Imagine you’re a little guy and you look for the biggest badass in the bar, you walk up and punch him in the face. You’re gonna take a beating, but in the weird world of drunken guy fights you might live through it. He might even buy you a beer after he’s pounded you into the floor.
But that’s not what this was. That’s not what this was at all. This was finding the same big badass and punching his daughter in the face. You’re gonna die. They’re gonna invent whole new words to describe how dead you’re going to be.
And so it was with Pearl Harbor, one in a campaign of orchestrated attacks over 48 hours beginning on 7 December 1941. This was not a daring gambit that might give the Japanese the edge they needed to at least fight the U.S. to a tie. This was DELUSIONAL. It was delusion fueled by a spirit of machismo embodied in Samurai traditions loosely codified in “Bushido” or the way of the warrior. You’d have to be Japanese to really understand its influence but the perpetrators of the war are easier to understand. Look around you and everywhere you can see people clamoring for a return to some long gone mythical glory years.
What was standing in the way were other colonial powers, and the US that could make Japan pay dearly for behavior it disapproved of; Japan wanted its share of the colonial goods, and the British, French, Dutch and Americans were in the way. And so, as one of my former bosses used to say “they did stupid”.
The attack on Pearl Harbor is often portrayed as a strategic failure and a tactical victory beautifully executed. It was neither. It was a stupid idea, led by the wrong commander, dependent on luck that never materialized that failed to achieve its primary objectives and did not capitalize on the opportunities that presented themselves.
That is not to say the Japanese did not execute; the Japanese were arguably the finest sailors and naval aviators in the world and it showed. They snuck across the Pacific in a storm without the benefit of radar, maintained radio silence, conducted beautiful carrier operations, and achieved complete surprise. Hats off to them. But those are methods not objectives. Things immediately started to go wrong.
The first thing that went wrong was that the main objective was to get the US out of the way so they could rapidly expand across the Pacific. To do that they had to destroy the US carriers…yet they let this fall to chance. While much has been made of the US forces being caught with their pants down, the US carriers were alert and engaged in preparing for war, delivering planes to far flung outposts. The entire mission depended on a bit of luck and they’d thrown snake eyes right off the bat. Then they used excellent bombing skills and a very clever torpedo design to sink four old battleships in the least offensive way possible. They were sunk in shallow water, in a port with massive repair infrastructure and where, despite the loss of life, most of their sailors were able to swim or take boats to shore. Contrast that with a scenario where these old ships offer battle at sea…it’s been war gamed many times and the result is the complete loss of every US vessel and over 10,000 American sailors. Later in the war, these old ships and those sailors would wreak a terrible revenge. And the US had other battleships that were soon transferred to the Pacific: The Washington, North Carolina and South Dakota were newer, faster and more powerful. They were not scratched.
They did tear up a bunch of US aircraft, 188 to be precise. But before you say “well there you go” let’s put that in perspective: at peak war production the US could replace 188 planes in 17 hours. That’s faster then it would have taken to realize they were missing. The thing that could not be replaced were the highly trained pilots. But they were safe on the ground with their destroyed planes.
Now’s a good time to discuss the Japanese commanders. The brains behind the fiasco was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. Yamamoto is often portrayed as this wise old owl, forced by circumstances into executing an attack he thought was ill conceived. I mean, it’s almost like he was on our side. To be sure he was against war with the US because he knew it would end badly. But the attack on Pearl Harbor was his idea. In fact, he threatened to resign if it weren’t carried out. For context, he was also the architect of another more obvious disaster, the attack on Midway; he threatened to resign if that wasn’t carried out either. How did the US Navy view Yamamoto? Prior to having him killed by US Army P38 Lightnings, there was discussion that it might be better to leave him in command. In the end he was killed for the morale impact on the Japanese.
To be a little fair, Yamamoto was saddled with the wrong commander in charge of “Kido Butai”, as the main Japanese carrier attack force was known throughout the war, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. Nagumo was a competent commander and had performed well to date, but he had not faced the Americans before. Nagumo lacked aggressiveness and creativity, something the US Navy had in spades. Nagumo was in charge not because he was the best person for the job, but because of seniority. This is not a Japanese thing, lots of organizations work this way, but in this case it led to mission failure.
So what was Nagumo’s main mistake? Failure to launch a third wave. The American’s were awake, punching back, and looking for Kido Butai and so a third wave would have incurred heavier losses, but in a fistfight at this point the Americans were no match for the Japanese attackers. And this is where the saying, sometimes attributed to Omar Bradley, that “Amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics” rings true. Carriers or no carriers, the prize was in Nagumo’s sights: all he had to do was attack the oil storage, dry docks, repair facilities and submarine tenders and boom, objective accomplished. The US navy would have had to limp back to San Francisco, there would have been no US Carrier raids in the first months of the war, no attack on Tokyo, no submarine harassment of Japanese forces. In short the US Navy was up and on offense very quickly after December 7th and that would not have been possible had Nagumo launched that third wave. But that was a Japanese navy thing too, so maybe we should not be so hard on Nagumo.
At the onset of the war, the Japanese were superior on the attack in almost every dimension with the exception of submarines. But they never did master effective defense, logistics, code breaking, damage control and a whole litany of non glamorous but essential skills. For the first year of the war the adversaries fought as near equals, but once the manufacturing capability and training system of the US had ramped up, it was all over. Had the Japanese taken out those logistics facilities, they would have given themselves more time and perhaps made it too costly for the US to pursue unconditional surrender. But all they wound up doing was kicking the bear in the ass and pissing him off.