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Early December is such an interesting time of year for a historian. There are a lot of events that occurred which still linger in our memories. One of those is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. I find it interesting and compelling because of its significance in world history, not just American. Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, followed by its belated declaration of war and those of Germany and Italy ushered in a new world with ramifications that extend to our day. Tonight, I will not be addressing the issue of Japanese War crimes, and those committed by the Imperial Navy, although the crew of Heavy Cruiser Tone massacred many of the survivors of the S.S. Behar in the Indian Ocean in early 1944.
Early in the morning on November 26th 1941 the ships of the Japanese Carrier Strike Force, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo weighed anchor from Tankan Bay in the northern Kurile Islands of Japan. The plan was top secret and very few Japanese officers knew of the target. Many officers presumed that war was immanent but most assumed the target would be the Philippines or other targets in Southeast Asia.
The next day Nagumo expressed his personal misgivings about the attack to his Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka as the task force plunged through heavy seas. He blurted out, “Mr. Chief of Staff, what do you think? I feel that I’ve undertaken a heavy responsibility. If I had only been more firm and refused. Now we’ve left home waters and I’m beginning to wonder if this operation will work.”
Admiral Kusaka came up with the right answer: “Sir, there’s no need to worry. We’ll make out all right.”
Nagumo smiled. “I envy you, Mr. Kusaka. You’re such an optimist.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor was designed to be pre-emptive in nature. It was supposed to deliver such a crushing blow to the United States Navy that the Japanese could complete their Asian conquests before it could recover. It was a plan of great risk that doomed Japan to horror never before imagined when the United States dropped Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than four years later. By then the bulk of the Imperial Navy would be at the bottom of the Pacific and millions of people killed.
The Japanese, even Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind the plan understood that it entailed great risks. Yamamoto had opposed the Japanese war against China, the alliance with Germany and Italy, and war with the United States, which he believed could not be won. Radicals in the Japanese Army wanted him dead before the war, and his appointment as commander of the Combined Fleet was in large part based on the Navy’s desire to prevent his assassination. Retired Japanese Admiral Yoji Koda says “Yamamoto faced a commander’s worst nightmare: Lead his men into a war he knew they could not win and should not fight; or step aside and let them face defeat alone.” (Legacy Still Not Settled for Reluctant Architect of Attack on Pearl Harbor http://nation.time.com/2013/04/22/legacy-still-unsettled-for-reluctant-architect-of-pearl-harbor/
A simulation of the plan conducted in early September by the senior officers of the Combined Fleet and the Kido Butai calculated that two of Japan’s precious aircraft carriers could be lost in the operation. But despite the opposition and reservations of key officers, including the Kido Butai commander, Admiral Nagumo Yamamoto pressed forward.
The Kido Butai was the most powerful carrier strike group assembled up to that time. In fact the United States Navy would not equal the power of the force until late 1943. Comprised of six aircraft carriers, the massive flagship Akagi, and the Kaga, the fast 18,000-ton Soryu and Hiryu and the most modern Shokaku and Zuikaku. The carrier embarked over 400 aircraft, of which over 350 were to be used in the two aerial assault waves. Most of the pilots and aircrew were experienced, many with combat experience in China. The carriers were escorted by the old but fast and modernized battleships Kirishima and Hiei, the new heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, the light cruiser Abukuma, the new Kagero Class destroyers, Urakaze, Isokaze, Tanikaze, Hamakaze, Kagero and Shiranuhi, the Asashio class destroyers Arare and Kasumi. Two additional destroyers the Fubuki class Sazanami and Ushio were assigned to neutralize the American base on Midway Island. The submarines I-19, I-21 and I-23 and 8 oilers were assigned to the force. Five additional submarines the I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22 and I-24 each embarked a Type-A midget submarine.
Hiryu prior to sinking at Midway
On December 7th the force delivered a devastating blow to the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, however no American aircraft carriers were present. It would go on for the next several months on a rampage across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However their success would be short lived. Within a year, the carriers that were not present at Pearl Harbor sank the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu at Midway. Hiei and Kirishima were lost at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. Over the course of the war every ship of the attack force but one was lost.
The Last Banzai aboard Zuikaku as she sinks at the Battle of Cape Engano (Leyte Gulf) October 25th 1944
Shokaku was torpedoed and sunk at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and Zuikaku, Chikuma and Abukuma were lost at Leyte Gulf, most of the destroyers and submarines were lost in various engagements. However three destroyers, Isokaze, Hamakaze and Kasumi accompanied the great Battleship Yamato on her suicide mission at Okinawa and were sunk on April 7th 1945. The heavy cruiser Tone was sunk at her moorings at Kure during air strikes by the US 3rd Fleet on July 24th 1945.
Heavy Cruiser Tone sunk in Kure Japan 1945
All of the submarines were lost during the war, however I-19 sank the USS Wasp and the destroyer USS O’Brien while damaging the USS North Carolina on September 15th 1942 off Guadalcanal. Only the destroyer Ushio survived the war and was broken up for scrap in 1948.
Fuchida (above) and Genda
Among the leaders of the Japanese strike force, Admiral Yamamoto was killed on April 18th 1943 when his aircraft was shot down at Buin. His body was recovered and cremated with the ashes interred at two different locations, however, no military or government leaders attended his funeral, no honor guard was furnished, and no wreathes were laid. He is little mentioned in Japanese history books, resurgent Japanese Nationalists have little regard for him, and unlike the main Japanese War Memorial, the Yushukan museum at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, the small museum in Nagaoka to Yamamoto does not offer revisionist history of Japan’s innocence and victim status. Likewise, no Japanese military bases or ships bear his name.
Most of the sailors who took part in the attack would be dead by the end of the war. Nagumo who resisted the strike and was ordered to lead it realized his worst fears at Midway and during the battles around Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, died in the American invasion of Saipan in 1944. The two aviators who planned and executed the tactical details of the raid, Mitsuo Fuchida, and Minoru Genda, both survived the war. Genda became a general in the Japanese Air Self Defense Force and died at the age of 84 in 1989. Fuchida converted to Christianity after reading the story of Doolittle Raid survivor Jacob DeShazor. Fuchida became a Methodist pastor and evangelist and died in 1976 at the age of 73.
Few present at Tankan Bay on that fateful November morning could have expected the triumph and tragedy ahead. However Yamamoto was probably more of a realist than almost anyone in the Japanese government and military leadership when he told Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” Yamamoto was eerily prophetic and those that counsel pre-emptive war need to never forget his words or the results of his decisions.