Commentary

Pearl Harbor revisited

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HONOLULU—It has been 71 years since the “day of infamy” at Pearl Harbor that marked the beginning of an agonizing four years in the Pacific known as World War II.

With each year of painful remembrance of the 2,403 people who were killed instantly on Dec. 7, 1941, comes yet another story, another documentary, another perspective on that fateful day. Each year brings new aspects, new insights, new information that we still didn’t know seven decades after the fact.

This year, Bob Sigall, author of “Companies We Keep,” and a journalist for Rearview Mirror, reveals that the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was actually modeled after a similar battle a year earlier—on Nov. 11, 1940—in Taranto, Italy, called “Operation Judgment.” In that attack, the British forces launched 21 torpedo bombers from an aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious, on unprepared Italian forces (part of the Axis Powers). It was the first time that a naval attack was carried out by airplanes alone. The Italians and their decimated fleet retreated to northern Italian bases in Naples.

Sigall’s research revealed that a Japanese delegation later visited Italy to study the Battle of Taranto. The delegation concluded that a similar attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii could force the US Pacific Fleet to withdraw to bases in California, the way the beleaguered Italians retreated to Naples after Taranto.

So the Pearl Harbor bombing was not unique. Sigall goes on to show that the Japanese committed a grave “tactical error” that enabled the US Fleet to recover quickly and bounce back into battle. That fatal error was leaving the Pearl Harbor dry docks and its ship repair facilities completely unscathed, enabling the US Fleet to repair the damaged ships quickly and return the Japanese fire. The Japanese attack targeted mostly the warships, like the USS Arizona.

Also left undamaged by the Japanese initial air assaults were the fuel reserves at Pearl Harbor. Why did the Japanese leave these untouched? Because they did not want the ensuing clouds of smoke to obscure the view of the ships, which were their main focus, since a third planned attack had targeted the ships.

Six months after Pearl Harbor, the US Navy defeated the Japanese carrier fleet at Midway island, a critical turning point in the Pacific War in June 1942. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s four large carriers were sunk, and another 50 percent of the Japanese ships were destroyed. This was a  severe blow to Japan’s imperial ambitions in the Pacific. It must be recalled that Commander in Chief Isoroku Yamamoto’s major objective was to stop the United States from interfering with Japan’s planned invasion of Southeast Asia.

Thus, the miscalculation of the Japanese turned the tide against them early in the war and forced them on the defensive. Meanwhile, the American victory at Midway allowed the United States and its allies to concentrate their forces in Europe. According to many observers, this shortened the war in the European theater.

And the rest is history, according to Sigall, who quotes former US Defense Secretary James Schlesinger as saying that without the Midway victory, “there would have been no D-Day in Europe on June 6, 1944.” Schlesinger added that without Midway, “[then President Harry] Truman might have felt it necessary to authorize the use of additional atomic bombs to bring the war to a timely close in 1946.”

Truman later estimated that the war cost the United States some $5.4 trillion in today’s dollars, and that the cost to all nations would amount to some $20 trillion today.

Sigall concludes his research with the observation, based on his comparison of the Taranto and Pearl Harbor battles, that the latter failed because it was too much like the Battle of Taranto, a failed example. The loss of Taranto on the other side of the world from the Pacific shifted the balance of power in the Mediterranean, which allowed “the Brits to more easily supply their soldiers in North Africa.”

For sure, next year in Hawaii there will be another story more startling than the year before. Pearl Harbor has become a legend, and as legends go, it grows more legendary with each retelling in the following years.

Belinda A. Aquino is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she was professor of political science and Asian studies, and director of the Center for Philippine Studies before she retired.

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