Those who have followed my writings since I began this site in 2009 know how much I study and think about the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The fact is I am kind of a Pearl Harbor geek. Ever since I read Walter Lord’s classic treatment of the attack, Day of Infamy, back in 7th Grade I was hooked and I began to read everything that I could about the attack. Then in 1978 I was privileged to be part of a Navy Junior ROTC cruise to Pearl Harbor and back. I visited the USS Arizona Memorial on Easter Sunday of that year. I have never forgotten peering into the aqua waters of Pearl Harbor and looking down into the wreck of the Arizona as I looked upon the names of the officers and sailors who died aboard her that Sunday morning in 1941.
The battleships of the Pacific Fleet, including Arizona which were moored on battleship row were unprepared for the onslaught of torpedoes and bombs unleashed by the Japanese Naval aviators that morning. The Japanese had prepared a diabolical set of weaponry that would wreak havoc on the ships moored on Battleship Row.
The Japanese had learned well from the British Royal Navy attack on the Italian Fleet moored at Taranto earlier in the year. Pearl Harbor was shallow, so the Type 91 aerial torpedoes used by the Imperial Navy were modified to allow them to be dropped from the Nakajima BN5 “Kate” torpedo bombers against targets inshallow waters. The modification was simple. Commander Minoru Genda worked with other specialist in order to modify the torpedos with a wooden fins that kept them from hitting bottom. Likewise 16″ armor piercing shells from the Nagato class battleships were modified to be dropped from other Kates operating as level bombers at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet.
The combination proved deadly. Some 19 torpedoes found their mark on the Battleships California, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Nevada, as well as the gunnery training ship Utah, light cruiser Raleigh, and light cruiser Helena. Meanwhile some 24 of the modified armor piercing shells found their targets on Battleship Row or the far side of Ford Island.
When all was said and done every one of the Battleships moored along Ford Island as well as the USS Pennsylvania were sunk or heavily damaged during the attack. Tactically the Japanese achieved remarkable success, but their strategic goals remained unfulfilled. The Aircraft Carriers of the Pacific Fleet were not in port on that Sunday morning; likewise the Japanese neglected to attack the fuel oil tank farm on Ford Island, or the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. The omissions of the Japanese High Command in regard to the attack helped doom their empire in the coming months and years.
Technical marvels which provide tactical successes are important, but when those who unleash those devices without fully comprehending the strategic situation, or forgetting the other military, informational, diplomatic, and economic policy aspects of war and conflict will find that their short term tactical success will prove less than successful. The U.S. Navy was able to recover and within a year had wrested the initiative from the Japanese and was rolling back the initial Japanese success at Coral, Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal. Four of the six aircraft carriers and both battleships involved in the attack were at tepee bottom of the Pacific by November 1942. In the meantime the United States recovered. All of the battleships except Oklahoma and Arizona returned to action, and some, like West Virgina, California, Tennessee, Maryland, and Pennsylvania wrought havoc on the Japanese at the Battle of Surigao Strait, while Nevada returned to the fight in North Africa, and Normandy before going back to the Pacific. The carriers which the Japanese failed to sink at Pearl Harbor, as well as the submarines proved to be decisive in the battle against Japan.
The Japanese Navy concentrated their attacks at Pearl Harbor on the America battleships and in the process lost the war. The Japanese, for all of their tactical and operational acumen neglected the larger factors of diplomacy, information, military power, and economics when they attacked the United States and its allies on December 7th 1941. Weapons and tactics are only one part of the equation, something that many war “buffs” fail to appreciate.
Have a great day,