Seventy-two years ago, perhaps almost at the hour you are reading this (7:48 a.m. Honolulu time, 9:48 a.m. Madera time) 353 Japanese aircraft began their attack on Pearl Harbor in two waves. Before they were through, they had sunk four battleships, damaged three and grounded one. They also destroyed 188 American aircraft and damaged 159. American servicemen who were killed numbered 2,402, and 1,247 were wounded.
To say the attack was a surprise is an understatement. The commander of Pearl Harbor, Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, and the Army commander, Major Gen. Walter C. Short, based their preparations on assumptions that if war came to the Hawaiian islands, it would come in the form of an amphibious landing. And that was what they were prepared for.
For military historians, the lesson of Pearl Harbor is to always be alert, always be flexible and always be prepared. Kimmel and Short were none of the above. They concentrated on their golf games more than they did on the possibility of being attacked by air. As they watched the bombs fall on Pearl Harbor they no doubt saw their careers blowing up along with the base they were appointed to protect.
Adm. William “Bull” Halsey had taken his ship, the aircraft carrier Enterprise, out of Pearl Harbor, and was about 150 miles away when the attack occurred. When Halsey heard of the attack, it was too late and his ship was too far away to help. Planes from his ship searched for the Japanese fleet, but to no avail.
Halsey later became the naval commander in the South Pacific and was largely successful for turning the tide of the war in favor of the United States.
Kimmel and Short were relieved of their commands within days of the attack. Kimmel was given the choice of resigning or being court-martialed. He chose to resign. He later wrote a book blaming President Roosevelt for his problems — totally without proof. Short, who suffered from ulcers, was reduced in rank and died a year later.
As for the attack, it was unnecessary, and Japan’s victory was hollow. The U.S. had no immediate plans to move its Navy into the Japanese sphere of influence, not even to rescue the Philippines.
There seem to be lessons for everybody from Pearl Harbor.