The Enduring Lesson Of Pearl Harbor

The old expression “out of the clear blue sky” was given unforgettable new meaning on December 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese warplanes descended on Pearl Harbor, the American naval base in Hawaii.

Whatever warning signs there had been — and there had been some — had not ruffled the placid atmosphere of the nation’s most important base in the Pacific. The country had not been at war since November 11, 1918, the day World War I ended, and the fighting in Europe was still very far from America’s shores and thoughts.

Pearl Harbor’s local news monthly, Paradise of the Pacific, had just pronounced Hawaii “a world of happiness in an ocean of peace.”

Then, in the early morning, the planes came. It was not just a raid, but an aerial offensive of unprecedented scale — 353 Japanese long-range bombers, kamikaze dive bombers and fighters.

That they could come at all was a shock to the American military command. It required sending a fleet of aircraft carriers — technology’s latest contribution to the machinery of war — 3,150 nautical miles across the vast emptiness of the north Pacific. This required, among other things, the risky business of refueling in rough, wintry seas. It also meant almost two weeks of sailing to get within striking distance of Pearl Harbor without being detected by U.S. patrols and radar, an almost hopeless assignment.

As such, the American admirals thought the Japanese simply could not do it, that it was a logistical challenge beyond the capacity of the Imperial Navy. Furthermore, Japan was no match for America, and they would not dare to start a war they could not possibly win.

American military planners in the Pacific paid for those miscalculations with their careers. More than 2,400 Americans paid for it with their lives; at least another 1,000 were wounded; and nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleships, were damaged or destroyed, as well as more than 300 aircraft.

Investigations launched into the causes of the disastrous unpreparedness revealed a litany of errors that have a familiar ring to the generation that went through the events of September 11, 2001: Intelligence was misinterpreted or went unshared. A shortage of planes for aerial patrol — many had been diverted to the Atlantic to protect the lifeline of supplies to Britain — hampered the ability to spot the approaching Japanese fleet. The U.S. had detected aggressive Japanese naval movements in the region, but the list of potential targets included the “Philippines or possibly Borneo …” Pearl Harbor wasn’t on the list.

Today, 76 years later, the terrible event that brought America into World War II is remembered, but barely, in a few ceremonies at the Pacific National Monument in Pearl Harbor, and in articles like this one.

For it to be more than an exercise in historical study, of interest mostly to historians, something must be learned from it.

One of the lessons to be taken from the Japanese attack is about fanaticism. The American commanders weren’t alone in thinking that such an attack was out of the range of the probable, if not possible. And that even if it were achieved, the aroused American giant would ultimately crush Japan. Within the highest echelons of the Japanese military, the doubts were as vast as the ocean that had to be crossed.

Logistics experts furnished the high command with the grim differentials of U.S. versus Japanese production: steel 20 to 1, oil 100 to 1, aircraft 5 to 1, overall 10 to 1. The assessment was known — and discarded.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of Pearl Harbor, decided that, given the odds, Japan’s only hope was a knockout blow “on its first day,” a strike so devastating that American morale “goes down to such an extent that it cannot be recovered.”

Yamamoto and his colleagues believed that war with the U.S. was inevitable, thus justifying the risks they were taking. In fact, it was not so. Washington was inclined to think that negotiations with the peace-minded diplomats in Tokyo would avert war (which was one of the reasons the U.S. was so unprepared).

The attack on Pearl Harbor was virtually a suicide mission. Indeed, among the bomber pilots were the notorious kamikaze, who deliberately flew their planes into American ships. The word kamikaze was to become synonymous with fanatical suicide attacks, and was later infamously emulated by Palestinian terrorists who sent suicide bombers into Israeli cities and al-Qaida agents who turned passenger jets into flying bombs on September 11, 2001.

These suicide soldiers were not just ne’er-do-wells, acting out of the desperation of poverty, or ignorant stooges manipulated by others. The kamikaze of World War II and the more recent types have included well-educated and affluent individuals. The Japanese pilots were from elite units, and were widely admired and honored in wartime Japan.

In every generation, there are forces of evil who seek to wreak destruction and brutally attack the innocent. While efforts can and must be made to try to eliminate or at least contain these forces, ultimately the safety and wellbeing of all mortals is dependent on Heavenly Protection.