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A date which will live in infamy

 

 

I've already discussed Japan's miraculous transformation from a reclusive kingdom to a leading industrial power in my notes on our trip to Japan. Read More...

By now everyone on the planet must have seen the movie: Tora Tora Tora at least once.  So we all know of the botched Japanese declaration of war, that came after the attack was already underway, the ignored radar sighting of the incoming aircraft and the brave attempts by the heroes of the movie to get at least a couple of American fighter planes into the air.

But the museum at Pearl Harbour puts much more meat on those bones.

 


A date which will live in infamy
Although there had been ample warning of war with Japan and some intelligence identified Pearl Harbour
Manilla in the Philippines was thought to be the likely first point of any Japanese Attack
Surprise was not the issue. No general tells the enemy where he or she is about to attack
But the attack on Pearl Harbour came without a declaration of war and this was illegal and therefore 'infamous'
No doubt Saddam Hussein was of the same opinion on March 19, 2003.

 

What becomes evident in the museums at Pearl Harbour is a meticulously planned military action by Japan, where many innovative solutions by engineers and military commanders came together, almost without a hitch, to sink or destroy five battleships; and seriously damage another four together with six cruisers and destroyers; to destroy or seriously damage 357 aircraft; and leave 3,478 killed or wounded at the cost to the Imperial Japanese Navy of: 29 aircraft downed and 64 killed, oh, and three mini-submarines with one submariner taken prisoner.  We learn about torpedos modified to run in shallow water and armour piercing bombs dropped from an exact height to explode within the target ship.

 

 

Battleship killer

Model of Japanese torpedo Recovered Japanese torpedo

Japan used modified torpedos after carefully analysing a successful British attack on the Italian Fleet

 

We learn of spies and codes and of careful timing to catch the base least prepared and of aircraft lined up to ward against sabotage by the untrusted Japanese Americans but made more vulnerable to being strafed. 

 

 


American aircraft were 'sitting ducks' for the Japanese fighter bombers

 

Not here but at the Army Museum I'd already learned that the decision to return home after the initial two raids was disastrous for Japan.  The US aircraft carriers, serendipitously at sea, could have been effectively immobilised by destroying their fuel and ammunition supplies in Hawaii.  Then the decisive Battle of Midway may well have had an alternative outcome.  Very soon Japan would have controlled the Pacific as their strategy required.

They fully expected America to bounce back but not before they had consolidated their position from Burma (Myanmar), Malaya and the Philippines and in particular the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) securing the oil and rubber they so desperately needed. They then intended to sue for peace, having every expectation that Britain, without America's support, would be unable do anything about freeing France let alone the rest of Europe and would be forced to sue for peace with Germany. 

Just three days later, on December 10, Japanese land based aircraft would effectively eliminate the British Pacific fleet when they sank the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse. Why were they within range - they of all combatants must have understood the danger?  The British themselves had used aircraft to sink the German battleship Bismarck. Then in 1940 at the battle of Taranto their aircraft had sunk the Italian battleship Conte di Cavour and seriously damaged five others.

Although some were slow to appreciate it the age of the battleship was over.  During the cold war strategists came to realise that isolated naval bases too, like Pearl Harbour and Malta, are no advantage against nuclear armed adversaries.  In a war with one of these the entire island would be gone on day one, with a single ICBM.  Such naval bases serve only as an invitation to terrorists or domestic activists.

As it was, Admiral Nagumo, in command of the carriers, decided to withdraw after the primary goal of destroying those soon to be 'white elephant' battleships had been achieved.  American anti-aircraft defence had improved after the surprise of the first wave resulting in most of his losses. Further, he was not sure if the three missing US aircraft carriers were in a position to counter attack. Junior officers argued for a third strike but he demurred and persuaded Admiral Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief, that it would be better to reserve the fleet's strength than lose more aircraft, particularly as pilots would need to return and land on the carriers at night - something that only the British had perfected and would certainly result in further losses. 

Yamamoto later regretted Nagumo's decision not to go back to destroy the oil and ammunition storages saying it was a mistake that would cost Japan the war. Admiral Nimitz, later Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, had a similar view agreeing that at the very least: "it would have prolonged the war another two years".

But great as this military blunder was this was not as great as the diplomatic failure to declare war in time, apparently due to difficulties using a typewriter, if we are to believe the movie. This meant that the attack was illegal and henceforth the US could and would use any means at their disposal to retaliate including: flame throwers; deliberate fire bomb attacks on civilians; and ultimately the nuclear destruction of two entire cities.  It was a very expensive mistake, some say misjudgement.

Indeed some historians now assert that the entire attack was poorly conceived and was totally unnecessary for Japan to achieve its aims.  They point out that the US Pacific fleet was heavily outnumbered and in no condition to confront Japan.  Had the Japanese simply gone ahead and taken Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, bypassing the obvious flash point of the Philippines, the likely US response would have been a diplomatic rather that military. 

Thus the attack on Pearl Harbour was a huge strategic mistake as it brought the US into the war and led to the destruction of the Japanese empire.  As neither the British nor the Russians could have retaken Europe without the Americans, it also led to Stalingrad, D-Day and the fall of Germany, in addition to the accelerated development of nuclear weapons.

German Europe and Japanese Asia, not the defeated Soviet Union, would then have become the post-war economic and military adversaries of the United States.

 


Strategic Disaster - a war that led to the destruction of the Japanese empire

 

But then, as I said at the outset, I would not be sitting here writing this and you dear reader would probably not have been born either, unless you are pushing 80.  Let's all thank Admiral Yamamoto for his daring plan.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbour the US won the war against Japan and in 1959 those white plotters from the missions and plantations finally got their way when Hawaii became the 50th State.   The Filipino nationalists also got their way when in 1946 they finally gained their independence from the USA.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

 

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