We Only Ever Talk About the Third Attack on Pearl Harbor

"Our prospective opponent has always started operations by attacking before a declaration of war."

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I found the inspiration for this story in Secrets & Spies: Behind-the-Scenes Stories of World War II; I found the book in an old bookstore and believe it is out of print, but Amazon has a few used copies (in the link above).

This post is the first in a mini-series on the attack on Pearl Harbor. You can find the second part here: Planning the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

A Sunday Morning Attack

It was a winter Sunday morning and the island of Oahu was asleep — its military at Pearl Harbor less alert than they might have been any other day of the week.

The winter trade winds blow steadily from the northeast against the Hawaiian island, rushing along and then up and over the 3,000-foot Koolau Range, with the moisture they carry being wrung out along the way. That moisture often forms into towering clouds, creating a dark wall of rain and weather.

An admiral intent on catching the U.S. military base unprepared was aware of this meteorological phenomenon. After all, it was the perfect natural cover in which attacking ships and planes could approach the island with little fear of being detected in time for a proper defense to be mounted.

When he set off from his own military base far away, he had opted for a smaller task force of two aircraft carriers and a few destroyer escorts, leaving behind a larger fleet of cruisers and excess destroyers. The admiral believed that the future of any country’s navy was dependent on its superiority in the air, and he intended to prove the validity of his views in an attack on Pearl Harbor.

As he had hoped for when his small force set sail, 24 hours off of Oahu thick weather greeted him with conditions that made it unlikely a defending fleet could detect him before it was too late.

As darkness fell the night before, his fleet began its approach, charging full speed towards the unaware island, running with lights off and in radio silence amongst rain squalls, low clouds, and strong wind. Pitching in the heavy seas, the admiral held his planes until just before dawn when they were 60 miles offshore. Then, while still in complete darkness, 152 planes took off.

Just as the new day’s sunlight was finally hitting the island, the planes emerged from the clouds to find the world’s greatest naval base helplessly asleep beneath them.

The First Attack: Pearl Harbor, February 7, 1932 | Military.com

Fighters led the charge, strafing across the airfield, knocking out the planes on the ground before any aerial defense could lift off. With air domination achieved, dive bombers and torpedo planes freely followed, raining down on the vessels in the harbor. Not a single one was left unscathed.

Leaving devastation behind it, the attacking fleet collected its planes and disappeared before the stunned men at Pearl Harbor were able to locate from where the attack had been launch. Not a casualty had been taken by the aggressors.

“Everything went beautifully and according to plan,” an attacking officer reminisced of the morning. “Our squadrons struck their targets shortly after it got light, taking them all by complete surprise.”

It is important to learn from our experiences…

The military men on the island were completely demoralized. Their vessels and military structures were covered in flour — from “flour bombs” meant to simulate the real things. There were also dead flares that needed to be cleaned up, another form of simulated aircraft-delivered explosive that had been dropped on them.

It was February 1932 - WWII was more than half a decade away - and it was the first time that Pearl Harbor lost the annual simulated military games meant to test the island’s defenses.

Rear Admiral Harry E. Yarnell of the U.S. Navy had exposed a serious weakness in their defenses and won the simulated attack. And he had done it by going against the prevailing views of military leaders across the U.S. — he believed that in the future, a country’s navy would be successful only if its air capabilities matched its seagoing strength.

The first U.S. aircraft carrier ever built — the USS Langley — was commissioned in 1922 after being converted from a coal carrier. Two additional fleet carriers were added to the U.S. Navy’s feet — the Lexington and Saratoga — in the late 1920s, but as surprising as it might be to modern ears, the aircraft carriers were viewed as having little strategic importance.

Established wisdom said that the battleship was the core of any naval strategy. Large fleets of these armored ships were expected to duke it out against foes, whether on coastlines or at sea, with the aircraft carriers being more useful for patrols and not fighting.

Having lived through the Spanish-American War and World War I, Admiral Yarnell thought differently - and proved it.

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… and not let pride or ignorance prevent us from doing so…

As expected, this embarrassment didn’t go over well with the rest of the Navy’s admirals. While immediately after the drills, Admiral Yarnell was declared victorious and military strategists across the United States knew something major had just happened that needed an appropriate response, politics got in the way.

Eventually, Admiral Yarnell’s victory was declared void due to complaints that he had acted in an unfair manner - that if there had been a state of war, the element of surprise would not have been a factor. Thus, the Navy administration voted down the idea of reorganizing itself around the importance of air power.

In fact, it was even written in a report that followed that “It is doubtful if air attacks can be launched against Oahu in the face of strong defensive aviation without subjecting the attacking carriers to the danger of material damage and consequent great losses in the attack air force.”

Essentially, the military was arguing the exact opposite of what had actually happened.

In 1938, the same wargames were being played again to test Pearl Habor’s defenses. The attacking force was led by Admiral Ernest King, and Admiral Yarnell was working in the background to run the experiment a second time.

King took a single aircraft carrier escorted by destroyers to attack Pearl Harbor from the air. Coming in over the Koolau Range, he surprised the military base and won a decisive victory - just as Admiral Yarnell had done so in 1932.

However, once again, politics and dismissal of “unfair” tactics led to a lack of bolstered defense at Pearl Habor and an unwillingness to restructure the U.S. Navy.

… lest we fall prey to the same in the future

Unbeknownst to the U.S. military at the time, we now know that Japan had been watching Admiral Yarnell’s 1932 mock attack with keen interest.

Tokyo’s spy organization in Oahu had observers across the island that relayed information back to Japan - which studied and absorbed the lessons the U.S. Navy failed to learn. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was convinced that the future attacking power of a navy should be built around air power as opposed to surface strength - and so that is what he did with the Japanese navy.

As WWII got underway in the Pacific, Japan knew that it could not fend off a full-on assault by the U.S. Navy if the U.S. entered the war. Instead, they needed to launch a pre-emptive strike and hobble the U.S.’s ability to interfere with Japanese operations in the Pacific.

Thus, on December 7th, 1941, Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto pulled out the same military plans that Admiral Yarnell used almost 10 years before and launched his own assault on Pearl Harbor. This time, however, his planes would not be carrying “flour bombs” and flares.

That Sunday morning, Yamamoto’s planes burst through a wall of clouds over the Koolau Range — and its fighters strafed the U.S. airfields before bombers descended on the island — and only then did the U.S. Navy accept that it should have paid heed to Admirals Yarnell and King when slight embarrassment was the only price it needed to pay.

This post is the first in a mini-series on the attack on Pearl Harbor. You can find the second part here: Planning the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

If you made it all the way through the article, please take a moment to share it with someone that might find it interesting, or if you haven’t yet subscribed, please consider doing so below — I appreciate your support very much!

Take care and have a great rest of the week,

— EJ

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