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Pearl Harbor Planning and National Punctuation Day

Ah, late September in the Great Lakes…the colors, the light frost, the leaves in the gutters, the beds to clean up, the garage to get ready for snow…yeah, great. At least that air conditioning compressor isn’t running non-stop.

On 24 September 1541 Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known to history as Paracelsus, died in Salzburg. Generally thought of as the father of toxicology, this physician, astrologer, and alchemist emphasized the value of observation in addition to received wisdom in the practice of medicine, a true pioneer in a field full of pioneers in the Renniassance. This date in 1869 is known to history at Black Friday when the “gold ring” of Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the market on gold on the New York Gold Exchange. The speculators tried to advantage of bits of inside information on US government gold sales which backfired, triggering increased government species sales rather than decreased, cratering the prices and causing a panic on Wall Street. And on 25 September 1864, the Warren Commission’s final report on the assassination of President Kennedy was presented to President Johnson and made public three days later. Because of the nature of the Kennedy assassination and the tenor of the times, the conclusions–that Oswald acted alone in the killing of the president, and that Ruby acted alone to kill Oswald–have always been controversial. Today is also National Cherries Jubilee Day (no one knows why just go with it) and Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving (the Schwenkfelders are a small Protestant sect dating from the Reformation; they have celebrated their deliverance to Philadelphia since 1733). But today we talk about hasty-yet-brilliant-in-their-way plans, and about ending sentences.

Onishi Takijiro had been studying feasibility without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

On this day in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began their preliminary research for a proposed attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Most readers would take careful note that this was only 74 days–two months and change–before the attack took place. While the general offensive against the West was authorized on 2 July, the Pearl Harbor operation was something of a question mark. While Genda Minoru’s tactical air attack plan dated from February 1941, Onishi Takijiro had been studying the feasibility since November 1940–albeit without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

Yamamoto Isoroku managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done. 

The issue was that the IJN was entirely unprepared for such an attack. Since the 1920s, the entire fleet had been built around a mid-ocean ambush of the US Pacific Fleet as it made its way across the ocean. Though discredited for years, the plan and doctrine had its adherents throughout the halls of Japanese power. Yamamoto Isoroku, the head of the Combined Fleet, had the Pearl Harbor strike in his head and managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done.

There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

So the entire fleet had to be retrained, reallocated, and reorganized for what it was to do in December 1941, and that took a great deal of time. More, the resources for such a long-distance air strike had to be gathered, and the rest of the fleet had to be re-purposed to support the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IIA) attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

…the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the key elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

Nonetheless, it was done, and starting in September the actual nature of the area was carefully studied and scrutinized. The primary targets were to be the American aircraft carriers–failing that, there were no primaries. Though much ink has been spilled since 1941 on the value of hitting the fuel storage tanks and workshops–the supposed targets of the never-launched IJN third strike on 7 December 1941–it is difficult to assess what damage could have been done to them. First, it is difficult at best and impossible at worst to tell the difference between a warehouse and an engine workshop from an aircraft traveling at 300 plus miles an hour while someone is shooting at you. Thus, target identification was problematic. Second, attacking fuel oil bunkers with the bombs available to single-engined aircraft primarily intended to sink ships might cause some damage, but anything close to total or catastrophic was unlikely. Third, while single-engined planes might have damaged the drydocks and other facilities with their bombs, these are much smaller targets than ships, and thus hitting them hard enough to cause lasting damage would have been lucky at best. For these reasons, the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the critical elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

The plans that were undertaken in September 1941 were drawn up with hope as a planning tool: the hope was that the US would be cowed to the negotiating table by a series of lightning attacks. As others have learned to their peril, hope is an inferior contingency plan. Our book, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, published at the end of this year, covers this and many other aspects of the Pacific War.


Now, no one in their right minds really knows anything about National Punctuation Day, and absolutely no one would actually found such a thing let alone build a website around it, right? Well, turns out that’s wrong. Someone did. A fella named Jeff Rubin founded National Punctuation Day and made a website. He’s the publisher of a newsletter called The Exclamation Point that goes on and on about punctuation. As my editor and verbal sparring partner Frank will tell you, I’m personally a punctuation minimalist. I eschew as many commas as I can get away with, but that also tends to lead to long sentences that he has to break up in our laborious editing process for everything but this here blog. But he bears with me as much as I believe any friend of…well, Clinton had just been elected when we met. Leave it at that.

Anyway, today is National Punctuation Day, and if you write anything at all today (recent research indicates that most people actually write less than a thousand words a day), please pay attention to what you’re doing. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss is an excellent and easy-to-read guideline much more approachable than most other guides. And, as a general rule, there are certain parts of punctuation that not only baffle the “experts” but are not published anywhere because English is simply too flexible. There are rules, but not everyone agrees on all of them.

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