The Day that Will Live in Infamy…but it didn’t have to.

Posted by Rebekah
Dec 08 2010

*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:

Adm. Harry E. Yarnell


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.


“The Real Architect of Pearl Harbor” by Capt. Jack Young, USN (ret.) , published in Naval Aviation Spring, 2005.

Short article about the 1932 attack including excerpts from Navy papers referencing the practice attack

Plus all the links above.

*The other four aircraft carriers, WASP, YORKTOWN, HORNET and RANGER, were in the Atlantic.

5 Responses

  1. Rick Hamby says:

    So, was it “Yarnell”, or was it “Yarell” ?… article contains several of both spellings.

    Interesting article, nevertheless.

  2. Rebekah says:


    Thanks for pointing that out. After double checking, it is indeed YARNELL, and I’ve corrected the article to reflect that.

    Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for posting!

  3. Matt says:

    Great article. May I ask a favor:
    There is a picture out there, somewhere, of young naval officers marching in a parade or something, holding a sign that says roughly: A naval warship has never been defeated by air forces.

    Much like your history lesson above it was all part of the lobbying of the battleship admirals to maintain superiority of Naval Surface Warfare, blind to the potential of Aviation.

    Are any of you familiar with this iconic photo. It is black and white. Abd I’d love to get my hands on a copy.


  4. Tom says:

    Very nice brief coverage of the history behind the Pearl Harbour attack (the Japanese also were very interested in the wartime attack by the Royal Navy on the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour).

    Just a minor nit-pick – there was no radar in 1932, in Hawaii or indeed anywhere else. The first experiments in radar (or RDF as the British called it) were in the mid 30s, in England.
    It’s possible that they were concerned at visual spotting from radio masts, which might well have been very tall.


  5. Rod Rudinger says:

    Add to this, that Admiral Kimmel had no combat experience (World War One was primarily a land war, but President Wilson sent a task force to help the Royal Navy, but both forces never saw any action; their presence was used to keep the German Fleet “bottled up” at home. This was apparently successful, but German Submarine Warfare continued, and no doubt the Germans used what they had learned in building the “Wolf Packs”
    Radar had proved its worth in the Battle of Britain the previous year, and the Army had been provided with a radar, which they placed on the northern shore of Oahu; but used it badly. A crew had been assigned to the radar station, and saw a large flight coming in from the northeast, but the officer in charge had to go a short distance down the road, and use a payphone (no direct telephone line) to call Army Intelligence, but was told there was a flight of B-17s’ coming in from the West Coast, and to forget it. No one thought to send out a “scout plane” to confirm identity of the radar signature.
    Apparently, the Army-Navy rivalry also played a significant role. Admiral Kimmel was apparently “All-Navy”, and had no use for the Army; and General Short wanted an assignment in Washington, D.C., and no doubt was not thrilled with the prospect of going to Hawaii, and “playing second violin” to Kimmel, since this was, after all, primarily an Oceanic Command. General Short also may not have been aware of the successful war games, and the successful British Attack on Taranto. He thought sabotage was a primary concern, and unwittingly set up a splendid target for the incoming Japanese. The B-17 flight, by the way, basically unarmed; and arrived at Hickam just after the Attack began, and was badly shot up, and the few planes that attempted to land, crashed on the runway. President Roosevelt did not make a mistake in headquartering the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, since it did move the Base of Operations 2000 miles closer to the Japanese Home Islands, but he did make a mistake in choosing the Commanders, splitting the Intelligence Operations between the Army and Navy; which was critical, in that we had broken the Japanese Code, and knew something was going on, plus Kimmel had lost track of the equivalent of two Japanese Task Forces, in the two weeks before the Attack; but the critical 14-part message was split between the two services, they apparently did not share intelligence with each other, so valuable time, and information was squandered. Roosevelt did not knock heads together, and tell the Services, “Gentlemen, we will be going to war shortly, and in many respects, we are already at war; and if you are not ready to cooperate with each other fully, and leave your rivalry on the Foot ball field, I expect to have your resignations on my desk, by the end of the week. Likewise, this conversation is Top Secret, and I will have the head of anyone who leaks this to the Press.”
    I am also curious, as to why he didn’t cancel one, or two, of the Battleship Contracts, in favor of building a fifth carrier.
    The demotions for both commanders were entirely appropriate, in my view, because while mistakes were made in Washington (I would have found it curious that the Japanese Envoys had scheduled a meeting with our Secretary of State, at 1:00 PM Eastern Time, on Sunday: December 7; approximately dawn in Hawaii); the Pacific Commanders failed to take what independent action they could, made the wrong decisions, and got their respective commands shot to hell. The Navy alone lost 1100 officers and sailors when the Arizona blew up, and another 400 when the California capsized, and “turned turtle” trapping men below decks. We can also be thankful that Admiral Nagumo was a cautious man, and chose not to listen to Commanders Kenda, and Fuchida; about launching a third wave, decided to take his winnings, and go home; because both men knew that they had inflicted heavy damage on Oahu, and that Pearl Harbor was effectively, defenseless. A third wave might have caught Enterprise returning to port, and inflicted more damage on Pearl; blowing up the oil depots, and possibly more ships, and the submarine facilities.

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