Three enduring mysteries of Pearl Harbor.

The Christian Science Monitor today features an interesting discussion with historians abut three enduring mysteries of Pearl Harbor.

The first is why the US did not have a proper war footing. The late Gordon Prange, a University of Maryland professor, believed that the “core problem was that the US government did not in its heart believe that its own warnings about imminent Japanese aggression were true,” according to the CSM. “This fundamental disbelief is the root of the whole tragedy,” concluded Mr. Prange in his book, “At Dawn We Slept.”

A congressional committee conducted hearings into the attack and concluded that the Army forces were focused on training, not on a possible attack. According to the CSM, “Army commanders were so worried about sabotage they locked up anti-aircraft ammunition rather than distribute it to gun sites.” No one thought war was truly eminent. If they had, they would have conducted aircraft patrols at sea – at the time quite difficult due to a lack of equipment – or established a picket line of surface ships instead. Commanders, however, did not understand the threat.

In the current issue of Naval History, a journal of the US Naval Institute, historians Jonathan Parshall and J. Michael Wenger argue that an overlooked answer to the question of why the US was surprised is that US commanders did not understand how quickly aircraft carrier warfare was evolving.

The Pearl Harbor strike plan involved the melding of planes from many carriers into a hornet swarm of attackers. That was a skill the US did not know the Japanese military possessed.

The second enduring mystery is why the Japanese did not press their advantage, especially in destroying the infrastructure and fuel depot at Pearl Harbor, which mostly remained intact.

After two waves of aircraft devastated Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row and US air bases, Japanese pilots returned to their carriers in triumph. Adm. Chuichi Nagumo then led a discussion on whether another attack was feasible. Many air commanders supported such a follow-up, believing that fuel dumps, repair shops, and other US logistical sites were now vulnerable.

A cautious commander, Nagumo decided against more action. It would have required reloading aircraft on deck at sea at a time when the location of US carriers and submarines was unknown. Japanese forces had already won a spectacular victory. Why waste that gain?

Max Hastings, author of “Inferno,” argues that a follow-on attack was not feasible, as suggested by new research.

“The winter day was too short to launch and recover [another wave of aircraft], and in any event Japanese bomb loads were too small to plausibly wreck Pearl’s repair bases,” Mr. Hastings writes.

The third enduring mystery is what would have happened if the US had repulsed its attackers. This would have set the stage for a major naval battle in the Pacific. What if they US had lost that battle? Read the CSM article to find out.

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