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Posts Tagged ‘Pearl Harbor’

Ususally, when we’re faced with a crisis, our first reaction is some degree of shock.  In a figurative (or maybe even literal) sense, we stand there, staring blankly and not really focusing on anything, with our arms hanging at our sides, not really knowing what to do.  Eventually, our wits return, and we can begin assessing our situation and reacting to it.

That’s kind of how things work.

At the time of the Japanese attacks in December of 1941, many in the U.S. military did much the same.  There was the initial surprise.  It was followed by the “thousand-yard stare”, as the Japanese rolled over objective after objective all over the South Pacific.  And then came the chance to respond, which really didn’t get underway until Doolittle and Midway several months later.

But during that time, there were many instances where soldiers in harm’s way put forth a super-human effort.  Over the years, we’ve discussed Bataan and Corregidor as places where our military men, facing terrible odds and no real hope of rescue, gave an incredible accounting for themselves.

The garrison at Wake Island is another example.

For the men stationed there, it must have been a pretty lonely existence.  The island measured a couple of square miles, so there wasn’t much to see.  It was situated in the middle of nowhere, about 1,500 miles from anything, so there wasn’t anywhere to go.

And as for defenses, well, they were pretty pathetic as well.  Some 5-inch guns from a deceased battleship comprised the big iron.  There were a couple of ancient 3-inch guns that didn’t fully function, some heavy machine guns, a handful of anti-aircraft weapons, and whatever small arms the 450 men (a Marine Defense Battalion and a smattering of others) carried on their hips.  Oh, and there was a Marine fighter squadron with a dozen F4F Wildcats.

Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake was targeted by Japanese bombers.  They concentrated on the air defenses, destroying eight of the twelve aircraft (the other four were flying defense).  There were some subsequent attacks, but all of this was the prelude to the main action.

On December 11, 1941, a Japanese landing force arrived to take over.  It included three cruisers, a half-dozen destroyers, and a pair of troop transports carrying the invasion sortie of 450 soldiers.  The expectation was one of a fairly easy landing and occupation.

Wake’s defenders, however, had different ideas.  They met their unwelcome visitors with all the firepower they could muster.  The men manning the five-inchers succeeded in sinking a destroyer and heavily damaging a cruiser.  In the air, the remaining Wildcats dropped bombs and successfully blew the tail off another Japanese destroyer, sending her to the bottom with all hands.

All of a sudden, this little skirmish had turned into a crisis for the Japanese, and they were the ones staring in shock.  Hopelessly out-gunned, this little garrison was putting a pasting on a much larger invasion force.  And for the first time in the war, the Japanese withdrew from an objective to regroup.

For the men at Wake, it was an awesome sight to see a Japanese force falling below the horizon in retreat.  Commander Winfield Cunningham, when ordering a long list of supplies, humorously included more enemy soldiers to fight.  But as we know, the small atoll was under siege, and no supplies or reinforcements would arrive.  The Pacific belonged to the Japanese, so Wake was on its own.

But Wake would manage to hold out for another two weeks against overwhelming pressure…a pretty remarkable feat considering the circumstances.

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We ate dinner last night with our son Andrew and his three boys.  It was his birthday last week, but he was out of town, so we celebrated it late.  He picked Uncle Buck’s as his restaurant, where the food is always good.  As we sat at the table, 5-year-old Teagan informed us that another word for delicious is “scrumptious.”  So my Cajun Catfish sandwich, which I always get and comes with about a pound of fish, was scrumptious.

Let’s tackle some history.

Saburo Sakai (who is no stranger to us) was a nervous pilot.  It’s not that piloting an airplane made him nervous, but rather the circumstances surrounding this particular flight.  He was part of the attack force heading for Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  It was December 8, 1941, and his was just one of many forces heading for targets all over the vast Pacific.

His buddies had struck a few hours before (and on the other side of the International Date Line) against the U.S. Navy parked at Pearl Harbor.  The 5th and 18th army divisions were landing along the coasts of Thailand and Malaya.  Three regiments were causing havoc in Hong Kong.  Wake Island was being bombarded, and Burma was being invaded by the Japanese 15th army.

Attacks were happening everywhere, but the timing of this particular mission, against General Douglas MacArthur’s center of command, was what caused Sakai’s concerns.  His squadrons had been scheduled to attack Clark at roughly the same time as the attacks on Pearl.  But some incredibly dense fog that settled on their base in Formosa had caused their flights to be delayed by hours, ruining any chance of surprise.

However, as Sakai approached Clark with the other pilots, it was they who were surprised.  Below were dozens of bombers and fighters parked neatly in rows, just waiting to be blown up.  They couldn’t believe their fortune.  Their timing had actually been perfect.  When word reached Clark of the attacks at Pearl Harbor, many of the planes had been sent aloft.  When the attacks didn’t come, the planes were brought back and parked so they could be refueled and the crews could eat.

And it was then that the Japanese arrived, and proceeded to demolish the place.

Like Hawaii, war had come to the islands of the Philippines.

Recommended Reading:  Tears in the Darkness – A must read.

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Well, winter has come to Iowa with a gale.  Yesterday, it was 53°F and gorgeous.  Today, it’s about 15 with 45mph wind gusts, blowing snow, and super-icy streets.  I’m glad I got a good bike ride in yesterday…it’ll be a few days before I get another opportunity.

It’s a quickie this evening.

On December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States.  But Germany didn’t necessarily have to do so.  The U.S. hadn’t declared war on Germany, nor had either country attacked the other.  And what’s more, though Germany and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact the previous year, Germany was only obligated to come to Japan’s defense, not back her aggression against Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Rim.

Members of the German High Command also believed a declared war with America was dangerous ground.  It’s true that the U.S. was openly assisting Germany’s enemies through the Lend-Lease program, and German U-boats were clashing with the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic.  But this was a far cry from open war, where the full weight of America’s military potential would be brought to bear.

But Adolf Hitler made the declaration anyways.  With his successes to date, he believed in the might of his military and the ability of his country’s industries to fuel it.  He also believed in Japan’s ability to defeat America, even though some in Japan’s own leadership, particularly Isoroku Yamamoto, pretty much knew the score.  And he thought that America lacked the will to fight and that it would take some time for her to put her economy on a war footing…by which time Japan would have already knocked her from the conflict.

Adolf Hitler ended up being wrong on every point…

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Niitakayama Nobore.

I don’t really know how to pronounce it properly, but the English translation is one of the more famous coded messages in American history…and the subject of this evening’s very brief lesson.

When Admiral Nagumo left Kyushu in late November of 1941, he did so with what was, at that time, the largest fleet (named the Kido Butai) in the world.  He also left with a bit of unfinished business.  The fleet was headed for a spot a couple of hundred miles northwest of Hawai’i, from where it would launch attacks against Pearl Harbor.  The actual attack orders comprised the unfinished business.

The Japanese government pretty much knew that it was going to war, but still held out a bit of hope that diplomacy would win the day.  The problem was that Japan wasn’t really interested in making any serious concessions, so “diplomacy” basically came down to the United States giving Japan whatever she wanted in the Pacific.  And that wasn’t going to happen.

So on December 2, 1941, the coded message, Niitakayama Nobore (“Climb Mount Niitaka“), arrived on Nagumo’s flagship.  The Admiral then opened a set of top secret documents which confirmed that Japan would be going to war with the United States, Britain, and Holland.  It also gave a date for the opening of hostilities…December 8th (the 7th on the Pearl Harbor side of the International Date Line).

The stage was set…unless the U.S. discovered Kido Butai, Pearl Harbor was squarely centered in the Japanese bullseye.

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Two Kawanishi H8K Emily flying boats may not seem like a lot of firepower in our day of jet power, stealth, and super-cruise capability.  But back in 1942…well…it wasn’t much firepower then, either.

But that’s what the Japanese could spare, and it’s what they used to carry out “Operation K”, their second attack on Pearl Harbor, executed March 4, 1942.  The two flying boats had stopped in the French Frigate Shoals to refuel the night before, then took off again, heading for their targets.

When they arrived, they found that they hadn’t achieved anywhere near the surprise of the December operation.  The U.S. Navy was on a hair-trigger state of readiness to begin with.  But cryptologists had also gotten wind of potential attacks through intercepted messages from the Japanese they had decoded.  Furthermore, Hawaii radars picked up the incoming planes early and P-40 Warhawks had been sent aloft to engage.

Fortunately for the attackers, cloudy skies prevented the fighter cover from locating the flying boats as they flew in.  Unfortunately for the attackers, cloudy skies prevented them from finding their targets.  In the end, they dropped their bombs on nothing of consequence and made their escapes.

And while this seems like an insignificant incident, it really had far-reaching consequences.  First off, it further verified that American code-breakers were accurately deciphering enemy messages.  Second (and just as important), it tipped the U.S. Navy off to the fact that the Japanese were using French Frigate Shoals.

A month later, as code-breakers began to clearly see the plans for another major operation against Midway, planners deduced (correctly) that the Japanese Navy might try to make use of the French Frigate Shoals again.  So they parked a seaplane tender out there.

Indeed, the Japanese had designs on the Shoals.  Another plan, also called Operation K, was set up to allow float planes to refuel and then set out for Pearl, this time to report back on which ships left Pearl Harbor to head for Midway.  As we know, this second Operation K was foiled, and its failure was one of the reasons the Battle of Midway was an unmitigated disaster for Japan.

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I hope you all have had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Ours was very good.  Our son, his wife, and their children came over, entertained us, and helped us eat enchiladas and all the trimmings.  I drank too much soda and ate too much, but all in all, a great day.

As the food settles, I’m going to do something most of you have never done…

I’m mentioning Pearl Harbor and Mount Yushan in the same sentence.

Prett daring, eh?

Actually, it’s not as provocative as it seems, as we’ll see.

On November 26, 1941, the Kido Butai left Kyushu in northern Japan.  It’s destination?…Pearl Harbor.  Better known as the Japanese 1st Air Fleet, Kido Butai was led by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.  Comprised of six aircraft carriers with more than 400 aircraft, two battleships, numerous escorts, and 23 submarines, it was the largest naval fleet in the world at that time.  It’s job was to attack the U.S. fleet stationed at Pearl and do enough damage to knock the U.S. out of the war before it could get started.

But before the fleet could commence its attacks, it needed to get the green light from higher up.  It would come in the form of a coded message, and that’s where Mount Yushan comes in.

Mount Yushan is the tallest mountain…on the island of Taiwan.  But in 1941, Taiwan was not a sovereign nation (and some still believe that to be true).  Having been annexed in 1900, Taiwan was under Japanese control, and Yushan had been named Niitaka by the new owners.

So as the 1st Air Fleet pulled out of port, Admiral Nagumo awaited the coded message that would come from his superiors.  Its contents, “Niitakayama Nobore” (“Climb Mount Niitaka”), would give the fleet permission to complete its mission.  But against the day that the final order came, the trick would be to keep this massive fleet a secret as it moved south as east.  That would prove to be a most delicate task.

Recommended Reading:  At Dawn We Slept

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I’ve been off for a couple days, fighting a case of the blah’s.  I would go to the office in the morning, then end up working from home in the afternoon.  And by the time 4:00pm got here, I was pretty wiped out.  This evening I’m better, though still not great.  But let’s talk about something…and try to keep it brief.

How about a little conspiracy?

For years, there has been speculation that President Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  As Commander-in-Chief, any President has access to classified information that no one else can see.  FDR was certainly no exception, and in 1994 the McCollum Memo was declassified.  Conspiracy theorists jumped on this highly sensitive document like flies on stink as proof the President not only knew an attack was coming, but that he had purposely engineered the debacle, then expressed outrage when it occurred.

What is the McCollum Memo?  It’s a 6-page document penned by Arthur McCollum, a Lt. Col. in the Office of Naval Intelligence, and submitted to his superiors on October 7, 1940 (14 months before the Pearl Harbor attacks).  Germany, Italy, and Japan had, less that two weeks before, signed the Tripartite Pact, and McCollum’s paper begins with his strategic view of the world in light of their close association.  He then offered up an assessment of Japan’s strengths and weaknesses.

So far so good.

But then McCollum added 8 steps he believed would drive the Japanese to declare war on the United States.  They included things like keeping the U.S. Fleet parked in Hawaii (which we did), instigating a trade embargo with Japan (which we did), and aiding Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese military (which we also did).  He finished the document with the curious phrase, “If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better.”

The “superiors” to whom he submitted his work weren’t just “the next guys in the chain”, they were Captains Walter Anderson and Dudley Knox, both very close to President Roosevelt.  And you’re all sleuthy enough to put the sequence of events together…Knox and Anderson receive the memo, which they read and pass to the President.  The President then reads the memo, has light-bulbs go off in his brain, and manipulates foreign policy to follow McCollum’s suggestions, and then allows Pearl Harbor to be attacked so we can enter the war with Britain.

But the 64-thousand-dollar question still lingers…while this sequence of events is possible, did it actually happen?

And, unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the best answer is likely “no”.  Anderson (the Director of Naval Intelligence) certainly read McCollum’s paper…he added his own comments at the end, which included the phrase, “…we should not precipitate anything in the Orient.”

The eight “steps to war” proposed by McCollum were largely followed by the Roosevelt Administration, but they were measures that were largely dictated by the current political/military situations of the moment rather than a pre-meditated drive to war.  There is zero factual evidence (and only the most obtuse of circumstantial evidence) that the McCollum Memo ever landed in front of the President’s eyes.  And finally, it was Japan who attacked first, regardless of real or implied provocation, and it was they who jumped through all kinds of hoops to make it not look like an undeclared act of war.

In the end, I think the McCollum Memo was far more a “what if” analysis by a mid-level officer than a serious policy document that the administration adapted for its own purposes.  There may be “smoking guns” in the the Roosevelt Administration (like there are in many), but those looking for a real story will probably have to look elsewhere.

Recommended Reading:  Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor – I recommend Stinnet’s book as an interesting read, not necessarily the Scouts-honor gospel of what happened leading up to Pearl Harbor.  The McCollum Memo looms fairly large in this book.  For another good take (and links to the entire document), check this site as well.

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