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Pearl Harbor Reconsidered Part III–Hit and Miss…and Wright Brother’s Day

Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

This is the third installment of my “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” essay, and for those of you who have read the other two, thanks for sticking with me. Of course, I know you’ve all bought copies of Why the Samurai Lost Japan for yourselves and for all your friends (perfect Christmas gifts) as soon as it was available (which should have been Saturday).

No? What are you waiting for? This essay is just a sample of our research and analysis. Get the whole picture.

As far as “gambles” go, Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t much of one, either strategically or tactically. The strikes were carefully planned practically to the last bomb, torpedo, bullet, and ounce of fuel—they had to be because Japan could not carry more fuel for an attack so far away. The aircraft were fueled and armed in a flurry of activity beginning very early in the morning of 7 December, the second wave being hoisted to the flight deck as the first was taking off, and was launching as the first wave was returning. It was a practiced ballet of logistics, material handling, and timing—and nearly impossible to repeat on the same day with damaged aircraft and tired aircrews and maintainers.
Map of the Japanese attack on Oahu, 7 December 1941

The attack had intended to catch the American aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor, but those ships were prevented from entering the harbor by the same storm that battered the Japanese task force en route to Hawaii. That the American carriers weren’t in Pearl Harbor (and their air groups parked on the airfields) was a grave disappointment…and created a grave danger. They and their 100+ aircraft were somewhere in the area…but Japanese intelligence was unable to say where. That one was near Wake Island, and two more were at sea a day away from Hawaii was unknown to the Japanese. For that reason, Nagumo had reason to fear for the safety of his command. Worse, he had no good idea how severe the American land-based aircraft losses were. His fleet was already low on fuel, including aviation fuel. Staying an extra day would have meant that some of the escorting destroyers would have been sucked dry of fuel for the carriers and abandoned…not recommended at the beginning of a trans-oceanic war.
Detail of Pearl Harbor

The first two attack waves had been well planned, timed and executed, but a third wave that some say should have been mounted was impractical. Sending the superbly trained pre-1941 carrier pilots on a third mission that day would have been a tremendous risk for an uncertain (and unlikely) result. Though “sparing” the dockyards, maintenance shops, and the tank farm meant the US could swing into action in the Pacific faster, it is unlikely that these less-than-vulnerable facilities could have been significantly harmed, and would have exposed the fleet to much more risk that the risk-adverse IJN would have been willing to commit to.

…at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop.

Preparing the returning planes for another attack would have taken until at least mid-afternoon, meaning that the aircraft of a third wave would have been recovering at night. In 1941, only the Royal Navy had experience with carrier landings at night. Success would have been uncertain because American anti-aircraft performance improved between the first and second waves. Moreover, the strength of Hawaii’s remaining land-based air power was undetermined. The second wave, while damaging, had not done near as much as the first in part because there was a limit to how much damage any single-engine aircraft could do.

Further, at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop. The odds against hitting the drydocks effectively were even higher, and severely damaging the concrete basins or the massive doors would have been sheer luck for any pilot of that time and place. Great Britain, desperate as they were, mounted a commando raid on St. Nazaire in 1942 to disable the drydocks there and expended a destroyer and several hundred men to do it. Mere air-delivered bombs—regardless of size—weren’t going to do a lot of damage to the drydocks of Pearl Harbor without a great deal of luck.

Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly excecuted with a few hours of planning and 100% successful is too much to ask.

Many “counterfactual” claims for the value of a third strike emphasize the potential damage caused by the destruction of the millions of gallons of fuel stored at Pearl Harbor. While possible, these claims require the Americans either do absolutely nothing to stop the attacks on those big targets or that they do everything wrong. Letting out a few thousand gallons and setting it alight would have created a good smokescreen in a few minutes that could have baffled any further attacks…and a single successful bomb on one tank or pump complex might have done the same thing. Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly executed and 100% successful with a few hours planning is too much to ask.

Though the never-planned third strike on Pearl Harbor has been much touted over the years, and it is said that Yamamoto later regretted Nagumo’s decision to withdraw (though he supported that decision at the time), he afterward said it had been a mistake not to order a third strike. Sorry, but that sounds a great deal like second-guessing for the history books after the tide had already turned. While the raid on Pearl Harbor was at least a tactical success, the strategic value of it was diminished because it missed the American carriers.

In my next and final installment of “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered,” I’ll examine the consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack, and its long-term effects on Japan and, more important, on the samurai leadership that ordered and planned it. While the Eastern Operation may have been perfectly executed, that perfect attack resulted in a disastrous war with an enemy they knew they could not defeat.

Langley’s Aerodrome

Today is Wright Brothers Day, one of the many commemorative days that is codified in US law. Though the brothers first flew on 17 December 1903, it took until 2014 before Congress passed the bill recognizing the fact. One of the reasons for the long delay was the inventor of the contraption on the left, Samuel P. Langley. He was said to have launched an unmanned powered kite in 1896 and convinced Congress to give him a contract to continue his research. It helped that Langley was the head of the Smithsonian Institutions at the time.

He had two failed manned launches in October and December 1903, and never went back to his experiments afterward in part because of the Wright brother’s success, and in part, because he couldn’t get money to continue. Langley died in 1906, having spent orders of magnitude more on several decades of failed tries to build a powered, manned, controllable heavier-than-air vehicle than the Wrights spent to succeed.

Even as the aviation industry took off and the Wrights undeniably went into the business of building airplanes, the battle for bragging rights over who flew first continued well into the 20th century. Though the first Wright Flyer was destroyed in a storm in early 1904, the Smithsonian wouldn’t even have a replica of it in its halls, instead emphasizing Langley’s efforts and even denying that the Wrights were first until well into the 20th century.


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Pearl Harbor Reconsidered Part II–Authorizing the Strike? … and National Ding-a-Ling Day

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.

Top of the intercepted message

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.

Bottom of the intercepted message

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.
What National Ding-a-Ling Day is really for…

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, 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.


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Pearl Harbor Reconsidered, Part I–How and Why…and Bathtub Party Day

This four-part essay will discuss four salient points regarding the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii:

  • How and why the mission was authorized
  • How the mission was carried out
  • The intent and failure of the mission
  • The response and aftermath

This will not be a mere rehash of what thousands of other scriveners have already said and what the sources tell us, but an analysis of these points from a Japanese point of view.

How and Why

To recap how there came to be an apparent requirement for the Pearl Harbor attack:

  • Japan had been fighting in China off and on since 1932 because, like Germany in WWI, she needed independent access to resources.
  • The US expressed its displeasure diplomatically and economically with minor sanctions and “limited availability” of critical resources from 1933 to the summer of 1941 when they cut off petroleum and scrap metals and froze Japanese assets in response to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina. Great Britain and the Netherlands soon followed.
  • The samurai culture that dominated Japan regarded the sanctions as merely a hiccup, but the samurai themselves badly needed the imports to supply their China fighting.

Fighting for resources while being cut off from supplies became a vicious spiral from which there was no apparent escape. War with America, the British Empire, and the Netherlands was, by Japan’s lights, necessary to secure resources to grab the resources of China. So was born the Southern Operation, to seize the petroleum and other materials of the East Indies. But these islands were in the hands of the Netherlands and Great Britain, who would object. These two were on friendly terms with the US, which had considerable military forces in the Philippines, and were well-placed to cut off Japan from any successes in the East Indies.
Route Map for Pearl Harbor Attack

The Pearl Harbor attack, known to the Japanese as the Eastern Operation, wasn’t undertaken lightly or easily. Attacking the United States, with which Japan had enjoyed cordial if not friendly relations, was more than a calculated risk: it was a fleet-wide gamble of enormous proportions. The entire Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had to be retrained and restructured to pull it off. Because the Eastern Operation was one of several missions taking place in three different directions at once in December of 1941, the IJN’s original strategic concept of a mid-ocean ambush that had been in place since 1922 had to be scrapped. Sounds simple, but the whole navy and nearly every ship in it had for a generation been built and trained for one titanic Tsushima at sea.

That said, there was another issue: the IJN wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the need for the Eastern Operation in the first place. While the IJN did get their carrier air combat experience in China, their enthusiasm for the China project was a great deal less than was the IJA’s. However, they were interested in the oil of the East Indies, and for that and that alone they appreciated the need to attack the United States preemptively.

However, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a bold trans-oceanic mission that had not only never been done before, but it was also far and away the most ambitious naval operation ever undertaken by Japan and required the largest fleet deployment in its history. Even while planning was ongoing, there were questions raised as to whether it was necessary at all. Militarily, the US Pacific Fleet in 1941 was something of a dinosaur, the only modern parts being the three aircraft carriers assigned there. If the American carriers could be sunk in a single blow, that would create an advantage…especially since the US had seven other carriers scheduled for launch in the next year. While true, it should be remembered that Japan was fighting not to win a war but to get the West to end their sanctions and give Japan a free hand in Asia. She was trying to frighten, not defeat, the US. Would not the other bold moves elsewhere be enough to cow the soft, decadent Americans? Those who spoke against the Pearl Harbor strike were relegated to other duties as official enthusiasm for the project grew.

Next week we’ll talk about how the Pearl Harbor strike was organized, and how it (probably) got its orders.

And then there’s Bathtub Party Day (C) on Wednesday, created by Ruth and Thomas Roy over at, purveyors of herbs and copyrighted holidays. They give no particular reason for the timing (though early December in these parts is chilly), but include the usual kinds of admonitions like turn the ringer off on the phone (how quaint), lighting candles and incense, and settling down with a favorite alcoholic beverage. This is all to be followed by scented oils and lotions and the usual big fluffy towels.

Um…how much relaxing is going on here?

But seriously, a party is much more like what we have to the left, isn’t it? I mean, alone, with a roomful of candles and incense that would take an hour to light, a newer towel that’s probably been in the closet for a year and was half-stale when it got there (and the wife was saving for some later “special occasion” that somehow is never entirely defined.)

So, yeah, bathtub party if you’re so inclined, but I’d instead do it with a smaller group if I do it at all…which I likely won’t since, well, I don’t see much point, and my better half usually looks at me with some disdain when I suggest such things.