Pearl Harbor

This is excerpted from The Green Beret Guide to Seven Great Disasters II which is free today, 7 December.

Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians (who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war) have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.” Admiral Yamamoto, Commander Japanese Navy. (Note that this quote was used extensively for propaganda purposes by the United States by leaving out the last sentence)

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a disaster for both the attackers and those attacked. While a tactical victory for the Japanese, it ultimately led to a strategic defeat. Thus, we have to look at the cascade events for Pearl Harbor from both sides; seeing how they played against each other and why it turned out badly for both parties.

What the Japanese hoped would be a ‘knockout blow’ against the United States turned out to be something very different. And the pride of the US Navy was savaged in an attack that had a result beyond the worst nightmares of most military planners.

In this disaster, we have to do an action-reaction series of cascade events, with both sides making the events of 7 December 1941 almost inevitable. And we have to look at strategic (big picture) and tactical events.


At 7:55 am, local time, 7 December 1941, the Japanese began an aerial assault on Pearl Harbor and other military targets (airfields) on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands.

After an assault of 2 hours and 20 minutes, the attack was over. Eighteen ships were sunk, 2,400 Americans were killed, and 1,200 were wounded. Over 300 aircraft were destroyed.

9 February 1904: Japanese destroyers launch a surprise attack on the Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur, crippling the Russians. They had not been at war. They were now.

July 1937: Japan invades China.

December 1937: On the Yangtze River evacuating US Personnel from Nanking, the USS Panay is sunk by Japanese aircraft. Japan claims it was an accident and pays reparations.

July 1940: The United States imposes an oil embargo and sanctions on Japan, directed at stopping their expansion in Asia.

January 1941: Admiral Yamamoto proposes an attack on Pearl Harbor to other officers.

16 November 1941: The first vessels, submarines, depart Japan heading toward Hawaii.

26 November 1941: The main Japanese fleet departs Japan for Hawaii.

7 Dec 1941: The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and other military targets in Hawaii.

8 December 1941: President Roosevelt asks Congress for a declaration of war against Japan. The United States enters World War II

The Cascading Events

Cascade One

Political misunderstanding and maneuvers that backfired.

Fueled by Nationalistic goals, the Japanese began to build an empire in the west Pacific. The Japanese expanded their land base and tried to solve its raw material supply dilemma by invading other countries and bringing its import market under its own control. The primary country of immediate concern was China. The Japanese invaded northern China via Manchuria in July 1937.

In response, the United States began economic sanctions against Japan. These escalated to trade embargoes. The goal was to force the Japanese to withdraw. These had the exact opposite effect, causing the Japanese to expand farther in search of the needed raw materials for their empire. When the United States, then an exporter of oil, embargoed that commodity in July 1941, the Japanese felt their hand had been forced.


Carl Von Clausewitz is famous for saying the “War is the continuation of politik by other means.”

The manner in which Japanese and American politicians misjudged each other is matched only by the way Japanese and American military officers misjudged each other.

To perhaps over simplify things, economic sanctions appear an excellent solution in theory, but end up usually hurting both national pride and the citizenry. In this case, the oil embargo particularly inflamed the Japanese military because oil is essential to military operations: ships, planes, tanks, and trucks all run on oil.

On top of this, the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact signed on 13 April 1941, removed a threat to Japan (and vice versa to Russia), allowing Japan to concentrate on the Pacific Theater.

It was obvious to both the United States and Japan they were on a collision course for war. The sinking of the Panay on the Yangtze in 1937 inflamed the American public. While political leaders on both sides continued to talk of desiring peace, both militaries planned for war.

Cascade Two

Military strategic planners in both countries seriously miscalculated each other.

War Plans are developed based on possible scenarios. We had large safes in a secure room with all the war plans for every single A-Team in 10th Special Forces Group, which were all part of larger plans. These were extremely detailed plans down to drop zones, hide sites, etc. etc.

In the 1930s, as tensions escalated between the two countries, staffs drew up plans to counter the other. However, plans are based on estimates of enemy capabilities and possible actions. In a way, each staff plans against the plan they think the other side has.

In both cases, some very serious assumptions were made by the Americans and Japanese.

As a result of the U.S. oil embargo, rather than submit, the Japanese decided to seize the Dutch East Indies and its oil supply. With the war raging in Europe, the Japanese felt the various colonial territories were ripe for the picking except for one problem: the American fleet.

The Japanese believed they needed six months to conquer the East Indies, and therefore needed six months of freedom from the American Navy. Except the American Navy had no plan to interfere right away. In fact, War Plan Orange, initially drawn up in 1911, didn’t call for an immediate response to such aggression. It delineated withholding supplies and reinforcements from west Pacific outposts, primarily the Philippines, and building up naval power on the West Coast and Hawaii until a sufficient force could set sail and engage the Japanese in a decisive surface battle.

This plan, by the way, was based on the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Naval Academy graduate from the class of 1859. Thayer very much believed, unlike Custer, in the concentration of force. He did not think that the fleet should piecemealed out. Mahan’s writings on Naval strategy were so popular they were required reading not only in the United States Navy, but also that of Germany and Japan. As a sidebar, he also is credited with coming up with the term ‘Middle East’ for that part of the world.

As an update to Plan Orange, which focused on the defense until a powerful fleet could set sail (at least six months and some believed two years), Admiral Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, signed Plan Dog, which outlined a defensive war in the Pacific while the focus was on defeating the Germans in Europe. The Navy’s main goals in the Pacific was to keep the Japanese out of the eastern Pacific and keep supply lines to Australia open. With the blessing of President Roosevelt, Stark also ordered the Pacific Fleet to deploy forward from San Diego to Pearl Harbor as a deterrence. The commander of the Pacific Fleet objected so strongly to this he was replaced.

U.S. war planners assumed that the Japanese would attack the Philippines. Few speculated or even conceived that the Japanese would attempt the long-range strike (4,000 miles), at Pearl Harbor. They believed this not only because the Philippines were closer to Japan, but also because U.S. forces stationed in the Philippines could threaten Japanese lines of communication and supply. No one thought the Japanese had the forces to attack both the Philippines and Hawaii.

What American planners didn’t focus on was the last time Japan took on a major power: in 1904 the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian Fleet at Port Arthur, sinking two battleships and a cruiser. As you can see elsewhere in this book, this attack was part of the destruction of the Russian Navy and a cascade event for the Russian Revolution and the fall of Tsar Alexander.

On the Japanese side, Admiral Yamamoto, while planning for the Pearl Harbor attack, prophesized: “I shall run wild considerably for the first months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.”


Strategic plans based on false assumptions can lead to disaster.

In book one in this series discussing Custer, I discussed how militaries are always ready to fight the last war. Even in war planning, we often look back for lessons learned, always a smart move, and apply them to our plans. However, sometimes this ignores changes, particularly technological ones.

On the flip side, what the Japanese did to initiate war with Russia in 1904 was ignored as a possibility.

Yamamoto was proved correct as the war in the Pacific changed six months later at the Battle of Midway. This had to do not only with strategic issues, but a key tactical mistake the Japanese made by focusing on battleships. The aircraft carrier did not exist when Mahan was coming up with his theories. Also, submarine warfare was in its infancy. The focus on the battleship by almost every country going into World War II would prove to be so misplaced, that there is not a single battleship deployed in the world any more.

Bottom line:

The United States was wrong in believing that the Philippines would be the primary target (the Philippines were attacked after Pearl Harbor and still weren’t prepared!) and Pearl Harbor was safe from attack.

The Japanese were wrong in believing that the United States would immediately respond to their expansion in the far east.

Cascade Three

Warnings were ignored and/or not given to those who needed to get the warnings.

Once more, this happened on both sides with dire consequences.

On 27 January 1941, 10 months before the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, the Ambassador to Japan wired Washington that he’d discovered the Japanese were planning a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This is right after Yamamoto proposed the concept.

He wasn’t believed. The key decision makers were convinced that the Philippines would be the object of a Japanese attack, not Pearl Harbor. If anything, this was misdirection.

Some have said that U.S. cryptoanalysis had broken the Japanese Code and deciphered messages about the pending attack on Pearl Harbor. Further research, though, reveals that this might not be true. A project named Magic worked on breaking down Japanese diplomatic codes and had great success until the Japanese went to a machine generated code, much like the German Enigma. No one will ever really know the truth about because even if the code had been broken early enough, the government had to keep this secret in order to have the Japanese keep using the code. One only needs to look at the Coventry bombing to see the horrible Catch-22 of covert operations and code-breaking.

However, U.S. intelligence services were reading a lot of the low-level traffic. The information however, was rarely disseminated to those who might be able to use it.

At least one person on the other side, Admiral Nomura, the Japanese Naval Councilor on the Supreme War Council, reported that the Americans were reading his message traffic.

He was not believed. Curiously, Nomura became the Japanese ambassador to the United States in 1940 and actually pushed for a conciliation between the two countries. His entreaties to his own government were rejected.

The bottom line was that there were enough messages, warnings, and far-sighted people on both sides to realize something was about to happen.


Enough red flags were raised that while it was believed war was inevitable, the exact way the war would start was uncertain.

Of course, it’s easy in retrospect to cherry pick certain warnings. We have to accept there were probably numerous other warnings of potential events that never played out.

Going with the concept of the 10th Man, the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor should have been given serious consideration. Both the Army and the Navy commanders in Hawaii were relieved of command after the attack. Each needed an officer on their staff working on possibilities beyond those expected to unfurl in War Plan Orange; especially if the Japanese didn’t operate according to script.

Cascade Four

Tactical considerations worked both ways.

The Japanese also followed Mahan’s teachings. Their goal for the attack was to cripple the American Pacific Fleet. To that end, they focused on sinking the ships of the line: battleships. What’s odd about this, is that they planned on doing it with their aircraft carriers, not their own battleships.

Thus, while they saw the power of the airborne assault on ships, they didn’t see their own vulnerability to it. If they had, they would have focused more on destroying the American aircraft carriers, which weren’t present in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack.

Due to operational and maintenance requirements, no carrier was present on December 7th. The Enterprise had just delivered planes to Wake Island and was returning. On Sunday morning the Enterprise, and its Task Force, was 215 miles west of Oahu. Interestingly, the Japanese chose to approach Hawaii from the north, otherwise there is a chance the Enterprise might have spotted the enemy fleet.

Lexington was en route to Midway Island to deliver aircraft. On Sunday morning it, and its Task Force, was 500 miles southeast of Midway.

Saratoga had just completed overhaul at Puget Sound Navy Yard and was arriving in San Diego to pick up her air group before departing for Pearl Harbor.

Yorktown and Wasp were in the Atlantic. The Hornet was carrying out her shakedown cruise.

Thus, even though the bulk of the American fleet lay in ruin on the evening of December 7th, the ships that would turn the tide of the war within a year were all unscathed.

On the American side, a serious tactical miscalculation was that it was accepted that the anchorage at Pearl Harbor was too shallow for a torpedo attack from the air. With current technology, this was correct. An airdropped torpedo tended to hit the water nose first (due to the weight of the warhead), plunge down to around 45 feet, then level out, and rise up to running depth of 13 to 20 feet below the surface.

Pearly Harbor is 30 feet deep except in shipping channels, which go down to 45 feet. Thus, the Navy felt confident that this danger of a torpedo attack wasn’t something to consider. However, this ignored the fact that the British Royal Navy had modified some of their torpedoes and attacked Italian harbors as shallow as 24 feet. While the Navy Department had this information five months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, they never forwarded it to Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor.

Torpedoes did the majority of damage to ships in the harbor on December 7th.

However, there is a flip side to this that the Japanese didn’t fully appreciate. They ‘sank’ eight battleships, but because the ships went down in the relatively shallow water, six of them were returned to service. Only the Arizona and the Oklahoma were complete losses.

Aircraft were a secondary target. Even with all the fear of war, the greater perceived threat was sabotage. Aircraft were parked wingtip to wingtip so they could be better guarded. This made them perfect targets for Japanese aircraft. The navy had 92 aircraft destroyed and 31 damaged. The army had 77 destroyed and 128 damaged.

On the negative side for the Japanese, their focus on destroying battleships and aircraft meant they didn’t make the island’s infrastructure a priority. This is understandable because the objective of the attack was a short-term gain. In terms of a long war, though, not destroying port facilities, fuel storage depots, docks and shipyards meant that Pearl Harbor could be back in action relatively quickly. Not only back in action, but able to repair much of the damage caused to the ships in a surprisingly short amount of time.


Tactical plans need to be made for the most likely threat and then be updated as technology changes.

Everyone had acceptable reasons for making the decisions they did and subsequent actions. Hindsight allows us to see the errors. But this also helps us to see the type of thinking that led to poor tactical decisions.

In some cases, it was lack of information: the fact the British had conducted successful torpedo attacks in shallow water was one such piece of information.

For others, it was lack of point of view: the fact the Japanese were counting on their carriers to carry off this daring plan to destroy battleships should have made them realize that carriers were going to be pre-eminent in the coming war. If they had sunk even just the Enterprise and the Lexington, it would have changed the course of the war significantly, as both played key roles seven months later at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Enterprise at Midway.  (Curiously, the Lexington and her sister ship, Saratoga, had conducted naval exercises employing surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor before the war:  successfully).

The Japanese focus on short-term tactical gain to the detriment of long-term strategic gain was evident not just in the lack of infrastructure destruction but also in the attack itself. If they had destroyed the oil storage facilities at Pearl Harbor, they would have set back the US war effort for a much longer period than the sinking of the battleships.

Cascade Five

New technology was not used correctly.

While the shallow torpedo was new technology and employed effectively by the Japanese, the Americans had a piece of technology that, while it worked properly, was not utilized correctly: radar.

Radar is coined from the term ‘radio detection and ranging’ and in 1941, a number of countries were experimenting with it. Not only was the United States working on radar, the Army and the Navy were working on it separately, not necessarily a good thing.

The Navy put its first working system, which could detect planes up to one hundred miles, in the battleship New York in 1939. It was tested and more systems were ordered. One was placed in the USS California, which, on December 7th, was anchored at Pearl Harbor.

With its radar off.

The California was one of the battleships sunk.

The Army developed two systems, one mobile and one fixed. They deployed the first six mobile radar sets to Oahu, indicating someone thought the island might need early warning against aircraft. They were spaced around the island, with one on the north end, set in a mountain range at an altitude of 532 above sea level with a clear view of the ocean at Opana Point.

At 7:02 on December 7th, the two privates operating the set picked up a flight of aircraft 136 miles due north. First, it’s amazing the set worked that well. Second, as anyone who has served will tell, it’s great that two privates in an isolated post like that, were standing to their task so diligently. They called it in to the “Intercept Center.” They’d never seen a target reading so large and since they were still in training, they failed to rely that information.

A lieutenant took the report and assumed it was a flight of six B-17 bombers that were due in from the mainland. These planes were to land to rest and refuel, en route to the Philippines. The vector on which the target was approaching was almost exactly the route the B-17s would be on. He didn’t pass the warning on.


Having safety and alert protocols and equipment in place are only useful if they are used.

If the radar reading had been interpreted correctly and acted on appropriately, the military would have had 50 minutes to react. Not much time, but enough that at least the sailors on the ships in Pearl Harbor would have stood to and many not caught in their bunks as bombs fell. Some of the ships might have been able to get underway, although that had a negative possibility if one of them was sunk the channel (the Nevada, after getting underway and struck again, was beached to prevent such a thing happening) or got out of the harbor into deeper water and sunk where it couldn’t be salvaged.

Nevertheless, it is tempting to wonder what would have happened if that lieutenant had sounded the warning with urgency. Are your junior personnel who have potentially critical roles trained to raise the alarm? Are false alarms, sounded with legitimate concern, not only tolerated, but praised?

In the same vein, are those who report potential Cascade events rewarded, even though no disaster occurred? I liken this to the old dog whose house has never been robbed. Is he or she praised as much as they would be castigated if they’d not raised the alarm if a burglar had tried to get in? We often take safety for granted, but it’s a mindset and attitude that requires positive energy to be sustained.

It wasn’t just the radar report being ignored. The first shots at Pearl Harbor were actually fired by Americans, not the Japanese. The USS Ward, on patrol outside the entrance to the harbor, detected a submarine trying to infiltrate. It was crewed by Naval Reservists from St. Paul, Minnesota and the young lieutenant had only been in command for a day. At 0635, over an hour before the first Japanese planes attacked, a lookout spotted the wake of a submarine. The crew went to general quarters. It attacked the target and sunk it. The commander radioed a report in at 0653: “Attacked, fired upon, depth bombed, and sunk submarine operating in the defensive sea area.” This was fifty-nine minutes before the first enemy planes would appear.

One would think such a startling report would have caused everyone to spring to action. Instead, it was discounted at all levels. It finally reached Admiral Kimmel seven minutes before the first bombs fell. The Navy was so indifferent to the Ward’s report, that is never officially acknowledged until 2002 when deep-sea researchers found a sunken Japanese midget sub exactly where the Ward had reported engaging it; with damage at the base of the conning tower where the crew of the Ward had reported hitting it with their 3’ gun.

Again, one wonders what might have resulted if this report of first contact with the enemy had been believed and the alert sounded?

Cascade Six

Timing is everything.

Much like the Sultana explosion occurred in the middle of the night, Pearl Harbor occurred at the worst time of the week for a peacetime military unit: Sunday morning. The slowest time on any military post whether it be Army, Navy or Air Force, is Sunday morning. Many soldier and sailors were resting after a night on the town.

This, of course, was not by chance.

In any organization or technology there is a time when things are most vulnerable. It is normally the time when the people using the technology or in the organization are the most relaxed.

For the military, an axiom is to always be prepared at the time the enemy expects you to be least prepared. It’s called “stand to” in Infantry units; being ready at that time prior to dawn when we are usually the least prepared for attack.

Looking at some of the disasters covered in these first two books, let’s check the timing of the Final Event:

Pearl Harbor: 7:52 am on a Sunday morning.

Titanic: 11:40 pm to 2:20 am

Sultana: 2:00 am

Texas Schoolhouse Explosion: scant minutes before school let out


Bad things rarely happen at opportune times. As part of our Area Study, we need to factor this in. When are you, and your organization, most vulnerable to disruption?

Final Event

At 7:48 am on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese Empire conducted a surprise assault on the island of Oahu, primarily focused on the American Pacific Fleet in the harbor, with a secondary objective of destroying military aircraft at outlying bases.

The final tally was:

Navy: 2,009 KIA; 710 wounded.

Army: 218 KIA; 364 wounded.

Marines: 109 KIA; 69 wounded.

Civilians: 68 killed; 35 wounded.


Navy: 92 destroyed; 31 damaged.

Army Air Corps (there was no separate Air Force branch at the time): 77 destroyed; 128 damaged.


Battleships: 2 destroyed; 6 damaged.

Cruisers: 0 destroyed; 3 damaged.

Destroyers: 0 destroyed, 3 damaged.

Auxiliaries: 1 destroyed, 4 damaged.

The United States came back from the devastation of the Pearl Harbor attack even faster than Admiral Yamamoto had feared. At the Battle of the Coral Sea, 7-8 May 1942, the Navy stopped the Japanese from advancing (although the Lexington was sunk). At the Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942, the U.S. Navy delivered a devastating blow, sinking four Japanese carriers and turning the tide of the war.


The attack had mixed results, but not for those killed or injured. Either side might have avoided a disaster if they had focused more on the reality of the situation and not the assumptions each made about the other.

While the United States made numerous misjudgments and mistakes, the larger failure falls upon Japanese shoulders in the long term. Not only did the U.S. military recover quickly, but also the emotional response of Americans to a ‘sneak attack’ galvanized the country and unleashed a powerful force that would crush Japan in less than four years.

When thinking about the CARVER formula from the end of the book, remember that the E stands for Effect. For every action we take, we must consider the long-term effect.

This is excerpted from The Green Beret Guide to Seven Great Disasters II which is free today, 7 December.