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The Personalities of Pearl Harbor
By Tom Range, Sr.

There are few dates in history that trigger instant recognition in the memories of Americans, on which they can recall the exact moment when an historic incident occurred, where they were and what they were doing.  For many living today these dates include November 22, 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The latter, "the date which will live in infamy," propelled the United States into World War II.

While war had been raging in Europe and on the Asian continent for years, America had stayed officially neutral.  The military leaders did however prepare for war by concentrating the Pacific fleet in Hawaii, staged for deployment to the Asian mainland to thwart incursions by the Japanese into French Indochina, the Philippines and British and Dutch possessions, as well as backing up America's demand that Japan cease its aggressions in China.  Commanding the fleet at Pearl Harbor was Admiral Husband E. Kimmel.  Commanding the United States Army, which included air forces, was General Walter C. Short.

Facing them 3,500 nautical miles away in Japan was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and the military pilot and strategist Captain Minoru Genda.  Admiral Yamamoto, born in 1884 was Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese fleet, a graduate of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, an alumnus of the U.S. Naval War College and had attended Harvard University (1919-1921).

There was considerable rivalry between the Army and Navy in the Imperial War cabinet.  The Army was committed to invading the Philippine Islands and the mainland of Asia, viewing the navy's role as merely supporting these invasions.  Navy planes would be made available to bomb and strafe fixed enemy fortifications.  But Yamamoto envisioned "his" Navy operating as an independent force, clearing the Pacific of all potential enemy naval forces. At that time The United States was the only major force standing in the way of Japanese expansionism.

Yamamoto threatened to resign his commission if he did not get his way in deploying the naval forces.  He planned on an airborne attack against Pearl Harbor, where  in late November 1941 a total of eight battleships were moored.  He consulted with Naval Captain Genda who devised the plan of attack.  Born in Hiroshima in 1904 Genda had been a Navy flier since 1924.  Both he and the admiral produced plans of an attack on Pearl Harbor in the mid-1930s.  The concentration of capital ships in December 1941 was a ripe fruit ready for picking.

Opposing the strike planned by the Japanese was U.S. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel (Annapolis, class of 1904) and General Walter C. Short, both regarded as competent officers who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  A major flaw in the deployment of the Army Air Corps planes was being tightly grouped on the ground virtually wing tip to wing tip, to guard against saboteurs. The theory behind the strategy being one set of sentry eyes could guard a number of planes positioned close together, while planes spread out were more vulnerable to ground attacks.  There had been no indication of potential attacks by saboteurs, but the planes were left as they were, perfect targets for a strike by bombing planes from the air.

The fleet too was positioned bow to stern and side-by-side, also vulnerable to air attack and Genda had been fully informed of their positions by the Japanese intelligence network operating throughout the Hawaiian Islands.  Reports were transmitted constantly to Japanese naval forces as they steamed toward Oahu.

The surprise attack on December 7, 1941 on Pearl Harbor cost the United States 18 ships sunk or seriously damaged and over 160 aircraft destroyed.  The main Japanese fleet, including six aircraft carriers, suffered no surface ship losses and only 29 aircraft lost.  Per Yamamoto's instructions, the fleet remained intact and steamed back to Asia to participate in the invasion of the Philippines and other actions.

Genda was disappointed in the outcome of the Pearl Harbor attacks.  He advocated further raids to destroy the fuel depots and the repair facilities on Oahu that were left virtually intact after the first two attacks that were concentrated on the naval ships and aircraft.  The flier even advocated the invasion and occupation of Hawaii, thereby neutralizing the United States from further meaningful participation in the war in the Pacific.

The only bright spot in the attack for the U.S. was the absence of U.S. aircraft carriers from Pearl Harbor.  By pure luck (or divine intervention) the carriers assigned to the Pacific fleet were absent from the anchorage. The Enterprise was enroute to Wake Island delivering planes to the Marines manning its airbase, the Lexington on a similar mission to Midway Island and the Saratoga was in San Diego undergoing modifications and repair work.  All three ships participated in the virtual destruction of the Japanese navy during the battle of Midway six moths later.

Of the four military personages mentioned, three survived the war.  Admiral Yamamoto was killed on April 18, 1943 when the aircraft he was riding in during an inspection mission was intercepted and destroyed by a flight of American P-38 pursuit planes.  The Army Air Corps, now renamed the Air Force, decoded enemy transmissions mentioning the Admiral's movements.  Captain Genda survived the war, having witnessed the nuclear destruction of his native city, Hiroshima. He later attained the rank of general in the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and died of natural causes in 1989

Admiral Kimmel, born 1882, was relieved of his fleet command in mid-December 1941, and retired from the Navy in March 1942.  He died in 1968.  On January 24, 1942, a Board of Inquiry found General Short, born 1880, guilty of dereliction of duty and he was forced to retire from the Army.  He worked for the Ford Motor Company until 1946 when he resigned due to ill health and died three years later.

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Uploaded: 12/5/2007