The Alpha: Pearl Harbor, December 1941
"Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate."
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

It was just another Sunday, which had begun like all other Sundays in the previous year. It was not long until Christmas, and many had already planned for their spare time to go into Christmas shopping, no doubt. It was still warm, as usual for any month, and there could have been, on the Sunday in December, little to report that was out of the ordinary. Could have been, but for the plumes of oily smoke hanging low and piling high in sky. Could have been, but for the sputter of machine-guns and the crash of heavy guns and bombs, but for the water columns in the harbor, raised by the detonations of high-explosives. Could have been, but for the torn wreckage of proud warships, and the bleeding soldiers and seamen, and the dead, lying about the decks of their vessels and on the airfields and docks around the harbor.

It was Sunday, December 7th, 1941, just after eight in the morning. The raid that would shake America out of its peacetime mindset with a shock that was comparable to little in its history was in progress. For another hour still, Japanese planes would dump bombs on ships and airfields, strafe machine-gun emplacements and grounded planes, and wreck as much havoc they could. Then, swiftly as they had come, they would return to their carriers, and aboard them, depart Hawaiian waters, never to return.

This essay will not deal with the political aspects, huge as they were, of the raid; the Japanese road to war; the American public's sudden experience of the horrors of war at their own doorstep; or the political maneuvers in Washington leading to the outbreak of war. It will confine itself to the military aspects.

Chapter 1

A Plan
It was early in 1940, with the outbreak of war still two years away, that the man most responsible for it first broached the idea to a subordinate. Just a few casual words, then uttered, led the foundation for a plan of grave importance later on. The 'god-damned mousetrap': Pearl Harbor, 1941

The man who said them was no common man. He was the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, Japan's naval force. He was Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, and the man whom he confided his plan to was his Chief-of-Staff, Rear-Admiral Fukudome Shigeru. This short mention was all that Yamamoto led slip out of his plans, for the better part of the year.

The idea itself was hardly new. American forces had exhibited the possibility in two exercises in the 1930s, and the concept had featured in many Japanese studies as well. At every instance, however, it had been evaluated as a technical impossibility, for various reasons.

With that background in mind, it seems natural that Yamamoto progressed slowly. It was in autumn of 1940, half a year after his casual suggestion to Fukudome, that Yamamoto again, in earnest, proposed to do something about the idea. He had just witnessed Japan's air arm in spectacular exercises. It seemed that here was a weapon capable of inflicting the telling blow which an attack on Pearl Harbor would require to be entirely successful. Soon thereafter, he proposed to Fukudome to address the issue to Rear-Admiral Onishi Takijiro, Chief-of-Staff of the 11th Air Fleet, whom he wrote a letter in December, at about the same time that the Naval General Staff began to draw up its plans for operations against the Dutch.

Onishi received the three-page letter which Yamamoto wrote to him on that issue in early January. Shortly thereafter, he met the Commander-in-Chief on his flagship, the battleship Nagato, to discuss a number of questions with the Admiral himself. Whilst the two men were dealing with the outline of a tactical plan, there was already considerable effort going into making the plan technially feasible. At Yokosuka Air Station, technicians were working on an effort to modify aerial torpedoes for use in Pearl Harbor's shallow water. Whilst this problem was undergoing evaluation, Onishi settled back on his base, ticking off one by one his ideas and his opinions. On February 2nd, Commander Genda Minoru, Air Officer aboard the carrier Kaga, received a letter from the Admiral, requesting Genda to come to Kanoya to visit Onishi. Once arrived, Genda was handed Yamamoto's letter, and Onishi requested him to study the aerial aspects of the problem in detail. Genda returned to Kaga, returning to Onishi two weeks later with a study elaborating on what Genda thought were the main problems, the necessary tactical emphasizes, in five points. Onishi accepted Genda's scheme as his own proposal to Yamamoto. Onishi's part was the safe movement of the Task Force, which plans he added to Genda's air plan, and submitted to Yamamoto in March.

In April, Yamamoto began preparations necessary for the operation. Following Genda's call for maximum carrier striking power, he assembled the available carrier strength of the Combined Fleet into the new First Air Fleet, commanded by torpedo specialist Vice-Admiral Nagumo Chuichi. Not by coincidence was Genda now appointed staff officer for air on Nagumo's staff - he would have a critical role to play. At the same time, Yamamoto's chief-of-staff Fukudome was transfered to be chief of the First Bureau (Operations) of the Naval General Staff. He could be an important ally in convincing the conservative NGS of the wisdom of the Pearl Harbor plan.

Certain points of the plan were still open to debate. Onishi's draft had emphasized dive-bombing as the only reliable method of injuring the enemy fleet at Pearl Harbor. Torpedo-bombing seemed unlikely to be effective, given the space constraints of the harbor and the shallow waters. High-level bombing appeared to offer very little prospect of success, given the past record of the bombers.

It was during the summer, the tentative plans having been accepted by Yamamoto, that the problems were worked out. Air units from the 1st Air Fleet continously practiced all that was asked of them in the upcoming operation, not even realizing why they were asked to do what they did. The accuracy of the horizontal bombers improved as bombardier and pilot became a better team; and the Yokosuka-based Air Technical Depot did its immense part in making working weapons. Under the guidance of the depot, 406mm shells from the battleship Nagato's stock were manufactured into armor piercing bombs; this was a feat by itself. But the real success of the depot was the creation of a torpedo capable of dropping safely into the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor and run accurately to its target without sinking into the mud. The Combined Fleet Staff, 1941

Simultaneously with the hard training and experimenting going on among the air units, the Combined Fleet staff was working on the details of its Pearl Harbor plan. The senior staff officer, Captain Kuroshima Kameto, and Yamamoto's favorite junior officer, Commander Watanabe Yasuji, were chosen to elaborate on Onishi's and Genda's draft. Whilst the two were working on the details of the plan, Kuroshima had another task before him: inform the Naval General Staff of the preparations the Combined Fleet was undertaking for the attack.

The Naval General Staff, once filled in, was unenthusiastic, citing the myriad to problems, from fueling the ships to risking the entire naval air force in one battle, that spoke against it. It was just an initial briefing, and the issue never even left the realms of the First Bureau (Operations), and was not at first addressed to the Chief of the Naval General Staff, Admiral Nagano Osami. But it was an auspicious start.

At the end of April, Kuroshima and Watanabe being still well loaded with their share of the work, official word of the Pearl Harbor plan reached the 1st Air Fleet when its chief-of-staff Ryonosuke Kusaka was briefed on it (briefly) by Fukudome, with orders to study the plans more carefully. Kusaka informed his boss Nagumo, and then dropped the issue into the hands of the one man best suited to follow up on it: Genda. Kusaka would support him in the issues related to fleet movements and logistics, but it would be upon Genda to solve the air attack problems.

And solve them he did. Not alone, certainly, for a great number of people helped him, especially among the staff and air crew of the 1st Air Fleet. While the First Bureau of the NGS was still non-comittal to another plea to include the Pearl Harbor plan in its general War Plan, Genda's fliers were steadily increasing their proficiency. And meanwhile, Kusaka was doing his best to work out a solution for the navigational problems of the journey.

A Target
There were many men who would have given their right hand and more for knowing the details of just what Genda and Kusaka were working out that summer, and the man who would certainly have been first to wish these plans revealed was Admiral Husband Kimmel, CinCUS. His fleet, anchored in sunny Hawaii, had been his since February. He had received command from Admiral James O. Richardson, "J.O.", which in itself was not a happy thing for him. "J.O." had lost his command because he had quarreled with Roosevelt about the relocation of the fleet to Hawaii, which he considered dumb, and then of all things to Pearl Harbor, which he found to be a "goddamned mousetrap". Kimmel shared these sentiments, but knew just as well that there was nothing for him to do but say "Aye, Sir", and get on with business.

Not that Roosevelt was really making his tasks easy. He had been promoted over the heads of a great many seniors to the supreme command afloat that the Navy offered. That was a slight problem. And the major problem was, to Kimmel in any event, Washington's obvious reluctance to realize that they could not move the fleet to Hawaii to deter the Japanese, and then remove parts of his fleet and tell him nothing about what he was to do.

In May, Roosevelt had ordered Kimmel to transfer three battleships and a carrier, plus assorted supporting vessels, including oilers, to the Atlantic to strengthen Admiral Ernest J. King's Atlantic Fleet in its efforts to protect convoy lanes and assert U.S. neutrality. The CNO, Admiral Harold R. Stark, USN

It was only natural that Kimmel would try to get the best for his command. He carefully noted the problems which his force had to contend with, and that he desired them solved as quickly as possible. He detailed what the situation was and what he needed, how he felt about Pearl Harbor as a base. In his correspondence with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, a curious trend was established. The forceful Kimmel demanded answers, and the careful Stark replied in diplomatic and non-commital wordings that left, to Kimmel, much to be desired.

In June, Stark summoned Kimmel to Washington to talk about this and that problem. Kimmel also briefly met the President, who assured him that there would be no more transfers of heavy ships from his command. Pleased, Kimmel returned to Hawaii, to put his fleet in order.

Back there, several others were also concerned with the safety of the fleet. These were, especially, Major-General Frederick L. Martin and Rear-Admiral Patrick N.L. Bellinger, respectively the commanders of the Hawaiian Air Force and the land-based Navy aircraft. The two officers were responsible for a report that in shocking openness showed one thing very clearly: for an attacker determined and clever enough, there was always a way of sneaking in an surprise air raid. Bellinger and Martin recommended an increase in strength in bombers and patrol planes to cover a 360 arc around Hawaii; and even then, they stated, it was entirely possible for an enemy to be out of range of the search planes on an evening and within range of their planes by the next morning. Since both realized that their role was to protect U.S. Fleet, this analysis was put them in a difficult situation; one in which their chance of successfully executing their mission depended entirely on the enemy failing to understand what they had understood.

If this was Kimmel's situation as of the summer, sitting in a mousetrap of an harbor with a very good idea that if the enemy was capable of bringing his carriers over the Pacific, Kimmel stood no chance of intercepting him, then it must have seemed ironic enough that the Japanese were still unable to agree to bring it off.

Selling a Plan

Yamamoto's main part in the Pearl Harbor plan was now to sell it to the NGS. In August, he dispatched Kuroshima to talk to the NGS again, with orders to have the annual war games advanced to September, instead of November, for better analysis of question arising; and to have a room prepared for a study of the Pearl Harbor plan, to study the lessons in detail. The NGS assented to these suggestions. Then Kuroshima again discussed with Captain Tomioka, Chief of the Operations Section, First Bureau, NGS, the main issues of the plan. Tomioka, as in the spring, was not convinced. Any decision would have to await the outcome of the wargames in September.

On September 1st, the carrier Shokaku joined the 1st Air Fleet. Her sister Zuikaku would follow soon, allowing the prospect of six large carriers leading the strike to blossom in the minds of the planners.

Already, in July, Yamamoto had introduced another aspect to the plan, the use of submarines to seal off the harbor, and torpedo ships fleeing the area.

September, in any event, was a fruitful month for Japan's war. The government had decided that it preferred war over diplomacy. Kusaka, aboard Akagi, flagship of the First Air Fleet, revealed to his staff the details of the Pearl Harbor plan, and ordered Genda to lead a study group to draw up final plans. Genda and his group dealed with all aspects of the plan yet to be decided: route of approach; force structure and size; and navigational issues such as communications, fueling, and formation.

While Genda was writing and thinking, at Tokyo the elite of the Japanese Navy was meeting to hold the annual war games. Whilst the various commanders were gaming their roles in the Southern Operation, the capture of the East Indies and the British colonies, Yamamoto and a select group of officers of the First Air Fleet, the NGS, and the Combined Fleet met in the room set aside for the Pearl Harbor operation to study the plan in detail. In the first run, the Blue attacking force was badly mauled by the defending Red force, which operated with a great strategic benefit: it knew what would happen. Air patrols were flown to the limit of their range, and found the carrier force. The attack turned out a desaster as it ran into the ready American defenses. Nagumo's force retired after having inflicting little damage.

But the second try was more successful. Planning to reach the outer limit of the American search range by sunset on the day before the attack, Nagumo's force would then hit them in the early morning. And so it managed, in the second run, hitting the unaware Red force without warning and annihilating, virtually, the Pacific Fleet, destroying four battleships and two carriers, three cruisers, and uncounted aircraft. Nagumo escaped with a single carrier lost to aircraft; he had won a resounding paper victory.

The following days were taken up with reviews of the action, before the war games terminated on September 20th. Yamamoto, returning to Nagato, still had not had an affirmative from the NGS. Four days later, Kuroshima met the NGS representatives of the First Bureau and Nagumo and his staff in Tokyo, receiving word that the NGS would study the matter in detail. Reporting this to Yamamoto, the Admiral exploded. He would henceforward show the NGS just how important he regarded the Pearl Harbor plan to be.

In mid-October, the Combined Fleet decided upon December 8th as the most promising date for the attack. At the same time, it was decided that six carriers were needed to make the attack successful, and Nagumo sent Kusaka to Tokyo to convince the NGS of this, for it before concluded that it would not risk so many ships, even if it okayed the plan. Kusaka was received unenthusiastically, being told that the NGS did not consider the Pearl Harbor attack sound, and would not allow six carriers in any event. Kusaka then proceeded to meet Yamamoto aboard Nagato at Kure, telling him of the Naval General Staffs objections. Yamamoto told Kusaka that he would deal with the matter. Himself restless at the NGS' continous obstructions, he dispatched Kuroshima to Tokyo with special orders. Once there, Kuroshima went over, for a third time, the entire points which the Combined Fleet considered gave utmost importance to the execution of the Pearl Harbor attack, and with six carriers at that. Tomioka listened, reiterated the Naval General Staff's manifold objections, and leaned back. Kuroshima then told him stunning news: should he refuse to adopt the plan, Yamamoto and the entire staff of the Combined Fleet would resign their offices.

Tomioka, dazed by the prospect of having the fleet's command structure complety destroyed on the eve of war, agreed to the plan. He then took Kuroshima to see Fukudome, Tomioka's chief, to gain his assent. Fukudome, also not convinced by Kuroshima's reasoning, then felt the full power of Yamamoto's threat. He, too, agreed to Yamamoto's plan now that there was no other option. He shuffled Kuroshima on to the office of Vice-Chief of the Naval General Staff Vice-Admiral Ito, another former Chief-of-Staff to Yamamoto. Ito agreed to present the case to Chief of the Naval General Staff Nagano, who, also realizing that Yamamoto must not be lost, and that at the same time, Yamamoto's conviction that the plan was necessary suggested that it was a good plan; for Yamamoto must have studied it most throughly.

Kuroshima returned to Nagato with a written affirmation that Yamamoto's plan would be put in effect. Now, it was necessary for the First Air Fleet to be ready for its operation in the month that remained for its preparations.

Stranded on an Island
Admiral Kimmel, meanwhile, felt curiously out the loop. It was now late October, and the Japanese situation had definitely taken a turn for the worse. But still, Stark's weekly letters contained little advice on the situation, there was no guidance from the State Department on matters of policy, and the assurance which Roosevelt had given him about the integrity of his remaining force seemed brittle with the worsening of the situation in the Atlantic.

Although briefed by Stark, in his letters, of the most important events, he was left alone in interpreting them. His land counterpart, General Short, had his units consider sabotage the most important threat. Kimmel concurred that it was unlikely that anything else could hit him. He considered that in the event of war, he would take his force out into the Pacific. His carriers would raid the Japanese island bases, thus luring the Imperial Navy into a major fight. And then, Kimmel's Pacific Fleet would join battle and win, thus fulfilling its traditional role.

So far as Kimmel was concerned, these were the plans for war. By the middle of November, little had changed. Kimmel had been told that there would be no further destroyers for his fleet, nor the battleships North Carolina and Washington, which Kimmel had begged he'd be given. And his Radio Intelligence unit had not been able to give him anything concrete. Although he had been dutifully informed by his Intelligence Officer, Captain Edwin Layton, that there was "something afoot", there had not been any information on just what that was. Short had managed to have his planes detect an "enemy" raiding force at 80 miles, and have pursuit planes in the air at short notice, so that some measure of safety seemed to have been achieved. Kimmel continued his regular schedule of having the fleet out by halves during the weeks and thus gain them experience in sailing, and also a measure of safety. Only on Sundays was the major part of the fleet assembled in Pearl.

Wrapping Things Up
At the beginning on November, there were still a lot of loose ends to tie up in Nagumo's 1st Air Fleet. At least, the general force structure had been agreed upon. Nagumo would take six carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku, two fast battleships, Hiei and Kirishima, cruisers Tone, Chikuma, and Abukuma, and nine destroyers, along with his main force. He would receive support from six tankers, while six midget submarines would attack the harbor concurrently with his force and four more submarines would cover the approaches from and to Pearl Harbor.

Nagumo's force would sortie from its bases, whilst mock radio signals would suggest their continued presence, in no obvious order and rendezvous at Hitokappu Bay in the Aleutians prior to the final departure for Hawaii. Nagumo's airmen trained relentlessly, and so did the smaller ships of his force; for they, and the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, would require the services of the oilers to make the round-trip. Accordingly, during their voyage to Hitokappu, they exercised refueling. On the early morning of November 26th, the fleet having finally assembled, Nagumo took his ships out of the Kuriles, heading across the Pacific for its rendezvous with fate in the waters north of Hawaii.

Kimmel's War Warning
A day later, or rather two, due to the particularities of the date line, on November 27th, Kimmel received a telegram from Stark, with alarming content. Wrote Stark: "This despatch is to be considered a war warning." He alarmed Kimmel to the likelihood of war erupting "within the next few days", and noted that the Japanese convoys which had been sighted off the coast of Indo-China were likely to be an "amphibious expedition against either the Philippines, Thai or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo". Kimmel was to prepare for the execution of the Navy's war plans and begin defensive preparations.

Kimmel didn't quite realize what Stark was aiming at, through little fault of his. Stark's warning contained no mention of Pearl Harbor, and omitted certain references which he had made before, such as to the threat to Guam. It did not indicate any threat to the Pacific Fleet, and was fairly lacking in detailed instructions and information. On the other hand, orders were orders. That same day, Kimmel sent out Vice-Admiral William Halsey and the carrier Enterprise, plus cruisers and destroyers, to deliver Marine fighters to Wake Island, telling him that there might be war any day. Then he settled back; he could do little more - defense of Pearl Harbor was not his part in the plans, a role which the Hawaiian Army and Air Force would have to play.

On December 1st, news reached Kimmel that the Imperial Navy had changed its radio call signs, after a previous change just a month before. Together with the continuing progress of Japanese transports in South East Asia, it was becoming increasingly evident that there would be war soon. But Kimmel's intelligence could not tell him much about the threat to Hawaii. Asked about the location of the carriers that same day, Layton told Kimmel he thought them in home waters. So it remained. On December 5th, Kimmel send out another large portion of his force. Rear-Admiral John Newton took Lexington and three cruisers, plus destroyers, out to reinforce Midway Island with planes. At the same time, the cruisers Minneapolis with Rear-Admiral Frank Fletcher aboad, and Indianapolis, with Vice-Admiral Wilson Brown, departed the harbor, heading south on various missions. On Saturday, December 6th, Kimmel again interviewed Layton. Sitting together with his staff, Kimmel and his men worked out their thoughts on the Japanese move south. His staff did not consider war with Japan likely even now; except Layton. Kimmel decided to leave the fleet were it was, to avoid alarming the public. He still considered that if war should break out, it would be in the Philippines, and his concern was the offensive action which his force would then take, not any defensive measures for the protection of his fleet.

On to Chapter 2