*This was supposed to be posted yesterday, but for a number of reasons, I had to finish it a day late. We’ll return to the Flier tomorrow (I’ve already started on the next post). I hope you think it was worth the wait.
It was a quiet Sunday morning. The winter storms that routinely lashed the sea northeast of Oahu were at it again, pouring rain on Kahuka Point and obscuring most of the horizon with low clouds, though right over Pearl Harbor, the sky was clear. The fleet lay at anchor, in the neat double rows on Battleship Row, at the small Submarine Base, and even in the dry docks, having their hulls scraped and checked for the corrosion that the saltwater carved into their sides.
The sun had only just risen. A minimum of crew was on call. Some were sleeping off the effects of the night before. Others were at their homes on shore, with their families, undoubtedly looking forward to a relaxing day at church and playing with their children. A few were already stumbling into kitchens and restaurants and Mess Halls, seeking that morning cup of coffee and a bite of breakfast.
Suddenly, airplanes shot out of the clouds, strafing the ground, dropping bombs on the peaceful ships at harbor. In moments, the harbor was in disarray, men scrambling to gain their battle stations, but it was already too late. The ships were already damaged, some severely, both at anchor and those in the dry docks. Nothing was spared.
The planes headed back out to sea, and there, in the midst of the storm, a small group of ships waited for their return, hiding in the rain, safe from the eyes of radar. The planes landed safely on the two carriers.
In the Bridge of the lead carrier, the admiral listened with satisfaction to reports of the damage. When presented with the final report, he smiled, and signed it:
Sunday, February 7, 1932
That’s right. Pearl Harbor was first attacked on February 7, 1932, nine years before the date that will live in infamy. On December 7, 1941, we as a country pause to remember the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, and the lives lost there, but few know that the attack on Pearl had been eerily foretold nine years earlier.
See, in the beginning of the 20th century, the backbone of the Navy was the behemoth battleships and destroyers. Aircraft Carriers and Submarines were considered little more than niche vessels which had limited uses.
But one admiral, Harry Yarnell, believed that the Navy had more to fear from an aerial attack delivered from the deck of a carrier, than from ever larger confrontations between larger and larger ships and deck guns. During the annual combined Navy war games at Pearl Harbor, he set out to prove his point. Every year, Yarnell’s ships in California would leave for Pearl, “attacking” the battleships stationed in Pearl. (at this time the military’s main Pacific base was in San Diego, not Pearl Harbor, so Yarnell had the larger fleet.) Usually, the radio traffic between the massive fleet would be intercepted by Pearl, their battleships would leave harbor, and they would “battle” out in the open sea.
In 1932 however, Yarnell left most of his allotted ships in California with orders to maintain radio silence. He took Aircraft Carriers SARATOGA and LEXINGTON out to sea with a small escort of three destroyers. They traveled under radio silence, staying away from the traveled freighter lanes, and sought an area where they couldn’t be seen from the radar towers on Hawaii. During the winter months, storms routinely happened near Oahu, and here, he hid, knowing the radar couldn’t see them, and no freighter would be near. To top it all off, he also decided to attack on Sunday, a day he knew was the day most sailors would be off duty, and also most likely to be off-ship.
The “bombs” and “strafing” were just flares and bags of flour, but the referees of the war games judged that Yarnell had been more than successful, sinking EVERY ship in Pearl Harbor, as well as figuratively destroying every land-based plane in Oahu. In addition, 24 hours after the attack, using what few battleships that had been at sea during the simulated attack, the Pearl Harbor team hadn‘t been able to locate Yarnell’s small fleet. From Yarnell’s point of view, it had been a complete success, and he and his officers argued that, having proved the effectiveness of an aerial attack from a carrier, they should become more central to the plans of the military, instead of outlying support vehicles for the battleships.
But it was also an idea ahead of its time. The admirals, who believed that the battleship was still the workhorse of the navy, protested the results, insisting that if this was a real scenario, their battleships would have found the aircraft carriers and destroyed them first.
In the end, the battleship officers won, and in the years between 1932 and 1941, the military and FDR ordered the construction of another twelve battleships but only four aircraft carriers, the YORKTOWN, ENTERPRISE, WASP and HORNET. (and only the ENTERPRISE was supposed to be assigned to the Pacific Fleet, where Yarnell feared a Japanese attack.) The Navy was growing, but the retired Yarnell feared that it was growing the wrong sectors.
What few knew, was the Japanese paid attention to this particular war game, and sent a detailed record to Tokyo about how the surprise was accomplished. Records later showed that the Japanese War College studied this attack in 1936, coming to the following conclusion:
“in case the enemy’s main fleet is berthed at Pearl Harbor, the idea should be to open hostilities by surprise attack from the air.”
Even stranger, in the winter of 1938, Pearl Harbor was attacked AGAIN. And like in 1932, she was attacked by American forces during the annual war games. This time, Admiral Ernest King used the Aircraft Carrier SARATOGA (again) to launch and aerial attack to make the point that Pearl Harbor was still vulnerable to this type of attack. Sadly, the result of his successful maneuver was the same as Yarnell’s in 1932: nothing.
And in May 1940, the fleet, against the recommendation of Pacific Admiral James Richardson moved from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. Admiral Richardson was soon relieved of duty and replaced by Husband Kimmel who also had concerns about Pearl but saw what the price for complaining was.
The stage was set, and the Japanese, believing that they would not be able to withstand the full might of the American Navy if the United States entered the Pacific conflict, decided to take out the fleet at Pearl Harbor, following the pattern set in 1932 by Admiral Yarnell. Their fleet traveled in radio silence, they traveled off the well-traveled shipping lanes of the Pacific, they hid in the foul winter weather, and attacked just after dawn on a Sunday.
The bombs weren’t flour bags, on this, the third attack of Pearl Harbor, and 2,896 men and women died; military as well as civilians.
And the Japanese caused that which they sought to circumvent: the American entry into war.
As a strange ending to our tale, Admiral Yarnell got the last laugh, though I’m sure he never would have used that phrase. On the morning of December 7, 1941, most of our battleships and destroyers were in port, and were damaged or sunk. But all three aircraft carriers in the Pacific*, which the Japanese desperately sought to destroy (because they knew how useful they would be) were not in port. The ENTERPRISE was at sea, returning from Wake Island, and held up both because of foul weather and because some of her escort had run out of fuel and needed to refuel. The LEXINGTON was at sea, delivering Marine aircraft to Midway Atoll, and the SARATOGA, veteran of Pearl Harbor attacks, was being repaired at San Diego. Oops, missed. A miss that would be crucial.
The other crucial miss of course, was the Submarine Base at Pearl. Not only was the Submarine Base missed, it was never planned to be hit by any wave of aircraft (even the third wave which the Japanese never launched). By sundown on December 7, the back of the Navy was broken and the Aircraft Carrier and submarine were the best defense against the Japanese threat.
And today, they are backbone of the modern military.
Plus all the links above.
*The other four aircraft carriers, WASP, YORKTOWN, HORNET and RANGER, were in the Atlantic.