Was the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor Preventable?

June 1, 2021

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Pearl Harbor attack (or, according to Japanese sources, the Hawaiian operation) consisted of the two air raids, which involved 353 aircrafts that were ejected from 6 Japanese aircraft carriers. The result of the attack was the sinking of four U.S. Navy battleships (two of which have been restored and returned to the service at the end of the war), and four other ships were damaged. There also sank and were damaged three Japanese cruisers and three destroyers, and 188-272 aircrafts were destroyed (from different sources). What about human sacrifice – 2402 were killed and 1282 were wounded. Power station, shipyard, fuel and torpedo storage, piers and the building of the main controls of the attack were not injured. At that time Japanese losses were minimal: 29 aircrafts, 4 small submarines with 65 dead or wounded soldiers.

In fact, the pre-planning of the attack on Pearl Harbor began at the beginning of 1941 under the auspices of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was then the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet. Full-scale planning operations began in the early spring of 1941. Over the next few months there was training of pilots and adaptation of equipment was conducted. Despite these preparations, the attack plan was approved by Emperor Hirohito on November 5th, after the third of four Imperial Conferences was convened to consider the matter. The final decision was made by the emperor only on the 1st of December .

Although by the end of 1941, many observers believed that hostilities between the U.S. and Japan were inevitable, and the Pacific bases and facilities in the United States cited the alert for several times. The U.S. officials doubted that Pearl Harbor would be the first target. They were expected to attack base in the Philippines, because it is through them the supplies were passed to the south, which were the Japan’s main objective. The most likely target of the Japanese, the Americans believe, was to be a naval base of the United States in Manila. Americans also mistakenly believed that Japan was not capable of carrying more than one major naval operation at a time.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was not the only part and, according to the Japanese, not the main part of the war plan of creation of the Greater East Asia .

It should be noted that the U.S. military before the war in the Pacific in 1941 was able to reveal the codes of Imperial Navy of Japan, although it did not prevent the success of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; it is shown in a declassified report by the Division of communication security of the U.S. Navy in March 1947.

The document of 107 pages in detail describes the process of decryption of messages of the Japanese Navy. Back in the early 20’s, the newspaper Tokyo Shimbun said that the U.S. agents photographed in the Japanese Consulate General in New York, the encryption table of the Navy Department. Their analysis helped to understand the principles of coding despite the complexity of ciphers, those codes stayed unchanged until the Second World War. They were disclosed before the war .

The U.S. knew the Japanese codes and constantly listened to the Japanese. Hundreds of cryptologists and linguists were employed in fleet but it was not enough to prevent Pearl Harbor. The reason is a mystery up to nowadays. The report itself states that the backroom of the U.S. Navy was reportedly too busy working on the German direction, and therefore there were not enough people for the analysis of the Japanese ciphers. The raid on Pearl Harbor, may not have been, if we had the people, – is stated in the document. In addition, the historian Katsuhiro Hara believes that the Americans could have poor knowledge of Japanese naval terminology .

For the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese chose the northern route between the Midway Islands and the Aleutian archipelago. These areas are characterized by heavy navigational conditions, but this fact almost completely eliminates the probability of meeting with the U.S. intelligence ships and airplanes. The strictest radio silence was observed on the way. On the night of December 7th squadron got to the place of the beginning of the operations it is 230 miles to north from Oahu.

The incident, which occurred a few hours before the attack, could change the course of the operation. The first shot in the battle of the Japanese-American War was taken, oddly enough, not by the Japanese, but the American ship. It happened at the entrance to Pearl Bay. At 3 h 42 min minesweeper Condor has almost collided with an unidentified object, which looked like a periscope, as it turned out, it belonged to one of the Japanese submarines. They had to block the entrance to the bay, to torpedo the U.S. ships if they would try to go to sea.

After 3 hours the same unidentified object was discovered again and fired a patrol destroyer Ward. Hawaii was reported about this accident at 7.15, but this information did not reach to the high command.

Each person, analyzing operation against Pearl Harbor, should remember the main points of the operation.

First, the air raid of carrier aviation is the most difficult to detect from all the forms of attack, because even large fleets seem a little spot on the ocean. The U.S. carrier-based aircraft also carried out a series of unexpected attacks during the war. The Halsey – Doolittle attacked Tokyo and it was unexpected for the Japanese, although the aircraft carriers and patrol boats were spotted. Admiral Halsey, Wilson Brown, Frederick and Charles Sherman Paunol committed a series of unexpected raids on Japanese Mandated Islands in the first two years of the war, Halsey effective raids on the island of Okinawa, the Philippines and Indochina in 1944-1945 caught the enemy by surprise, and reconnaissance planes together with aircraft carriers and admiral Mitshera Ozawa unsuccessfully searched for each other for a whole day near the island of Luzon in October 1944. Thus, it is not surprising that the Pacific Fleet was not able to detect the approach of the Japanese strike force – at a time when there was no a declaration of war, and even diplomatic relations were not broke off.

The Navy, of course, could be prepared for every eventuality, but it is only a result of the failure of unpreparedness. Richardson, the Secretary-General of established in 1946 Joint Investigative Committee of Congress, pointed to the strange fact that in the first eight months of 1941, the command of the Army and Navy in Washington and Hawaii were well aware of the danger of air attack on Pearl Harbor – but in August military and the U.S. civilians in positions of responsibility, seemed to have forgotten about the danger. This is supported by a personal statement by the Chief Intelligence Directorate of Rear Admiral TS Wilkinson, one of the most prominent members of the armed forces.

On the 1st of April, Admiral Stark warned superiors of marine areas to be particularly vigilant during the week. During numerous meetings of Ministers Knox and Stimson, General Marshall and Admiral Stark in Washington with General Short and Admiral Kimmel in Oahu all kinds of impending danger on Pearl Harbor, including air attacks were discussed and reviewed in details. Brigadier General Martin, commander of the Air Force and Admiral Bellinger, who commanded the amphibious Hawaii, wrote a secret report on March 31, in which they argued that the most appropriate and dangerous form of the attack on Oahu would be an air raid carried out from aircraft carriers – and that if it happens at dawn, the difficulties in finding of aircraft will be very high, and the attack will be unexpected. On August 20th, General Martin informed General Short that the Japanese carriers will probably approach from the northwest.

General Naval Plan (WPL-46 or Rainbow 5) was approved on May 26th, 1941 after a detailed consideration of all the possible unexpected attacks of enemy on ships standing at Pearl Harbor. On July 21st, Admiral Kimmel developed the Pacific Fleet Operations Plan, which states that the initial steps of the enemy will be expressed in possible raids or direct attacks on Wake Island, Midway, or other non-contiguous territories.

Yet, despite all of the assumptions, preventions and solutions, all the officers responsible for it thought that danger seemed vanished since August, when they stopped to think about it. I personally do not believe that the Japanese were going to attack us – Admiral Stark wrote to Admiral Kimmel on October 17th, 1941.

Captain Charles Mc Morris the officer of the Military Planning, who later commanded a squadron in the battle of the Commander Islands and became assistant to Admiral Nimitz, said to Kimmel and Short at a conference in early December that the air attack on Pearl Harbor will be never implemented .

Despite the warning of the possibility of the outbreak of hostilities on December 6th and 7th, which Washington warned about on November 27th, most of the Pacific Fleet was at the pier at Pearl Harbor, the officers and sailors of the ships were free as in time of peace, the army radars were used only in the aim of trainings, and the anti-aircraft batteries located in the most vital areas of Hawaii, did not have enough ammunition. When the attack began, the armed forces were in Oahu, and only a few ships and aircrafts were conducting reconnaissance patrols in the southern sector.

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Why then unjustified sense of invulnerability in Hawaii, according to the words of Admiral King, took place of the old anxieties and fears?

Richardson partially answered the question and he told that everyone underestimated the power of the enemy. The bad was that the Navy has underestimated the capabilities of Japanese – said Admiral King.

In military circles, no one believed that the Japanese can form a separate strike force aircraft carriers. It was assumed that for the successful promotion of the south Japanese will need all the tools of air cover. Two aircraft carriers (Ryuji and Jose), according to intelligence reports, were anchored in the Marshall Islands as a base for air cover of the eastern flank of the fleet. Division of Naval Intelligence of the U.S. has lost sight of the four aircraft carriers during the three weeks preceding December the 7th. About this situation Admiral Kimmel was immediately informed by naval intelligence officer, but that did not lead him to the idea that the carriers are going to Pearl Harbor. He assumed that the carriers are in Kure and that their radios do not work, and this version was the most desirable for Japanese.

Thus, a major Japanese movement to the south, which they conducted in October-November 1941, prompted the U.S. command to think that the Hawaiian Islands were out of danger for a while .

Although the military received a number of signals on the harmfulness of this way of thinking, they have often been tempted to think what, perhaps, the enemy will make – and not about what he can do. What they were taught in the military academies, that is, the need to have their point of view and to exclude the likelihood of extraordinary features, and those rules were forgotten.

In three months prior to the war military situation at Pearl Harbor on Oahu was very tense. Admiral Kimmel held firm training exercises. The staff for the new command ships was usually chosen from trained officers and sailors and these people were to be attributed to the large air ships and patrol service, with engagement in the security department. New ships were built in the U.S. In addition, there was an acute lack of military materials, in particular these were anti-aircraft guns, bombs, fuel and aircraft. Kimmel was in a quandary: whether he was to keep his people in a state of constant alert, which would lead to deterioration of equipment and pace, and violation their moral stability, or he had to continue their training by lowering the alert. Oil reserves of Pearl Harbor were quite insufficient to supply the fleet at sea, and all military and commercial tankers could deliver to Pearl Harbor were only 760,000 barrels (95,000 tons) of oil it is about 9-day supply for the operation of the fleet during the war.

If all serviceable aircrafts were used for reconnaissance flights in the sector from 0 to 360 , the pilots and gunner-radio operator would not get sufficient training necessary to cover the fleet on its way to the Marshall Islands, and many planes would have come down before performing their job.

General Short had a similar problem. Readiness number 1, which he did not canceled even after warnings from Washington about the possibility of the outbreak of hostilities, was only readiness against sabotage from the ground. Air Force was requested to forward the flying fortress to the Philippine Islands and equip their teams. Only six aircrafts B-17 were conducting training flights in Oahu. If the army was declared readiness number 3 (air-raid), trainings would have to stop, and the team would not have been completed but would be ready for the relocation of aircraft – that the War Department considered as very important operation, because attack was expected on the Philippine Islands and not on Pearl Harbor.

It was hardly to expect the attack on Pearl Harbor and Kimmel and Short conducted training at the expense of combat readiness because Washington insisted on it (and the Army Intelligence Agency officers in Hawaii agreed with this). It was a cruel but honest mistake from their side.

Regardless of allowing of trainings because of the urgent need and the fact that Washington has not been able to make intelligence data available to all the Hawaiian Command, it is still the fact that Pearl Harbor was the most important U.S. base in the Pacific. In addition, it was a guard post; there were soldiers who were supposed to be always on alert. Admiral Kimmel should not adhere to the schedule as the ships were at sea near the entrance to the port, as it made it possible to expect on the coming of the Japanese ships in the port that Sunday morning. The team should not have to go ashore in the last days of the week, as the war could start at any moment. Further air reconnaissance should be carefully conducted, as it had been done immediately after heavy losses on December 7th. Most of the aircrafts could and should have been patrolling the neighborhood. Enough attention was not payed to the two unmistakable signs of impending events before the fatal dawn.

Three small ships (Condor, Antares and Ward), were chasing after midget submarine, which appeared in 350 meters from the harbor, did not reported about it as long as the boat did not go to the bottom, and the sea radio, listening to their talk on the radio, also did not take any action.

Army outposts, with six radars on Oahu, also have not been able to detect anything. One of the plants, which was in Opana in Kahuku, on the northern tip of the island of Oahu, was activated only for training purposes from 4 to 7 am. It is well known as a young soldier, who studied in Opana, just this morning, continued waiting for the truck till 7.30 as it was late. His unit found approaching aircrafts 132 miles from the island to the north and watched them for a few minutes. It is also known that he reported this to the duty officer at central Station – young lieutenant was heading the exercise, but the officer done nothing as he expected arrival of his link of V-17 aircraft. Few people know that in half an hour both operators reported it again, but in response to their message lieutenant just laughed. Between 6.45 and 7.00 they found one seaplane from the cruiser, who conducted reconnaissance ahead the bombers and reported about it – but the officer of the day, after hearing this did not take any measures .

Under any circumstances, the naval command should have become concerned about 6 am, when midget submarines which were a harbinger of something more grandiose appeared near the base . The alarm was to be declared around the island, when at 7 pm the army radar detected an aircraft. Thus, the defenders of the island would have been warned for 50 minutes. Many planes could rise to intercept the bombers. Other aircrafts that could be dispersed on the ships that were in the harbor could already be notified about combat anxiety. As we know, the first attack of the torpedo planes was made with such a low altitude and torpedo released their torpedoes so close to the ship, standing on the other side of the bay, that even 10-15-minutes warning was enough for anti-aircraft guns were prepared for the attack to defense battleships. In fact, it happened so that the torpedo bombers flew over the ship with impunity. Anti-submarine networks were not delivered around the battleships. Attack of British bombers on the Italian fleet at Taranto in November 1939 showed that the aircraft torpedoes could be detained in the shallows. Chief of Naval Operations recalled this to Admiral Kimmel on February 17th, 1941. One month later, Admiral Bloch reported that the installation of antitorpedo networks on the parked ships in Pearl Harbor will narrow Naval fairway and will complicate traffic so, that he would not recommend to do it. By this post, Admiral Kimmel said that as long as there is no invented easy efficient network, he prefers not to have any antitorpedo networks in the area. This issue has remained unresolved.

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Particularly extended and important comments on the subject were presented by Admiral King in his paper on November 6th, 1944. Immediately after it was written the naval court conducted interrogation in the case of Pearl Harbor. Only the most typical place is given out:

Looking back, it becomes clear that the effectiveness of the Japanese aircraft torpedoes has been seriously underestimated. Admiral Kimmel did not agree and did not attempt to conduct further exploration – especially in connection with a threatening situation that has arisen in a few days before the attack … Reconnaissance should be conducted at least in the most dangerous sectors. Aircraft Army and Navy, who were on the ground, and patrol seaplanes at anchor, could not immediately take off. Part of the patrol squadron was on vacation, some of them were carrying a conventional guard service and training exercises. This was a consequence of the underestimation of a possible attack and led to the destruction of a large number of U.S. planes .

The objective of our study was not to analyze the issue of responsibility of those responsible for the defeat suffered by the U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor. Six commissions of inquiry were dealing with it, and the case of liability for the defeat in Pearl Harbor is printed in 40 volumes. However, based on an analysis of historical facts and various sources, the try was made to assess the possibility of preventing the attack, which resulted in the U.S. Navy lost as many people as it was not lost in the two previous wars – the Spanish-American War and the First World War.