroyers and 42 submarines. This was on top of the 130 major warships already under construction and the 358 already in service. The Japanese viewed this development with dismay as they knew they couldn’t compete with the industrial capacity of the United States. Each year that passed would see the Japanese strength eroded when compared against the Americans; this was something that the Japanese High Command decided could not be allowed to happen.
The two nations were on the road to war. Many among the Japanese High Command wanted to seize the initiative before their superiority was destroyed. At this point, the Japanese Commander in Chief Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto came on the scene. After careful study of the options available, he finally deduced that a strike against the Americans was vital. He told one of his closest friends Admiral Ryunsuke Kusaka, “If we are ordered to fight the US we might be able to score a runaway victory and hold our own for six months or a year. But in the second year the Americans will increase their strength and it will be very difficult for us to fight with any prospect of final victory.”
As political talks between Japan and America rumbled relentlessly and fruitlessly on with what seemed like amiable politeness, the Japanese secretly planned their attack. Pearl Harbor had always been their preferred target. Indeed, the Japanese Navy had often strategized how to launch a successful raid against the Hawaiian Islands. At the last fleet air warfare training session before December 1941, Admiral Yamamoto asked Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, “I wonder if an aerial attack can’t be made on Pearl Harbor?”
America, meanwhile, had become aware of the Japanese deceit over Vichy France and their increasing involvement with the Axis powers in Europe. As a consequence, America increased tariffs on Japanese products and made conditions for business in the US increasingly difficult. Japan in turn froze all American assets in Japan. On 1 August 1941, America imposed an oil embargo on Japan – a country that imported 88 percent of all its oil as the nation has no natural reserves of its own.
A month later on 1 September, the decision was taken by the Japanese High Command to go to war; but for the next few months, until the date chosen for the attack, the Japanese needed to dupe the Americans into believing they were in the mood to find a negotiated solution to their sour relations.
_ The American spy network in Japan and elsewhere, however, started to discover items of interest, but most of the decodes of Japanese military communications went unheeded, including one from a Japanese agent Ensign Yoshikawa on Hawaii detailing ship movements and troop concentrations. In fact, there had been numerous messages of a similar nature indicating the target to be Manila or Panama or even Seattle, so most intercepts were recorded and passed up the line and almost all were ignored.
Meanwhile, Yamamoto drew his plans of attack together and expended a great deal of time and energy training his ship’s companies in how to strike the necessary hammer blow against the American Navy at Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto’s plan was much more than just attacking Pearl Harbor. Simultaneous attacks against Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies were all part of the coordinated attack plan that would secure the necessary oil reserves to fight the upcoming war.
Yamamoto had studied the Royal Navy’s aerial assault against the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940, but most of his attention was focussed on the results of an earlier exercise – an American exercise that had seen aircraft attacking and winning at Pearl Harbor. The 1932 Fleet Problem XIV exercise under the command of Admiral Schofield showed exactly how to defeat the Hawaiian island’s defences. Yamamoto, after studying these reports, probably had the best knowledge of the Island of Oahu than any man in Japan with his deep filled files of the islands topography, tides, houses and the disposition of naval and Army Air Force airfields around the island.
Yamamoto gave the Pearl Harbor attack the codename of Operation Z and as part of the initial training for his aircrews he found the perfect training location at Kagoshima, at the southern end of Kyushu. Whilst not an exact copy of Pearl Harbor, the area shared a number of similarities and was a good approximation of the intended target. US Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox was, at this point, worried about the safety of Pearl Harbor, a view reinforced following the British attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto. “The success of the British aerial attack against ships at anchor suggests that precautionary measures be taken immediately to protect Pearl Harbor against surprise attack between the United States and Japan. The greatest danger will come from aerial torpedoeing. High priority must be given to more interceptor planes and AA guns, and to the installation of additional AA radar equipment.” His concerns went mostly unheeded or unheard and the defences of Pearl Harbor remained virtually unaltered.
Yamamoto, meanwhile, had appointed a young talented officer Commander Minoru Genda, to formulate a strike plan for the naval aircraft. Genda later said, “I criticised the plan but concluded that the attack, while extremely difficult to mount, would not be impossible to execute with a reasonable chance of success.”
The Japanese plan called for most of the fleet’s aircraft carriers to be assigned to the attack – Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, Shokaku, Akagi and Kaga. With the carriers were two battleships the Hiei and Kirishima, the cruisers Tone, Chikuma and Abukama plus nine destroyers, three submarines and eight tankers. A parallel attack on Midway Island required additional fleet units to be diverted away from the Pearl Harbor raid. The ships sailed from northern Japan on 26 November 1941 and set course, in radio silence, for a position northwest of Hawaii. Onboard, over 400 bombers and fighters readied for action against the Americans. The planning had established that the first wave of attacks would be the primary attack, scoring as many hits as possible and securing air superiority by wiping out local fighter opposition. The second wave was intended to strike at the American aircraft carriers with battleships and cruisers as substitute targets.
As the Japanese fleet neared the Hawaiian Islands two scout aircraft, launched from the cruisers, Chikuma and Tone, were sent over the island of Oahu to report on what ships were in harbour and their location. They reported back that the American aircraft carriers were not in harbour as suspected. This was a bitter blow as their destruction was a primary aspiration of the Japanese attack. The fleet submarine I-72 also sent back information that the Lahaina anchorage off Maui was free of ships and need not be attacked.
_ In fact, it was submarines that made up a significant but often under reported part of the attack. The Fleet submarines I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22 and I-24 each carried a Type A two man midget submarine, which were launched close to Oahu. One of these midget boats was spotted by the minesweeper USS Condor at 03.42 on December 7. Alerted to the presence of an enemy submarine the duty destroyer USS Ward searched for it, but the first midget submarine, evaded the warship. USS Ward did, however, destroy another midget submarine at 06.37 and in firing on the Japanese vessel, fired the first American shots in World War Two. Another midget submarine was sunk by the USS Monaghan at 08.43 after the first attack on the harbour. Another midget submarine got lost on its approach and grounded on the east side of Oahu where it was captured the day after the attack, and her commander Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki became the first Japanese prisoner of war. The other midget submarines were lost until a team from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory found the remains of one vessel on the seabed off Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto wanted to declare war thirty minutes before he launched his aircraft, but due to miscommunication with diplomats in Washington DC his attack came before any declaration of war had been announced, leading to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic ‘dastardly and cowardly attack’ speech to Congress.
The first wave of 183 Kate and Val aircraft were launched in the early morning of 7 December and was led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida. The first group of aircraft targeted the battleships and cruisers, the 2nd Group Ford Island and Wheeler Field, whilst the 3rd Group, comprising of 43 Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero’ fighters, attacked targets on Ford Island, Hickham Field and Wheeler Field. This large group of aircraft appeared on radar screens at Opana Point, but was dismissed as an expected arrival of USAAF B-17 bombers. Another chance to warn the Navy was immediately lost. The Japanese planes encountered some US aircraft and shot them down without warning. Other reports from ships off the harbour entrance started to arrive and the operators started to become confused with often conflicting reports.
At 0748 the attack on Pearl Harbor began. 353 Japanese aircraft crowded the skies over the battle fleet below. Other aircraft peeled off to strafe Hickham Field, Wheeler Field, Ford Island and Bellows Field. The Americans only managed to put up a handful of P-36 Hawks, P-40 Warhawks and some SBD Dauntless dive bombers that had not sailed with the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. It was not nearly enough against the onslaught.
The men of the US battleships were awoken from their slumber to the sound of explosions and dying comrades as the bombs and torpedoes found their mark. General stations were sounded and the historic cry of “Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill” rang out. The defenders were completely and hopelessly unprepared for the raid; ammunition lockers were locked, aircraft on fields were easy targets for the Japanese as they were neatly arranged in neat rows.
Within minutes, the battleship USS Oklahoma was ablaze and began to turn turtle. The USS Nevada somehow got underway and started making for the single narrow entrance to the harbour. She came under heavy attack as the Japanese wanted to sink her in the entrance and block it for all other shipping. The captain of USS Nevada instead beached her some distance from the entrance to prevent her from sinking.