Day of Infamy: The First Pearl Attack…1932

Posted by Rebekah
Nov 04 2011

Day of Infamy Project: Longtime readers will recognize some of this post, thought I’ve found more information since I originally wrote this last year.  Still, for those who are interested, this is the first time Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it was not in 1941.  IT was in 1932.  The attack itself will sound familiar to those who are familiar with the MO of the December 7, attacks, and it should.  Admiral John H. Towers, who commanded the Air Forces of the Pacific during WWII, dined with a Japanese vice admrial in Tokyo in the 1950’s who had helped plan the attack on Pearl.  According to Towers, “He told me they had simply taken a page out of our own book!”

I’m also trying a Twitter Project for the months of November and December.  Leading up to December 7/8, I’ll be tweeting the events that lead up to Pearl Harbor and the attack itself.  Eventually, by mid-November, these tweets will be in real time.  i.e. I’ll tweet about the Japanese fleet leaving Japan ON the 70th anniversary of that happeneing on November 26, and we’ll track the attack fleet together. as they launch and attack.  Thus far, there are two feeds:

Twitter: Day of Infamy: Japan (To watch Pearl HArbor unfold from the Japanese point of view)

Twitter: Day of Infamy: Pearl (To watch Pearl unfold from Pearl)

Some of these Tweets will be stand alone tweets, others will link to articles, photos or things related to the attack on Pearl, some will link back here to blog posts I write (or ask guest authors to write)  But I think the ferocity of the attack can be experienced through Twitter in an interesting way.  We’ll see.  If you’re not into Twitter, that’s okay, a lot of that information will be here still.  And look for more Day of Infamy tweets.  Washington DC up next.

In honor of all who lost their lives in the opening salvos…we retell the story.  And in the retelling, we’ll remember.


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 in their racks, sleeping off the effects of the night before.  Others were already out, attending early Mass and church services.  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

In the beginning of the 20th century, the backbone of the Navy was the behemoth battleships and destroyers.    Battles consisted of larger and larger and larger ships and guns squaring off and blasting each other and their surroundings to pieces.  He with the largest gun (and support platform, i.e. the ship itself) generally won.  Aircraft Carriers and Submarines were considered little more than niche vessels which had limited uses, mostly reconnaissance for said big guns.

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 everyone would “battle” out in the open sea.

In 1932, the Navy proposed the scenario that “the enemy” (in this case, the Pearl Harbor force, the smaller fleet) had taken over Hawaii, and Yarnell’s much larger San Diego fleet, was assigned to take out the Pearl fleet and recapture Hawaii.  Pearl prepared, searching the seas, the air, the radio signals, looking for the full strength of Yarnell’s fleet.

Yarnell did something totally unexpected: he left most of his ships home.  Taking only Aircraft Carriers SARATOGA and LEXINGTON out to sea with a small escort of three destroyers, everyone maintained strict radio silence and traveled miles away from the well-traveled shipping lanes. During the winter months, storms routinely popped up near Oahu, and inside one of those, Yarnell’s fleet hid, knowing the radar couldn’t see them through the storm.  To top it all off, he also decided to attack on Sunday, a day he knew most sailors would be off duty, and also most likely to be off-ship.  It would take a long time for anyone to fully man the waiting ships, or get them underway in defense.

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 already been at sea during the simulated attack, the Pearl Harbor team still hadn’t found 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, those ships 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 other 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 before they got near enough to do damage-especially a foreign fleet who would easily be spotted by the dozens of freighters, tankers and fisherman that routinely worked around the islands.

Yarnell argued his point, saying that in years past, during war games, when each team had one aircraft carrier, it was the primary point for both teams to “destroy” the other’s carrier, usually resulting in both teams losing their carrier early in the game. To him, it was obvious: in war the side with the most aircraft carriers would have the advantage, and more funds should be allocated to build six to eight carriers, rather than larger dreadnaught battleships and destroyers.

In the end though, 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 the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu 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.”

To give one a point of view on the growth of battleships in just 30 years (including WWI) these historical photos have been scaled to the right size for each vessel: from the Pre-WWI Utah to the USS Missouri, under construction on Dec. 7, 1941.

One Response

  1. Good site, and the info is interesting, but what “radar” did Admiral Yarnell have to dodge in the 1932 war game? He would have had to dodge submarine and surface contacts and maybe a scout plane, but WHAT radar? Even in 1941, it was a new and relatively untested thing. 1932? I don’t think so.

    Document where I am wrong on this.

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