Being Enlightened with Knowledge


contact |  news |  backgrounds |  search |  home
Interesting Facts Strange and Unexplained Mysteries and Secrets
Mysteries & Secrets - Pearl Harbor

Surprise at Dawn
Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, rose about 7A.M. on that Sunday morning. He had a golf date with his military counterpart, Lieutenant General Walter C. Short. But before he had time to dress and breakfast, Admiral Kimmel received word that a destroyer on patrol at the entrance to the harbor had sighted and sunk an enemy submarine. Although there had been many false reports of submarines in the outlying areas, he promised to come down to fleet headquarters immediately to await further news. Meanwhile, at a mobile radar station on the north coast of the island, an Army private was startled by an echo on the oscilloscope indicating that more than 50 airplanes were rapidly approaching Oahu. At 7:30 the unidentified airplanes were within 45 miles of the coast.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought war! Oahu was so shrouded by a morning cloud cover that the Japanese attack planes did not see the island until they were actually over it. Leading his 140 bombers and 43 escort fighters to the west and south for the approach to Pearl Harbor, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida mused that it must have been "God's hand" that pulled aside the clouds directly over his target. Below was "a majestic sight, almost unbelievable": seven great ships at their moorings on Battleship Row. An eighth battleship, the Pennsylvania, and two destroyers were in drydock nearby. Arrayed about the harbor were 29 additional destroyers, nine cruisers, and a number of lesser craft that brought the total to 94 vessels. Fuchida only regretted the absence of aircraft carriers.

Glancing up from the deck of his flagship, the Oglala, Rear Admiral William Furlong saw a single plane appear in the sky above Pearl Harbor's Ford Island airfield a few minutes before 8. When it dropped a bomb on the hangars, the admiral assumed it was an error and silently cursed the "stupid, careless pilot" for not having properly secured the bomb's releasing device. But as the plane changed course to veer between his ship and Ford Island, he saw the rising sun emblem and knew a Japanese attack was under way.

As she was preparing breakfast in the house next door to Admiral Kimmel's, Mrs. John B. Earle heard an explosion and ran to her front window just in time to see the hangars on Ford Island erupt in smoke and flame. She stepped outside for a better view and was joined by the admiral looking "completely stunned," his face "as white as the uniform he wore." As they looked on "in utter disbelief," the battleship Arizona rose out of the water, then sunk beneath its surface.

All Over Within Two Hours

The 183 aircraft in the first wave of Japan's air strike were followed by a second wave of 170 bombers from the east and south that was timed to arrive one hour later. Racing off in his staff car, Admiral Kimmel was at headquarters by 8:05, just in time to see the battleship Califomia hit by a torpedo. He was powerless to do anything as, one by one, the giant ships along Battleship Row came under enemy fire. The first wave of the attack was over by 8:3 5, only to be followed - after a 20-minute lull - by an hour-long second wave that ended at 9:55 A.M. The toll was horrendous: 18 vessels, including all eight battleships, either sunk, capsized, or damaged; scores of Army and Navy aircraft destroyed; 2,403 lives lost and 1,178 persons wounded. By comparison, Japanese losses were minimal: 29 aircraft, six submarines, and perhaps fewer than 100 casualties.

December 7, 1941, was a day -President Franklin D. Roosevelt would tell Congress and the nation the next afternoon in asking for a declaration of war on Japan - that would "live in infamy." Following an on-the-spot investigation by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral Kimmel was relieved of his command on December 16, as was General Short. But were they responsible, as an investigative commission would later find, for failing to evaluate the seriousness of the situation prior to the surprise atfack and omitting to take the necessary precautions to counter such an attack? It has taken five decades to begin finding answers to this question.

"Cancer of the Pacific"

Although few at the time realized it, Japan had been on a collision course with the United States for nearly a decade, or since it had seized Manchuria from China in 1931-32. In 1937 Japan invaded northern China and two years later turned south to seize the island of Hainan, casting covetous eyes on Malaya, the Philippines, and the Netherlands East Indies (today's Indonesia). Meanwhile, the United States not only supported the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek but also seemed to endorse British, French, and Dutch colonialism in Asia at a time the Japanese were trumpeting that 'Asia is the territory of the Asiatics ...... Grandly speaking of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese, in fact, were desperately seeking the natural resources so
sadly lacking in their island chain to feed a rapidly
growing population and develop their manufacturing potential.

The fall of France in June1940 gave Japan just the pretext it needed to send troops to French Indochina (today's Vietnam), and on September 27 it signed a pact with the Axis powers, Germany and Italy. "It seems to me increasingly clear that we are bound to have a showdown some day," Joseph C. Grew, the American ambassador in Tokyo, wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "and the principal question at issue is whether it is to our advantage to have that showdown sooner or have it later." His sympathies openly with Britain against the Axis powers, including their new ally in Asia, Roosevelt saw to it that by year's end embargoes were placed on all exports to Japan of vital war materials with the exception of petroleum. The Japanese called the ugly standoff between the two powers Taihei-yono-gan: "Cancer of the Pacific." Seeking a diplomatic solution to the dilemma, Japan called Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura out of retirement and sent him as ambassador to Washington in January 194 1. Even as Nomura was traveling to the United States, another Japanese admiral was beginning to formulate a plan that would ignite war between the two nations.

Deciding the War on the First Day

On January 7, 1941, Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of Japan's combined naval fleet, wrote a highly confidential memorandum to the navy minister. Since conflict with the United States was "inevitable," Admiral Yamamoto suggested that a bold stroke was needed "to decide the fate of the war on the very first day." Specifically, he proposed a surprise air attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor "on a moonlit night or at dawn." By mid-April, Yamamoto's plan had been endorsed for staff study; the formation that month of the First Air Fleet gave him the force he needed to make his preemptive strike.

Three weeks after Yamamoto sent his memo to the navy minister, Ambassador Grew heard rumors of the plan and warned Washington. The naval intelligence office forwarded Grew's message to Admiral Kimmel in Hawaii, saying that it gave no credence to the report. Nonetheless, Secretary of the Navy Knox wrote to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that he believed it "easily possible" that hostilities between Japan and the United States would be initiated with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and asked for a joint Army-Navy buildup to thwart such a raid. Stimson agreed, as did Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, who said that his first concern was to protect the fleet. In Hawaii, General Short apparently thought otherwise, believing that the presence of the fleet at Pearl Harbor somehow shielded his soldiers from the potential enemy. Despite the dismissal of Ambassador Grew's warning, Admiral Kimmel took seriously the possibility of a Japanese strike against his fleet but thought that it would be launched from submarines rather than from the air.

Unaware of Yamamoto's plans, Ambassador Nomura presented his credentials to President Roosevelt, who greeted him cordially, saying that there was "plenty of room in the Pacific for everybody," and urged him to work out a settlement with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. It wasn't as easy as the president indicated, for Japan's expansionism and alliance with Germany and Italy ran counter to American foreign policy. When Japan refused to reconsider its policies, the United States took additional economic measures, freezing all Japanese assets in America on July 26 and, six days later, extending the embargo to petroleum. Without American gasoline products and crude oil, Tokyo calculated, its industries would be paralyzed within a year.

With the deterioration of relations between his country and the United States, Admiral Yamamoto argued, it was "all the more necessary" to adopt his Pearl Harbor plan. "Japan must deal the U.S. Navy a fatal blow at the outset of war." Caving in to Yamamoto's threat of resignation, the Japanese naval command approved the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Purple Succumbs to Magic

To ensure success the Japanese needed accurate, up-to-date information on the fleet disposition in Hawaii. On September 24 the foreign ministry asked the Japanese consulate in Honolulu to plot the location of each ship on a grid of Pearl Harbor. Donning a Hawaiian shirt and taking along a geisha friend as a cover, a secret agent named Takeo Yoshikawa boarded a tourist flight over Oahu to observe the fleet. From early autumn through December 6 Tokyo was kept posted on all fleet movements in and out of the harbor and was supplied with information on the exact location of all the vessels in port.

Astonishingly, Washington knew that the Japanese were keeping track of the Pacific fleet. Tokyo's diplomatic correspondence was being transmitted by a sophisticated code named Purple. Unknown to Japan, the United States had cracked the code in the summer of 1940, using a decrypting system called Magic. By July 1941 the United States had eight Magic decrypting machines. Four were in Washington, two each assigned to the Navy and the Army; and three had been sent to the British in London. An eighth machine was dispatched to the U.S. Army in the Philippines, believed to be the most vulnerable of America's Pacific outposts. Magic, however, did not break the Japanese naval codes, and thus Washington remained unaware of the messages Yamamoto sent to the First Air Fleet when it left Japan for the long voyage to Hawaii.

"This Means War"

Roosevelt signing war declaration Dec. 8, 1941. The American economic sanctions only stiffened Japanese resolve to pursue its expansionist policies. Japan, advised Ambassador Grew on November 3, would risk "national hara kiri rather than cede to foreign pressure." Demanding that the United States lift the freeze, supply it with petroleum, and discontinue aid to China, Japan in return promised only to withdraw its troops to northern Indochina and make no further moves into Southeast Asia. Cordell Hull called the proposal "preposterous."

On November 25 President Roosevelt met with his war council. According to the notes of Secretary of War Stimson, the president said that it was likely Japan would attack by December 1. The question for the war council, Stimson wrote, 11 was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves." So-called revisionist historians have seized upon Stimson's statement in their attempts to prove that the United States wanted Japan to precipitate war.

The American historian Gordon W. Prange spent 37 years investigating Pearl Harbor, interviewing survivors in both Japan and the United States. The results of his exhaustive study were presented in several books published after his death in 1980. In the first of these books, At Dawn We Slept, Professor Prange rejected the revisionist viewpoint. No one who examined the mass of historical evidence could doubt that the United States wanted to maintain peace with Japan as long as possible in order to remain free to assist Britain in defeating the Axis in Europe. "Make no mistake about it," Prange wrote, "Japan was going to war, and those with access to Magic knew it." The problem for the United States was not to maintain peace but only to be sure that Japan be revealed as the true aggressor.

The day after Roosevelt met with his war council, Yamamoto's First Air Fleet left Japan. By 5:50 A.M. on December 7 it was within 220 miles of Oahu - launch point for the air strike - and had not been detected. The armada consisted of six aircraft carriers, two battleships, three cruisers, a squadron of destroyers, and accompanying tankers and submarines.

In Tokyo the Japanese government drafted a "final communication to the United States," to be delivered by Ambassador Nomura at I P.m. Washington time on Sunday, December 7. This would be 7:30 A.M. in Honolulu, half an hour before the scheduled attack. Intercepting and decrypting the message, U.S. intelligence reported the contents to President Roosevelt Saturday evening. "This means war," the president said.

The instruction to Nomura to deliver the message precisely at 1 P.M. was a tip-off to intelligence officer Colonel Rufus S. Bratton that the Japanese were planning something for that hour but what, and where? On Sunday morning he sought out Army Chief of Staff Marshall, only to learn that the general was out horseback riding and would not be at his office until 11:30. When presented a copy of the Japanese message, Marshall agreed that a strike was imminent and prepared a warning for all outlying U.S. possessions. It was to be sent "at once by the fastest safe means," with priority given to the Philippines. Since telephone calls could be monitored, it was decided to send Marshall's message in code by telegraph; U.S. intelligence was determined that Japan not learn that Magic had broken Purple. And thus General Short did not receive his copy of the warning until after the strike.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!"

Swooping in over Pearl Harbor at 7:53 A.M. on Sunday morning, Commander Fuchida shouted into his radio, "Toral Toral Toral" ("Tiger' Tiger! Tiger!"). It was the code word for informing the Japanese navy that the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been caught unawares.

Yamamoto had predicted that the destruction of its fleet would so demoralize the United States that it would cease its opposition to Japan's expansion. Yet, in welcoming the First Air Fleet back home on December 24, the admiral cautioned that only one operation had been completed. "You must guard scrupulously against a smug self-satisfaction with this initial success," he warned. "There are many more battles ahead."

News Contact Sky Pictures
Back to Top