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Authors: Alan D. Zimm

Attack on Pearl Harbor

BOOK: Attack on Pearl Harbor

Published in the United States of America and Great Britain in 2011 by


908 Darby Road, Havertown, PA 19083


17 Cheap Street, Newbury RG14 5DD

Copyright 2011 © Alan D. Zimm

ISBN 978-1-61200-010-7

Digital Edition: ISBN 978-1-61200-021-3

Cataloging-in-publication data is available from the Library of Congress and the British Library.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the Publisher in writing.

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Folklore, Viewed with a Critical Eye
Strategic and Operational Setting
Targets, Weapons and Weapon-Target Pairings
Planning the Attack
Pre-Attack: Training, Rehearsals, Briefings and Contingency Planning
Execution of the Attack
Assessment of the Attack
Battle Damage Assessment
What Might Have Been: Alerted Pearl Harbor Defenses
Assessing the Folklore
The Fifth Midget Submarine: A Cautionary Tale
Reassessing the Participants
Summary and Conclusions
Tabulation of Second-Wave Dive-Bomber Attacks
Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Japanese Terms
Ships in Pearl Harbor and Vicinity
The Perfect Attack
Chart of Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941
World Distribution of Battleships, 6 December 1941
World Distribution of Battleships, 1 January 1942
US Technical Mission to Japan Ordnance Data Page, 800-kg AP bomb
US Technical Mission to Japan Ordnance Data Page, 250-kg GP bomb
Torpedo Bomber Planned Attack Routes
AP Bombing Anticipated Results
Number of Inboard Battleships Crippled or Sunk
Japanese Aircraft Approach Routes
Timeline of Planned Torpedo Attacks on Carriers and Battleship Row
Actual Development of Torpedo Attacks on Carriers and Battleship Row
AP Bombing Under Actual and Expected Conditions
Distribution of Number of Inboard Battleships Sunk or Crippled
Submarine Patrol Areas
Torpedo Hits: Claimed and Actual
AP Bomb Hits: Claimed and Actual
GP Bombs: Hits Claimed and Attacks Claimed
GP Bombs: Hits Claimed and Actual Hits
GP Bombs: Hits Claimed and US Records of Attacks
The Fifth Midget Submarine: Event Flow Chart

An Attack “brilliantly conceived and meticulously planned”

As a shock wave of catastrophe surged from Pearl Harbor’s burning waters to engulf a stunned US nation, judgments were made about what had befallen America’s Fleet. A young naval aviator recorded his impressions just hours after the attack:

What a day—the incredulousness of it all still gives each new announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack the unreality of a fairy tale. How could they have been so mad?… If the reports I’ve heard today are true, the Japanese have performed the impossible, have carried out one of the most daring and successful raids in all history…. The whole thing was brilliant.

So it seemed, the whole thing was brilliant.

The Pearl Harbor attack is depicted as the culminating act of a suspenseful, character-driven drama, a Greek tragedy of heroic champions and maladroit bunglers maneuvering the future of navies, nations, and empires, men making monumental decisions emanating from their strengths, their weaknesses, and their foibles. On the Japanese side there are the hesitant, traditionalist “battleship admirals,” whose reluctance to acknowledge the emerging dominance of the aircraft carrier is overcome by Admiral Yamamoto the daring gambler, supported by Commander Genda the brilliant planner and Commander Fuchida the intrepid warrior. On the American side are Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short, depicted as blundering, or making questionable decisions, or as men failed by their subordinates, or derelict in their duty, or ill-treated by bad luck, or the hapless victims of a conspiracy of scheming British and Washington-insiders to bring America into the war.

According to a consulting historian to the US Navy, “the attack was almost textbook perfect.” Others judged that it was “brilliantly conceived and meticulously planned,” the plan was “bold and original.” A television commentator informed his audience that “The Japanese aerial attack was an unqualified success,” and that “The attack plan was brilliant.”

Across a wide range of histories, publications, and films the “brilliant” label is accepted as an incontrovertible fact. The recorded narration on a tour boat plying Pearl Harbor assured visitors that the attack was “brilliantly conceived and executed.” A historian judged that the execution of the attack “had been almost perfect; like a flashing samurai sword…” Another asserted that “Pearl Harbor had been reduced to a pile of smoking rubble and sunken ships,” while others joined in concluding, “In the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US Navy battle line was destroyed.”

Mostly derided as an example of battleship-centric conservatism is the fact that naval professionals on the Japanese Navy General Staff believed the operation to be reckless.
Fearful of the outcome, the chiefs of staff of the First and Eleventh Air Fleets recommended, in writing, that the raid be abandoned. One of those protesting was Rear Admiral Onishi Takijiro, who near the end of the war formed the first Special Attack (Kamikaze) Squadrons—in other words, the objections came not just from “conservative battleship admirals,” but from men willing to take risks and endorse unorthodox actions. Onishi, knowing that Japan could only win through a negotiated peace, told Yamamoto that Japan should “avoid anything like the Hawaii operation that would put America’s back up too badly.”

After a round of wargames, the flag officer assigned to execute the attack and most of the Naval General Staff wanted nothing to do with it. When the decision was made irrevocable, officers on the Naval General Staff feared disaster; they enjoined Admiral Nagumo, the commander of Japan’s carrier-centered Mobile Force (
Kido Butai
), to “exert every effort to save the force if events turned against him.”

Similarly dismissed with a nod to Japanese fatalism are the assessments of many of the Japanese aviators: “Most of the flying officers thought they would never come back alive.” The Japanese strike commander estimated that his men had a 50-50 chance of surviving.
The aviators’ apprehension echoes over the years in veterans’ accounts: “Goodbye,
,” one recalled whispering as he departed his carrier on the morning of the attack, “return to Japan safely. We will probably never land on you again.”

Previous accounts have concentrated on personalities and the human drama of the battle. Given the presumption of brilliance, the planning and execution of the Pearl Harbor attack has never been subjected to anything like an impartial critical analysis. Can a plan be judged “brilliant” without passing a detailed examination and critique? How can an operation be lauded as “textbook perfect” without understanding what was in the textbook, and what would constitute perfection?

Instead, applying backwards logic, the drama of sunken, shattered ships has directed the superficially obvious answer: brilliant results come from brilliant planning, training, and execution. Three respected historians applied this reverse reasoning when they wrote, “in the final analysis one point has to be made. The fact that in the end everything—everything, that is, except for the American carriers—came together in the attack of Sunday 7 December 1941 provides justification of the system: the system worked.”

Did it really?

Common Knowledge, Presumptions, and Modern Analytic Approaches

For modern-day naval officers, the end of a combat operation or training exercise initiates a follow-on process of evaluation and criticism. In the United States Navy part of the process is called a “Hot Wash-Up.” All major participants gather together to scrutinize events and decisions, detect errors, analyze flaws, note deficiencies, and record what has been learned. Questions are probing, criticisms are unsuppressed. The data is often turned over to professional Operations Research (OR) analysts for further study.

If a Hot Wash-Up had been held immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, the assessments of Short, Kimmel, Yamamoto, Nagumo, Genda, Fuchida, the Japanese plan, the execution of the plan, the risks and the anticipated results might well be significantly different.

Was the operation executed properly? Were there flaws in the planning or execution or battle damage assessment? Might these flaws portend things to come? Was anything forgotten or neglected in the planning? Was the plan state-of-the-art, or were existing useful attack techniques ignored? Why not? What was the balance between risk and reward? Were Japanese expectations reasonable, or the products of overoptimism, or even self-delusion? Did the attack meet expectations? Meet its potential? What could have happened if the Japanese attack had not benefited from the fortuitous American blunders? What could have been the effect on the course and outcome of the war if different results had been realized?

Many untested presumptions have become established as unchallenged truth. Myths have arisen and bounced about in print, on the Internet, and television. “A volume of folklore has developed around the Pearl Harbor attack as stories and ‘facts’ are passed from source to source with little critical examination.”

For example, it has been taken as a certainty that the Japanese blundered when they did not send a third-wave attack against the Pearl Harbor’s repair facilities and oil storage tanks. The failure of the Japanese to launch such an attack has been described as the Americans’ “only bright spot in the whole debacle.”
One author boldly states that if the oil storage tanks had been destroyed “the US Navy would almost certainly have abandoned Pearl Harbor, and withdrawn to California,”
a judgment repeated in a television program.

Other myths abound. Among them: the Japanese aviators, known in their homeland as the
waga arawashi
, “our angry eagles,”
were all elite pilots hardened by China War experience; it was a blessing that the Pacific Fleet was in port rather than at sea, where all the battleships would have been sunk in deep water;
sinking a warship in the channel would have blocked Pearl Harbor and made it useless; Japanese midget submarines torpedoed two battleships;
an incompetent typist delayed the Japanese declaration of war until after the commencement of hostilities, making Pearl Harbor a “sneak attack” which triggered implacable American public anger against Japan.

Rather perversely, both the Americans and the Japanese had reason to overestimate the number of hits. The Japanese aviators all wanted credit for individual success, and their commanders wanted to sing the praises of carrier air power in their competition with more conventional surface gunnery ships. On the American side, more hits would suggest that their ships were tough and well designed.

Scope and Limitations

This study is not an exercise in revisionist history—it is not intended to be a history at all, but rather an analysis of selected aspects of the attack. No attempt is made to recount all the events of that day.

The primary objective is to examine the Japanese planning, execution, and post-battle analysis of the attack, in the context of their overall strategy.

The naval engineering involved in getting
Kido Butai
within range of Hawaii is an impressive tale, but one that is outside the scope of this work, as are the many stories of individual bravery on both sides. There is no discussion of the various “conspiracy theories” regarding code breaking, pre-battle warning or “who knew what and when.”

What is intended is a professionally oriented, fact-grounded, post-event review of the kind conducted many times by the author while on active duty in the Navy and afterwards as an Operations Research analyst. The methodologies used can reveal unsuspected strengths and weaknesses of forces, expose institutional problems, and provide clues as to the reasons underlying later events. Facts and calculations are central. It is not opinions in conflict with other opinions, as is the case in most revisionist disputes; rather, it is analysis and calculation designed to validate or discredit ungrounded opinions.


In employing this process problems have been found with the Japanese planning and execution of the Pearl Harbor strike. The problems had a variety of sources: from the mindset of the planners, from doctrinal deficiencies, and from erroneous assumptions, things that were simply not known at the time and would be revealed only in the course of subsequent battles. They also came from inadequate training, a failure to anticipate, and from lapses in discipline.

In early 1941 the effectiveness of air power at sea was unpredictable and inconsistent; air power itself was greatly in flux. New aircraft types were the cutting edge of aviation, only to be considered obsolete deathtraps two or three years later. Tactics were under constant revision as the capabilities of the aircraft and weapons changed. Doctrine publications lagged the state of the art significantly. The progress each year was immense.

Between the World Wars there were no truly representative combat trials between ships and aircraft. The problem was the human element. It was simply not known how the conditions of combat would influence human performance, as the experiences of the First World War were eclipsed by stronger and faster aircraft, bomb sites, and heavier and more accurate defenses. It just was not known, for example, how anti-aircraft (AA) fire would affect a bombardier’s accuracy, or how closely a pursuit pilot would press his attack in the face of a bomber’s defensive machine guns. The limited experiments and training that were conducted—like making bombing runs against target ships that were not shooting back, or firing AA at unmanned radio-controlled aircraft or towed sleeves or balloons—gave results that were misleading, or unrepresentative of combat, or eclipsed by the rapid rate of change of the underlying technologies.

In addition, there were, and remain to this day, distortions by aviation- and battleship-oriented ideologues promoting their spin on events. Aviation propagandists, especially in the army-oriented air forces and the emerging “strategic” bombing forces, took it as a matter of faith that bombers would always get through, bombing would always be accurate, and bomb damage would be devastating.
Carrier enthusiasts claim aviation was “unfairly” held back by ultra-conservative members of the battleship “Gun Club.”
These worldviews are lenses through which the events leading up to 7 December 1941 are distorted.

The Japanese collected some air war experience against China and in their “incidents” with the Soviets, but it was an odd sort of experience, against foes with very irregular quality of personnel and equipment, under circumstances not likely to be reproduced in a naval war against the United States. They found these lessons easier to discard than accept, and mostly their airmen reverted to the old ways and did not adapt.

Westerners, with only isolated, laudatory exceptions, largely ignored what was going on in the Far East.

After the war began in 1939 there were hints of air power’s potential. The British air raid on Taranto that sank three Italian battleships provided a significant nudge in the ribs, but there were also many cases where ships survived air attacks unscathed. The battleship could not be ruled as obsolete after two German battlecruisers gunned down a British aircraft carrier, taking no damage themselves. By late 1941 there was still much to be discovered, much still in flux, no conclusion yet possible regarding the relative effectiveness of aircraft v. ships.

Regarding the Pearl Harbor attack, care must be taken when pointing out what might be seen as errors or omissions on the part of the Japanese planners or participants. These warriors were breaking new ground without the benefit of the knowledge available now, or the perspective of experience from the many air battles of WW II. The state of the art at that flash of time must be kept in focus. This is difficult. Because of the rapid rate of change, the front-line operational tactics, techniques, and procedures outstripped written doctrine. Doctrine might not even exist on paper, with the current “best practices” only in the minds of the aviators. This study includes some detective work, along with an inevitable element of informed speculation.

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