A catas­tro­phe that never should have hap­pened


The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By San­dra McEl­waine San­dra McEl­waine is a Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent for The Daily Beast.

Si­mon & Schus­ter, $30, 384 pages

Dec. 7, 1941, a day that haunts us still. Af­ter 75 years, nine for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, in­nu­mer­able books, sto­ries and end­less spec­u­la­tion, no one has prop­erly con­cluded why Amer­ica was caught de­fense­less and to­tally off guard when a mob of Ja­panese Zeros zoomed in and nearly oblit­er­ated the en­tire U.S. Pa­cific fleet in Pearl Har­bor that sleepy Sun­day morn­ing.

The sneak at­tack, which found the ships berthed side by side within the con­fines of the har­bor, was dev­as­tat­ing. The United States was stunned. More than 2,000 mil­i­tary per­son­nel were killed along with 68 civilians and all eight bat­tle­ships sunk or badly dam­aged.

For­tu­itously, the three air­craft car­ri­ers were out on ma­neu­vers. Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt called the Ja­panese treach­ery “a date that will live in infamy.”

How could the in­con­ceiv­able have hap­pened? Af­ter read­ing Steve Twomey’s ex­haus­tive and un­flinch­ing, “Count­down To Pearl Har­bor: The Twelve Days To The At­tack,” the con­clu­sions are as fol­lows:

An as­ton­ish­ing lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Wash­ing­ton and the mil­i­tary thou­sands of miles away in Hawaii.

Gar­bled, de­layed and in­co­her­ent in­struc­tions within the mil­i­tary it­self. Even though in close con­tact with each other the Navy brass did not know ex­actly what the Army brass was do­ing and visa versa.

There were gross mis­judg­ments, wrong as­sump­tions and a mul­ti­tude of missed op­por­tu­ni­ties be­gin­ning at the White House all the way down the chain of com­mand.

Though the U.S. had bro­ken the Ja­panese code and re­al­ized war was im­mi­nent some­where in the Pa­cific (most thought the Philip­pines) there was a lais­sez faire at­ti­tude in the trop­i­cal par­adise.

War warn­ings were ac­knowl­edged but ig­nored. No one was in to­tal com­mand.

In­ex­pli­ca­bly, early the morn­ing of the at­tack two Army pri­vates, who were fid­dling with a prim­i­tive radar set, spot­ted a swarm of uniden­ti­fied planes com­ing in over the ocean head­ing straight to­ward Oahu. Alarmed, they called head­quar­ters only to be told to for­get it.

They were just a bunch of B17s re­turn­ing from the main­land. Even though the chief of the Pa­cific Fleet, Adm. Hus­band E. Kimmel, knew a de­stroyer had fired at a for­eign sub­ma­rine sus­pi­ciously lurk­ing off­shore, he went to his of­fice and is­sued no or­ders. He was not sure the as­sault was real.

Above all, there was breath­tak­ing ig­no­rance and prej­u­dice. Be­cause the Ja­panese were dis­missed as in­fe­rior — “the yel­low peril” — there was ba­sic dis­be­lief their im­pe­rial navy was ca­pa­ble of un­der­tak­ing such a long, dar­ing and dan­ger­ous sea voy­age. Their pi­lots were deemed sec­ond-rate, un­able to pull off such a daunt­ing task.

The West knew lit­tle about the suave, Ja­panese Adm. Isoruko Ya­mamoto, a dap­per man who had spent time in the United States as a naval at­tache, spoke flu­ent English and was known as a bril­liant tac­ti­cian. He was also a con­sum­mate bridge player and a highly so­phis­ti­cated gam­bler.

De­spite the fact he op­posed war, he re­al­ized early on con­flict with Amer­ica “was in­evitable” and Ja­pan, the smaller power, must strike on “its first day.” His aim: to send air­craft car­ri­ers to Pearl Har­bor in or­der to crush U.S. naval power and trau­ma­tize the un­sus­pect­ing na­tion.

Im­pla­ca­ble de­ter­mi­na­tion and to­tal se­crecy were cru­cial to success. Com­plete ra­dio si­lence, to­tal black­outs and in­cred­i­ble luck, al­lowed his con­voy of 30, fea­tur­ing six air­craft car­ri­ers, to cross more than 3,000 miles of ocean un­de­tected and un­scathed. It was the ul­ti­mate gam­bit.

In Ja­pan the saga­cious, Bos­ton Brah­min, Joseph Grew, long­time U.S. am­bas­sador to that coun­try, knew war was on the hori­zon. He had been en poste for 10 years and ac­quired a raft of Ja­panese friends, con­tacts and a pro­found un­der­stand­ing of the se­crecy and bel­li­cos­ity of the na­tion.

In his let­ters to the pres­i­dent, whom he ad­dressed “Dear Frank,” they had been class­mates at Gro­ton School, he wrote, “Ja­pan has be­come openly and unashamedly one of the preda­tory na­tions,” and warned that Ja­pan might act with “dan­ger­ous and dra­matic sud­den­ness.’

He told the U.S. State depart­ment he and his staff were in­creas­ingly iso­lated and would be un­able to pro­vide any sub­stan­tial in­for­ma­tion on troop move­ments or overt ag­gres­sion. He knew Ja­pan would strike soon. But where?

In­cred­i­bly, Ya­mamoto’s bat­tle plan never leaked.

Grew was in the em­bassy con­fis­cat­ing pa­pers and de­stroy­ing codes when he learned of the dis­as­ter at Pearl Har­bor. He was in­terned in his res­i­dence for nine months and then ex­changed for Ja­panese diplo­mats in the United States.

In an ironic twist of his­tory, the Ja­panese em­ployed the ex­act same sur­prise tac­tic more than a cen­tury ago. They launched a raid on the Rus­sian fleet moored out­side Port Arthur in Manchuria in 1904, kick­ing off the bloody Russo-Ja­panese War.

Mr. Twomey’s book gives us the tick tock of the lead-up to the most in­fa­mous day in U.S. his­tory. He has put to­gether the pieces of the be­wil­der­ing puz­zle and writ­ten a riv­et­ing ac­count of a catas­tro­phe that never should gave hap­pened.

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