Saturday, December 5, 2015

Rehearsals for Pearl Harbor

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Sometimes, the US can be its own worst enemy.  Such is the case leading up to the beginning of World War II.  American military planners essentially showed the enemy how best to attack the US military forces at Pearl Harbor, and then took no steps to fix the insufficient defenses.

In the years leading up to WWII, Pearl Harbor in the US territory of Hawaii served as one of the main Pacific naval bases for the US.  So many navy ships in one port in a relatively isolated group of islands made an attractive and easy target to any enemy seeking to cripple the US Pacific fleet.  Sure, it's easy for me to say that in hindsight.  But what about those who warned about it well ahead of time?

Attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.  Could it have been avoided?
Gen. Mitchell Warns the Military, Gets Tossed Out 

Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell of the US Army was one of the first to draw concern to this danger.  After a 1924 tour of military forces in Asia,  Gen. Mitchell issued a lengthy report the following year warning of the growing Japanese air power.  He went into great detail about how Pearl Harbor could be easily attacked by Japanese air forces.  He said that the likely scenario would be a crippling attack on Pearl Harbor to take out the Navy, followed by an attack on military bases in the Philippines.  By eliminating the Navy, the Japanese could invade the Philippines with at least months before the US could rebuild a navy to respond.  His report even went so far as to predict the timing of the attacks down to the minute:

"Bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island (Hawaii) at 7:30 A.M..... Attack to be made on Clark Field [Philippines] at 10:40 A.M. "

Of course, Mitchell got this wrong: The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 at 7:55 A.M. and later at Clark Field, Philippines at 12:35 P.M. So Mitchell's estimate, 15 years in advance, was off by 25 minutes for Pearl Harbor and less than two hours for Clark Field in the Philippines!

The Mitchell Report, known as Winged Defense,  also criticized the lack of communication between the Army and Navy in Hawaii.  He noted that communication between the two branches would be critical during any attack, but that there were no systems in place to allow for this.

Gen. Billy Mitchell
Upon the issuance of this key report in 1925 by the man who had been in command of all US air combat in WWI, the military of course took immediate steps to develop better defenses for this military base that was the key to control of the Pacific....  Just kidding - all the more senior military officials either ignored or criticized the report.

One General commented that Mitchell's assumptions of possible enemy actions were unsound and preposterous. Another of his superiors claimed never to have seen the report until after it was published as a book a year later.  The military establishment had, for many years ignored or refuted Mitchell's compelling arguments that air power would dominate future military actions.  The 1925 report just made him too annoying.  Shortly after his report's publication, Gen. Mitchell was demoted to Colonel and transferred to a minor remote air base in San Antonio Texas, where he could be more easily ignored.

This is not to say everyone ignored him.  One government official commented:

"Should there be such a war,  America would have to fight it a long way from home...It would be gravely embarrassing to the American people if the ideas of your General Mitchell were more appreciated in Japan than in the United States." and "Our people will cheer your great Mitchell and, you may be sure, will study his experiments."

This official was a Mr. G. Katsuda from the Japanese Parliament, shortly after observing one of Mitchell's demonstrations of the superiority of air power against land and naval forces.  Japanese officials were invited observers.  These officials apparently took much more interest than US officials.

Unfortunately, one thing Mitchell was not good at was knowing when to shut up.  Shortly after banishing Col. Mitchell to Texas, military leaders sent a group of three sea planes on a public relations flight from California to Hawaii.  One failed to take off. One had to land at sea and be rescued shortly after takeoff.  The third ran out of fuel and also had to have its crew rescued after a sea landing. Around the same time, leaders sent a military airship, the Shenandoah on a public relations tour through the mid-west.  It crashed during a storm, killing all aboard.

Mitchell knew some of the men killed and angrily made the following statements to a newspaper: “These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments,” Mitchell continued: “The bodies of my former companions in the air moulder under the soil in America, and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity.”

For these comments, the military decided to court martial Mitchell for “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service.”  The Court found him guilty and suspended him from military service.  That was enough for Mitchell, who resigned from the Army and retired to farm in Virginia. He died there in 1936.

War Games in 1932 and 1938 Make Clear the Vulnerabilities

Mitchell, of course, was not the only officer to see the danger of leaving Pearl Harbor exposed to aerial attack.  In 1932, Admiral Harry Yarnell proved Mitchell's theory correct during war games against Pearl Harbor,  The Navy conducted annual war games in which a naval fleet from California would move on Pearl Harbor.  The Pearl fleet would then move to intercept and the mock battle would take place in open sea.  In 1932, Yarnell decided to maintain radio silence as his fleet advanced.  He attacked without battleships, using just two aircraft carriers and three destroyers.  He avoided trade routes where his ships might be seen and reported, and decided to hit with an air attack on Sunday, when he knew most sailors would be off duty.

The "attack" consisted of simple flares and bags of flour.  They were enough to convince the war game referees that Yarnell's attack would have sunk every ship in Pearl Harbor, as well as every land-based plane on Oahu.

Yarnell’s success proved the effectiveness of an aerial attack from a carrier.  As a result, officials altered area defenses to protect against a real surprise attack from the air....  Again, just kidding - the Navy ignored the results of the war games, arguing that in a real life scenario, their battleships would have found the aircraft carriers before they got within range and destroyed them.

Some military officials, however, recognized the significance of these war games.  In 1936, the Japanese Imperial Naval Academy made the 1932 war games against Pearl Harbor part of the curriculum for students.  The final exam that year asked the question "How would you carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?"

In 1938 Admiral Ernest King used an aircraft carrier to launch an aerial attack to make the point that Pearl Harbor was still vulnerable to this type of attack.  With this second war game confirmation of its vulnerability to air attack, naval officials realized the first war game was not just a fluke and that they needed to reevaluate air defenses at Pearl Harbor.  Sorry, again just kidding.  The navy again argued that, despite two successful war game attacks, such a sneak attack was impossible in a real life scenario and that the results of these sneak attack war games meant nothing.

1940-41: US Military Lines Up Ships and Planes as Easy Targets

Adm. James Richardson
In 1940, it was determined that the navy should move its main fleet from San Diego California to Pearl Harbor.  The Commander in Chief of the US Fleet, James Richardson vehemently objected to this. According to a newspaper article written shortly after the war:

"It was Richardson's belief – and indeed generally supported by the Navy – that the Fleet should never be berthed inside Pearl Harbor where it would be a mark for attack. This was particularly true in such troubled times when the airways of the East were hot with rumors of approaching conflict. What is more, Richardson held the belief that Pearl Harbor was the logical first point of attack for the Japanese High Command, wedded as it was to the theory of undeclared and surprise warfare. For ten years the U.S. Navy held "attacks" on the Army defenses at Pearl Harbor, and were always successful. Defending the base was rather hopeless, in his mind."

Adm. Husband Kimmel
Adm. Richardson met with President Roosevelt in October 1940 to press his objections to this move. Roosevelt listened to the military concerns and soon responded -- by removing Richardson from command and turning over command to the more compliant Admiral Husband E. Kimmel in February 1941. Less than ten months later, Adm. Kimmel would be standing at the window of his office in Hawaii watching Japanese planes destroy his fleet in Pearl Harbor.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the military in Hawaii was completely unprepared for an attack. Gen. Walter Short, the Army commander in Hawaii, was more worried about sabotage than attack. Commanders feared Japanese sympathizers on Oahu might attack aircraft, vehicles, and buildings. To guard against any such sabotage, they parked aircraft wingtip to wingtip on the flight lines, out in the open at Hickam, Wheeler, Bellows, and other airfields, making them especially easy targets for Japanese planes. Ammunition was stored far from aircraft, in a central location, meaning it would take much more time to arm aircraft before they could take off if needed.

Gen Walter Short
The military did have radar, but did not bother to keep it running during the day.  It was scheduled to be turned off at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday December 7. The radar operators on duty that morning, however, continued to keep it running as the truck that was scheduled to take them to breakfast was running late.  They detected approaching aircraft at 7:02 a.m.  They reported the detection, but most of the command staff had already left for breakfast.  The Lieutenant who received the report assumed it was an incoming US bomber group scheduled to arrive that day.  The radar operators were told not to worry about it. Still, they followed the incoming planes until 7:40, then lost contact, because the planes descended below radar.  Since there were no other reports of suspicious activity, they thought nothing more of it and headed to breakfast.  It was only after arrival at the breakfast hall that the operators received word that the attack had begun.  They quickly returned to their posts, but by then the attack was well underway.

Planes lined up side by side by side on the runways
made easy targets.
Perhaps if the Army Lieutenant who received the radar report also knew that at 6:54 a.m. the destroyer USS Ward sank a Japanese midget submarine in the mouth of the harbor, he might have not been quite so quick to dismiss the radar report.  But this sinking by the Navy was not reported to Adm. Kimmel's staff for another half hour.  No one thought to report it to the Army at all  The poor Army/Navy communications that Gen. Mitchel had warned about 15 years earlier had not gotten any better.

The result of this lack of preparation and vigilance was a near total loss for the US.  The Army and Navy combined suffered 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded.  By comparison, the Japanese attackers suffered 64 killed and one captured.  The US also had all eight of their battleships and 11 other ships damaged or destroyed. Japan suffered four mini-submarines sunk and a fifth captured after it ran aground.  No Americans even fired on the Japanese surface fleet.  The Army Air corps had 347 out of a total 390 planes damaged or destroyed, mostly while sitting on the ground, out in the open, without any fuel or ammunition to launch.  Japan lost a mere 29 planes out of over 400 used in the attack.


Finally, only after the devastation was complete, did the military put in place adequate air defenses to protect the critical military bases there from future attack during the War -- So sorry, I couldn't resist. I am, of course, just kidding.  Rather than focus on the enemy, the local military actions focused on continuing misplaced fears of threats from the local civilian population.  One of the first steps the military took was to try to seize and censor any photos or film that civilians had taken of the Japanese attack.  The military also began reading and censoring all private letters and English speaking newspapers (foreign language newspapers were banned outright). It monitored all telephone calls to the mainland mandated English only for all phone conversations.

Installation of barbed wire around
Iolani Palace after the attack
Despite just being attacked by a foreign army, the military continued to believe the local population still constituted the greatest continuing threat. The army declared martial law, issued orders closing all saloons and prohibiting the sale of liquor.  Apparently drunken saboteurs are the most dangerous.  It also suspended civil courts and instituted military provost courts in their place.  It closed all schools for an indefinite period; suspended food sales (so the military could inventory and ration food supplies) and greatly restricted gasoline sales. The military even banned the use of all US currency, issuing script that was only valid to be spent in Hawaii.  It also froze all wages, pay raises apparently being another threat to national security.  It also barred Japanese nationals from earning more than $200 per month.  All private ownership of firearms was also prohibited.

With the declaration of martial law and suspension of constitutional rights, the military proceeded immediately to round up dozens of local civilians of Japanese, German, or Italian descent. Eventually this number would rise to several thousand.  Many of these were American citizens, and no evidence ever came to light that they or anyone else on Hawaii was an enemy agent or saboteur.  In fact, the only related act of civilian violence was a group of Hawaiians who killed a Japanese pilot who crash landed on a remote island.

Most of these military restrictions remained in place for than six months.  Some aspects of martial law, including the suspension of habeas corpus (the right not to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial) remained in place nearly until the end of the war.

Even after the attack, officials never put in place any better air defenses or even sufficient monitoring to prevent another attack.  Japanese submarines remained around the island for weeks without being detected.  The Japanese flew at least two flights over Pearl  Harbor to survey the damage.  One flew over around dawn on December 18. Another flew over at night on Jan. 6-7.  Failure to implement any new enemy detection procedures meant that neither plane was detected.

Listen to a free podcast of this episode.

For Further Reading:

Ok, it's not really "reading," but there was a movie made in 1955 called The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell starring Gary Cooper.  If you are interested in this stuff, get it and watch it.  Personally, I think the bias of the movie is too pro-government, but that is what you got in the 1950's.

You can also watch a silent movie taken of the actual Billy Mitchell at a send off party of all of his friends, when he got tossed out of DC and sent to Texas in 1925

You can read more about Mitchell here:

You can also read Mitchell's 1925 Report here:

Sites dealing with the war games of 1932 and 1938:

Attack and Aftermath:

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