Pearl Harbor Defense — Better than it Gets Credit For?

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.

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

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.

28 thoughts on “Pearl Harbor Defense — Better than it Gets Credit For?

  1. Boat Guy

    Yes the AA guns certainly responded and the dedication of the crews deserves credit. I have read in several sources that errant AA projectiles (probably the 5″ ) caused damage and casualties ashore.

    1. Larry

      I worked my way through college as a night-shift CNA in nursing homes (quiet, could get some studying in). One lady I cared for was a teenage girl outside Honolulu during the the attack. Her father was hit in the back by an obviously spent “Japanese .50 caliber round.” I asked her if she was sure about the caliber, and yes, she was. I then had the misfortune of telling her it was an American .50 caliber round either fired up as AA, or from P-40 Warhawks in the air, since the Japanese only used 7.7 mm (~.303) and 20 mm. He wouldn’t likely have survived a 20 mm HE hit. She wasn’t fazed, or even surprised, to her credit.
      One funny story she had was about how liberal her parents were pre-war. If upon her best judgement, they were good date material, she could date whomsoever she liked. Even inter-racially. Even Japanese. Even black. But under no circumstances was she allowed to bring home a Samoan!

  2. Kirk

    The Pearl Harbor attack is one of those events in military history that are always going to be argued, re-argued, and re-examined until the issues have all been done to death. Like Midway, the root of the problem with it is that the two military systems engaged with each other, the Japanese and the American, approached war in diametrically opposed manners. The Japanese were “romantic warriors”, to coin a phrase, and as such, they focused on targeting those things that were “warrior peers”. Had you gone to Nagumo and Fuchida and said “Hey, dummies… You didn’t target the oil storage facilities or dry docks… WTF?”, they would have responded by looking at you as though you were quite mad. To them, the only thing worth shooting up at Pearl Harbor were the warships and aircraft. Their culture simply didn’t allow them to consider seriously targeting the logistics support items like the oil storage and dry docks.

    When that military system, one that was driven by and focused solely on “warrior glory”, came into conflict with the US military, which was far less romantic and far more pragmatic with things like target choices, the Japanese were, quite frankly, fucked. Look at their choices of targets for their submarine fleet–Their captains would bypass dozens of merchant ships in order to target the naval vessel accompanying them, while at the same time, they knew the US and German sub fleets were focusing on blowing their opponents merchant fleets out of the water. Cultural gap? You tell me. You read the histories, and you can only marvel at the level of disconnect they had going, and at all levels. There were a few Japanese sub commanders that went after merchant shipping, but I remember reading somewhere that they got hammered on when their bosses got wind of what they were doing.

    It’s really bizarrely interesting and amazing that the Japanese didn’t compare notes with the Germans, and emulate their submarine warfare successes with us, and turn the Pacific into a nightmare for shipping. One wonders just what would have happened, had the Japanese put similar efforts into blockading the West coast that the Germans did on the Atlantic seaboard. We’d have certainly had a lot more trouble conducting operations, and have had to have put more resources into things like convoy operations up and down the Pacific coast.

    There were a lot of things about the Japanese, such as the intense focus on conducting suicidal operations like the notorious “Banzai charge”, that leads one to class them with the French during early WWI in terms of delusional approaches to war-making. There’s something really annoying and completely tragic about the waste of human life in both cases, and one would hope that the two nations military forces have learned something in the interim, if only because they’re our allies these days.

    1. Bill Robbins

      What was the predominant USN ship-based AA gun, and what was the predominant land-based (an purpose-specific) AA gun, at Pearl? There was an interesting article in a recent NRA “American Rifleman” about the evolution of the .50 cal for ground, AA, and aircraft-to-aircraft, and I recall there were some problems with ground crews having to improvise the type of gun mount to be able to shoot .50 cal guns at aircraft.

        1. Hognose Post author

          I believe they had 3″ and 5″ guns at Pearl, and the ships each had one AA gun skeleton-crewed at dawn.

      1. Brad

        The story is even worse than I imagined. The only effective AA fire during the Pearl Harbor raid probably came from just the US Navy.


        The Army had constructed some 125 dispersed 10 foot tall earthen revetments at Wheeler to protect the fighter aircraft from air attack. For the anti-sabotage alert and over the objections of the Wheeler commander the fighter aircraft at Wheeler were taken out of their earthen revetments and were grouped in the open on parking aprons wingtip to wingtip without ammunition. Also the 98th Coast Artillery Regiment charged with the mission of anti-aircraft protection for Wheeler and Schofield was required to leave its anti-aircraft ammunition in central storage bunkers resulting in that no Army anti-aircraft fire except from small-arms was available to greet the attackers as they struck at Wheeler and Schofield.

        1. Ti

          Stationed at Wheeler early 80’s. Walked over those bomb crater holes in the apron almost every day while at work.

    2. 11B-Mailclerk

      “Mettle” versus “Metal” thinking.

      You could interpret Musashi to advocate cutting the opposing warrior (warships versus merchants), but it seems a better understanding that one should cut through the soft flesh when accessible, not through the hard steel blade.

    3. Loren

      The US also wasted a lot of energy targeting Jap naval ships using decoded radio messages, with zero results. Seems even when both sub and target were in the same general area it was seldom possible to get close enough to attack. It was only later in the war that US sub operations primarily targeted merchant ships.
      That early policy and faulty torpedoes lengthened the war.
      Torpedoes that had faulty magnetic detonators, too thin firing pins and ran too deep is a scandal. There was no excuse. None at all.

  3. Keith

    As always Kirk a great read. I’ve always seen it as a continuation of the planning for the attrition tactics the IJN practice for leading up to the war. They always looked at using elements that could be lost to sink USN ships on the approach to the home islands initially and the southern resource area latter. And of course USN AA ammo was suspect and several 3″ and 5″ shells did land in civilian areas around the base. I’ve read stories that the basic on mount load out was shot away during the first attack. Then with it being Sunday and in the confusion the person with the keys to the ammo lockers could not be found. So the gunners had to take fire axes and knock the locks off.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

  4. Jonathan

    An interesting article. I’m not surprised to see more details on the attack that show that it was not as one sided as some people act like it was.
    Very few things in life are completely one sided – most things are a balance between extremes.

  5. James F.

    I have a copy of THE BLUEJACKET’S MANUAL, 16th edition, which I bought in a bookstore and the official Navy version, for the edification of young sailors from Iowa, is this:

    “The Second World War began for the American Navy with the disabling of most of its battleships in a surprise bombing attack by the japanese at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

    It is one of the great ironies of history that Admiral Kimmel, who had been training the Pacific Fleet for a year on a wartime basis and who had brought it up to a high point of efficiency, should be held partially responsible for the disaster at Pearl Harbor.

    History has shown that Washington must bear much of the blame for not giving Kimmel and the senior Army officer in Hawaii, General Short, adequate warning.

    A point sometimes overlooked is that the basic responsibility for defending the Hawaiian Islands was, by joint doctrine, the Army’s. But Admiral Kimmel was the senior naval officer present, and was thus necessarily held responsible for losing his ships.”

    I remain impressed by the thinking behind that “joint doctrine” bit.

    1. Kirk

      Y’know… I dunno about that whole thing, the idea that Kimmel and Short were somehow “victims” of the folks back in Washington, DC. I really, really don’t.

      I mean, even a casual historian such as myself could have looked at the record the Japanese had for doing things like Pearl Harbor, the attacks at Taranto, and a whole host of other things, and gone “Hey… Ya know what? Maybe we ought to take some o’ them-there precautions against a Port Arthur kinda thing happening here, to us, on our watch…”.

      Not to mention the number of times such an attack had been predicted, war-gamed, and then dismissed as a potential reality. I think Billy Mitchell was at least one guy who saw it coming, along with a shed-load of others, including a bunch of guys at the Naval War College. If I remember right, it was even a common scenario for war games at the college. How the hell could the people entrusted with actually conducting the defense of the Hawaiian Islands have missed all that crap, and bumbled along merrily.

      Shit, if I remember my history right, Kimmel even protested FDR moving the fleet forward to Hawaii in the first place–He’d been at San Diego, and when FDR made them move, he protested that the forward deployment was “too risky”.

      So, when people say that those two fools were somehow not responsible, because “Washington, DC”? Yeah, not so much. Basic professional military planning should have been enough forewarning, and the fact that they weren’t ready on that morning in December? Sheerest fucking incompetence and complacency–The key notes of nearly all operations in the early days of the war. The Japanese and Germans only got as far as they did due to the essentially delusional nature of the people running things on the Allied side. The French and British politicians have no excuses, right along with our military leadership there at the beginning.

      The fact that there was effectively no recon screen out and looking for the Japanese out at the limits of carrier launch operations, when the tensions were as high as they were, and nobody was too sure where the Japanese fleet was? That the Army Air Corps had its planes parked side-by-side, more worried about potential sabotage attacks than they were about them getting destroyed in an attack? Incredible, to be honest.

      Hell, don’t even get me started about the Philippines–In my opinion, FDR would have been justified in recalling the lot of them to Washington, DC, holding trials, and then having them all executed pour encourager les autres. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more blatant historical example of outright military incompetence and complacency than the early WWII Pacific theater. Seriously–What were they expecting, Japan would just send them a polite note, with a few weeks or months notice before seriously attacking? How on God’s green earth someone could look at Japanese military history, the situation in the Pacific, and everything else involved, only to reach the conclusion that a surprise attack on major US assets wouldn’t be a possibility, let alone the actual likelihood? WTF? Seriously?

      Which is actually of a piece with the whole war, really–That Hitler and the Nazis got as far as they did, with the array of forces that was arranged against them? Mind-boggling, really…

      1. DaveP.

        November 27th:
        “This dispatch is to be considered a war warning.”
        “…an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.”

        Yes, the focus was on the Philippines and the far East- but I don’t see anything there about how Hawaii was safe territory. In fact, since it was home port for much of the Pacific fleet, which would be expected to operate from it to carry out any attacks or reliefs the war plans envisioned, Pearl was highly valuable property. Kimmel and Short could have- should have- done much more than they did to insure the safety of the fleet at Pearl, and the fact that the Naval AA gunners had their acts most thoroughly wired together speaks highly of them but not of their Admiral.

        As a check, remember that the Japanese had the option to go back for a third strike or even to send in one of their ships of the line to finish the job with heavy gun fire (and yes, I realize that would have been suicidal… but first, these ARE the Japanese we’re talking about here; and second, two years later there wouldn’t have been a single admiral in the whole IJN who wouldn’t think losing a battleship or two in exchange for putting Pearl’s sub pens, tank farms, and repair and parts sheds into the furnace would have been a bad trade).
        If they had done so it would have left the nearest functional naval base on the California coast. What would our next play have been?

        Kimmel and Short got off lucky because Roosevelt didn’t want the disruption of a full bore court-martial. The Roberts Commission called them derelict, and the other eight commissions afterwards found no reason to reverse that decision.

        “Negligence is an extreme thing.”
        –Yamamoto Tsunetomo, ‘Hagakure’

      2. Blackshoe

        Kimmel may have protested, but not as loud as James Richardson did.

        Richardson’s reward was to be fired.

        Pour encourager les autres.

  6. Keith

    The standard ship borne AA weapons were .50 caliber MG’s, 1.1″ quad machine cannon and 5″/25 high angle guns. I don’t believe any ship in PH yet had 20mm Oerlikon or 40mm Bofors mounted yet. The ground forces were using 3″ AA guns (already obsolete and many shells were duds), .50 and .30 water cooled mounts.

    Many of the MG’s that had been added to ship’s were in response to recommendations of the King Board which was formed after what happened to the RN off Norway in April, 1940.

    Hope this answers the question above. I invite any corrections working from memory.

    1. Haxo Angmark

      good info, except re Norway. The only large loss sustained by the RN during the Norway debacle was carrier HMS Glorious, sunk by the 2 German battlecruisers which popped out of fogbank and gunned her under. You probably mean the evac of Crete during June, 1941, when German divebombers sank 3 Brit cruisers, 6 destroyers, and damaged a # of other ships during a real bad several hours.

  7. Badger

    Agree the painting – wonderful as it is – has the colors incorrect for a fleet aircraft in the attack.
    I think this is probably closer to livery they carried (link is of restored into colors of returning strike pilot who had to crash on Ni’Ihau.

    I’d still hang that painting in a place of prominence regardless.

  8. Haxo Angmark

    7/12 – along with its more recent re-run (9/11) – has got to be the most lied-about event in history. As far as Hognose’ central point – Japanese losses – goes, I agree. The Japanese, having missed the drydocks, the oil tank farm, and the 2 carriers (both of whom were at sea, returning from bogus, plausible deniability-providing “air reinforcement” missions to Wake and Midway), inflicted no strategic damage on American military power in the Pacific; if anything, knocking out the PH battleships free’d up the carriers to conduct the subsequent fast carrier raids through which the Americans learned how to fight a new kind of war, and do so just in time for the climactic confrontations at Coral Sea and Midway. By contrast, the Japanese loss of 29 front line fighter, dive-bomber, and torpedo-plane crews – then the world’s best at their jobs – was a (relatively) heavier blow.

    As to Kirk’s standard nonsense about Kimmel and Short: they were convenient scapegoats, military men sacrificed to cover-up Roosevelt and his cabal’s High Treason. Churchill and Roosevelt spent the spring and summer of 1941 trying to frontdoor American entry into the European War by way of an undeclared Naval War in the Atlantic…but neither Hitler, nor the US Congress – well aware of what FDR was up to – would bite. Meanwhile the Germans hit Russia in June and, for the next several months, it looked like the Reds were going to be knocked out of the war. So the communist cells at State (Hiss et al.) and Treasury (White et al.) hatched a plan into provoking the Japanese into an attack on America’s Pacific interests, and so provide a backdoor entry to the War. During July – October, Roosevelt cut off 2/3 of Japan’s external trade and 90% of Japan’s oil supply. That worked. In the early AM of 26 November, Frank the Cripple was wheeled down to the basement WH radiotelephone room to receive a message (simultaneously copied and de-scrambled by a German intercept station on the Dutch coast) from his co-conspirator Churchill, whose Far East Intel Section had cracked the IJN naval code. A message telling him all he needed to know about the Japanese response: including date and composition of the PH attack. After that it was a simple matter of keeping the men at PH in the dark re these specifics, and getting what mattered most – the 2 carrier battle groups – out of harm’s way for a sufficient span. The preliminary orders for the “plane reinforcement” missions were cut, incidentally, just a few hours after the Churchill-Roosevelt RT conversation.

    1. Hognose Post author

      This comment displays at once the Haxo Paradox. (Sounds like a Ludlum book title — coming soon as a Major Bad Motion Picture with Matt Damon).

      The stuff on Japanese losses is all based on solid data. The conspiracy stuff is hog-wild speculation.

      1. DaveP.

        I like how Churchill and Roosevelt conspired to get Hitler to declare war against America first, before we declared war against them. That’s damn slick conspiring, that is. I’m proud to have men as clever as that on our side.

        1. Haxo Angmark

          well said. Churchill and FDR rolled the dice in desperate circumstances…and came up 7’s. Sometimes the elite machinations don’t work out nearly as well. As fr’instance, when v. Hoetzendorf pulled most of the Archduke’s security just before his visit to Sarajevo. Goodby, Austro-Hungarian Empire. Or when Poincare dangled Constantinople and the Straits in front of Czar Nicky, and Nicky said “OK, I’m in”.

      2. Haxo Angmark

        no, Hognose, everything I write is based on solid evidence and geometric logic:

        1) the German RT intercept station’s provenance and operations are detailed in WW II MAGAZINE, Vol. III/1, 1988, pp. 12-17

        2) some of the intercepts – including the key 1:35 PM (GMT’ 9:35 AM DC time) Roosevelt-Churchill conversation – are in Gregory Douglas, GESTAPO CHIEF: THE 1948 OSS INTERROGATION OF HEINRICH MULLER (San Jose, 1995), Vol. I, pp. 42-55 & 246-252.

        3) Peter J. Shepherd, in THREE DAYS TO PEARL, describes an agent-insertion mission he flew into French Indo-China on 4 December (local time) 1941. During a layover near the coastal town of Kompot, he had a bar-room conversation with a drunken Japanese civilian naval engineer (just in from Hittokappu Bay in northern Japan) who had some interesting things to say. When he reported back to his superiors at Brit Far East Intel he was told in no uncertain terms: “keep your mouth shut, or we’ll erase you. The Fix is on, and what will be…will be.”

        4) and there’s a long ton of other evidence, which I’ll eventually lay out in an essay at my site. It will, of course, change nothing. Most people are and will remain satisfied with the flimsy good guys/bad guys stage-sets erected by conventional historians. After all…it pays.

  9. Tennessee Budd

    “…the fact that the Naval AA gunners had their acts most thoroughly wired together speaks highly of them but not of their Admiral.”
    The more that things change, the more they stay the same. I was far from the only former sailor I knew who couldn’t quite get how the USS Cole got hammered. When I served, we kept the .50s (at least) manned if there was a chance of small craft getting too close. We didn’t go around willy-nilly firing shots across the bows of errant Chris-Crafts, but neither were we unable to stop one from ramming us, laughable as the idea seemed way back then (after all, what are they gonna do to my carrier? Scratch the paint?).
    Same-same with the ROEs I heard about from Marines who’d served in Lebanon & returned, after things went bad in ’83. They all agreed that it was inevitable that Something Bad would happen, because our “superiors” had made us unable to stop it when it came.

    1. Blackshoe

      Manned doesn’t help if you don’t have ammo on station, as per rules.

      Peace time rules prevailed that day, sadly.

  10. Gunga

    This is another example of many in which the average American will fight tooth and claw without consideration of odds or victory. Bellau Wood in WWI, Bastogne in WWII are just two more examples out of hundreds of many small and large battles in America’s short 200 year history in which Americans demonstrated their will to fight. I think we still have a percentage of our population that will go truly medieval, blood soaked, skull f***ing, batshit crazy if backed into a corner.

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