Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor Was a Massive Blunder

August 26, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIMilitaryHistoryJapanPearl Harbor

Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor Was a Massive Blunder

It ended the Japanese Empire.

Key Point: Pearl Harbor was one of history's biggest turning points.

It was, as the phrase goes, another perfect day in paradise. As the sun rose above the Pacific in the clear, cloudless sky east of the Hawaiian Islands, on December 7, 1941, the giant U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, was just beginning to stir.

At 6:30 am, USS Antares (AKS-3), a U.S. Navy stores and supply ship of more than 11,000 tons, was approaching the mouth of the inlet leading into Pearl Harbor towing a steel barge. On the bridge of Antares was her skipper, Commander Lawrence C. Grannis. He suddenly noticed an unexpected object about 1,500 yards off the starboard quarter, something that looked suspiciously like the conning tower of a submarine.

Grannis was indeed correct. The conning tower belonged to a 46-ton, 78-foot-long Type A Japanese midget submarine that carried two torpedoes and a two-man crew. It was one of five brought from Japan by five I-class mother submarines and launched five or six hours before the planned 8:00 am aerial attack was set to begin. Its mission was to enter the harbor, lie in wait, and torpedo whatever ships it could find once the general attack was underway.

As Antares was unarmed, Grannis radioed the nearby destroyer Ward of his finding; officers aboard Ward confirmed the sighting and at 6:40 went to general quarters. There was no reason why a submarine should be lurking in that area, especially one that appeared to be trying to sneak into the harbor behind Antares during the brief minutes when the narrow channel’s antisubmarine nets would be open.

Closing quickly on the submarine, which was now about five miles from the harbor’s entrance, Ward’s skipper, Captain William Outerbridge, brought the destroyer to within 50 yards of the unidentified craft and gave the order to fire. The first salvo of four-inch shells missed, but then a round struck the conning tower at the waterline and the boat keeled over. As the sub passed beneath Ward’s hull, depth charges were dropped on it. It popped to the surface momentarily, then went under for good.

Outerbridge sent a message detailing his actions to the 14th Naval District watch officer, Lt. Cmdr. Harold Kaminski, who passed it along to higher headquarters. The report caused a stir, and soon it seemed that everyone was trying to get in touch with someone at a higher level who could decide what the sighting and sinking meant and what to do next.

A call went to Admiral Husband E. Kimmel’s quarters on shore, where the admiral was preparing for a round of golf with Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of the U.S. Army’s Hawaiian Department; Kimmel was commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet in the Pacific. He threw on some clothes and was chauffeured to CinCPac headquarters, wondering if this was just another false alarm; there had been several “sightings” of Japanese ships, planes, and subs in the previous months, but they had all turned out to be nothing.

This time, as events would soon prove, this sighting and sinking was anything but nothing. It was, in fact, the precursor of a world-changing event, but no one at the time could appreciate just how momentous it was about to become.

50 Warplanes on the Radar

As Gordon W. Prange, Katherine V. Dillon, and Donald M. Goldstein wrote in At Dawn We Slept, arguably the most detailed and comprehensive account of the attack, “The Navy’s most serious error in this pre-attack submarine chapter of the Pearl Harbor story was its failure to advise the Army that a destroyer had sunk an obviously hostile submarine in the Defensive Sea Area. The incident might have provided just the added weight needed to move the Hawaiian Department from the No. 1 alert to No. 2 or 3, because a submarine snooping near Pearl Harbor could scarcely have been charged up to local saboteurs.”

To most of the military personnel in the Hawaiian Islands, the early-morning sinking of the midget submarine, however, passed unnoticed. Aboard the two dozen ships anchored in the shallow waters, hundreds of sailors were still in their racks, sleeping off a little too much drinking and carousing in Oahu’s bars and houses of ill repute on Hotel Street the night before. (The five aircraft carriers that normally called Pearl Harbor their home station were either on maneuvers far out to sea or in port in California, or had been transferred to the Atlantic).

Elsewhere, chaplains were preparing for their weekly church services, and cooks in shipboard messes and in mess halls on land were frying eggs and bacon and brewing gallons of coffee. Belowdecks on Arizona, the band was donning crisp white uniforms and getting ready to assemble on deck to play its daily rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national colors were raised on the fantail.

At Schofield Barracks, U.S. Army soldiers of both the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions, like their Navy counterparts, were either asleep or rolling slowly out of bed to begin their day. The same was true at the Army Air Bases at Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows; the Marine airstrip at Ewa; the Naval Air Stations at Keneohe and Ford Island; and the tiny Haleiwa fighter strip. There the P-40 Warhawks and P-36 Hawks and B-17 Flying Fortresses were lined up in perfect rows so that they could be more easily guarded against sabotage—orders from General Short.

At 7:00 am, atop a mountain known as Kahuku Point 230 feet above the sea on the north shore of Oahu, two enlisted men—Privates Joseph Lockard and George Elliott––were about to shut down their radar set at Opana Mobile Radar Station. Bleary eyed, the two men had been up all night practicing with the radar equipment—something brand-new for the Army.

Just before he threw the power switch to “off,” Lockard noticed something unusual—an image on the oscilloscope indicating a large number of planes––more than 50—approaching the island. Neither he nor Elliott had any idea what it was. Elliott called the Information Center at Fort Shafter, where the pursuit officer and assistant to the controller, 2nd Lt. Kermit Tyler, was about to go off duty and get some shut-eye.

“Sir,” said Elliott, “there seems to be a large formation of planes headed our way.” He neglected to report that he estimated the number to be at least 50 planes.

Tyler thought for a moment, then remembered being told earlier that a dozen B-17s coming from California would be arriving in Oahu that morning. Those must be the bombers, Tyler assumed. “Well, don’t worry about it,” he told Elliott, then left the center without passing this information along to anyone else.

Deciding that the officer knew more than they did, Lockard and Elliott killed the power to the radar set and got ready to depart. The time was 7:20.

Meanwhile, a hundred miles north of Oahu, the vanguard of Operation Z—the long aerial train of warplanes that had been launched from a flotilla of carriers—was closing in on its unsuspecting target.

Rising Tensions Between the United States and Japan

In his request before Congress for a declaration of war against Japan delivered on December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that the attack, while “sudden and deliberate,” was also “unprovoked and dastardly.” From the Japanese point of view, however, it was far from “unprovoked.” Trouble between Japan and the United States had been brewing for many years, with the wheels of conflict set in motion shortly after the Great War ended in 1918.

Japan had been on the side of Great Britain and the United States, and had taken Pacific bases away from the Germans. As a result, Japan expected that she would be rewarded in some way, but was shocked and insulted when the Washington Arms Control Treaty of 1921-1922 determined the reduced size of the naval fleet that Japan would be allowed to have. Although Japan’s democratic government grudgingly accepted the treaty, the ultranationalists and the hard-line militarists who held great power in the government were outraged, feeling the treaty was a slap in the face.

If the Western powers would not grant Japan equal status, they vowed, then they would chart their own course with their own national interests in mind. With few natural resources of its own, Japan was dependent on foreign trade, but the hard-liners began plotting ways to invade its Asian rivals and grab the oil, coal, iron ore, nickel, copper, rubber, aluminum, magnesium, and other resources needed to expand and create an unrivaled military force.

Another slap came in 1930 when the London Naval Conference set further limits on the Imperial Japanese Navy and further aggravated the militarists. In September 1931, the Japanese manufactured an incident that gave them a pretext for invading Manchuria. After being accused of cruelties against Manchurian civilians and rebuked in 1933 by the League of Nations, Japan walked out of that body.