United States and American History: 1941 and Pearl Harbor

About the history of the United States in 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the players Marshall and Roosevelt, America declares war on Japan and enters World War II.


Dec. 7 Admiral Nagumo's strike force of 6 carriers, supported by battleships and cruisers, attacked a U.S. fleet of 94 ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The 2-hour surprise blow by 368 bombers and fighters, flying in 2 waves from a fleet position 275 mi. north of Oahu, heavily damaged or sank 19 ships including all U.S. battleships except the Pennsylvania, then in drydock. The Japanese lost only 19 planes. U.S. casualties: 3,457 soldiers, sailors, and civilians, and property damage into the millions. Full details of actual U.S. losses were kept secret for a year.

The idea for the surprise strike originated with the Japanese commander in chief Admiral Yamamoto, who assembled the force at Tankan Bay, a remote corner of the Kurile Islands. He recalled a similar British success against the Italians at Taranto in November, 1940, and decided to work out a Japanese version during a war games session in Tokyo in September, 1941. His plan was approved on November 5. Commanded by Admiral Nagumo, the 1st Air Fleet, preceded by an advance probe of 28 submarines, left the Kuriles on November 26, subject to an instant recall if detected. Its orders: Proceed slowly east, into the North Pacific, and await orders to attack, or to return. This depended on whether or not U.S. negotiations had reached a satisfactory solution.

At Pearl Harbor, the positions of the 8 battleships, anchored in tandem, and of many other ships there had been accurately plotted by Japanese spies and sympathizers. (See: The 8-Eyed Spy, Chap. 10.) One-third of the U.S. naval officers were on shore leave. Only 1/4 of the antiaircraft guns were manned. Military planes on Oahu were parked in clusters, wing tip to wing tip, to reduce the problem of impending sabotage, and their pilots were off duty, subject to a 4-hour call.

In 1940, U.S. cipher experts, using cryptographic techniques called "Magic," had broken the Japanese secret diplomatic codes. During November, 1941, Washington officials monitored the fast-breaking crisis. On Saturday, December 6, an intercept of a message being sent in 14 parts was made. Thirteen parts were received, with the 14th yet to come. The transmission, from Tokyo to the 2 Japanese envoys in Washington, D.C., summarized the negotiations to date and rejected--as envoy Kurusu had said his Government would--the U.S. note of November 26, calling for Japanese withdrawals in China and other treaty stipulations. Roosevelt, when notified, reportedly exclaimed to Naval Chief of Operations Adm. Harold Stark, "This means war!" By 8 A.M., part 14 had been received and completely decoded.

At Fort Myers, Va., just outside Washington, Gen. George Marshall's subordinates, cognizant of his strict orders not to bother him during off-duty hours, decided to inform him after he had finished his regular horseback ride on Sunday morning and had arrived at post headquarters. Belatedly shown the message, Marshall immediately realized that the command--for the envoys to submit an official reply to the U.S. note at precisely 1 P.M.--was of great significance. Later, he would know why: The time would soon be 7:55 A.M. in Honolulu, the moment when Nagumo's bombers arrived over Pearl Harbor.

Marshall bypassed his telephone "scrambler" to the Hawaiian commanders, possibly from fear that somehow the Japanese might unscramble the call. Instead, he ordered a telegram, encoded, to be sent. By chance, or unfortunate circumstance, the War Department radio had been unable to contact the Hawaiian department that morning. Faced with a decision, Washington message center chief, Colonel French, elected to use commercial facilities. He transmitted by Western Union to San Francisco, then by commercial overseas radio to Honolulu.

Marshall's urgent message was filed in Washington at one minute past noon. It reached RCA's Honolulu office at 1:33 P.M., Washington time (7:33 A.M., Honolulu time). The office manager, aware that the hour was slightly early to begin the daily teletype service to army headquarters at Fort Shafter, sent the critical warning out by motorcycle messenger. The boy was leisurely making his way along when the 1st wave of planes swept around Diamond Head.

In 8 official investigations, scapegoats were sought upon whom to fix the top blame for the humiliating defeat. Roosevelt himself was accused of deliberately ignoring all final warnings and permitting the attack, to jolt the American people into outraged support of his plans to lead the country into war. His statement that, if war was to come, it had to result from an initial blow by Japan, was pointed to by his critics. General Marshall, as Chief of Staff, was charged with running a "one-man shop," where vital command decisions in the War Department were shelved during his off-duty hours. The Hawaiian Department military commanders, Gen. Walter Short and Adm. Husband Kimmel, were called to account by a special commission, set up by Roosevelt. This civilian committee quickly declared both men "in dereliction of duty," but the Army and Navy, 3 years later, jointly decided there were insufficient grounds for court-martial. Both men were denied trials, for political reasons, although they repeatedly asked for the chance to clear their names. Kimmel, after his retirement from the Navy, repeated the charge that the crucial information had been deliberately held back until after the attack had occurred.

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