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Tim Blagg

Dissecting Pearl Harbor

A military success, but strategic blunder

Pearl Harbor.

FDR said it was a “day that would live in infamy” and he was certainly right in that prediction.

It was a huge shock to all Americans, both because it meant our days of isolationism, our refusal to get involved in the war that was spreading around the globe from Poland to Britain to China, were over.

We could no longer sit smugly behind our ocean barriers and watch from afar as the Luftwaffe burned London to the ground, or as Japanese soldiers bayoneted Chinese civilians.

And our much-vaunted Pacific fleet, with its long lines of massive battleships, had been nearly destroyed. As the photos and newsreel images showed, many were sitting on the bottom of the harbor at Pearl, smoking and surrounded by the floating bodies of their crews.

And who had done it? The despised Japanese, mocked in movie caricatures of bucktoothed, myopic, bandy-legged little people, copying European technology and grinning as they swarmed over the western Pacific.

Militarily, it was a master stroke. Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto had closely studied the Royal Navy’s attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto in the Mediterranean, launched some 13 months before Pearl Harbor.

British Adm. Cunningham had sent his ancient “Swordfish” biplane torpedo bombers to attack at night, lit by flares. As the flare ships circled overhead, they had flown at sea level, hopping over the Italians’ torpedo nets and below their antiaircraft guns’ muzzles and crippled the fleet’s major units — sinking one battleship and heavily damaging two others.

Taranto proved that aerial torpedoes could be launched in shallow harbor waters, provided the right techniques were used, and Yamamoto and his staff immediately began such training.

The one flaw in the Pearl Harbor attack was that U.S. carriers were not there ... they were at sea doing exercises.

Pearl and the subsequent attacks on the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore made the Japanese the masters of the entire western Pacific, with no significant surface naval forces left to contest them.

But from a strategic viewpoint, the attack was one of the worst blunders in military history, right up there with Hitler’s attack on Russia in 1941 or our ill-conceived war in Vietnam.

The Japanese simply didn’t understand, or fully appreciate, the effect that a sudden, unannounced attack would have on Americans. Nor did they really grasp the enormous industrial capacity that lay dormant in the Depression-crippled United States.

They had a history of sneak attacks. In 1904, they had begun the Russo-Japanese war by launching torpedoes at the Russian fleet as it lay peacefully at anchor at Port Arthur. They declared war on Imperial Russia three hours later.

In 1941, they did it again, sending a long coded declaration of war to the Japanese embassy in Washington, several days after sending all of their code clerks home. By the time the remaining diplomats had decoded the message, Hawaii had been attacked.

The result was to unite a deeply divided America in an surge of anger that resulted, four years later, in a Japan whose navy was destroyed, whose cities were flattened, whose empire was stripped and whose people had suffered more than 3 million deaths — about 4 percent of its population.

It was a major mistake, for which the Japanese paid heavily. But in the long run, it also drop-kicked them out of Medievalism into a modern representative democracy and forced the U.S. to become a world military and industrial powerhouse.

Surely the Japanese admirals, as they pored over maps of Pearl Harbor and wrote their battle plans, could never have envisaged such an outcome.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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