Today, as promised, I’m going to talk about how Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack was organized and actually, tactically authorized…or not.
Reorganizing and retraining the entire IJN in less than a year, the IJN created an administrative unit called the 1st Air Fleet to coordinate carrier air activities. In theory, the 1st Air Fleet included all ten Japanese aircraft carriers afloat at the time, but the Eastern Operation would only use six—the rest were incomplete or obsolescent. Committing their entire operational carrier strength was a gamble, but the Combined Fleet’s commander, Yamamoto Isoroku, was an inveterate poker player.
Once the Kido Butai (literally, mobile force) consisting of the three carrier divisions (two each, and three or four destroyers in each division), a battleship division (two ships), a heavy cruiser division (two), two destroyer divisions (two of four and one of two), at least 25 submarines and eight oilers sailed for Hawaii, three-fourths of the Imperial Japanese Navy was committed to a single attack. Conventional wisdom and popular culture have always held that the phrase “Climb Mount Niitake 1208” from Yamamoto in Tokyo Bay to the Kido Butai’s commander Nagumo Chuichi who was well on his way to Hawaii on 2 December meant that the diplomats in Washington had failed to reach an accord with the US, and the fleet was to attack Pearl Harbor as planned.
This is the top half of the message intercepted, as passed by the Hawaiian station that did get the signal and worked the code. Serial 676 is what it’s commonly known as.
The imagery of the bottom half is garbled, but it does say that the interception was at 2100 (9 PM) on 2 December 1941, and declassified in June 1972.
With all due respect to my predecessors (and my readers who saw part of this discussion two weeks ago) who have all agreed that this was a “go” message…that assertion makes no sense, because:
- The Japanese diplomats in Washington had, on orders from Tokyo, been stalling on purpose for two months. There was no chance that the primary American demand—that Japan withdraws from French Indochina—was going to be met, and Tokyo knew it. No matter what else happened, the Americans weren’t about to shut off the 1941 sanctions spontaneously unless Japan complied…and no one expected them to.
- Japan had committed huge forces to not only attack Pearl Harbor but also Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Guam, and Malaya. Stopping that whole mechanism because a single message from the Combined Fleet was not sent or received…impractical at best, unlikely at worst. Further, there is no record—anywhere—of a “no-go” message. If the Mount Niitake signal was the “go” there had to have been—logically—a “no-go.” What was it?
- The IJA and the IJN didn’t play well together. Their rivalries made the annual American Army-Navy football game look like a Care Bears® convention. The IJA wasn’t going to take orders from the IJN—ever. A single message to start everything in motion…improbable doesn’t come close to describing it.
- Yamamoto sent the message to essentially start the war in the Pacific…on whose authority? Sure, Japan’s Government Liaison Conference had approved war with the US, Britain and the Netherlands in November, and such approval was widely known among the senior officers in both the IJA and the IJN. After that, however…who said, “there’s a chance this won’t be needed so let’s make this code up?” No record of that, nor is there even a chance for such approval to have existed.
Mount Niitake on Taiwan was the tallest mountain in the Japanese Empire, so I submit that the “Climb Mount Niitake 1208” signal is better understood as meaning “perform the difficult task with the blessings of the boss.” That its absence would have stopped anything—absent a message to the contrary—is highly unlikely. It is more likely that emphasis has been put on the Mount Niitake signal by post-war historians to make the pre-1945 Japanese appear to still have had some restraint, that they went to war with some reluctance and trepidation. The “East Wind Rain” message, which was never transmitted according to Japanese records, was the only generally-accepted official “war warning” that existed, and even that was unspecific as to timing.
It is more likely that emphasis has been put on the Mount Niitake signal by post-war historians to make the pre-1945 Japanese appear to still have had some restraint…
Next week I’ll talk about the attack itself, and about the myths surrounding the legendary “third strike.” Remember, too, to look out for the release of Why the Samurai Lost Japan this Friday.
Wednesday, 12 December, is National Ding-A-Ling Day. Now, for those of you who are going to jump to the illogical conclusion that these “ding-a-lings” were for either the portions of the male anatomy that the filthy-minded thought Chuck Berry was singing about or about the local eccentric with the propeller beanie who talks to snowbanks, even if they aren’t there.
Nope, this national day was started by Franky Hyde of Illinois in 1971. For a buck, you could join the Ding-a-Ling Club. Members would be incentivized to call people that they hadn’t contacted for some time, like old neighbors, the kid’s former babysitter, classmates unheard for two reunions, former workmates and so on. According to Trivia-Library.com, there were some 600 members in 1981, and the dues had been raised to $3. However, since there is no website and no references after this, it seems likely that the organization has gone the way of many such outfits.
Sounds weird, but really not a bad idea. I’ve got family and friends I haven’t heard from in ages…regrettably I’m really not sure how many of them I still can get ahold of. Again, wouldn’t hurt to try, I suppose.