Musings on Some Myths about the Attack on Pearl Harbor
William Toti
November 2, 2016
On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the December 7th 1945 attack on Pearl Harbor, I thought I would bust a few myths associated with the attack. I won’t be touching the mini-submarine inside Pearl Harbor issue in this post, leaving that to my friend and classmate Parks Stephenson who discovered that historical anomaly. But there is a lot of other material to reflect on.
I served 11 years in Pearl Harbor over the course of four submarine tours. My office as commodore of Submarine Squadron 3 was the same room that Admiral Kimmel watched the attack from in 1941, the one where the bullet came through the window during the attack, hit him in his metal cigarette case, fell to the floor, whereupon he (reportedly) famously said “I would have been better off if it had killed me.”
With that as background, here are some random musings:
  • The Japanese can’t have intended for Pearl Harbor to be a surprise attack. As described below, the Japanese thought they would be flying into a fully armed and ready American defense. In fact, a surprise attack was contrary to samurai code, which considers it much more honorable to fight someone who can fight back. When the Japanese pilots took off from their aircraft carriers, they believed many of them would not be returning. Of course, the vast majority of them survived because this did indeed turn out to be a surprise attack, because:
  • The Japanese ambassador in Washington failed to deliver the war warning message to the United States government on the timeline outlined by Japanese leadership in Tokyo. Had he done so as Japan intended, it would have given the United States warning before the Pearl Harbor attack began. His failure results from the fact the Japanese embassy staff was essentially incompetent at code-breaking and translating the message for delivery to the US. In fact, the ambassador didn’t deliver the message until AFTER the Pearl Harbor attack began. Nevertheless, this should not have been a problem because:
  • American code-breakers in Washington WERE able to break the Japanese diplomatic code and knew what the message said before the Japanese ambassador did. Hence, Americans had the message in hand in plenty of time to warn folks in Hawaii that an attack was imminent. President Roosevelt had the content of the message the evening before the attack (and upon reading it reportedly said “this means war”), but he did not direct the military to prepare appropriately. Astoundingly, Army Chief of Staff General Marshall (whose house is here in Leesburg, Virginia, a couple of miles away from where I sit as I write this) knew about the message but decided to go horseback riding Sunday morning in lieu of attending to the preparation of this forces. Navy CNO Admiral Stark was “unavailable” for receipt of the message the evening of December 6th, attending a show instead, and could not be located the morning of December 7th. But our national leadership knew war was imminent, and to that end, Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech was little more than spectacular theater. Many people theorize our Washington inaction was because:
  • President Roosevelt welcomed an attack by the Japanese. He even indicated that an attack on American forces would be necessary to break Republican intransigence against the war. So some folks have indicated Marshall and Stark were “hunkering down,” waiting for hostilities to begin, believing the attack would begin in some far reaches of the American domain like the Philippines (where General MacArthur was in charge). This theory is lent credence by the fact that rather than preparing for an attack, MacArthur actually lined up his aircraft in the Philippines wing-to-wing, making them an easier target for the Japanese. But the notion that we didn’t know Pearl Harbor was the target is a myth, because:
  • We were spying on the Japanese consul-general in Honolulu, who we knew was actually an undercover Imperial Japanese Navy officer, and caught him spying on the status of our ships in Pearl Harbor prior to the attack. In fact, he set up an observation post near McGrew Point, near where Karen and I lived when I was serving in USS Buffalo. A few days before the attack Americans were able to break the code of one of his messages, in which he reported US Navy ships were in port and “an attack at this time is likely to be successful.” We also had indication that Hawaii was the target because:
  • The notion that the Japanese fleet was in EMCON (emission control, in other words in radio silence) as they crossed the Pacific is a myth. In fact, we were actively tracking the Japanese fleet using radio direction finder equipment as it crossed from Japan to Hawaii. So we either knew or should have known that Hawaii was the target even without the Japanese consul message referred to above. Our failure to warn the Pearl Harbor fleet makes sense if you believe:
  • President Roosevelt wanted the attack to take place in Hawaii. There is a bunch of circumstantial evidence to support this. Admiral Richardson (Admiral Kimmel’s predecessor in Hawaii) asked for aircraft to defend/screen Pearl Harbor, but the requested aircraft were sent to the United Kingdom to help the Brits instead. Similarly, a code-breaking machine that would have allowed the Navy in Hawaii to do its own breaking of the Japanese diplomatic code was sent to the UK instead of Hawaii. So Hawaii was (some say intentionally) left without aircraft or intelligence necessary to defend the fleet. Add to this the notion that Roosevelt felt a Japanese attack had to be serious enough to justify America’s entering the war, that the attack had to take place on “American soil” to get the furor of the population up (Hawaii was a US territory therefore it qualified), that an attack on American forces in the Philippines would not be “serious enough,” and it makes it inviting speculation that Pearl Harbor was Roosevelt’s target of choice. Add to that:
  • Despite absolute knowledge that war with Japan was imminent, nobody directed that the battleship fleet get underway, hence many point out that some of our most important capital ships were sitting ducks. The truth is that most of the battleship fleet in Pearl Harbor were antiquated leftovers from World War I, of little actual value during the war. The truly valuable ships were the carriers, which WERE directed to get underway prior to the attack. Further, had the battleships gotten underway, and had they been sunk at sea, the loss of life would have been much worse than it was on December 7th. Because the ships were sunk in shallow Pearl Harbor, many of the survivors were able to simply swim ashore, and most of the ships were refloated after the attack so they could join the war effort (of course, USS Arizona and USS Utah are still exceptions to this day). None of this would have been possible had the battleships gotten underway and been sunk at sea. This lends credence to the conspiracy theorists who believe that the Pearl Harbor attack was in Roosevelt’s sweet spot— serious enough to raise fury among Americans who were opposed to entering the war, but not so serious as to be unrecoverable—and was therefore a “set-up.” (By the way, I’m not one of those who believe that Roosevelt could have orchestrated/calculated this event as precisely and accurately as this. But it’s easy to understand why some people feel this way.) And lastly:
  • That bullet that hit Admiral Kimmel in the cigarette case during the war was an American bullet, not a Japanese one. As a young physics major at the Academy I did the simple calculation to prove to myself that had the bullet been fired from a Japanese airplane it would have killed Kimmel. However, had the acceleration driving the bullet been gravity (F=MA, where A=g), then the bullet would not have penetrated the cigarette case. Hence the bullet had to have been fired up into the air, and then fallen down through that window by virtue of gravity.
Much like the attack on 9/11, it’s indisputable that there was plenty of prior indication about where the Pearl Harbor attack was going to take place. Unfortunately, again like 9/11, the necessary data was dispersed and was not shared appropriately between government agencies and entities. This was caused by an inexcusable failure of government process.
I’m sure that the public perception of this event will continue to evolve for years to come.