Last Wednesday, Dec. 7, marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, home of the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. In his speech to the US Congress the following day in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy” declaring that “a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” Some writers have characterized the attack as “treacherous,” “unprovoked” and “premeditated.” History paints a different side to the story.
In his national bestseller “FDR,” noted author Jean Edward Smith, winner of the Francis Parkman Prize (an award given by the Society of American Historians), offers a look at the official records of the events that lead to Pearl Harbor. They indicate that the United States knew an attack was imminent and “in the two weeks prior to December 7, the nine military and naval commanders in the Pacific area received repeated warnings of impending hostile action by Japan.”
The chapter “Day of Infamy” provides us with some interesting insights on Japanese and American military leaders who were key figures in the disaster that signaled the start of the Pacific War.
The man behind the Japanese strategy of attack was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. A graduate student in English at Harvard, he served as naval attaché in Washington from 1926-1928. (A footnote in Smith’s book reveals that when a junior officer asked him to recommend a biography to improve his English, Yamamoto suggested Carl Sandburg’s “Lincoln,” saying Lincoln was not just a great American but also a great human being.)
In the Navy, he was known as a “bold, original thinker and an inveterate gambler.” It may come as a surprise to many but Yamamoto, although closely associated with naval aviation and considered a champion of airpower, was not a pilot. Yet he was the principal architect of an operation that has been described as “breathtakingly bold, involving a revolutionary untried use of naval airpower.”
Perhaps because of his intimate knowledge of America’s industrial and agricultural strengths, he was a voice of moderation in Japanese military circles, cautioning against a war that he felt could mean the end of the Japanese empire. Earlier, he was reported as saying “I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.”
Yamamoto’s plan of attack had eight components, with the Pearl Harbor portion as its centerpiece. To prepare for the unprecedented action, Japanese dive bombers practiced torpedo attacks against targets in Kagoshima Bay. Under his personal command was the main body of the Combined Fleet—six battleships, two light carriers, two cruisers, and 15 destroyers.
Responsibility for the actual attack on Pearl Harbor was given to the First Air Fleet under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, a battleship sailor who was president of the naval staff college. He was known as a “Japanese Bull Halsey—jaunty, extroverted, supremely confident.” He was not an aircraft carrier expert but was chosen on the basis of seniority. He would lead the assault against “what was considered the strongest naval base in the world halfway across the Pacific with the largest air armada ever assembled at sea.”
Commander Minoru Genda, air officer of the fleet, led the attack formations.
On the American side, Admiral Husband Kimmel was the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. He was selected on the basis of merit to head the fleet over the heads of six more senior admirals. In the aftermath of the attack, he would be relieved of command, reduced in rank to rear admiral, and forced to retire. Years later, he confessed, “I never thought those little, yellow sons of bitches could pull off such an attack so far from Japan.”
Admiral Harold Stark was the chief of naval operations (CNO), US Navy. He was relieved as CNO, assigned to England and after a while, pushed into retirement.
General Walter Short was the commander of US Army Forces in Hawaii.
On Dec. 6, 1941, Admiral Nagumo sent Yamamoto’s message to the fleet: “The rise and fall of the Empire depends upon this battle. Every man will do his duty.” The following morning, Dec. 7, the launch began: “First, the fighters; then, the horizontal bombers, dive bombers and torpedo planes—183 in all. An hour later, the second wave took off, mostly horizontal bombers and dive bombers. Within 90 minutes, a fleet of 350 planes were heading for their targets at Pearl Harbor, Hickam, and Wheeler Field, and Kaneohe Air Station.”
The attack took some two hours. After it was over, 18 US vessels including eight battleships had been sunk or damaged. More than 175 aircraft were destroyed on the ground, with another 159 crippled. Some 2,403 servicemen died, while another 1,200 were wounded. Japan lost 29 planes, mostly dive bombers.
The judgment of the Joint Congressional Committee on the investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack, with respect to Kimmel and Short, concluded: “The commanders in Hawaii were clearly and unmistakably warned of war with Japan. They were given orders and possessed information that the entire Pacific area was fraught with danger. They failed to carry out these orders and to discharge their basic and ultimate responsibilities. They failed to defend the fortress they commanded—their citadel was taken by surprise.”
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As a young boy, I recall attending Mass at the Baguio Cathedral. It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8. Just as we were leaving the church, a strange low-flying plane with a red sun emblazoned on its wings flew just a few feet above us. One could see the outline of the pilot in his open cockpit.
For me, it was my first close view of an airplane and the beginning of an event that I did not quite understand at the time. But from the looks of my aunt, it seemed pretty serious business. Years later, after the war, when my father was assigned as the first Philippine consul general in Honolulu, I would visit Pearl Harbor, where it all started.
Today I feel that particular conflict was not of our making but was forced upon us by circumstances. For our loyalty to the United States, we paid dearly in terms of death, destruction, and suffering, only to be informed later that our soldiers were lesser human beings than their American buddies in Bataan and Corregidor. Japanese internees in concentration camps along the West Coast in the United States were treated much better than our veterans.
As we prepare to address the many challenges that we face in the coming years, let us keep in mind the wise saying, “There are no permanent friends; only permanent interests.”
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