Pearl Harbor Remembering a pivotal point

Anniversaries are a good time to review our thoughts and today being that of Pearl Harbor. When we say Pearl Harbor, we are not just referring to a place but also to a pivotal point in time. We should clear our minds of preconceived ideas put forward by ill informed journalists. Also, forget the History According to Hollywood as most films are biased in order to swell the box-office..

What led up to it

Japan was hard hit by the General Depression of the early 1930s and moderate politicians gave way to militants. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, part of China, in order to gain access to raw materials needed to increase its own industrial output. The resources they took and the unlimited ‘free’ manpower available helped them to become a stronger power in Asia. This worried the Americans as it was in direct opposition to their own influence.

In 1937 Japan officially declared war on China. Many horror stories can be read of the bestial behaviour of Japanese armed forces. The atrocities committed in Nanking in 1937 are a classic example and a foretaste of what was to come.

The US Pacific fleet was based in Pearl Harbor, in Ohau, Hawaii. And what a fleet! Many battleships supported but an array of cruisers and aircraft carriers. The problem was that the navy personnel enjoyed a soft life there and history does not show that they were alert to any dangers, or for that matter, mindful of why they were stationed there.

An inherent sense of racial superiority led Japan to believe it deserved to dominate Asian politics. This attitude bred an aggressive and neo-colonial policy. The higher birth rates and economic considerations required more land as well as whatever they could take from it.

It was not as if the US had not been warned that Japan was preparing to attack the fleet. Their own Ambassador Grew in Tokyo tried to alert Washington in January 1941. British code breakers had been able to intercept and decode messages between Japan, Italy and Germany for quite some time and general warnings were passed on. However, to preserve secrecy even the US was not advised how the Brits had this information.

Finally war warnings from Washington to Hawaii were virtually ignored. America believed that Japan would never attack without declaring war first. History in fact showed differently. The Japanese had always attacked and occupied its targets and then declared war after the event.

The Japanese objectives

The Japanese objectives were to destroy as much of the US Pacific fleet as possible to prevent it from interfering with the Japanese attack they were planning and conquest of the vast natural resources of the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya. It was also intended to strike a blow at American morale hoping that the US would quickly sue for peace.

The Japanese attack was planned to come in two waves with a further wave of fuel and rearmed aircraft in a final standby wave if necessary. As the first two waves had been so successful the Japanese cancelled the third wave as it would have necessitated night landings on their own carriers, something only the British Royal Navy had practiced as routine procedures.

The first wave consisted of 183 aircraft carrying 1,760 pound armour piercing bombs and torpedoes with 45 Zero fighters for strafing and air control. Two US Army privates operating a new radar installation reported to a lieutenant what they could see but he thought they had spotted six USAAF B-17 bombers that were due to arrive from the same direction from mainland US. Their observations were not reported.

The defenders were totally unprepared. Ammunition storage lockers were locked, aircraft were parked in neat lines and guns unmanned. But some men acted effectively. An ensign, the only commissioned officer on USS Nevada, got his battleship underway. Even so, she was targeted by bombers and many fires started. In order to avoid blocking the entrance to the Harbor, Emsign Taussig beached her.

The Japanese torpedo bombers targeted the battleships and were successful in five instances. The Arizona was hit in the forward magazine and blew up, losing 1,177 men. The Nevada, as mentioned, was badly damaged and beached. The California was hit and took on water but the crew was ordered to abandon ship just as they were getting the pumps into action that could have saved her. The West Virginia and Oklahoma were also lost. Eighteen ships in total sunk or went aground.

The Japanese lost 29 attacking aircraft from 414 on the mission. The US aircraft losses amounted to 188 destroyed, 159 damaged out of 402.

By a stroke of good fortune for the US, their three aircraft carriers were exercising away from Hawaii and were safe. If these had been moored in Harbor their loss would have set back US recovery and response by a year or more.

The consequences

President Roosevelt had been keen to support the British in the European theatre and clandestine support on Atlantic convoys had occurred for quite some time. The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December led to his speech to Congress on the following day. He made the historic speech including the words, ‘A day which will live in infamy’.

Winston Churchill was relieved that his prayers had been answered in that the Japanese had first attacked US territory and not just Malaya and other British interests thereby making it certain that the US would declare war as indeed they did. Cynically knowing that the Japanese would soon attack British territory he declared war on Japan as well. The US then realised the time had come to enter the European theatre and did so. Germany and Italy responded a few days later. The world was now at war.

The two principle commanders in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel of the US Navy and Lt. Gen Short of the US Army were both relieved of their posts.

It is true when it is stated that 2,386 US personnel were killed as a result of Pearl Harbor but without the attack on Pearl Harbor the US might have kept out of the World War. As they joined in the war against Japan, Germany and Italy it could be said that it caused the deaths of 404,000 Americans.

Final thoughts

It may seem that the writer is making adverse comments solely about its friend, the United States. Wait and see the account in January of the loss of Malaya and the fall of Singapore in early 1942. Almost all of the British heavy artillery was pointing south, out to sea when the Japanese ignored the script and came from the north through Malaya.

So lets have a smile. That was almost as stupid as in the Peninsula war in Spain in 1810 with the British against the French. Hundreds of men, horses and carts were used to drag heavy cannons with eight-inch bores hundreds of miles across mountainous ground. At the same time more men, horses and carts were bringing supplies of 10-inch cannon balls. The Royal Army Ordinance Corps thereafter had to wear a hat badge showing their foolish mistake to the world.

Graham Walker is secretary of the Cayman Islands Veterans Association.

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