Was the attack on Pearl Harbor totally unexpected?

Was the attack on Pearl Harbor totally unexpected?

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According to "British Intelligence in the Second World War: Security and Counter-Intelligence", by Francis Harry Hinsley and C.A.G. Simkins, Tricycle, a British double agent, complained that the FBI ignored the "obvious warning" of the forthcoming attack on Pearl Harbor (read more below ↓).

Also, according to "Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier", by Brad Steiger & Sherry Steiger, it seems that the Japanese diplomatic code had been broken by FBI and almost all messages between Tokyo and its embassy in Washington were being intercepted and understood by Washington (read more below ↓).

Therefore, as it is possible to argue, there is no longer any doubt that FBI and, perhaps, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were aware that an attack on Pearl Harbor was developing and that it was scheduled for December 7th.

Then a terrible question arises: was the attack on the American forces at Pearl Harbor totally unexpected?

If not, why did no one alert defense forces to protect Pearl Harbor?

Indeed, Japanese diplomatic codes had been broken. But the message sent to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, intended to be delivered before the attack (but in fact delivered later) did not contain a formal declaration of war, so although Washington knew a few hours before the attack that diplomacy was coming to an end, and war was coming, they did not receive a declaration of war, and did not expect an attack. (1)

It is sometimes claimed that the US leadership should have known that Japan would attack before a declaration of war was made, but from the US standpoint Japan and the US was still in active negotiations. The last part of the message did end those negotiations, but that part had not yet been decoded when the attack happened.

In addition to that, the Japanese fleet had been travelling under complete radio silence, and had been undetected by the United States, so the US did not know that there was a fleet within attacking distance. (2)

So yes, the attack was completely unexpected. The US thought Pearl Harbor was safe, well out of the reach of the Japanese, and negotiations was still underway.

(1) John Toland, Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath

(2) Donald M. Goldstein, Katherine V. Dillon: The Pearl Harbor Papers

Although the Japanese attack was unexpected in its timing, The US Navy was well aware:
(a) that the Japanese were in the habit of attacking before a formal declaration of war; and
(b) that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was both possible and likely to be devastating, having itself simulated such an attack several times over the past 15 years as outlined here

Fleet Problem XIV

“The 1933 problem was designed to simulate a war in the Pacific, one initiated by carrier operations. Anticipating that Japan would attack before formally declaring war (as she had done against Russia in 1904), the scenario envisioned the sortie of the Japanese fleet eastward across the Pacific. This fleet, its sinister designation Black, had ominously prescient orders: “To inflict maximum damage on the PEARL HARBOR NAVAL BASE in order to destroy or reduce its effectiveness.”

All in all, I find it no coincidence that the Navy carriers spent as much time as possible at sea instead of Pearl, especially as tensions with Japan increased.

The claim is made below that the US Navy was unappreciative of aircraft carriers prior to Dec. 7, 1941. I submit this as evidence to the contrary (from Wkipedia, my emphasis).

In 1934, the then Chief of Bureau of Aeronautics, Navy Admiral Ernest King offered Halsey command of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, subject to completion of the course of an air observer. Captain Halsey elected to enroll as a cadet for the full twelve-week Naval Aviator course rather than the simpler Naval Aviation Observer program. "I thought it better to be able to fly the aircraft itself than to just sit back and be at the mercy of the pilot." Halsey earned his Naval Aviator's Wings on May 15, 1935 at the advanced age of 52, the oldest person to do so in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Question: Was the attack on the American forces at Pearl Harbor totally unexpected?

Short Answer

Commanders across the pacific had been warned for weeks of an impending Japanese attack. Specifically Admiral Kimmel and General Short in command at Hawaii's navy and army forces respectively, had responded to these warnings and taken steps to safeguard their commands from the Japanese attack. The US Military across the Pacific had been placed on high alert numerous times prior to Dec 7th. All false alarms. It was common knowledge written in bold letters in most of the major U.S. newspapers that a Japanese attack was imminent a week before Pearl Harbor. That was ultimately as much as US intelligence ever knew. An attack was about to occur but even US intelligence didn't know where, when(date) or what form the attack would take; thus all the fore warnings ultimately were not actionable. Specifically the actions taken by the commanders in Hawaii in response to the warnings played into the hands of the Japanese, seemingly(1).

As for the British double agent's report in the original question. He was asked by Japanese to report on US Navy Ship movements around Pearl Harbor and from this he concluded Hawaii was the target of the impending attack. Only the FBI had already cracked a much larger spy cell (Tachibana Case) involving Japanese navy personnel and civilians in June of 1941 who were reporting on US Navy movements from San Diego to Seattle. A single agent and his opinion would not have eclipsed all the other information US Intelligence was receiving, at least not without 20/20 hind site.

As for Tokyo / Washington D.C embassy dispatch sent in the clear which the FBI reportedly intercepted, I don't find that creditable. Operation Magic was a very successful intelligence operation operating for years reading every encrypted Japanese dispatch. It's existence was so secret that not even the FBI director J Edgar Hoover was aware of it.

Why would the Japanese send the time and location of their attack in the clear to their Embassy when over many months they didn't send such information in any of their encoded dispatches? Not even on the day of the Attack in what they considered their 14 part declaration of war. Why would the embassy even be alerted? The Japanese diplomats already knew all they needed to know to play their part.

(1) Seemingly: see Question #2 and conclusion.

Detailed Answer

A Japanese attack in the Pacific was very much expected. It was common knowledge among Naval Officers, enlisted, and civilians. Where in the Pacific and what form the attack might take was lesser known and the subject of much debate. The Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Midway, Wake Island, the Panama Canal, even the west coast of the United States were all possible targets. Was the attack going to take the shape of an amphibious landing, saboteurs attacking American installations, domestic revolt among the nations minority populations encouraged by Japans military, or would it be attacking American ships at sea? All of these were deemed at least as likely as an aerial attack launched from aircraft carriers against Pearl Harbor.

Yes the United States Navy had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and were reading the diplomatic dispatches. These dispatches didn't yeild a straight declaration of war with a date, location and description the attack would take. Rather they contained indicators that Japan was preparing for an attack, like orders for the Japanese consulates to burn all diplomatic papers. The Operation was called Operation Magic and it wasn't nearly as helpful as some believe. Operation Magic informed us on Nov 5th 1941 that Nov 25th, 1941 was Japan's deadline for the decision on war. What does that mean? Every Commander in the Pacific was alerted. Then Japan changed their deadline to Nov 29th and again alerts were sent. Only those alerts predicted the war would begin on Sunday Nov 30th, 1941 and turned out to be wrong. No hint on where or how the Japanese were going to attack.

Source 1: 43 "Remember Pearl Harbor",
Source 2: The "Magic" background of Pearl Harbor
cable intercepted from Tokyo to Japanese Embassy in Washington DC read:

All the pacific military commanders received some warning on Nov 27 to expect a hostile move by Japan.

Although Pearl Harbor specifically had been identified several times prior to Dec 7th 1941 by intelligence agencies the information was never actionable. The accurate date of the attack, the location of the attack and the form the attack would take were not part of any Intelligence report prior to the telegram from Pearl Harbor to Washington DC saying an attack was under way. The problem was the same Intelligence reports which claimed Hawaii as a possible target also warning of attacks across the Pacific. In response to these warmings US forces in the Pacific had been put on high alert several times in the weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor, and the War Dept had even issued a formal warning of impending War. The United States navy issued a classified report Dec 4th, 1941 which even warned of African American revolt on behalf of Japan. That the report also lists Pearl Harbor as a likely target for imminent Japanese attack doesn't accurately represent the value of such reports which really were warning of attack everywhere, and had the effect of warning of attack nowhere except with 20/20 hind site.

Bottom line anybody who read the Sunday newspaper in the weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor knew almost as much as the folks reading the Japanese diplomatic dispatches. War was imminent. where, when exactly (date) or what form the attack was going to take was a mystery.

The evidence of US fore knowledge of the impending Japanese attack includes:

  • News Paper Headlines Nov 30th 1941 1 week prior to the Japanese Attack.

    • Hawaii Hilo Herald Tribune

    • Boston Globe

    • Chicago Sun

    • Honolulu Advisor

  • Strategically

    • The United States knew Japan was running out of oil. We knew their best target to alleviate this shortage was the Dutch East Indies oil fields (modern Indonesia). Japan had already moved in and occupied French Indochina (modern Vietnam, Cambodia). Right in the middle between Japanese forces and their impending target was the United States protectorate, the Philippines.

  • Increasing Japanese aggression
    • An American naval vessel the USS Panay in China on the Yangtze River, was targeted and sunk by imperial Japanese Forces Dec 12, 1937.
    • Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Sept 27th, 1940
    • June 1941, A Japanese intelligence operation in the U.S. was uncovered. It was a sensational case which demonstrated to the public Japan's interest in keeping track of US Naval assets on the west coast of the U.S. Tachibana Case
    • Japanese Military build ups in French Indochina, were occurring in late Nov and early Dec 1941 which the President expressed concern to Japan.
  • Precedent
    • The battle of Taranto Nov 12 1940, Britain destroy half of the Italian Navy's capital ships in a single evening attack, from the air, launched from a British aircraft carrier in the Med.
  • On Dec 6th 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent a personal appeal to the Japanese Emperor for peace. - FDR Library

  • Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson's diary entry for November 25, 1941. The U.S. Secretary of war details discussion which occurred at a "War Cabinet Meeting" at the White House with President Roosevelt, himself, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark. The Quote is:

There the President, instead of bringing up the Victory Parade [which, in Stimson's words, was "an office nickname for the General Staff strategic plan of national action in case of war in Europe"', brought up entirely the relations with the Japanese. He brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps (as soon as) next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the Question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot with out allowing too much danger to ourselves. It was a difficult proposition. source

  • Numerous war warnings had been sent by the US Military to commandeers across the Pacific in the weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor warning of impending attacks.
  • Dec 4th, Roosevelt received a classified report from the Naval Dept saying war with Japan was imminent and naming Hawaii as a target.
  • Naval Inteligence officers reading the communications between Japan's embassy in Tokyo and Washington DC told FDR Japan would attack and Hawaii was the target only they projected the date of the attack Sunday Nov 30th, 1941.

Question #2 . If (It was expected), why did no one alert defense forces to protect Pearl Harbor?

None of the sources predicting attack were particular helpful to the commanders in the Pacific much less Hawaii. One report saying Pearl Harbor would be attacked on Dec 7th 1941 would have been of some use, but many reports sent out across the pacific predicting imminent attack everywhere which were continuously wrong became mind numbing. It can be argued non specific warnings of attack on Pearl Harbor had the opposite effect on preparedness. How do you prepare for an attack given you don't know what form that attack will take? Admiral Kimmel the commander in charge of the Pacific Fleet, as well as General Short his Army counterpart, neither of whom had any knowledge of Operation Magic, took counter measures in response to the warnings to protect their assets which in hind site helped the Japanese attackers.

43 "Remember Pearl Harbor"

Admiral Kimmel considered, but rejected the idea of taking his fleet out of Pearl Harbor. In open water, he felt the ships would be too vulnerable. His 4 carriers were not available to provide air cover. (3 were bringing warplanes to other Pacific Islands, 1 was back in San Diego for repairs). Kimmel believed his ships were safer in Hawaii's protected harbor watched over by several hundred US Army warplanes stationed at Hawaii bases.

43 "Remember Pearl Harbor"

US Army General Short responded to the war warnings by moving to protect his air planes from sabotage rather than air attack. He moved all his airplanes to the center of fields where they were bunched wing tip to wing tip. This way they could be more easily protected from Japanese infiltration and saboteurs. This made the army air corps planes easier targets for the Japanese pilots in the Dec 7th air attack, but General Short given the vagueness of the warnings he recieved, considered Hawaii's large Japanese population the greater threat.

Again neither commander knew Washington had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, but in truth even if they had access to the Japanese dispatches in real time they wouldn't have had more information than that which they acted upon. Both commanders had received numerous warnings of impending attack. Both commanders took steps to safeguard their commands which ultimately assisted the Japanese attacks rather than their intended purpose. The magic diplomatic dispatches never contained the smoking gun which would have given Kimmel and Short actionable information beyond attack was imminent but god knows where.

The final part of a 14 part diplomatic Message between Tokyo and and their embassy in Washington DC was decoded just prior to Pearl Harbor. During the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, Japan's Prime Minister Tojo would point to this dispatch as his formal declaration of war and blame the Embassy personnel who delivered it for it's tartiness. Only it didn't mention War, nor did it mention Pearl Harbor, much less air attack from Carriers. Operation Magic never produced actionable information on an impending attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly everything Operation Magic had Sunday 8am Dec 7th 1941, could have been read in the newspaper on Sunday Nov 30th, 1941 in any city in the country. War was imminent.

In Conclusion…

If you really want to blow your mind it can be argued that if the American Pacific Fleet had put out to sea, the Pearl Harbor raid would have been much more successful for Japan. Bombing the US Navy's ships primarily it's battleships monopolized the attention of the Japanese pilots. It can be argued the real targets of the Pearl Harbor raid should have been:

  • the ship yards vital to maintain and repair ships
  • the fuel reserves several million barrels worth which would allow ships and airplanes to operate extended from US coast thoughout the coming Pacific War.
  • the submarine base which would contribute to the crippling of the Japanese economy in WWII
  • the Navy HQ building which not only contained most of the US commanders for the coming Pacific war but also the cryptology department which greatly contributed to the winning/shortenning of the war.

In the Pearl Harbor raid all of these important targets were left un-molested while the Japanese concentrated on the US Navy Ships; Specifically the battleships. Considering, of the twenty-one ships that were damaged or lost in the Pearl Harbor attack, all but three were repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and the older Battleship USS Utah were the only ships sunk at pearl harbor which were not returned to action.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

  • Arizona (RADM Kidd's flagship of Battleship Division One): hit by four armor-piercing bombs, exploded; total loss. 1,177 dead.
  • Oklahoma: hit by five torpedoes, capsized; total loss. 429 dead.
  • West Virginia: hit by two bombs, seven torpedoes, sunk; returned to service July 1944. 106 dead.
  • California: hit by two bombs, two torpedoes, sunk; returned to service January 1944. 100 dead.
  • Nevada: hit by six bombs, one torpedo, beached; returned to service October 1942. 60 dead.
  • Pennsylvania (ADM Kimmel's flagship of the United States Pacific Fleet):[115] in drydock with Cassin and Downes, hit by one bomb and debris from USS Cassin; remained in service. 9 dead.
  • Tennessee: hit by two bombs; returned to service February 1942. 5 dead.
  • Maryland: hit by two bombs; returned to service February 1942. 4 dead (including floatplane pilot shot down).
  • Utah: hit by two torpedoes, capsized; total loss. 64 dead

It can be argued that if the Japanese pilots weren't pre-occupied with bombing US battleships they might have chosen some of the more valuable targets all of which would play a more significant role than battleships in the coming Pacific War.

The Japanese confidence in their ability to achieve a short, victorious war meant that they neglected Pearl Harbor's navy repair yards, oil tank farms, submarine base, and old headquarters building.[56] All of these targets were omitted from Genda's list, yet they proved more important than any battleship to the American war efforts in the Pacific. The survival of the repair shops and fuel depots allowed Pearl Harbor to maintain logistical support to the U.S. Navy's operations,[137][138] such as the Doolittle Raid and the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway. It was submarines that immobilized the Imperial Japanese Navy's heavy ships and brought Japan's economy to a virtual standstill by crippling the transportation of oil and raw materials: by the end of 1942, import of raw materials was cut to half of what it had been, "to a disastrous ten million tons", while oil import "was almost completely stopped".[nb 20] Lastly, the basement of the Old Administration Building was the home of the cryptanalytic unit which contributed significantly to the Midway ambush and the Submarine Force's success.


@ed.hank additionally how the USN silo'd their various intelligence groups (hawaii, cavite, etc.) prevented the sharing of information between each other which prevented a full picture from being developed.

That Japan was going to attack in the Pacific was common knowledge in late Nov - Dec 1941. Anybody who could afford a newspaper in any city in the country knew as much as US Intelligence. No US intelligence agency accurately predicted the location of the attack or the form that attack would take in a meaningful actionalbe way. Even the Diplomatic Intercepts from Operation Magic didn't yield such information, beyond war was imminent. Of the final 14 part communication Japanese officials would claim was their formal declaration of War at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, which Magic intercepted from Tokyo to their DC embassy, Hawaii wasn't mentioned nor was war. The most damning statement it contained was that it was "impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations.".

Given that if every American in Nov of 1941 was given access to the most classified US Magic Intercepts, they arguable wouldn't have had better information than if they just read the Sunday paper regularly.

David Thornley It's not on topic for this question, but Alan Zimm, "Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions", pp. 308-321 are about why attacking the shore facilities would have been mostly futile, doing minimal permanent damage. The Japanese aircraft available were much better suited for tactical than strategic attacks. -

Even a bomb from a tactical aircraft could ignite 4.5 million barrels of aviation fuel.

Pearl Harbor Historical Org
Gordon Prange, (General Douglas MacArthur's chief Historian, twice NY Times best selling author, and tenured professor of history) one of the most renowned Pearl Harbor historians, wrote damningly: “By failing to exploit the shock, bewilderment, and confusion on Oahu, by failing to take full advantage of its savage attack against Kimmel's ships, by failing to pulverize the Pearl Harbor base, by failing to destroy Oahu's vast fuel stores, and by failing to seek out and sink America's carriers, Japan committed its first and probably its greatest strategical error of the entire Pacific conflict.”

Admiral Yamamoto was critical of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo failure to lanch the third wave against Pearl Harbor which was meant to attack the fuel farms and dry docks as well as other strategic targets meant to maximize the successes of the first two waves, and make the Pacific base useless to US forces for the coming war. Naguma was a controversial choice to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had disagreed with the attack and argued against it. Naguma had lost only 29 aircraft in the first two waves but decided to push away from the table and not risk any further aircraft. It was probable Japan's largest mistake of the war.

David Thornley
@JMS Pearl Harbor attack planners couldn't know about the results of the Battle of Midway. Destruction of half the oil tank farm would have required repair and resupply, both of which were feasible. I am aware of what Nimitz said, and I think he was dead wrong on that. FWIW, Zimm suggests that Nimitz would have been far more effective when solving a problem than when idly thinking about it. -

Oddly enough Admiral Yamamoto who was the originator of Pearl Harbor predicted Midway almost to the day. Yamamoto spoke English fluently had graduated from Harvard and was Naval Attache in Washington D.C. Yamamoto believed Pearl Harbor would only ever by Japan six month, given America's industrial power. Almost to the day he was right.

Isoroku Yamamoto When asked by Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe in mid-1941 about the outcome of a possible war with the United States, Yamamoto made a well-known and prophetic statement: If ordered to fight, "I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years." His prediction would be vindicated as Japan easily conquered territories and islands for the first six months of the war until it suffered a shattering defeat at the Battle of Midway on June 4-7, 1942, which ultimately tilted the balance of power in the Pacific towards the US

David Thornley
@JMS Destruction of half the oil tank farm would have required repair and resupply, both of which were feasible.

Yes of coarse but it would have taken years. Hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. As I previously stated.

David Thornley I am aware of what Nimitz said, and I think he was dead wrong on that. FWIW, Zimm suggests that Nimitz would have been far more effective when solving a problem than when idly thinking about it. -

David, I think Nimitz and Yamamoto are two of the greatest most respected Admirals in the history of Naval Warfare. Certainly of WWII. Yamamoto was Japan's greatest Navel strategist and Nimitz the man who defeated him. To my mind their statements speak for themselves. I'm going to re-read and revisit your other suggestions and see what I can add to my answer to make it stronger. Thank you for taking the time and favoring me with your thoughts. Early on I thought you had good points and that didn't come across in my earlier responses enough… I was especially interested in your objections on the third wave. Reading up on that I found a lot of sources which support you and now I even question whether a third wave was part of initial attack plan or something necessitated by the first two waves.

right now I have to get back to work, so I'll get on that after the face.

If the question is

Did the US Administration expect an attack at Pearl Harbor by significant Japanese forces?

then the answer HAS to be NO.

The US Pacific Fleet was concentrated and headquartered in Hawaii. The US Army was responsible for the defense of Hawaii, on the ground but more importantly in the air. There was no illusion anywhere that the Army had the means to detect an impending attack. The Air Corps had nowhere near the long range aircraft that a proper defense required. Radar was unproven both as to equipment and personnel. But the Fleet was concentrated there and clearly not properly defended. One has to conclude that there was no sense that the Japanese would launch a major attack on Hawaii.

War was seen as a very real possibility, that is why the Fleet was at Pearl Harbor and not on the US West Coast. The Pacific Fleet was essential for the defense of the Philippines, and Hawaii was much closer than the US West Coast. Although individuals may have seen a possibility of a significant Japanese attack as far from its home waters as Hawaii, this does not seem what the US Administration (senior civilian and military leaders) imagined. Submarines and 5th columnists were the most obvious threats.

While a Japanese attack on US assets was not surprising, the major attack on Hawaii was. US intelligence saw Japanese aggression, but that intelligence did not vector toward Hawaii. Even if an FBI agent thought there was a statement about Hawaii in an intercept, the US Military had the same intercepts and did not, apparently, have the same analysis.

Based on what was done, rather than what the Administration knew or imagined or what we think we know today, there was no expectation of a major Japanese attack on Hawaii. Based on what was actually done by the US administration, the only other explanation for events was that the US Pacific Fleet was bait for the Japanese. That I find very hard to accept.

It DOESN'T matter.

It was unexpected. And total surprise was achieved.

Any government anywhere is a massive organization, made up of thousands, tens of thousands, in some cases millions of people.

When you have that many people… you have that many opinions…

In many cases, the job is to write reports and interpretations of events.

In virtually every event that counted in human history, someone correctly guessed the intentions of the opposition.

But this only counts if the government adopts his/her view.

So Sure someone was able to guess that the Japanese intended to attack Pearl Harbor. But he couldn't convince his superiors, so it amounted to nothing.

This kind of stuff happens all the time.

It is just how it is.

Pearl Harbor Veteran Recalls Coming Eye-to-Eye With a Japanese Bomber

Paul Kennedy was expecting to sleep in on the morning of December 7, 1941. He had been on deck duty on board the U.S.S. Sacramento at Pearl Harbor until 4 a.m., then grabbed coffee with a buddy and hadn’t gone to bed until 5:30 a.m. So, when alarms sounded at around 8 a.m. as a swarm of Japanese warplanes began a ferocious assault on the U.S. Naval Base, Kennedy thought it was a drill and tried to tune it out.

“I put the pillow over my ear,” he told HISTORY in a 2016 interview. “My buddy saw that I wasn’t responding, so he pulled the covers off and said in so many words, ‘Get up and go! We’re under attack—grab your gas mask and helmet,’ which I did. I didn’t even put on any pants.”

Soon, a chilling encounter with one of the Japanese pilots who was dropping torpedoes on the U.S. fleet that morning, would become seared in Kennedy’s memory.

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor not only took then-21-year-old Kennedy by surprise, it shocked the nation. The attacks, which killed 2,400 Americans and wounded 1,200, struck a devastating blow against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Five U.S. battleships, three destroyers and seven other ships were taken out and more than 200 aircraft were lost in the rain of Japanese bombs and gunfire. The assault pulled the United States into a war that it had, until then, resisted joining. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 "a date which will live in infamy" and Congress declared war on Japan.

For Kennedy, who described feeling “so much anger” as the day unfolded, the start of the attack was particularly ominous. After being roused by his shipmate, Kennedy, still in his underwear, ran up a ladder to the ship’s deck. As soon as he emerged, he was overwhelmed by an approaching Japanese fighter plane.

Paul Kennedy during his HISTORY interview, 2016.

“Right above me, about 20 feet above my head, was a torpedo plane with a big torpedo,” Kennedy recalled. 𠇊nd that’s not a way to wake up.” As the plane approached, Kennedy said he was close enough to see right into the cockpit.

“He was going low and slow, because he was getting ready to drop that torpedo as soon as he cleared our ship,” Kennedy said. 𠇊nd he had his canopy back and was looking down at me𠅊nd I was looking up at him. I guess I looked pretty funny in my shorts and my skivvies.” Kennedy said he later learned the pilot was Mitsuo Fuchida, a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service who is credited with leading the first wave of attacks at Pearl Harbor.

The U.S.S. Oklahoma floating capsized near the USS Maryland.

The torpedo Kennedy saw Fuchido drop would detonate on the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which, within 20 minutes, was overturned on its side. Kennedy remembered seeing some men blown into the air “like rag dolls” and others “scrambling for their lives, climbing over the hull of the ship. It was a sad, sad sight.”

In the end, 429 crewmen on board the Oklahoma were killed. Kennedy was horrified by the sight but had no time to dwell on the tragedy. He suited up and ran to his station on a flying bridge to hoist flags as a signalman. Then Kennedy experienced his own brush with death as he saw a Japanese fighter plane drop a bomb on the nearby U.S.S. Pennsylvania and then bank toward his own ship.

“He starts strafing,” Kennedy recalled. “I didn’t have any protection and I feared—this is it, I’ve had it. There were bullets landing all around me. I could hear them hitting the deck. I heard them …hitting and hitting, making chips on the deck. But he missed.”

Pearl Harbor Survivor Paul Kennedy of Indiana holding his hat during the singing of the National Anthem at the 71st Annual Memorial Ceremony on December 7, 2012.

Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Kennedy survived that day and went on to serve in the war through July 1945 on two other ships, including a submarine-chaser and the USS Poole, a destroyer. While serving on the Poole, Kennedy earned a Purple Heart after being hit by machine-gun fire from a German submarine. But for Kennedy, death never felt as close as it had on December 7, 1941 when he dodged bullets and saw dozens of bodies of his fellow sailors in their white uniforms floating face-down in Pearl Harbor’s oil-soaked waters.

The devastating Japanese attack took the nation by surprise, but it failed to deliver the decisive blow Japan had hoped for against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. No U.S. aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack and the Japanese assault failed to take out U.S. ammunition sites. And, as for morale, Kennedy said that, while he and his fellow seamen were caught off guard, they quickly settled in for a fight.

“There was nobody on the Sacramento who was out of control, crying for their mother, or crying at all,” Kennedy said, adding that everyone did “what they were trained to do. I was real proud of my ship.”

Paul Ivan Kennedy died on August 21, 2017. He was 96 years old. 

This Is How The Battleship USS Nevada Survived Japan's Attack On Pearl Harbor

While Fuchida’s second wave began its assault on the helpless ships below, incredibly, under the guidance of junior grade officers and without the assistance from a single harbor tug, the old dreadnought backed out of its berth, away from the blazing hulk of the Arizona, and began steaming away from Ford Island, heading toward the open sea just outside the harbor. The Nevada had taken less than 45 minutes to get underway, a procedure that would normally have taken two full hours. It was a totally unexpected event, and men on all sides began cheering and waving their caps as the Nevada slowly built up speed, knot after agonizing knot, and passed the carnage that was being inflicted on Battleship Row, its battered stars and stripes proudly fluttering from its flagstaff.

A few of the smaller ships, such as tugs and ferries, blew their horns beneath the din of battle to speed the Nevada on its way. Baker First Class Emil Johnson aboard the minesweeper Tern saw Nevada slipping down the main channel and remembered thinking, “Well, there’s one that’s going to get away.” Many Pearl Harbor survivors later recalled the thrilling sight as an event that gave them not only pride but a renewed determination to resist the Japanese with whatever it took.

The Nevada’s effect on those watching could not be underestimated it was immediate and electric. Photographer J.W. Burton watched from the Ford Island shore, snapping a series of historic photographs. Lt. Cmdr. Henry Wray stood transfixed, watching from 1010 dock. Quartermaster William Miller stood watching awestruck from the deck of the stores issue ship Castor in the Navy’s sub base. To most men she was the finest thing they saw that day. Through the thick, black smoke Seaman Thomas Malmin caught sight of the flag on her fantail and recalled that the “Star Spangled Banner” had been composed under similar conditions.

Ten minutes before getting underway, the Nevada took her first torpedo hit near frame 40. “The plane came in very close, about midway down the channel, dropped its torpedo and turned right,” recalled Ensign John L. Landreth, stationed in the antiaircraft directory. The torpedo jarred loose the director’s synchronizer from the range finder, forcing it to temporarily switch to local manual control. Landreth did not witness the attacker being shot down but understood it had been hit and riddled by one of Nevada’s machine gunners, crashing just astern of the ship. This may have been a Mitsubishi B5N Kate from the Japanese carrier Kaga, the Nevada’s second reported kill of the morning. The pilot struggled to get clear and floated face up past the ship until he was dispatched by a well-aimed shot.

Marine Private Payton McDaniel vividly recalled seeing the torpedo’s silver streak heading toward the port bow, just below the two main turrets. From pictures in magazines of other torpedoed ships he fully expected the Nevada to erupt in flames and break in two. He was more than a little surprised when all he felt was a slight shudder followed by a brief list to port.

Then a bomb dropped from a Japanese Aichi Val dive bomber struck near the starboard antiaircraft director. Joe Taussig was at his station there, standing in the doorway, when it hit. He was thrown against the solid steel deck by the explosion and was amazed to find his left leg tucked under his arm. “That’s a hell of a place for a foot to be,” he thought, then was surprised to hear Bostwain’s Mate Allen Owens, standing next to him, say the exact same thing. Either a bullet fragment or a piece of shrapnel had passed through his thigh and struck the ballistics computer in front of him. Dazed from shock, Taussig felt no pain despite repeated attempts to remove him to a first aid casualty station, Taussig refused to leave and insisted on continuing his command of the antiaircraft station until the end of the attack.

“Isn’t this a hell of a thing,“ he said to Owens. “The man in charge lying flat on his back while everyone else is doing something.” Taussig survived his wounds, losing his leg in the process, but spent the rest of the war recovering in various hospitals. For him, at least, his contribution to World War II was over.

In the plotting room five decks down, Ensign Medringer felt like this was all part of a drill he had been though many times before. He realized things were different when he learned through the onboard phone circuits that his roommate Joe Taussig had been hit.

Down in the forward dynamo room, Chief Machinist Donald Ross finally was forced to order his men to leave when smoke, 140-degree heat, and escaping steam overwhelmed his position. He continued to perform their duties on his own a short while longer until he became virtually blind and fell unconscious, ensuring that the Nevada had the power necessary to enable her to continue the fight.

Nevada gradually passed West Virginia, which was slowly settling in the mud. Next came Oklahoma, now capsized, trapping scores of men within. Farther away came the flagship California, fully afire and settling on an even keel. Nevada cleared Battleship Row shortly before 0900. The slowly moving battleship now attracted nearly every Japanese bomber over Pearl Harbor she became too good a target to pass up. Nevada was hit repeatedly and shaken by near misses, opening her forecastle deck, adding more leaks in her hull, and starting numerous gasoline fires forward and around her superstructure.

Just ahead lay a harbor dredge, the Turbine, still attached to the mainland by its pipeline. Easing between 1010 dock and the floating dredge would have been a real challenge on a normal day. Chief Sedberry recalled doing some “real twisting and turning” to maneuver around the dredge and avoid Japanese attacks at the same time. The Navy always forced Captain August Persson of the Turbineto unhook the pipeline every time a battleship entered or left port, claiming there was not enough room to pass. Persson had always claimed they could do it if they wanted. Now he had seen it with his own eyes. Japanese aircraft, currently diving on the drydocked Pennsylvania, now shifted over to the Nevada if they could sink her in the channel they could bottle up the harbor for months.

Every available Japanese plane now converged on the Nevada. She was soon wreathed in smoke from her own guns, from numerous bomb hits, and from fires that raged out of control on her forward decks. One bomb penetrated and exploded in Nevada ’s stack, sending heat and acrid smoke throughout the ship’s ventilation system. Sometimes she disappeared entirely from view when near misses threw huge columns of water into the air. Ensign Victor Delano, on the West Virginia’s bridge, witnessed a tremendous explosion from somewhere within the ship that threw flames and debris into the air above her masts. The whole ship seemed to rise up and shake violently in the water.

Bosun’s Mate Howard C. French was in Ford Island’s administration building where he had a perfect view of the action. He watched anxiously as “one dive bomber after another peeled off and went after the Nevada. She hesitated and shuddered,” he recalled, “and I thought she was a goner, but she made it down channel.” Admiral Patrick Bellinger happened to be on the telephone to General Frederick Martin when the Nevada drew opposite the administration building. Like French, Bellinger also thought the battleship was “a goner” and broke into the conversation to exclaim, “Just a minute! I think there is going to be a hell of an explosion here!”

Ensign Landreth later estimated that 10 or 15 bombs missed the Nevada before the Japanese found the range. Then several bombs struck the forecastle in quick succession and exploded below decks, one or two near the crew’s galley, starting numerous fires both fore and amidships. “The bombs jolted all Hell out of the ship,” Ruff recalled. “I could see the Japanese bombs—big black things—falling and exploding all around us.” Ruff’s legs were black and blue for days afterward from being knocked about by the explosions.

Shrapnel and bomb fragments decimated those on deck one gun crew after another was cut down at its post, but still Nevada continued to put up a murderous barrage. The trio of officers in command of the ship— Ruff, Thomas, and Sedberry—were convinced that the Nevada could make it to the open ocean. But a signal from Vice Admiral William S. Pye, the battle force commander, ordered the Nevada not to try for the outer channel, fearing the threat of Japanese submarines lurking beyond.

Thomas and Ruff reluctantly decided to nose Nevada into the mud off Hospital Point to avoid her being sunk in the channel. Nevada was by now a battered ship. Shortly after 0900 the outgoing current caught the Nevada, wrenching control from her navigators and swinging her completely around. Chief Boatswain’s Mate Edwin Hill rushed forward to drop the anchor and keep Nevada from being crushed against the rocks. Three Japanese bombs landed near the bow, and all trace of Hill vanished in the explosion.

What happened after the Pearl Harbour Attack?

An unexpected and sudden attack of Japan on America shook the whole world. Japanese became more overconfident about their power and started planning another brutal attack on the US who was already been in remission after Pearl Harbour.

This time Japan planned to take total control of the Pacific influence of the US by taking Midway as their new target. Midway was another major naval base of America lying just in the middle of the US and Japan above Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. Isoroku Yamamoto, Marshal Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, took charge of this attack.

But, The US cryptanalysts had begun breaking Japanese communication codes early in 1942 and knew for weeks ahead of time that Japan was planning an attack in the Pacific at a location they called “AF”.

With Japan’s fleet so widely dispersed, Yamamoto had to transmit all strategy over the radio, enabling Navy cryptanalysts based in Hawaii to figure out when Japan planned to attack (4 and 5 June 1942) and the planned order of battle of the Imperial Japanese navy. Yamamoto planned to attack the Midway in three phases

  • Phase-I: Attack Midway with full force.
  • Phase-II: After the destruction, deploy Japanese troops in Midway.
  • Phase-III: Reserved fleet when the US retaliates.

Also, to distract American Navy, they planned a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific just the day before the attack on Midway, i.e., on June 3, 1942.

5 Other Surprise Attacks That Changed History

But the shocking assaults in 2001 on the World Trade towers, the Pentagon and the planned hit on the Capitol were not the first surprise attacks that changed the way humans do business.

Through the centuries, there have been unexpected strikes on civilian targets that occurred during wars — declared or not — and peacetime attacks that came completely out of the blue. The Sept. 11 attacks fall into the latter category.

Sudden assailments have toppled societies and shaken civilizations. The element of surprise can be a very potent change agent. And, perhaps, the most powerful weapon of all.

One of the earliest accounts of an epic surprise attack comes from Greek mythology: the Trojan Horse. The episode, explains George Dameron, a history professor at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., is associated with the 10-year war between Greeks and Trojans.

In one version of the tale, the Greeks finagle a way to get a large wooden horse inside the City of Troy. Inside the horse, Greek warriors hide. They emerge and, in a surprise attack, defeat the Trojans.

"The story may be based on an actual war," Dameron explains, "but the account of the war was certainly embellished over the centuries" between the event — fought during the 12th or 13th century B.C., the ancients believed — and its recounting in The Odyssey, written by Homer circa the 8th century B.C.

Virgil's first century poem, The Aeneid, tells the story of the Trojan Horse from the point of view of the Trojans, Dameron says, "and not only is it one of the most beautiful poems ever, but it is one of the most moving accounts of the wanton destruction of an entire city from the point of view of the victims. No one today can read the story of Troy's destruction by the 'treacherous' Greeks without being moved."

Virgil's description of Troy's destruction, Dameron says, provides the back story for events that ultimately led to the founding of Rome.

And the mythic success of the Trojan Horse victory set a high bar for surprise — and world-changing — attacks that followed through the eons.

We asked Dameron and a handful of other historians from around the country to help us examine other clandestine attacks throughout history. Here are five:

1) The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, A.D. 410. Aided by rebellious slaves, Alaric I and the Visigoths rushed through a city gate unexpectedly. The three-day siege was the first time in centuries that Rome had been sacked and invaded, says Dameron, "and it was a massive political and psychological blow." Non-Christian Romans blamed the sacking on the abandonment of the traditional Roman gods.

The ultimate surprise there, adds Johns Hopkins University military historian Mary Habeck, "was that Rome fell, not that the city was attacked."

2) The Battle of Trenton, 1776. On Christmas night, Gen. George Washington crossed the ice-chilled Delaware River to lead some 2,400 Continental Army troops on an unexpected raid against German Hessian mercenaries garrisoned at Trenton, N.J. The Patriot forces caught the British-sponsored enemy completely off guard, says Brad King, executive director of Battleship Cove naval ship museum in Fall River, Mass. "The lasting effect was that the success raised rebel morale and proved that the most professional army in the West could be beaten."

3) The Battle of France, 1940. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2007, Ernest R. May, a professor of history at Harvard University and author of Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France, said that the Germans' "successful surprise attack" on France altered the way the world regarded France and the way that France regarded itself.

Before the Nazi campaign, May said, "almost everyone said that France had the strongest army in the world." But after Germany's victory, he continued, "almost everyone thought this had been an illusion. The French military was accused of a Maginot Line mentality, defeatism, cowardice. The Germans were taken to have been overwhelmingly superior militarily and to have had will to win which the French lacked. These became, and to some extent remain, articles of faith in France."

In drawing parallels between the Germans' victory and Sept. 11, May argued that in fact the French were stronger than the Germans, and the Germans' victory was a product of "guile and luck." The Sept. 11 plot, he added, "is another, and much more extreme, example of an attack by a weaker party."

The plan for the Sept. 11 attack was, like the German plan, "based on knowledge obtained from open sources, not on secret intelligence," May said. And "the analysis underlying the plan rested largely on suppositions about the enemy's standard operating procedures."

4) The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941. The morning assault by the Imperial Japanese Army on the U.S naval base in Hawaii changed the shape of the already-raging World War II "by bringing America in with its freshness and manufacturing capacity," says Brad King of the Battleship Cove museum.

The attack also refocused American foreign policy in profound and everlasting ways. Speaking on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day in 2008, then-President George W. Bush said, "On Dec. 7, 1941, the enemy nearly destroyed our Pacific fleet, and the United States was forced into a long and terrible war. A generation of Americans stepped forward to fight for our country. Their message to America's enemies was clear: If you attack this country and harm our people, there is no corner of the Earth remote enough to protect you from the reach of our nation's armed forces."

5) The Six Day War, 1967. On the morning of June 5, Israeli planes surprise-attacked the at-rest Egyptian air force, destroying hundreds of planes. Similar strikes hobbled Jordan and Syria. On the ground, Israeli troops marched into the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. They routed Palestinians from the West Bank of the Jordan River, seized the Golan Heights in Syria and continued on to the Suez Canal. The rapid chain of events altered the landscape and the future of the Middle East — and, arguably, foreign policy in state departments around the world.

The Art Of War

Compiling such a list can be a complex undertaking. "Issues of scale, era and location complicate the question, as do the criteria for a 'sneak attack' — which is often viewed as a preemptive strike by those who launch it," observes military historian John W. Hall at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Rarely are such affairs complete and total surprises. In hindsight, it often emerges that the indicators for an attack were present but overlooked, or not placed in the proper context."

Hall suggests that Germany's unexpected — and unsuccessful — surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 be included on the list. "It is quite conceivable," Hall says, "that Hitler could have consolidated his territorial gains to that date had he not committed this most egregious of strategic blunders."

And noticeably absent from the roster are any Asian events.

There is a reason for that, explains historian David A. Graff, an associate professor at the Institute of Military History and 20th Century Studies at Kansas State University. "Tricks, traps, ambushes and other efforts resulting in the surprise of one party by another have been commonplace in Chinese warfare from as far back as we have records," Graff says. "The centrality of deceit in warfare was enunciated by Sun Tzu in the middle of the first millennium B.C. Deceit aimed at achieving surprise became so ubiquitous that it was almost like background noise, without the power to shock."

What gives events like Sept. 11 and Pearl Harbor their iconic power in our culture, Graff says, "is the ability of the victims to be shocked, and to perceive the attack as 'dastardly.' The Chinese have generally been more inclined to fault the victim for letting down his guard."

The Chinese language, Graff adds, "has no equivalent to our saying, 'Fool me once, shame on you fool me twice shame on me.' But if it did, it would be something like 'Fool me once, shame on me.' "

Caught off guard: why didn’t America see Pearl Harbor coming?

Why didn’t Washington see the deadly strike on Pearl Harbor coming? The attack, which took place on 7 December 1941, remained veiled in secrecy due to US hubris and inch-perfect Japanese planning, writes historian Robert Lyman

This competition is now closed

Published: December 1, 2020 at 5:00 pm

The US knew, in the second half of 1941, that Japan was preparing for war in the western Pacific and southeast Asia. Tokyo needed to secure material for its military operations in China – principally oil, tin, bauxite and rubber. But Washington was never aware of the final details of these plans.

US strategists knew, of course, that a Japanese offensive would chiefly target Dutch and British possessions in southeast Asia, because it was there that the raw materials required to fuel Japan’s imperial ambitions were located. They knew, also, that the US’s military presence in the Philippines would at some point come into the crosshairs. For some time, it had been clear that Japan was war-minded.

Emperor Hirohito’s expansionist regime had been beating the war drum in Asia since it had entered Manchuria in 1931, and had begun military operations elsewhere in China in 1937. The world had seen the alacrity with which it had forced a humiliated France to submit to its demands in Indochina in June 1940, and had watched Japan sign the Tripartite Pact on 27 September 1940 with the European fascist aggressor nations, Germany and Italy.

Above all, Washington knew about Japan’s plans for possible war – especially if the United States or the European colonial powers refused to peacefully allow it the raw materials to carry on its war in China – because American cryptographers had broken the Japanese diplomatic cypher.

But the United States never had any inkling, at any point before about 7.50am on 7 December 1941, that Tokyo’s plans for a general invasion of the region included a preventative and debilitating strike on the temporary home of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Subsequent attempts to suggest that President Franklin D Roosevelt – and by extension British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – knew of the impending attack and did nothing about it, in order to facilitate US entry into the war, haven’t a shred of historical evidence, and serve merely to paper over the deficiencies in American military planning that enabled the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to be so effective.

This claim can be quickly dismissed. At the same time as the strike on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a simultaneous attack on British Malaya – one that led to the fall of Singapore within 10 weeks. While Britain very much wanted the US in the war, this was to take on the Germans in Europe, not in the nightmare context of a fight on two fronts.

The Japanese assault on western colonial interests in southeast Asia was equally if not more calamitous for Britain than the United States, and welcomed by no one in London or Washington. For Britain, the need to fight in two theatres of combat was as unpleasant a surprise as the debilitating blow to the fleet at Pearl Harbor had been to US war planners.

A tale of complacency

The United States was aware of many elements of high-level Japanese political thinking as 1941 progressed, because it had managed to crack the country’s main diplomatic code – known as the ‘Purple cipher’ – in an operation codenamed ‘Magic’. The Japanese government and military used many different codes, but the Purple cipher was the only one fully mastered by US cryptographers. The naval cipher, JN25b, had only been partially unravelled by the time Japanese aircraft were making their initial dive-bombing runs against the Pacific Fleet.

Traffic between Tokyo and Japan’s embassy in Washington, then, could be read by the Americans, though diplomatic messages never carried explicit details of military plans or activities, usually giving high-level instructions and ‘lines-to-take’ for diplomats. Specifics of military plans were never entrusted to the radio, with or without encryption.

All that Roosevelt and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, knew of Japanese plans was what they could garner from the summary instructions General Hideki Tojo, the country’s recently appointed prime minister, was sending to his ambassador in Washington.

Tokyo had issued actual war orders on 5 November, and made a decision for war on 29 November, confirming it before the Emperor Hirohito on 1 December. These dates were known to Washington. Orders went to the Japanese armed forces to expect war on 8 December (an attack on Oahu at 08:00 hours on 7 December would fall at 03:30 hours on 8 December in Tokyo). However, this date was not promulgated to Japan’s embassy, so Washington was not aware.

Japan’s major triumph in the second half of 1941 was to keep secret the plan to strike hard at Pearl Harbor, in the event that negotiations to secure its political ambitions in Asia were thwarted. The Japanese plan to emasculate US naval power in the Pacific, to allow it free rein in its seizure of the Philippines, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, included a range of measures that have been common to all successful surprise attacks in history.

First, Japan carefully scouted the best route of attack: in this case, through the north Pacific, far from the normal shipping routes, which would enable the task force to avoid discovery by ships or aircraft as it circled towards Hawaii from the north. The route was reconnoitred by a civilian liner, which reported that it had sighted no other ships on its journey. During the actual operation, the Japanese attack fleet used climatic subterfuge to assist them, advancing beneath a cover of cloud and rain. They were not spotted.

Secondly, the armed forces exercised an iron discipline in terms of radio and signal traffic, to prevent plans being inadvertently leaked or tracked by an eavesdropper, while radio traffic around the Japanese home islands was boosted to make up for the absence of radio traffic from the fleet now making its way across the Pacific.

On top of this, Japanese carrier-borne air crews had practised relentlessly for months using mockups of the targets they expected to find anchored in Pearl Harbor, with pilots and crews of torpedo and dive bombers adding hundreds of hours to their flying logbooks for this single operation alone.

Technical details were examined and problems ironed out – such as the depth to which torpedoes sank when dropped from aircraft into the shallow waters of a harbour (solved by adding wooden fins to the torpedoes), and concerns over the accuracy of the explosives dropped by the dive bombers. Every aspect of the Japanese operation was planned to the tiniest detail, and rehearsed accordingly, all without the Americans having any notion of what was to come. The plan was revealed to Japan’s Imperial Naval General Staff in August 1941 and confirmed – after much heated debate – on 3 November, only weeks before the attack was due to take place.

Sunday stand-down

The primary US failure was a cataclysmic underestimation of the enemy. It never entered American military consciousness that a massive ship-launched aerial bombardment could ever take place, at least without plenty of warning. And yet the Japanese attempted – and succeeded in achieving – the unthinkable. At the time of the attack, many of the standard countermeasures available to US forces on Hawaii were either switched off or not working. A British-made radar set, which had proven its worth during the battle of Britain the previous year, had been installed on Oahu to provide early warning of an air attack.

It worked, brilliantly, but the news that massed aircraft were heading towards the islands from the north was dismissed by the duty officer at Pearl Harbor, who was expecting a group of B-17 Flying Fortresses to arrive from California that same morning.

No regular reconnaissance sweep took off from the islands to search for hostile maritime interest towards the north – US searches from Oahu were confined to the southwestern sector – and nor was there a permanent combat air patrol flying high above the islands to detect intruders. Why should there be? The idea that 350 torpedo bombers, dive bombers and escort fighters would emerge from thin air and descend on a place 3,400 miles from Japan was absurd.

On the prize vessels of the Pacific Fleet, at weekend anchor on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor, anti-aircraft ammunition was locked away. There was no one on anti-aircraft duty anyway, ships’ crews having been stood down for the sabbath. On land, only a handful of the army’s anti-aircraft guns had been supplied with ammunition, so slim were the chances of an air attack considered to be. Japanese intelligence-gathering on the island, meanwhile, had been assiduous, and Tokyo knew the US ships always returned to Pearl Harbor for the weekend, with Sunday regularly rostered as a stand-down day. In previous weeks, dry-run invasion exercises had been conducted by navy vessels on a Sunday morning – but “by some stroke”, one general testified at a Congress hearing, “we did not go out on 7 December. The fleet was in the harbour.”

The simple truth was that no one, on the American side at least, had any clue that Pearl Harbor was about to be attacked. The possibility had apparently never been war-gamed in the context of the developing Japanese threat in the western Pacific. There was no conspiracy. In Washington, there was instead merely a profound lack of planning and a naivety about what Japan’s military ambitions for its conquest of south-east Asia might entail. At the same time, on the Japanese side, a cunning and brilliantly executed military operation achieved precisely what its planners had intended: to prevent the US Pacific Fleet intervening in Tokyo’s imperial expansion push far to the southwest.

Robert Lyman is a writer and historian. His books on the Second World War include Japan’s Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India, 1944 (Pen & Sword, 2011) and Under a Darkening Sky: The American Experience in Nazi Europe: 1939–1941 (Pegasus 2018)

Hollywood vs. history / Historians say 'Pearl Harbor's' version of the World War II attack is off the mark

2 of 8 The Japanese surprize attack on Pearl Harbor successfully decimates the U.S. Pacific Fleet, including the USS Arizona (tilted) in Touchtone Pictures'/Jerry Bruckheimer Films' epic drama, "Pearl Harbor." The film is distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. HANDOUT Show More Show Less

4 of 8 Photo of Dr. Harry Gailey, an expert on the attack of Pearl Harbor during World War II. Story about the accuracy or lack thereof of the new Pearl Harbor movie. Photo by Craig Lee/San Francisco Chronicle CRAIG LEE Show More Show Less

5 of 8 The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, is pictured in this historic United States Navy photograph. In the distance, the smoke rises from Hickam Field. The Walt Disney Company is releasing a new action drama film "Pearl Harbor" about the attack, with the film premiere at Pearl Harbor May 21, 2001 aboard the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis. B&W ONLY REUTERS/United States Navy/Handout HO Show More Show Less


"Pearl Harbor" may be scoring at the box office, but it's getting failing grades from historians, who see it as oversimplified and inaccurate.

"They spent 150 million on this thing," says Harry Gailey, author of the acclaimed "War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay." "They should have been able to afford two or three dollars for a historian."

Gailey, who has written seven books on the Pacific theater of World War II, admires the spectacle but doesn't see much history in the new movie. Bruce Reynolds, also a nationally regarded military historian, agrees. The author of "Thailand and Japan's Southern Advance: 1941-1945," Reynolds is an authority on modern Asian history, and he teaches a course on World War II at San Jose State. "History is complicated," he says. "When you try to portray it, facts are distorted, and the context gets jerked around."

In this case, really jerked around. The experts saw plenty of anachronisms, jumblings of fact, odd points of emphasis and mistakes. Some are small. For example, in the first scene, two boys in 1923 play with a crop duster that was not commercially available until the late '30s.

Other mistakes are bigger. "They have Japanese torpedo bombers attacking the American airfields," says Gailey. "What are they going to torpedo on an airfield?"

The film puts 21st century communications technology into 1940s aircraft. The pilots communicate with the ease with men in a control tower and, in a later scene, a woman in Hawaii is able to hear, as if over the radio, an entire battle play out, thousands of miles away.

"The idea that she can hear the in-plane radios while sitting back in Hawaii is nonsense," says Reynolds. "Planes did not have radios like that. And the control-tower scene is ludicrous. These things are pure Hollywood and have no relation to reality."

The film depicts the commanding officer, Admiral Kimmel, finding out about the attack while on a golf course, and it also shows Americans playing baseball as the Japanese planes fly in.

"But Kimmel hadn't left for the golf course," says Reynolds. "And who plays baseball at 7 in the morning?"

The movie depicts the war as coming as something of a surprise to the American leadership. But Reynolds points out that as early as Nov. 26 the Navy was issuing a "war warning" to all its officers, and the Army said that a "hostile action was possible any moment."

"They knew Japan was going to move," says Reynolds. "They just didn't know where."

When the battle starts, the fighter pilots played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett take off from an airfield that's under aerial assault. Their heroics parallel that of real-life pilots George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, but they didn't take off under those conditions. "They were at a smaller airfield, to the west," says Gailey.

Later the pilots are recruited by Lt. Col. James Doolittle for a bombing raid over Tokyo. "But this was a bombing mission," says Gailey. "Doolittle needed bombers, not fighter pilots. They're not the same thing."


Both historians expressed doubts about Franklin D. Roosevelt's big scene, in which he pulls a "Dr. Strangelove" and struggles out of his wheelchair in order to show his cabinet that the impossible can happen. It's actor Jon Voight's hammiest moment, but neither historian has ever read of any incident remotely like that.

"Roosevelt in this movie was a caricature -- a caricature of somebody who wasn't Roosevelt," says Reynolds. "The movie has him making John Wayne-type speeches. Roosevelt didn't talk like that. It's entirely contrived."

The movie also suggests that Japan had a chance of winning the war, and that if it had pressed its advantage, it could have invaded the United States all the way from California to Chicago. "That's garbage about Chicago," says Reynolds. "Pure fantasy. Japan had no such ambitions or plans."


"There are only so many soldiers you can get on a ship," says Gailey. "Where could they have invaded on the West Coast? It would never have worked."

Though neither historian was swept away by the film, Reynolds thinks some good may come of it. "The best thing that could happen is that people will see it, be entertained and come away interested in why this stuff happened."

And Gailey, who was in high school at the time of Pearl Harbor, says the movie at least got some things right.

"They were reasonably accurate about the era," says Gailey. "They were pretty accurate about the attitude of the people. And the automobiles. And the swing music. They did a good job on that."

Blinded by the Rising Sun: Japanese Radio Deception Before Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor achieved as nearly complete a surprise on an opponent as any in military history. Ever since the first bombs fell along Battleship Row on December 7, 1941, historians have pondered how that could be. Explanations have run the gamut from the incompetence of the U.S. military commanders in Honolulu to racial hubris and on up to conspiracy among the Roosevelt administration’s innermost circle. The real answer, however, is far more reasonable.

Simply put, Admiral Husband Kimmel was caught with his pants down that day, not only because of shortcomings in U.S. radio intelligence, but also because an elaborate scheme of radio denial and deception developed by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s general staff and its Combined Fleet blinded Washington to Tokyo’s intentions to precipitate conflict. With a great deal of foresight and planning, the imperial navy’s leadership had enacted a synchronized strategy for the attack on Pearl Harbor that combined radio silence, active radio deception and its own effective radio intelligence to be assured that the Americans remained in the dark throughout the final moments of peace.

For two decades before 1941, the bulk of Japan’s navy typically took a defensive posture in any fleet exercises simulating a conflict with the United States and its Pacific Fleet, while allowing other smaller naval forces to attack targets elsewhere in the Pacific—usually to the south. During the 1930s, as the navy expanded and modernized its aircraft carrier arm, its major exercises continued to feature that defensive doctrine while its commanders visualized a decisive battle against the Americans occurring farther east, near the Mariana Islands.

U.S. naval intelligence was aware of Japan’s defensive outlook and had come to accept it as absolute. The Americans believed wholeheartedly that in any future conflict the majority of Emperor Hirohito’s naval forces would choose to remain in home waters rather than run the risk of leaving Japan undefended. In January 1941, however, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto proposed that the decades-old strategy be scrapped in favor of one calling for a first strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. It was not a completely new idea, having been considered with some regularity by the popular press and war college students. What made it different was that this time the idea was coming from a senior member of the naval establishment. Someone of Yamamoto’s stature could not be ignored.

Initially Yamamoto was rebuffed, but by the late summer of 1941 he was able to bring the navy’s general staff around to his way of thinking. Among the changes resulting from this new direction was the organization of Japan’s carriers into a single unit. For more than a decade, the carriers had been arranged into divisions comprising two flattops and their escorts. In maneuvers, those divisions were parceled out to the various fleets to serve as escorts or scouts. Under Yamamoto’s direction, however, in April 1941 all eight of the emperor’s carriers would serve together.

This gave the Combined Fleet a permanent mobile air force of nearly 500 planes. The 1st Air Fleet was a radical departure from naval practice at that time, and was well beyond anything being considered by either the American or Royal navies. As radical a change as it was, however, U.S. naval intelligence failed to notice. It intercepted a reference to the “1st AF” in November 1941 but was unable to discern what that meant. All intelligence officers could conclude was that the 1st AF “seemed to be in a high position” in the Japanese naval aviation hierarchy.

Yamamoto was too experienced to believe that such oversight would last for long and, as part of his new strategy, pushed for a denial-and-deception effort that would keep the change shrouded in mystery. Communications security had been a major concern of the imperial navy as far back as the Russo-Japanese War, and it held the American and British radio intelligence offices in particularly high regard. It was for this reason that communication security was a feature of every navy exercise throughout the interwar period.

By late 1941, however, American and British radio intelligence had mixed capa bilities. The countries’ code-breakers had been able to recover only about 10 percent of the code groups of the latest version of the main Japanese naval operational code, and intercepted messages often could not be understood in full. That meant the majority of American efforts were focused on direction finding (D/F) and traffic analysis—i.e., the scrutiny of Japanese naval communications, less the messages.

American ability in this area was good but subject to limitations. While one monitoring station in Cavite, Philippines, known as “Cast,” could take single-line bearings on Japanese ships and stations, the rest of the direction-finding effort was not, according to Navy cryptologist Lt. Cmdr. Joseph John Rochefort, “as efficient or productive of results as it might have been.” The stations lacked men and equipment, and the long distances involved (more than 2,000 miles) rendered most results difficult to act upon.

U.S. traffic analysis was totally dependent on the level of Tokyo’s communications. Even then, Rochefort’s fleet communications unit in Hawaii, called “Hypo,” sometimes differed with Cavite’s analysis. Both radio intelligence units reported their findings on a nearly daily basis—Cast’s reports were known as TESTM, while Hypo produced what was called H Chronology. The often-conflicting reports were routinely sent to Kimmel in Pearl Harbor as well as to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C. To further muddy the waters, Kimmel’s fleet intelligence officer, Commander Edwin Layton, would compose his own daily Communications Intelligence (COMINT) summary, which was largely a synthesis of the Cast and Hypo reports. A complete lack of human intelligence sources meant that the Americans had no way to supplement, replace or verify the conflicting reports. The almost total reliance on intercepted radio traffic meant that all the Japanese had to do to give the Americans the slip was add new levels of security to their naval communications system.

The first step was to initiate the new fleet signal system HY009 (kana-kanak-number), which was put into effect on November 1, 1941. More important, five days later the imperial navy changed the way it addressed radio traffic. Previously, messages were addressed openly to the recipient, usually with the latter’s call sign in the message transmission. The new system, however, replaced those calls with single general or collective call signs that equated to groupings such as “all ships and stations” or “all fleet elements.” The specific addresses themselves were buried in the encrypted part of the message. This simple change nearly crippled American analysis of Japanese naval messages.

The Japanese Strike Force also received supplementary instructions for its communications. Representatives from the naval general staff, 1st AF, Combined Fleet, 11th Air Fleet and other high-ranking officials were probably briefed at a conference on fleet communications in Tokyo on October 27, 1941. Although records of the conference are mostly missing, we can reconstruct the major elements of the deception plan that was discussed.

The first part of the plan was to forbid communication from the Strike Force’s ships. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the Hawaiian Operation (as the Pearl Harbor attack was named), controlled his communications within the stipulations of Yamamoto’s “Secret Order Number One,” which took effect for the Strike Force on November 5. Nagumo emphasized to the ship’s captains that “all transmissions [among Strike Force vessels] are strictly forbidden,” and to ensure that his orders were followed, he had transmitters on all of his ships disabled, secured or removed entirely.

While the ships were silent, however, it was still necessary to supply them with up-to-date intelligence, weather and orders. The naval general staff accomplished this by setting up a radio broadcast system that stressed redundant transmission schedules and multiple frequencies. The broadcast was a one-way method of transmitting messages. The recipient—in this case, the Strike Force—did not acknowledge receipt of the messages, which were simply repeated to ensure that they were received.

To further assure reception of all necessary traffic, Nagumo required every ship to monitor the broadcast. Certain vessels, such as the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, were tasked with copying every message. These were then relayed to the other ships by either semaphore flags or narrow-beam signal lamps.

The Japanese knew, however, that if the ships assigned to the Strike Force suddenly went silent it could alert the Americans. Some sort of radio traffic had to be maintained. Their solution to this problem was simple but effective. During a Tokyo-directed communications drill that ran from November 8 to 13, Hiei, the carrier Akagi and the destroyers of the 24th Division were instructed to contact Tokyo three times a day on set frequencies. Two days later, new pages of drill call signs were issued to the entire fleet— except for the stations and operators imitating the ships of the Strike Force, which continued to use the old signs.

To ensure the authenticity of the old signs, the radio operators from the capital ships of the Strike Force were sent to shore at the Kure, Sasebo and Yokosuka naval bases to deliver this traffic. These operators, whose familiar “fists” were easily identified by the Americans, were critical to the deception. The Americans would connect the known fists of the operators with direction finding on the call signs of ships such as Akagi and believe that the carriers and other ships were still in Japanese waters.

In addition, as the carriers departed the Inland Sea, aircraft from the 12th Combined Air Group arrived at the newly vacated bases. Their role in the deception was to keep up air activity and associated radio traffic with the carriers and bases as though they were just continuing the earlier training.

The final part of the plan was a radio-monitoring effort to ensure that the Americans remained unaware of the approaching threat. Tokyo tasked its radio-monitoring units with listening to American communications being sent from Pearl Harbor to confirm that their ploy was working. The main station responsible for that was the 6th Communications Unit at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The unit copied communications from the U.S. command and ships at Pearl Harbor, paying special attention to the communications of Navy and Army patrol flights taking off from the base. Through analysis of this intercepted traffic, the Japanese were able to confirm that most of those flights were staying to the south of the island.

In the two weeks preceding its redeployment to the Kuriles, the ships and planes of the Strike Force were busy with last-minute training, supply and planning for the attack. The misleading shore-based radio traffic began on November 8 and continued through the 13th. All the while, ships of the force began to rendezvous at Saeki Wan in the Oita Prefecture on northeast Kyushu.

The Americans, who were monitoring the drill, correctly reported Akagi at Sasebo in the November 10 Pacific Fleet Communications Summary. Two days later, the site at Cavite reported a D/F bearing that placed Yamamoto’s flagship, the battleship Nagato, near Kure, which was very close to its actual location.

On November 14, Cavite located Akagi near Sasebo. The carrier, however, had left the previous day for Kagoshima, more than 300 miles to the southeast. Meanwhile, the Pacific Fleet Communications Intelligence Summary stated that the carriers were “relatively inactive” and “in home waters” from November 13 to 15, which was true.

For the next two days, all of the ships of the Strike Force assembled at Saeki Wan (Bay) or at the port of Beppu on the northeast shore of Kyushu. Only Hiei was absent. It was steaming to Yokosuka to pick up an officer from the naval general staff with detailed intelligence on Pearl Harbor. The Pacific Fleet summaries noted that the carriers were either in Kure or Sasebo, or in the area of Kyushu.

In the late afternoon of November 17, after Admiral Yamamoto’s final conference with the commanders and staff of the Strike Force, the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, along with their escorts, slipped out of Saeki Wan, headed southeast out of the Bungo Strait past Okino Shima Island and then turned northeast toward Hitokappu Wan in the Kuriles. The rest of the force followed in groups of two or four ships.

For the next few days, U.S. naval radio intelligence seemed uncertain about the activity of the carriers and their escorts. The November 16 Pacific Fleet COMINT summary placed unspecified carrier divisions in the Mandates (Marshall Islands) with the 1st Destroyer Division. The summary of November 18 put other carrier divisions with the 3rd Battleship Division and the 2nd Destroyer Squadron. The same summary indicated, with reservations, that the 4th Carrier Division—Shokaku (call sign SITI4) and Zuikaku—was near Jaluit Island in the Marshalls. Cavite disagreed with this analysis.

After the Strike Force left, the imperial navy sent out orders for another communications drill to begin on November 22, while an air defense drill involving the Sasebo-based 11th Air Fleet started as well. Three days earlier the carriers, battleships and destroyers of the force were ordered to maintain radio watch on high and low frequencies for specific types of “battle” and “alert” messages.

By this time, it was becoming clear to the Japanese that their deception efforts had borne fruit. The November 19 COMINT summary noted that Hiei “appears today at Sasebo.” In reality, the ship was in Yokosuka on the east coast of Honshu, some several hundred miles to the northeast of Sasebo.

From November 20 to 23, Nagumo’s ships rendezvoused in the Kuriles anchorage. There they received the detailed intelligence from Tokyo, and Commander Minoru Genda put the aerial squadrons through flight and tactical training sessions. On November 22, Cavite took a D/F bearing on Akagi of 28 degrees, which placed it in Sasebo. The station also took a bearing on the fleet call sign of the 1st Air Fleet commander in chief placing him in Yokosuka. The next day, Cavite reported a bearing of 30 degrees on Zuikaku, which put it in Kure. According to that day’s COMINT summary, the carriers were “relatively quiet.”

On the 24th, Cavite took another D/F bearing of 28 degrees on Akagi and now asserted that it was in Kure—this despite the fact that the station had placed the same carrier in Sasebo two days earlier. Nevertheless, it was still in “Empire waters,” which seemed to be good enough for the Americans. The intelligence summary went so far as to establish that it had minimal information on the carriers’ whereabouts. For some reason, the summary went on to indicate that one or more carrier divisions were in the Mandates. The next day, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence released its weekly intelligence summary that placed all Japanese carriers in either Sasebo or Kure.

On that day, Tokyo broadcast Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet Operational Order No. 5 instructing the Strike Force to depart with the “utmost secrecy” on the following day and advance to its standby point northwest of Hawaii by the evening of December 3. At 0600 hours the next day, the Strike Force raised anchors and sailed into the northern Pacific.

U.S. radio intelligence reports illustrate the continued effectiveness of the Japanese deception measures. The commander of the 16th Naval District (Philippine Islands) noted on November 25 that he could not support Hawaii’s belief that Japanese carriers were in the Mandates. His message added, however, that “our best indications are that all known 1st and 2nd Fleet carriers are still in the Kure-Sasebo area.”

Meanwhile, Rochefort’s Fleet Intelligence Unit in Hawaii reported that Kirishima was in Yokosuka and that several carriers, including those of Division 4, were near Sasebo. The unit added that Japanese carriers had been heard on a tactical frequency using their drill call signs, which indicated they were still in home waters.

Perhaps the most critical deceptive transmissions were reported on the last day of the month. Cavite heard Akagi and an unidentified Maru on a bearing of 27 degrees, seemingly putting the carrier near Sasebo. Those calls had been received from the same tactical frequency five days earlier. To Rochefort, it confirmed that some sort of exercises or maneuvers were underway.

On December 1, the imperial navy changed its service (or fleet) call-sign system, leading both Rochefort and Layton to conclude that Tokyo was preparing for “active operations on a large scale.” However, no one could find any evidence of a Japanese move against Hawaii, only signs of naval movement to the south. Layton, in his report for the day placed four carriers near Formosa and one in the Mandates. When pressed by Kimmel about the others, he said he believed they were in the Kure area refitting from previous deployments.

For the next six days, the U.S. Pacific Fleet command and the respective radio intelligence centers continued to maintain that the principal Japanese flattops were in home waters near Sasebo, Kure or in the Kyushu area and that a few light or auxiliary carriers had deployed to Formosa or the Mandates. They continued to believe this right up to the last moment. In fact, just as the first wave of Japanese aircraft appeared over Oahu, Cavite reported that Akagi was in the Nansei Islands, south of Kyushu. The surprise was complete, the destruction almost total.

Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

Pearl Harbor: Why Was the Attack a Surprise?

On December 7, 1941, U.S. officials were anticipating hostilities with Japan—but they did not know when or where they might occur.

In November, U.S. intelligence (which had cracked Japan’s diplomatic code) revealed Japan was about to break off diplomatic negotiations. American officials believed this could lead to Japanese military action and warned military commanders throughout the Pacific, including Hawaii. But because Japan’s military codes were still secure, they didn’t know where Japan might strike. Most thought Japan would seize oil rich British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. American forces in the Philippines could threaten such a Japanese advance—so Washington saw potential conflict there. The prospect of an assault on Hawaii, mounted across 3400 miles of ocean, seemed remote.

The timing of any Japanese offensive was also unknown. American officials hoped to delay hostilities as much as possible, while continuing to build up U.S. forces in the Pacific.


Memorandum for the President, General George C. Marshall to FDR, July 15, 1941

In late 1940, U.S. Army cryptanalysts cracked the Japanese diplomatic code in a breakthrough known as “Magic.” Through Magic, President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and U.S. military leaders could read what Japanese diplomats were telling each other almost as fast as they could.

In this Memorandum to the President, dated July 15, 1941, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall summarizes a recent Magic intercept reflecting Japan’s imminent takeover of Indo-China (Vietnam) from the French Vichy regime. Japan’s military moves in Indo-China later that month prompted FDR to increase economic sanctions on Japan and ultimately shut off all exports of oil to that country. This accelerated the diplomatic crisis.

It is important to note that Magic could only read Japan’s diplomatic code, not its military code. Discussions of the military preparations for the Pearl Harbor attack were not transmitted via the diplomatic code.

Memorandum to the President, Secretary of State Cordell Hull to FDR, September 28, 1941

The American oil embargo shocked Japan’s leaders. In August, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe requested a meeting with Roosevelt to negotiate an end to the diplomatic crisis. FDR’s advisers argued that Japan and the United States needed to agree in principle on the major issues that divided them (especially Japan’s intervention in China) before any such meeting. During the weeks that followed, Japan continued to press for a meeting, but refused to commit to preliminary agreements on these issues.

In this Memorandum to FDR, Secretary of State Cordell Hull complains about Japan’s attitude. In his response, FDR agrees that Japan must negotiate on the key issues before any summit meeting.

Konoe's failure to reach an agreement to end the U.S. embargo led to his resignation on October 16. His successor was General Hideki Tojo, the hardline war minister. Japan’s leaders now resolved to continue negotiations until late November. If a settlement could not be reached by that time, they would likely opt for war.

Memorandum for the President, Secretary of State Cordell Hull to FDR, November 15, 1941

As American-Japanese relations neared collapse, Tokyo dispatched a special envoy to the United States, Saburo Kurusu, to assist its Ambassador in Washington, Kichisaburo Nomura, in negotiations with the United States government. Two days before Kurusu’s first meeting with FDR, Secretary of State Cordell Hull prepared this Memorandum for the President recommending certain issues to be addressed. The meeting took place as scheduled, with little positive result. Subsequent meetings between Hull and the Japanese diplomats proved equally fruitless.

Telegram, FDR to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, November 24, 1941

In late November, Japan proposed a six-month cooling off period. It would return conditions to where they were before the American oil embargo. The U.S. would end its embargo and Japan would agree to no further military expansion. This proposal was unacceptable to the U.S. because it didn’t address Japan’s continued military presence in China.

FDR considered making an alternate proposal for a temporary standstill for peace talks between Japan and China. During this period Japan would withdraw its forces from southern Indo-China in exchange for a partial lifting of the oil embargo. Japanese withdrawal from China was not a precondition for this agreement. This so-called “modus vivendi” proposal would buy time for the U.S. to continue increasing its military presence in the Philippines. In this telegram, FDR outlines the proposal to Winston Churchill. In a handwritten addition, he calls it “a fair proposition for the Japanese,” but adds “I am not very hopeful and we must all be prepared for trouble, possibly soon.”

Telegram, Prime Minister Winston Churchill to FDR, November 26, 1941

FDR’s proposal for a three-month “modus vivendi” agreement with Japan was quickly challenged by members of his Cabinet and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, who opposed any lifting of the oil embargo on Japan. In this telegram, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill responds to Roosevelt’s outline of the proposed agreement. Churchill expresses lukewarm support and conveys his concerns about China’s reaction. In the end, the “modus vivendi” proposal was never presented to Japan. Instead, on November 26, the U.S. presented a hard-line proposal.

Cordell Hull, Outline of Proposed Agreement between the United States and Japan, November 26, 1941

In late November, U.S. officials grew increasingly convinced that negotiations would soon collapse and Japan would engage in military aggression somewhere. Through intelligence intercepts, they knew the Japanese had set a negotiating deadline of November 29 after which “things are automatically going to happen.”

On November 26, Secretary of State Cordell Hull presented Japan’s negotiators with a blunt proposal restating America’s long-term position that Japan should withdraw its military forces from China and Indo-China, renounce the Tri-Partite Pact with Germany and Italy, promise to not attack Southeast Asia, and recognize Chiang Kai-shek as China’s legitimate leader. In return, America would end its oil embargo and normalize U.S.-Japanese trade. Japan’s negotiators viewed the “Hull Memorandum” as “tantamount to meaning the end.” On November 27, the U.S. issued a war warning to its forces in the Pacific.

Draft Memo, FDR to Secretary Cordell Hull and Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, December 1, 1941

In the days immediately preceding the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt grew acutely concerned about apparent Japanese preparations for some type of military offensive. Through Magic and other sources, the U.S. had learned of massive troop buildups in Indo-China. In this memorandum, dated December 1, 1941, Roosevelt instructs his top diplomats to immediately learn the intentions behind the Japanese Government’s latest move, and he discusses the obvious parallels between Japan’s actions in the Pacific and Germany’s actions in Europe. The revisions are in President Roosevelt’s handwriting.

Memo of Conversation between Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Japanese Negotiators, December 5, 1941

Tensions between the U.S. and Japan grew as the Japanese massed troops in Indo-China. American officials feared this could lead to new Japanese offensives against China or other targets in Southeast Asia. On December 5, in response to FDR’s inquiry into these troop movements, Japan’s negotiators met with Secretary of State Cordell Hull and presented a note from their government claiming that the troop buildup was defensive in nature. This memorandum of their conversation reveals the deep distrust that marked US-Japan relations by this point.

Final draft, Message, FDR to Japanese Emperor Hirohito, December 6, 1941

On December 6, FDR made a last ditch effort to head off hostilities. He sent a message to Japan’s emperor calling on Japan to withdraw its forces from Indo-China and dispel the war clouds forming in the Pacific. Roosevelt understood his message could, at best, only delay a confrontation. That night, during a White House dinner with several dozen guests he was heard to remark: “This son of man has just sent his final message to the Son of God.” Japanese aircraft carriers were already closing in on Hawaii when FDR’s message was transmitted. Japan’s military delayed delivery of the message to the Emperor. He received it just a few minutes before the start of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Map of Malay Peninsula and South China Sea Viewed by FDR on December 6, 1941

President Roosevelt studied this map on December 6, 1941. The pencil notations indicate the location of a Japanese fleet that was being tracked by British and American officials. It appeared to be headed towards Thailand or British Malaya.

What FDR and these officials did not know was that another Japanese fleet—operating under radio silence—was steaming, undetected, towards Hawaii at the same time.

Magic Intercept of First 13 Parts of Japan’s 14-Part Reply to the Hull Memorandum, December 6, 1941

On December 6, Japanese officials radioed a coded message to their diplomats in Washington. It contained the first 13 parts of Japan’s 14-part response to America’s November 26 peace proposal (the “Hull Memorandum”). Japan’s entire message would be delivered to American officials on December 7.

U.S. intelligence intercepted and decoded the message and a courier delivered it to FDR at 9:30 p.m. The decoded message also went to the Secretary of the Navy.

Though the message’s critical final part was missing, the existing text made it clear there was no possibility of a diplomatic settlement. After reading it, FDR told Harry Hopkins: “This means war.” He most likely thought the message signaled that hostilities would come more quickly than expected—likely precipitated by a Japanese strike on British or Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia. Hopkins commented that the U.S. might want to launch a preemptive strike. “No, we can’t do that,“ FDR responded, ”We are a democracy and a peaceful people. But we have a good record.”

Magic Intercept of Final Part of Japan’s 14-Part Reply to the Hull Memorandum, December 7, 1941

The 14th and final part of Japan’s reply to America’s November 26 peace proposal arrived during the early morning hours of December 7. It was decrypted and delivered to FDR at 10 a.m. After reading its ominous last sentence FDR commented that he assumed this meant Japan was breaking off diplomatic relations.

Magic Intercept of Delivery Instructions for Japan’s 14-part Reply to the Hull Memorandum

Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

On 8 December 1941, within less than an hour after a stirring, six-minute address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a special joint session of Congress voted, with only one dissenter, that a state of war existed between the United States and Japan, and empowered the President to wage war with all the resources of the country. Americans lined up at recruiting stations and any isolationist feelings were suppressed. As the extent of the disaster at Pearl Harbor became known, there was intense anger against the Japanese but also bewilderment at how such a sneak attack could succeed. After the war investigations tried to find someone to blame.

While Pearl Harbor was a great Japanese military success, it fully awakened the United States to the dangers of the Axis fascist dictatorships. With cries of "Remember December 7th" the complete mobilization of the U.S. and its entry into World War II on the Allied side came immediately after Pearl Harbor. The destruction and unconditional surrender of Italy, Germany and Japan followed in turn. By September 1945 all the leaders of the Axis countries were dead or in Allied military prisons.

Watch the video: The Attack on Pearl Harbor - Surprise Military Strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Service


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