USS West Virginia;Sailors pull survivors from the water alongside the…

USS West Virginia;Sailors pull survivors from the water alongside the sunken battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48) during or shortly after the Japanese raid. USS Tennessee (BB-43) visible behind West Virginia. Note extensive distortion of West Virginia´s lower superstructure amidships, from torpedo hits below, and 5-inch/.25 caliber gun, still partially covered with canvas.

Seventy years ago, the United States was kicked into World War II. Join us on a new weekly series as Tactical Life rummages the dustbin and duffel bag of history for the untold stories of secret weapons, and the arcane, often inane but pivotal backstories to famous campaigns and tools of WWII. It will be History Lite, but you may never view textbook history the same.

In 1940, nationalistic pride and militaristic hubris after the ruthless and successful conquest of China were driving Japan inexorably toward war with the United States. Then, the paper conquest of Southeast Asia through a treaty with the Vichy French gave Japan control of vast new territory in French Indo-China that resulted in the U.S. embargo of strategic materials and seizure of Japanese assets. At this point, war seemed inevitable, although many Japanese military leaders were concerned about the long-range implications of a protracted war with an industrial powerhouse. As the storm clouds darkened, Harvard-educated Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto expressed doubt, apprehension, even disgust over Japan’s headlong rush toward war with the U.S. and said it would be a terrible mistake. Although a well-regarded figure, his comments angered the Army.

But as a loyal commander, Yamamoto dutifully began plans to attack the American fleet, recently relocated from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, working from earlier plans drawn by Admiral Minoru Genda.

Iroruko; Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, chief architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Official Japanese photo)

Thus a Japanese strike force comprising 353 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes aboard six aircraft carriers set sail for Pearl Harbor the morning of November 26, 1941, Japan time. It could have been recalled en route, but no further diplomatic progress was made and on December 1, Emperor Hirohito agreed, in Imperial Conference, to a war against the U.S., Britain, and the Netherlands, which began by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, and the Philippines. Final approval of the operation was received on December 6, 1941, and December 7 became “the day which will live in infamy.”

Although Yamamoto viewed any attack on the U.S. as a mistake, there were great tactical mistakes built into this attack. So severe were these tactical flaws, that they comprised strategic errors as well.

Unforeseen Consequences
Because Imperial Japan was a nation of finite resources, and the United States was a nation of vast resources and comprised, as Admiral Yamamoto had noted, “a sleeping giant,” Japan was in a poor position to win a protracted war at this point, and they knew it. Their one hope was to strike an utterly devastating first blow, destroying our ability to project military power in the Pacific, and they hoped, destroy our morale and will to fight in the same blow.

The attack on Pearl Harbor is often held as one of the most successful preemptive strikes in history. A candid analysis of what the attack was intended to accomplish, however, and how fatal tactical flaws within the attack plan made the attack fail in the initial goal and ultimately led Japan into a war they could not possibly win in the long term, belie that characterization. That the Japanese indeed caught the giant asleep is undisputable, but although the attack was disastrous it was not devastating, and because of its fatal tactical and strategic flaws, it ultimately brought a result opposite to that intended.

First, although it was supposed to be a killing blow to our ability to project national policy in the Pacific, it left intact our tools most effective so to do. Second, destroying our prestigious battleships was intended to cow Washington and the American people into a pax romana for Japanese intentions in Southeast Asia, in particular the oil-rich Dutch East Indies and in Malaya. Instead, it galvanized the largely isolationist American people into a war effort as never before seen in our history. Lastly, the attack was intended to buy time for Japan so it could upgrade its naval strength before our own 70 percent increase in naval power that was authorized under the 1940 Vinson-Walsh Act could become a reality. In this final regard, the result was that our remaining forces quickly crippled Japan’s ability to import strategic materials.

Photograph taken from attacking Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island early in Pearl Harbor attack. View looks east, with crucial supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm, all untouched, at upper right. (U.S. Navy Photo)

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    Jorge, he was a lieutenant commander when he wrote the first plans for the Pearl attack. He retired as a General. (Navy guy retiring as general happened because he was later commander of the JDF: Army, Navy, AF)

  • Gary Paul Johnston

    A great read! New details on WW II are always welcome.

  • interesting…

  • Vince Robell

    Great concise story and photos. Please publish more on the war.

  • Jorge_Banner

    “Admiral Minoru Genda”? The guy was a Commander at the time, if memory serves me right.