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Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack

Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack

An excerpt from Steve Twomey’s new book.

Editor’s Note: The following was reprinted from Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack by Steve Twomey. Copyright © 2016. Available from Simon & Schuster.

As the Ward was plying through the second hour of Outerbridge’s first day, a civilian scampered to the second deck of the Submarine Building, leaving his wife waiting in a rental car below. He probably noticed the array of seven states in their Battleship Row; observing was what he did in life. Joseph C. Harsch was a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor with a Gump-like knack for popping up where big events were about to happen. His memoirs would be called At the Hinge of History. For a good portion of the last two years, Harsch’s turf had been western Europe, writing of Nazi conquest and fascist rallies. Now his newspaper wanted him in Moscow to record the Soviet side of the Eastern Front, and he was taking the long way, west across the United States, then to Oahu, then to Tokyo, then on.

Harsch, who was thirty-six, had arrived Wednesday aboard the Lurline with his wife, Anne. Their goal was a few days of Hawaiian interlude, but after just two, the journalist in Harsch had stirred. There had to be a good interview at that naval base down the coast from his hotel at Waikiki Beach, and when he called Kimmel’s headquarters, he was told to stop by the very next morning.

Entering the commander in chief’s office, Harsch found him and much of his staff arrayed in a circle, seemingly quite relaxed—Kimmel had plopped his white buckskins on a coffee table—and ready to interview him. Here was a knowledgeable visitor from the frontline of war come to remote Hawaii, and therefore he must tell them all about Europe’s struggles, which Harsch began to do. “After about half an hour of being the subject of the questioning, I turned to the admiral and asked if it was my turn to ask a question.” After all, Mrs. Harsch was still waiting downstairs, with swimsuits and a packed picnic lunch for a day of sightseeing. The reporter’s one question to Kimmel was the most pressing one: Would there be war in the Pacific?

“Without a pause, immediately, almost casually, he replied no. His explanation—which I think I remember almost word for word—was the following,” and Kimmel began speaking, not of Japan but of Russia. “Since you have been travelling,” he said to Harsch, “you probably don’t know that as of six days ago, the German high command announced that German armies in Russia had gone into winter quarters.” Endangered Moscow would not fall for now. The Soviets would remain in the war at least until spring. And as long as they did, Japan would not strike their allies, Great Britain and the United States, lest Russia retaliate by attacking the empire. In sum, Kimmel said, “The Japanese are too intelligent to run the risk of a two-front war unnecessarily.”

“I was fascinated,” Harsch said. He did not know if Kimmel was merely brushing away a reportorial gadfly with a lame answer or if he believed what he had said. The journalist examined the faces of the other officers. “They showed no sign of being under strain or pressure. No one on the staff disagreed with what the admiral said about the prospects of war in the Pacific.”

Harsch returned to his wife, and together they spent the day motoring all over Oahu—beaches on one side of the road, pineapple fields on the other—swimming, and eating their picnic lunch. They had no worries “because, after all, the admiral had assured me only that morning that there would be no war in the Pacific. It was a good day.”

Actually, anxiety seemed to have suffused Kimmel at last. Why he picked Saturday to invite a reporter in for a chat is a conundrum. He could hardly have uttered the truth—that there was going to be war in the Pacific—without triggering a second question from Harsch, and a third, and a fourth, about when and where hostilities would start, about the fleet’s strength, its tactics and so on.

To a marine officer that day, Kimmel complained that “his stomach was acting up, because he felt like he did not know the whole story and frankly was worried.” The officer tried to cheer him up, but “Admiral Kimmel was not impressed.” During the entire ten months of his command, he had tailored even the smallest things to his liking, as he had throughout his entire career, whether it was reprimanding a ship that belched too much smoke or hoisting pennants to instruct a formation to “negative scatter.” If two inventories of ammunition stocks disagreed, he could count them himself. If Oahu’s roads were too crowded, rents too high, phones unreliable, he could dress down the Chamber of Commerce. If he did not know Roosevelt’s strategy for containing the empire, he could—as he had in May—insist that Stark eliminate the “uncertainty, a condition which directly contravenes that singleness of purpose and confidence in one’s own course of action so necessary to the conduct of military operations.”

But here was uncertainty that could not be eliminated easily. On Saturday, he could not simply fi off a letter to the Japanese, insisting they disclose what they had in mind. “I sensed the deep feeling of concern and responsibility felt by the admiral,” the marine officer said.

All week, clues of something massive under way, perhaps something crazy, had spilled into the Submarine Building. The Japanese had broken with past practice and changed radio call signs months too soon, hoping to befuddle the Pacific Fleet. Their circuits were now overflowing with traffic. Dozens upon dozens of their ships were moving. Four of their carriers had not been heard from in more than a week, and while Edwin Layton and Joe Rochefort presumed the ships were at home, there were never guarantees when it came to conclusions born of radio traffic.

Further, not only had Main Navy alerted Kimmel to a possible Japanese assault on the American territory of Guam, but he had also just learned that Washington’s invasion fears were spreading to Wake, Midway and other bases closer to Pearl. “In view of the international situation and the exposed position of our outlying Pacific islands,” the department radioed him on Saturday, “you may authorize the destruction by them of secret and confidential documents now or under later conditions of greater emergency.”

After Joseph Harsch and his spouse drove off into tropical leisure, Kimmel gathered with three senior officers to consider whether defensive steps were called for, whether this was, finally, the long-awaited moment when the fleet ought to shift out of training and into serious self-protection. “We didn’t want to overlook anything, you see,” Kimmel said. The Pacific “was growing increasingly critical.”

Tellingly, Walter Short was not among the conferees. While the general and the admiral had conversed since the war warning, the topics involved mostly the outer islands. Kimmel did not know the precise alert level Short had chosen, nor did Short know the navy’s. The navy believed that army radar was scanning, but it had not checked to see if it was, and did not know its hours of operation or that Short was using it only to hone the skills of his radar crews. Asked later if he had queried the general in these hours about whether the army had girded for the worst, Kimmel said, “In the specific terms that you have stated, perhaps not.” He felt Short knew his business. Short felt Kimmel knew his.

It so happened that the previous week, the Naval War College had finished work on the latest edition of Sound Military Decision, an almost-unreadable staple that offered, among other things, advice on coming to the right responses to murky battlefield moments like this one. A commander must evaluate the situation “with intelligent suspicion,” and take into account not only “what the enemy will probably do” but also “everything that the enemy can do.” To assume he will, or will not, take a particular step “may be fraught with the most serious consequences for a commander.”

That was especially true for an outpost. Army or navy bases on the mainland, or civilian leaders in their Washington, DC, offices, did not have to be as watchful as a commander on the frontier. In his forward watchtower, the sentry could not indulge in the luxury of inattention or the assumption that others were taking care of matters. He was there to protect those to the rear, and that started, in Kimmel’s case, with protecting himself, his men, and his ships. If there were no fleet, there would be nothing between the Japanese and the mainland. If there were no fleet, there would be no grand offensive, either. “In the Army,” one general said, “we are taught that in case you have no information, you ought to be prepared for the worst, and in an outpost like Hawaii, they are always supposed to be awake and prepared for anything. That is why it is an outpost, so that people on the Mainland can go to sleep.”

Earlier Saturday, a navy whaleboat had eased away from the officer’s landing in Southeast Loch and made for the battleship California. It carried a piece of paper and Edwin Layton. The early morning was soothing, with scattered clouds; the warship ahead was beautiful, powerful, looming larger as the launch closed the gap. The California flew the flag of Admiral Pye, the second-highest-ranking officer in the fleet and somewhat of a consigliore to Kimmel, who wanted Pye’s opinion about the paper Layton carried.

It was a message from Manila, from Admiral Hart, who was eighteen and a half hours deeper into Saturday than was Oahu. Some three dozen Japanese transports, escorted by twenty-eight warships, had been sighted surging around the tip of Indochina and into the Gulf of Siam, Hart reported. Lying directly ahead of them, only hours of sailing away, were the coasts of Thailand and British Malaya. To Layton, this was it. The war was on. The only remaining, and oft- debated, question was whether “they would leave us on their flank as a menace,” Layton said, or attack the American airfields and naval installations in the Philippines to snuff the threat of retaliation for their invasions elsewhere.

Tommy Hart, as noted, thought they would. Layton was inclined that way, too: “The Japanese have rarely left a strong enemy in an immediate flank.” But aboard the California, Pye demurred. The Japanese would skirt the Philippines, the sage thought, for the same pragmatic reason endorsed by so many in the navy: America was just too muscular. Why would they pick a losing fight?

When Layton returned and relayed the gist, Kimmel “looked at me in the way he could look—right straight through you—and he snorted.” He did that, “snorted like a horse,” when he heard some- thing of dubious validity, Layton knew. Once upon a time, the admiral believed what Pye did about America’s being too intimidating to fight, but the snort suggested he now felt as Layton did, that the Japanese would indeed hit the Philippines to defuse a danger to their southern operation.

Of course, the Pacific Fleet was on the Japanese flank, too—much farther away, yes, but also much more powerful than anything in the waters of the Philippines. The Americans had advanced their great armada to Pearl to serve as a holstered threat, a curb on distant imperial aggression, never having wondered whether the Japanese might instead regard it as a bull’s-eye they had to hit, an impediment to be overcome, just as the depth of the harbor was.

Kimmel and his men still possessed no incontrovertible evidence of onrushing Japanese raiders. Sound Military Decision urged commanders to credit the enemy “with the possession of good judgment,” not rash instincts, and an attack on Oahu still seemed an astonishingly dangerous, if not logistically impossible, thing to try. The admiral’s threshold still had not been met. An attack did not seem “probable,” only remotely possible. The war was still going to open elsewhere.

At the meeting at the Submarine Building on Saturday, the leading officers of the Pacific Fleet opted to stand pat, to keep training in anticipation of their offensive missions. Kimmel encouraged and expected dissent, and “I had no advice from any one of them—I think I am fair in stating that—to take any measures other than the ones that we had laid down,” he said. He was a man who liked things to stay as he had planned them. And so, the long-distance patrols that civilians on the mainland had been told for months were flying from Oahu did not now begin, not even in a limited way, thereby leaving the admiral blind by his own choice. The battleships and cruisers remained inside Pearl rather than sailing to safety. The level of readiness aboard anchored ships was not elevated.

It was a gamble, as much as Roosevelt’s gift of American planes to other countries was a gamble, as much as Yamamoto’s thrust to Oahu was. The memory banks of those at Pearl—and those in Washington—contained no solid images or estimates of the harm that could be inflicted on the fleet’s men and their ships if the Japanese caught them inside the harbor. Martin and Bellinger had spoken of the damage possibly being great enough to threaten planned operations in the Western Pacific, and Frank Knox had suggested it could be a “major disaster.” But nothing systematic had been compiled, no tables of projected losses if this many or that many battleships or carriers were surprised at their moorings. To estimate such damage, the size and potency of an attacking force must be estimated first, and while one report during the summer had mentioned six carriers, no American could really imagine the destructive punch of hundreds of warplanes delivered from the sea, because there was no precedent for such a thing. Navy minds weren’t there yet. Taranto, after all, had been raided by only a single British carrier. And while torpedoes were dangerous weapons, they needed water deeper than Pearl’s. Or so the fleet believed. All in all, there was a sense that nothing truly bad could happen under the sun of Oahu, even if the Japanese did show up. “I never believed that an air attack on Hawaii, on Pearl Harbor, would result in the destruction of the Fleet,” Kimmel said.

Besides, he felt he held an ace. Washington, through its code breaking and other means, would know if probable danger was out there. “I felt that before hostilities came that there would be addi- tional information, that we would get something more definite,” he said. But to assume Washington would always know of the enemy’s approach was to assume the empire could keep no secrets and could pull off no surprises. By definition, a surprise is what its recipient never sees coming.

Steve Twomey began his career in journalism as a copyboy at the Chicago Tribune when he was in high school. After graduating from Northwestern University, he began a fourteen-year career at The Philadelphia Inquirer, during which he won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and then worked at The Washington Post for the next thirteen years. More recently, he has written for Smithsonian and other magazines and has taught narrative writing at the graduate schools of New York University and the City University of New York. The ghostwriter of What I Learned When I Almost Died and author of Countdown to Pearl Harbor, Twomey lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife, Kathleen Carroll.

Image: The U.S. Navy battleship USS California sinking after being torpedoed at Pearl Harbor. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain