Seventy-Five Years After Pearl Harbor


Holy moly. Shinzo Abe is going to visit Pearl Harbor “on Dec. 26-27 to pray for the dead”. Who saw that coming? According to the linked report:

“We must never repeat the tragedy of the war,” Abe said. “I would like to send this commitment. At the same time, I would like to send a message of reconciliation between Japan and the U.S.”

Reconciliation? More like reassurance the USA will back Japan over China should push come to bombs. Which is the idea The Japan Times has. A “symbolic gesture to cement the alliance” between our countries.

Anyway, one of the treats Yours Truly provides for his family is to screen (notice the sophisticated lingo) Tora! Tora! Tora! about this time every year. I helpfully point out small details and describe what the film (not movie) got right, what it got wrong. So penetrating and copious are my insights that people have been known to leave the room in order to digest in quiet the profound information I convey.

After seventy-five years intense scrutiny, coming up with something new to say is next to impossible. Unless a hidden diary of FDR admitting he knew Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked, and that he personally leaked a map of Hickam Field to Japanese agents so that America would finally be able to join the war is discovered.

Which all evidence indicates won’t be forthcoming. Nobody on the American side, including the Powers That Were in DC, expected Pearl. Sure, FDR & Co. goaded charter members of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere in the hopes they would start a fracas, and thus provide the casus belli that was anxiously desired.

But no leader thought Pearl. The Philippines, maybe; even preferably. A blow there would sting, but it couldn’t cripple. And it might have even been welcomed. Even a fishing boat sunk would have been enough.

Pearl shocked the bejesus out of most folks. And it was a damn close thing. If Japanese Admiral Nagumo had launched a third wave of attacks, American might indeed have been pushed back to San Diego, which was what the Japanese were hoping for. But as Tora! Tora! Tora! got right, Nagumo didn’t know where the American carriers were. He could well imagine being caught without air support.

If you can get hold of it, read Admiral Husband Kimmel’s book, Admiral Kimmel’s Story. It and mountainous other information proves he had no idea what would happen. It’s true he was warned about a week before to expect something, but the clues given to him by Washington led him to suspect sabotage. Again, even a smoke bomb tossed over the base’s fence by one of the many Japanese, some of whom were known to be spies, living on Hawaii would have been enough for FDR to spin into a major attack. It was only by luck Kimmel had the carriers away.

I say “most folks” didn’t guess Pearl because some people on the Allied side, though they didn’t know, had deep suspicions. Best single book on the subject is And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway Breaking the Secrets by Edwin Layton, retired Rear Admiral and one-time intelligence officer for Kimmel.

The infighting and petty politics he describes, which ring so true you’ll have to cover the book with a pillow (that metaphor demonstrates the dangers of beer for breakfast). Blame is especially laid at he wet feet of the military bureaucracy. Admiral King (and the Redman brothers, both officers) don’t come out as shiny as their official biographers portray. King nearly lost the war in the Pacific and Atlantic.

Layton tells the story of Joseph Rochefort, a Naval cryptanalyst, who was able to puzzle out many of Japan’s activities, but who was thought to be eccentric because he was reported to wear his bathrobe while working. He did. But that was because the machines with which he worked had to be kept so cool it was either that or develop pneumonia. The supposed eccentricity was used by the jealous Readman brothers to keep the decrypted diplomatic messages from the Purple code from Rochefort and his boss Layton. These were top-level communiques from Japan’s government to its embassy in DC. If Rochefort and Layton, who were at Pearl, had had those cables, there’s evidence which suggests they could very well have figured out what was going to happen.

For his efforts, Rochefort “was recalled from Pearl Harbor and eventually reassigned to command of a floating dry dock in San Francisco.”

Finally, on a familial note, there was a Briggs. Ralph Briggs (don’t know if he’s a relation, but we Briggses and cryptographers stick together), a seaman who claimed he heard the Japanese weather report “East wind rain” broadcast over Japanese civilian radio on 4 December 1941, which was supposed to be an encoded signal which meant relations with the USA were to be broken off. This the controversial Winds Code.

Laurance Safford, another Naval cryptographer, claimed to have passed on Briggs’s discovery to the Washington brass. If so, they should have cautioned Kimmel an attack in the Pacific, but maybe not Pearl, was imminent. But after the war, there was no evidence of a memo from Safford in the records. People think he misremembered.

Update Just saw this. One story among many, but a good one.


  1. John B()

    Thanks for the Update

    Amazing story about trying to get a story

  2. Gary

    Big events have personal ripple effects. The Pearl Harbor attack motivated my college freshman father to join the Navy. When he returned to campus three years later he met my mother who went to college in part because of the openings left vacant by enlistees. Unlikely they would have met without the events of December 7, 1941.

  3. John B()

    Just caught this which, of course, brought to mind a song:

    (that metaphor demonstrates the dangers of beer for breakfast).
    It wasn’t bad so you had one more for desert.

    (Those Sunday Mornings can be tough!)

  4. Ken

    RE: “the film (not movie)”

    Here’s an important analysis on the use of “film” vs “movie” jargon: Summary:

    Insiders in the entertainment business tend to use “film” by an 82 percent margin. Its about 50-50 in overall population the UK, and in the US most outside the industry use “movie” by a 70-75+-ish percent margin. Populations in any number of other countries split along similar proportions, one way or other.

    This is and isn’t like the terms used with photocopies, usually made on a Xerox machine early on when photocopying came into the mainstream, with photocopies being called “Xerox’s” (“copies”), and, “Xerox” also served as a verb (to “Xerox” a document was to make a photocopy). For years & years “Xerox” was the term du jour for describing a photocopy and even the metaphorically-challenged could readily distinguish between the copyrighted brand for the copy machine, and, a generic photocopy of an original document (or act of photocopying). People have sensibly long-since retired that obsolete jargon for lingo properly aligned with the associated technology.

    Similarly, “film” harks back to a bygone era & technology when motion pictures were actually made on celluloid film (and later VHS cassettes, also containing a type of “film”). “Film” was a literally accurate description of the media used, and the term was appropriately used for decades, generations even. Those days are long past since motion pictures have gone digital. But, dis-similarly to photocopying, use of the jargon has persisted, a sort of nostalgic verbal inertia that hasn’t kept pace with progress.

    As such, referring to motion pictures today as “films” instead of “movies” is like calling a PDF copy of a document a “Xerox.” Quaint, but silly.

    Moving on…

    The “best” analyses of Pearl Harbor (and related battles) have been compiled since most of the government archives have been declassified, revealing just how much intelligence information both the U.S. and its allies and adversaries actually had about each other and how much that affected events. That content has not been factored in a sizable proportion of older and otherwise historically credible but sources (the Battle of Midway is a classic example, where older descriptions present a very close battle that could have gone either way…when the reality was that the U.S. had decoded Japanese communications and knew the status of Japanese carrier forces and knew the most optimal times to attack vs defend, making the outcome an almost foregone conclusion before the battle even began — a fact not revealed until quite some time after the war). Some declassified, or leaked, Japanese files reveal what they were really thinking, or not, though much of their archives were destroyed to conceal the details of what were later considered their war crimes. Officials on both sides have also concocted & destroyed documents based on hindsight to present a more favorable story relative to selfish self-interests (just like modern govt officials & politicians…). We may have a pretty good idea of what happened in many or most events of interest, but its likely nobody has a truly accurate understanding of many significant facets of history’s reality. Even when historians tried, at the time, to get things right they often erred; case in point, the famous flag raising photo over Iwo Jima — one of the soldiers involved was misidentified until just very recently:

  5. Ray

    You really have to wonder what the Japanese were thinking. In the late 1960s I was on a destroyer home ported at Pearl Harbor. The harbor is dredged to 50 feet so the deep draft vessels like aircraft carriers can enter the harbor. The Japanese plan was to sink the US Pacific fleet in 50 feet of water and we would be helpless and sue for peace. That didn’t work out too well.

    I was at Pearl Harbor when they were filming TORA^3 and we at the destroyer piers had a front row seat for the filming.

  6. Paul K. Steele (Ken)

    My father’s second cousin was a signalman 2nd class on the Oklahoma and also died in the attack (body never positively identified apparently). My father was drafted into the Navy just before the end of the war on his 18th birthday and met my mother within a couple of years. I honor them both, and am proud to have known one of them. It helped to inspire my own service in the cold war Navy of 1978-84. Here’s to both of you – SM2 Eugene Skaggs and S2C Allen Steele.

  7. Oldavid

    Yair, well,
    Which tribe ultimately benefited from whacking Pearl Harbour? I suspect it was the same mob that benefited from sinking Lusitania and blowing down the WTC towers.

  8. Ken

    20-20 Hindsight significantly, sometimes dramatically, skews how one interprets the past.

    Did FDR know of the upcoming Pearl Harbor attack? If so, then a LOT of others down the chain of command did as well. Knowing isn’t the same thing as believing the information, which is evaluated–at the time–alongside other information, usually lots of other information, of equal or perhaps greater credibility. Also, at the time information is received, it invariably is mixed in with disinformation and sorting out which is which is seldom certain. Its always a characteristic of conspiracy theories about such intrigues that the bits of info supporting the theory are presented as if that’s all there was, not that those bits of info were snowflakes in a blizzard of related and contradictory snowflakes of info.

    To infer that FDR willfully allowed the attack to occur as it did (i.e. without providing for a better defense) depends on attributing weight to particular pieces of information while dismissing other information based on knowing what actually happened. And presented the selected facts in a context that distorts their actual presentation & appearance before events they foretold actually occurred. In other words, its a contrived conclusion that depends on hindsight to develop. It may after all have some validity, but probably not.

    Recall the FBI agent that identified certain dubious Muslims taking pilot training but having no interest in learning to land — cited as proof [by some], along with other cherry-picked details, that Pres Bush knew & let the 9-11 attacks happen.

  9. kuhnkat

    Ken, nice rationalization.

    Since you obviously have not read Stinnett’s book, or many others, it is a waste of space. Read it and come back.

    You have also totally thrown out the context. FDR declared the US neutral and swore in his campaigning that he would not send US troops to the war. Yet, he started providing arms to the British, Free French, and Chinese. Where were comparable deals with the Axis?? Then he set up the Lend Lease program ultimately including the Soviets. As the Germans quite reasonably started sinking those supply ships FDR started the war early attacking Germany’s warships. Tch, tch, not so neutral. In fact, nicely planned to goad the Germans into destroying enough US shipping and men to give an excuse for declaring war or destroying enough German warships to cause them to declare war on us which even Hitler did not want to do. (at least till much later)

    No cherry picking needed, just facts if you have the stomach to actually fill in the biased gap between your ears.

    I have no idea whether Bush “let” the attack happen or not. He had pretty much the same info Clinton had and followed Clinton and his people’s lead, as far as we know. Do you have more evidence to present?? If not, nice non-sequitur.

  10. kuhnkat


    I have a little spare time right now so here is some of those cherry picked facts. We could decode the diplomatic codes and other codes but NOT the military. We did have 3 installations including the one in Hawaii that intercepted all radio transmissions and triangulated their locations. Before the war intelligence had figured out the call signs of the military vessels by matching the patterns with physical sightings of the ships. While the Japanese claimed the attack fleet operated under full radio silence, FOIA documents from those listening stations show that a number of transmissions were received from the fleet including a submarine and two other warships (I would have to reread that section to tell you which ones) Triangulation of the transmissions indicated all three ships were on a course that would probably end up at Hawaii. Other intelligence was that several carriers along with submarines, tenders, and other escort warships were missing from anywhere they should reasonably be, like refitting docks, hot spots, exercises, combat, etc. If you actually read the several good books on the subject you will find other information that will convince any reasonable person that yes, a certain group of intelligence people, aids, and officers were aware of this information. It is the reason the new Hawaiian naval commander was ordered to discontinue scouting and exercises in the direction of the most probable approach to Hawaii… and was then courts martialed for not doing a better job.

    Anyway, this is very rough and needs a knowledgeable person to present plus there is a large amount of confirming information I don’t remember off the top of my head. Leave your knee jerk bias behind and read the book.

  11. Jim Fedako

    “Crippled” is a huge overstatement.

    In the end, the Japanese sank two aging battleships. Big deal.

    Gary North has a great article over at

    “Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor sank four battleships and damaged four others. All but two of the eight battleships were back in service within a few months. All eight were old. Even new battleships were obsolete strategically as primary warships by 1941. Aircraft carriers were the heart of a modern navy by then. Japanese planes also sank or damaged 13 other support ships, which counted for nothing strategically.

    What we are rarely told is that there were a hundred ships, not counting the carriers, at Pearl Harbor that day. So, the 353 Japanese planes failed to damage 79 ships out of 100.

    ‘Twas a famous victory.”

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