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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.

It had been a tremendous victory. More than 30 American warships had been either sunk or damaged to varying degrees. The American air force in Hawaii was all but wiped out—all at a cost of just 29 aircraft, five midget submarines and one large submarine, and 65 men.

In the face of great disaster came great heroism. For their actions on December 7, 1941, 15 men would receive the Medal of Honor, making that day’s total unique in the history of America’s highest military decoration: Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd (USS Arizona, posthumous), Captain Mervyn S. Bennion (West Virginia, posthumous), Captain Samuel G. Fuqua (Arizona), Captain Franklin van Falkenburgh (Arizona, posthumous), Commander Cassin Young (Vestal), Lieutenant John W. Finn (Kaneohe Naval Air Station), Lieutenant Jackson Pharris (California), Ensign Francis C. Flaherty (Oklahoma, posthumous), Ensign Herbert C. Jones (California, posthumous), Warrant Officer Thomas Reeves (California, posthumous), Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill (Nevada, posthumous), Machinist’s Mate Robert R. Scott (California, posthumous), Chief Watertender Peter Tomich (Utah, posthumous), Machinist Donald K. Ross (Nevada), and Seaman James Ward (Oklahoma, posthumous).

When they landed back on their carriers’ decks, many of the Japanese pilots were bursting with enthusiasm and eagerness to return for another strike. There were still plenty of targets to be hit—especially the fuel farms, submarine pens, and shore installations, not to mention the absent American carriers—but Admiral Nagumo said no. The task force must return to Japan before the Americans could locate it; the carriers and other ships would be needed for further operations in the event that the United States failed to capitulate. Incredulous, many in Genda’s air staff tried to get the admiral to change his mind but it was no use. Kido Butai would return to Japan immediately.

Nomura’s Ignorance of the Attack

In Washington at 2:40 pm, Ambassador Nomura knew none of this by the time he and special envoy Kurusu were ushered into Hull’s office carrying the long-delayed translation of the final part of Japan’s message—the part that said that, in light of America’s intransigence, Japan was breaking off diplomatic efforts to reach a consensus and that war was likely to follow—a message that Hull had already read, thanks to the Magic intercepts.

Once in Hull’s office, Nomura and Kurusu were not offered chairs. Instead, Hull, burning with a barely contained fury, told them, “I must say that in all my conversations with you during the last nine months, I have never uttered one word of untruth. This is borne out absolutely by the record. In all my 50 years of public service I have never seen a document that was so crowded with falsehoods and distortions––infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”

Then, with a nod of his head toward the door, Hull dismissed the Japanese representatives. Hurt and puzzled, Nomura did not learn until he returned to his office that his country had already struck the first blow.

The Roberts Commission

Two days after the bombs stopped falling, the recriminations and hunt for scapegoats began. On December 9, Navy Secretary Knox flew to Oahu to initiate his own investigation; Kimmel told him that, contrary to Washington’s belief, he had received no warning of a possible attack until the attack was already underway.

Courts of inquiry and formal hearings (the “Roberts Commission”) began in late 1941, and both Kimmel and Short were ultimately held responsible for “dereliction of duty;” both officers retired in February 1942, and both would request courts-martial as a way of clearing their names. Further congressional hearings would take place.

Roosevelt’s role was not seriously scrutinized at the time but has since been the subject of criticism and charges of collusion in order to get America into the war. Several books and magazine articles have attempted to put the blame directly on the president’s shoulders and to claim that a conspiracy and cover-up were then at play. (See the sidebar by Donald M. Goldstein.)

Patrick N.L. Bellinger, who had been in command of all scouting aircraft in the Pacific Fleet, later called the attack on Pearl Harbor “a deep-eyed deliberate plan to get this country into war with Japan and Germany by needling the Japanese into making the first war move…. In my opinion, Roosevelt and his cohorts criminally failed to keep Admiral Kimmel informed of information that was available—information that the simplest mind would have known was of vital importance to the protection of the Pacific Fleet.”

Whether this was true or not still remains, after 70 years, a matter of intense speculation and debate. Beyond dispute, however, is the fact that America’s involvement in the war led to the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers, ushered in a new world order, and quite literally saved the free world from destruction at the hands of the Germans and Japanese.

As Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson noted later on December 7, “When the news first came that Japan had attacked us, my first feeling was of relief that the indecision was over and that a crisis had come in a way which would unite all our people…. For I feel that this country united has practically nothing to fear while the apathy and divisions stirred up by unpatriotic men have been hitherto very discouraging.”

Awakening a Sleeping Giant

Instead of causing the United States to retreat and allow Japan unfettered rampage throughout Asia and the Pacific, as Tojo predicted, the exact opposite happened. No longer isolationist or “neutral,” America and the American industrial machine, although idled by the Great Depression, began turning out military goods at an unprecedented rate, while millions of aroused Americans rushed to recruiting offices to prepare themselves for a fight to the death with the country’s enemies.

Although Yamamoto is widely (and erroneously) quoted as having said after the Pearl Harbor raid, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” Yamamoto’s actual words were written to Ogata Taketora, the ultra-nationalist editor of the Tokyo newspaper Asahi Shimbun on January 9, 1942: “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.”

Yamamoto was certainly correct. And he would not live to see the end of the war that he and his country’s leaders, along with Adolf Hitler, had provoked––a war that caused the deaths of 50 million people and changed forever the course of world history.

This article by Flint Whitlock originally appeared on Warfare History Network. This first appeared in August 2019.

Image: Wikimedia.