Saturday, December 7, 2019

Remembering Pearl Harbor....

The explosion of the forward magazine on the U.S.S. Arizona (source)
Although most people think the attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical success for Japan and a failure for the United States, there are arguments that it wasn't even much of a tactical success. As this article from Military History relates:
      One of the first commanders who showed a reasonable calculation of losses was Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz, who arrived at Pearl Harbor on December 24, 1941. Nimitz did not miss the fact that the roadstead in Pearl Harbor is not deep and the Americans managed to lift most of the ships settled there. In the end, only three (out of eighty two) of them – Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah – were irretrievably lost.. All three of them were relatively old (encoded before or during World War I) and slow, so their loss was not acute to the US Navy. The proximity of hospitals has reduced (and so much) the loss of human lives.

      Despite appearances, the fact that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor with surprise when the ships were at port turned out to be beneficial for the US. According to Nimitz, if the Pacific Fleet had gone to the sea to meet the enemy, its loss would be not 3,800 but 38,000 people. These facts represent a “catastrophe” in Pearl Harbor in a completely different light from what was previously thought.

       Also, the Japanese leadership did not share the euphoria that prevailed in their country after the victory in Hawaii. The plan of the attack was to completely destroy the enemy fleet (the Japanese fleet did that 36 years ago under Tsushima against the Russians) and then in six months were going to take over British Malaysia, the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Burma, New Guinea and even Australia. Meanwhile, as we already know, the American losses were not so big at all and, most importantly, the Japanese did not manage to destroy their main purpose – the three aircraft carriers: USS Lexington at that time was delivering aircraft to Midway, USS Enterprise to the island of Wake, and USS Saratoga was undergoing maintenance work in San Diego.

      In addition, Pearl Harbor revealed the chaos and indecisiveness that prevailed in the Imperial Fleet at that time. Two commanders, Genda and Yamamamoto, had different visions of the main goals of the future attack. The first one wanted to attack battleships first of all, while the second wanted to attack aircraft carriers. Another example is the situation when, before the air raid on the American base, Japanese people noticed that one of their aircraft carriers would not reach their destination due to insufficient reach. First, it was ordered to abandon the carrier at sea, but later Japanese decided to load additional barrels of oil on the ship.

     There were more and more errors committed by the Emperor’s fleet, among them:

  • sending out a second wave of 250 kg bombs, which were unlikely to cause serious damage to the battleships they targeted,
  • The 800-kilograms of bombs loaded on diving bombers were too heavy for airplanes, which had an impact on their accuracy: out of 49 dropped bombs, there were 10 which managed to hit the target, but only 4 of them exploded.
The consequences of the attack on Pearl Harbor were terrible for Japan. Already on April 18,1942, American bombers raided Tokyo successfully and a Japanese offensive directed to Australia was halted in May. On June 7th, the tragic Battle of Midway ended for Japan, where the Imperial fleet lost four aircraft carriers.

       Despite everything, no matter how much the Pacific Fleet suffered during the Pearl Harbor defeat, since the beginning of the war the Imperial Republic of Japan had been doomed to failure. The Japanese economy was not even able to approach US production capacity: in 1940, the Americans produced four times more aluminium and 518 times more oil than Japan. In the same year alone, the Congress commissioned eighteen large aircraft carriers, seven battleships, seven battlecruisers, twenty-seven cruisers and fifteen thousand planes for the armed forces. The unleashing of the war with the USA was best summed up by the already mentioned admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who after the attack on Pearl Harbor said: “I am afraid that all we have done is to awaken the sleeping giant and fill it with terrible determination”.

      What happened later is history. The Japanese Empire was destroyed when two American nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union threw itself at its remains. All this started with a spectacular but ineffective attack on Pearl Harbor’s base.
See also James Holmes, "Why Japan Failed at Pearl Harbor," National Interest (Dec. 6, 2016), discussing why the attack on Pearl Harbor was actually a strategic blunder on the part of Japan.

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