The American side has always looked at Pearl Harbor as a terrible defeat — which it certainly was — and an embarrassing failure of defense. There were several formal investigations and uncountable books and magazine articles assailing this or that level of American preparedness. But one thing hasn’t really been given much credit, and that’s the readiness of Navy anti-air gunners. At least a skeleton crew was standing-to on each gun as the Japanese attacked, and many of them got their guns into action.
The second wave got a lot more resistance than the first, and that AA resistance was one of four reasons that Admiral Chuichi Nagumo gave when he turned down air element commander Mitsuo Fuchida’s entreaties for a second strike delivering a third, decisive wave:
Even in the first attack, the enemy’s antiaircraft fire had been so prompt as virtually to nullify the advantage of surprise. In a further attack, it had to be expected that our losses would increase out of all proportion to the results achievable.
Nagumo, a cautious admiral intent on preserving his own force, knew he’d gotten a tough blow in. (His other three reasons were: the first attack had done as much as could be expected, and the Japanese were up against diminishing returns; Japanese SIGINT indicated the US still had 50 large patrol or bombing planes on Oahu, and they and the unlocated submarines and carriers were a threat to the fleet; and, the Japanese lacked good aerial or submarine reconnaissance and screening.
Ironically, the subs Nagumo worried about were almost all tied up in harbor; neither they, nor Admiral Kimmel’s HQ which overlooked the sub anchorage, were attacked at all during the actual strike. The Japanese SIGINT probably overstated the presence of large US aircraft, too, as the Navy’s patrol planes were nearly zeroed out by the attack.
In the end, we’ll never know how a counterfacual would have gone. A bolder admiral would have listened to Fuchida. Would the strike have further crippled the Pacific Fleet, perhaps by damaging the subs or fuel storage that survived the initial attack? Or would it have allowed the American carriers, which had been northwest reinforcing Wake Island, to set upon Nagumo’s task force?
For years to come, historians and surviving officers (which included both Fuchida and attack-planning air staff officer Minoru Genda on the Japanese side) would debate this.
But we wonder — did those AA gunners of the morning of 7 December 41 ever get the credit that Admiral Nagumo was willing to give them? Nagumo didn’t survive the war (he committed ritual suicide as the US captured Saipan from him) to speak up for them, or for his own decisions.
Perhaps some questions are not only destined, but meant to have no answers.