December 7, 1941 – A Second Look

By Neil Earle

The recent posthumous award of a Bronze Star with Valor to Chief Boatswain's mate Joseph George once again brought the 'Day of Infamy' back to our remembrance. Apparently George – a scrapper, a boxer and a brawler and often the kind of men you want next to you in combat – disobeyed orders to cut lines to the doomed Arizona from repair ship USS Vestal. He saw six trapped sailors and threw them a lifeline to safety while his captain harassed him on deck for disobedience. Knowing when not to follow orders is a rare trait. History is an endless conversation with the past, it seems, and has many shades and hues. Five survivors of the Arizona still live and that brings the events of December 7, 1941 back into focus for many. And with a surprising twist.

Early in the morning of December 7, 1941 some 343 airplanes from the Empire of Japan pulverized the American base at Pearl Harbor. Some 2403 servicemen perished along with almost 400 others and 1178 left wounded (Miller, The U.S. Navy).

Compounding this human tragedy was the seemingly devastating blow to American sea power. The USS Arizona and 18 other ships lay sunk or damaged. The smoke billowing from the USS West Virgina and Tennessee remain on film to form part of our video-track recollection of this collective history.

Graph provides details of the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor. Click to enlarge.

A Deeper Story

The world knows the overall story of this “day of infamy.” Some of the strange anomalies also live on. For example, it is acknowledged by historians that the United States was quite fortunate that her two aircraft carriers, the Enterprise and the Hornet, were both at sea on exercises to escape the carnage. In the words of historian Andrew Roberts, “they survived unscathed to form the nucleus of American naval vengeance.”

This was an extremely fortunate piece of luck for Americans.

But there is even more to the Pearl Harbor story. What follows is taken from a small pamphlet on sale at the Pearl Harbor gift shop titled “Reflections on Pearl Harbor” by Admiral Chester Nimitz. Nimitz, a native Texan, was attending a conference in Washington, D.C. on that December 7 when President Roosevelt phoned him to say he was the new Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Nimitz reached Pearl on Christmas Eve, 1941 and found there “such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat – you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war.”

The Enemy’s Three Big Mistakes

On Christmas Day, Nimitz toured the devastation in a small craft. On returning to base the young helmsman asked him what he thought of all this destruction. Nimitz reply was quite shocking, “The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make, or God was taking care of America. What do you think it was?”

As the helmsman spluttered his surprise Nimitz ticked off the three enemy mistakes.

Portrait of Admiral Chester Nimitz (Wikimedia Commons)

First, they attacked on a Sunday morning. Nine of ten crewmen on those sunken vessels were either ashore on leave or in church. Without that, Nimitz estimated the casualties would have been closer to 38,000 instead of the nearly 3000 military and civilians dead.

Second, the Japanese got so carried way sinking the battleships all lined up in a row that they didn’t drop one bomb on the dry docks opposite the ships’ anchorage. Had they destroyed the dry docks every ship capable of repairs would have had to be towed to the West coast, almost abandoning the Far Pacific. “As it is now,” Nimitz continued to inform the young sailor, “the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.”

Third, argued Nimitz, every drop of fuel for the Pacific fleet is stored in ground storage tanks five miles away beyond a hill. One bomb from one stray plane could have destroyed the Navy’s entire fuel supply, with no capacity for the U.S. going over to the offensive.

The Tide Turns

“Go over to the offensive” the U.S. Navy surely did. In April came the Dolittle Raid where sixteen B-25s launched from the deck of the Hornet – at sea during the Pearl attack – humiliated Japanese pretensions by dropping some light bombs on Tokyo giving the American people an immense morale boost!

In May, American ships turned back Japanese assaults on Port Moresby which would have exposed Australia to invasion threats. In June, at the Battle of Midway, four Japanese carriers were sunk and the tide of battle had turned.

America’s comeback hinged on the untold events of the Day of Infamy, December 7 1941. According to this small pamphlet, Admiral Nimitz could see a silver lining in a bleak situation where most saw only despair and defeat. Historians have to be careful about over-citing pamphlets in gift shops but most would agree that the facts cited in “Reflections” at least deserve to be considered 75 years later.