Japan Thought Pearl Harbor Would Destroy the U.S. Navy (What a Mistake)

September 18, 2019 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIImperial JapanAmericaPearl HarborPacific Theater

Japan Thought Pearl Harbor Would Destroy the U.S. Navy (What a Mistake)

A big mistake.

While Washington seemed to believe its warnings to Hawaii were clear enough, the Army and Navy in Hawaii were fumbling every opportunity to get ready to fend off the coming surprise attack.

Operation Z Underway

While the Kido Butai, the Imperial Japanese Navy “Operation Z” strike force, waited for orders to sail, diplomatic negotiations were reaching a critical point in the U.S. capital. In early November, Japan had sent special envoy Saburo Kurusu, a hard-liner, to Washington to assist the mild-mannered Ambassador Nomura in the negotiations.  The two diplomats were instructed to ensure that an agreement (primarily aimed at getting the United States to end its freezing of Japanese assets and back down on its demands that Japanese forces leave China) was signed by November 25. Unknown to Nomura and Kurusu, if the agreement was not reached by then, Japan would give orders for Operation Z to proceed. (The deadline was later pushed back to November 29.)

The United States refused to deal the cards that the Japanese had laid before them, and negotiations appeared to be at an end. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, head of Kido Butai, received orders to put the plan into motion.

True to expectations, the naval force sent by Japan toward Southeast Asia was spotted and watched intensely by the Western powers. At the end of November, during this bit of deception, the Kido Butai, consisting of six aircraft carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, nine destroyers, and several oilers, all under Admiral Nagumo, sailed undetected northward from Tankan Bay in the Kuriles, heading for Kwajelain and then the Aleutians.

On December 5, 1941, a Soviet freighter, the Uritsky, bound for Vladivostok from San Francisco, spotted the Japanese fleet. It could have raised an alarm but remained silent; the Soviets, perhaps knowing of Japan’s intentions, had notified the Japanese in advance that the Uritsky would be in the area. The Japanese, for their part, had warned that they would sink any foreign ship they encountered. The Soviets, in turn, said they would declare war on Japan if the transport, loaded with Lend-Lease goods, were fired upon. If allowed safe passage, however, the Russians promised not to alert anyone to the sightings of a Japanese battle fleet in northern Pacific waters.

Aboard his flagship, the battleship Akagi, Admiral Nagumo lifted the veil of secrecy and announced to the captains of the task force’s ships that Japan, unless it received a last-minute recall message from Tokyo, was going to war with the United States and that the fate of the empire rested on the success of every man involved in the mission. The message was then delivered by the captains to the crews of their various ships.

To underscore the importance of the mission, on December 6 Nagumo ordered that the Imperial Japanese Navy’s most precious relic—the flag that had flown over Admiral Togo’s ship during the 1905 victory over Russia at the battle of Tsu-Shima––be raised above the Akagi.

A disturbing bit of information then arrived; intelligence reported that none of the five U.S. carriers were at Pearl Harbor. Although disappointed, Nagumo did not let the news cause him to cancel or delay the attack. The fact that plenty of battleships and cruisers and destroyers were in harbor was reason enough to proceed as planned. Signal officers stood near their radio sets to listen for the “recall” message, just in case.

At this point, however, the historic waters get muddy. Some sources say that it became obvious that Pearl Harbor was the target of an intended Japanese attack and that President Roosevelt and others close to him pretended not to know in order to ensure American involvement in the war, while others say the opposite.

At any rate, Ambassadors Nomura and Kurusu were waiting at the Japanese embassy in Washington on that fateful Sunday, December 7, for instructions to arrive from Japan. The instructions were delayed, then had to be decoded, translated, and typed in English. By the time Nomura and Kurusu were ready to meet with Secretary of State Hull, the strike force was in the air, approaching the island of Oahu.

Nagumo’s Kido Butai had taken up station 230 miles north of Oahu early on December 7. Radio silence was total; communication between ships was conducted by lamps and flags. Preparations were then made for the launch. The planes were fueled and loaded with bombs, torpedoes, and machine-gun ammunition. Pilots solemnly said good-bye to each other and to their crews on the carriers’ decks. The mechanics and armorers presented their pilots with hachimaki––the traditional white headbands decorated with the red “rising sun” symbol and inspirational slogans written in kanji characters––and wished them well on their journey.

Tora Tora Tora

The strike force was launched just before dawn, with 43 Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” fighters lifting off to provide cover over the fleet while the rest of the first wave––89 Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” level bombers and 51 Aichi D3A2 “Val” dive-bombers––took off and assembled in midair. With the first wave launched, the crews on the carriers hustled to bring the second wave up to the flight decks on elevators.

Flying in the lead plane over black waters, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida was nervous, his mind and body in a heightened state of readiness. Did the Americans know that he and his men were coming? Would they meet a wall of American planes as they approached Oahu? Would the crews on the ships at Pearl Harbor be on the alert, ready to fill the sky with anti-aircraft munitions? He did not know, and he needed to know because it would dictate which of Genda’s attack patterns would be employed. If surprise were gained, Fuchida would fire one “Black Dragon” flare indicating that the torpedo bombers were to lead the attack. If the Americans were on the alert, he would fire two flares, indicating that surprise had been lost and that the fighters were to go in first.

Somehow the signals got botched. As he approached Oahu, Fuchida mistakenly thought that the fighters had missed the first “one flare” signal, so he fired another flare for their benefit. But the torpedo bomber pilots had seen the first flare and then the second and thought it meant that surprise had been lost and fell back in the formation.


In the end, the mix-up in signals made no difference. As Fuchida glided above Pearl Harbor, he saw that the sky was clear of American planes and the decks and AA gun tubs of the ships below appeared to be empty. At 7:53 he transmitted the success signal—Tora, Tora, Tora (“Tiger, Tiger, Tiger”)––back to the fleet. His planes banked into the attack.

Just minutes before, an unsuspecting Captain Howard D. Bode, commander of the battleship Oklahoma, had left the ship for liberty and was being carried to shore by a launch; he had left Commander Jesse L. Kenworthy, Jr., in charge during his absence.

One of the first Americans to become aware of the attack was Rear Admiral William R. Furlong, whose quarters were aboard the old minelayer Oglala, berthed at 1010 Dock across the channel from the southeast side of Ford Island. He saw the initial flight of aircraft, assumed they were American, and cursed the pilot who was careless enough to allow an unsecured bomb to fall from his undercarriage and explode on the island. Moments later, Furlong saw the red ball insignia on the plane’s fuselage. He sounded the attack alarm and ordered all ships at Pearl to sortie. For most it was too late.

The First Bombs on Pearl Harbor

The first to feel the bombs was the Naval Air Station at Ford Island. Next came the airfields at Hickam, Wheeler, Bellows, Ewa, and Kaneohe; Genda knew that if the first attacking wave could knock out the American planes before they could get airborne, his pilots would have unfettered access to the ships anchored in the harbor and would only need to worry about the AA fire.

In Pearl Harbor, author H.P. Willmot wrote, “At the time of the attack, there were 394 aircraft on Oahu, of which 139 Army and 157 Navy aircraft were operational. Of these only 88 were fighters, but such was the fury and violence of the assault that only a handful of them were able to try to get into the air to give battle on equal terms.”

American pilots tried their best to scramble their planes and to get airborne to battle the Japanese formations, but almost all their efforts were in vain. The Kaneohe Naval Air Station was hard hit, with all 33 of its aircraft destroyed on the ground. At Ewa, located west of the entrance to Pearl Harbor, 33 of the 49 aircraft stationed there were destroyed or disabled. At Wheeler, Hickam, and Bellows Army Airfields, 77 planes were knocked out in a matter of minutes. By the time the attacks on the airfields were over, 164 American aircraft had been destroyed and another 129 damaged, although some estimates are even higher.