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Archive for December 7th, 2008

So read the LA Times on the December 8, 1941.  We tend to remember sneak attacks very well.  And no “sucker punch” is as well-known (well, one other one is pretty familiar to us) as the one on December 7, 1941.  It’s the day the Japanese Navy achieved complete surprise in their attack of Pearl Harbor, our major Pacific Naval base. At just a few minutes before 8:00 am, the guns on the Japanese fighters started blazing and the bombs and torpedoes started falling.

Ninety minutes later, after two separate waves of attacks, it was over…for both sides.

As far as the U.S. was concerned, it was a huge disaster.  Yamamoto’s goal of tactical surprise was perfectly executed.  The various groups of planes arrived over their targets with almost surgical precision (if air attacks can be assessed that way), making it nearly impossible for the U.S. soldiers to focus on one target.  What’s more, the Japanese had off-loaded handful of midget submarines early on the 7th.  At least one had been discovered and sunk several hours before the attacks began, but still no serious alarms were raised.  As the smoke rose over Oahu, five battleships rested on Pearl’s harbor floor, three cruisers were damaged or sunk, and three destroyers were damaged or sunk, along with a handful of other ships.  More than 300 aircraft had been wrecked or damaged, and 2,400 people had taken their last breaths, with another 1,300 wounded.

But the silver lining of the stunning Japanese victory was not without its clouds.  As we know, the U.S. carriers were not on-scene, so they were undamaged.  But more than that, the carriers caused Admiral Nagumo enough doubt (as to their whereabouts) to cancel a 3rd attack targeting Pearl’s repair and storage facilities which, if successful, could have knocked Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Fleet out of the war for a year or more.

But I think the biggest mistake of the day was one involving communications.  Japanese military leadership wanted the attacks to occur after they cut off peace negotiations.  In this manner, they hoped to both achieve surprise (attack before a formal declaration of war) while still being able to say “we let you know ahead of time.”  They failed on both counts, as delays in transmission and translation meant the attacks began before the ambassadors delivered any message.

Attacks during war were to be expected.  Attacks of the unprovoked variety were a whole different ballgame, and a country that was deeply divided about war on December 6, 1941 was pretty much of one mind two days later.  It would take time to regroup, but the fuse of retribution had been lit.

Recommended Reading: Long Day’s Journey Into War – Weintraub’s Pearl Harbor is told from a global perspective and not so much planes and ships and bombs.  I read it 15 years ago…I need to read it again.  Here’s a photo of the cover since none of the major book houses are selling it anymore.

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