The Day Before

How Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor caught an admiral and a war correspondent off guard

By , Joseph C. Harsch was a longtime Monitor correspondent and columnist.

FIFTY years ago today, at 10 minutes before 8 o'clock in the morning, I drove up to the main entrance of the Headquarters Building of United States Naval Command, Pacific, at Pearl Harbor. I left my wife outside in a rental car. We were doing a tour around the island of Oahu after my 8 o'clock appointment with Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief, Pacific, a position known in the Navy as CINCPAC.Waldo Drake, press officer at CINCPAC, met me at the door and took me at once to the admiral's office. He and his staff, all in summer whites, were seated around a low, circular coffee table in his conference room. Mr. Drake had told them in advance that I had been in Berlin during the first year and a half of the war in Europe. As soon as I was seated they started asking questions about Germany, the German army, German morale, and German resources. This must have gone on for over half an hour. They seem ed intensely interested. Perhaps I was the first person through there for some time who had actually been in Germany for the beginning phases of the war. After I had answered everything I could I took the initiative. From there the conversation, as I recall it, went as follows: Harsch: "Admiral, it's my turn now to ask a question." Admiral Kimmel: "All right, go ahead." Harsch: "I know nothing about the situation out here in the Pacific theater. I'll ask the obvious question. Is there going to be a war out here?" Admiral Kimmel: "No." Harsch: "Would you please explain why you seem so confident that there won't be a war?" Admiral Kimmel: "Yes.... The Germans have announced that they are going into winter quarters in front of Berlin. That means that Moscow is not going to fall this winter. That means that the Russians will still be in the war in the spring. That means that the Japanese cannot attack us in the Pacific without running the risk of a two-front war. The Japanese are too smart to run that risk." We talked around that theme for a half hour or more and then I left, feeling reassured about the future. I was to fly out of Honolulu on a Pan Am Clipper headed for Tokyo two days later. I was on my way to Moscow by way of Japan and China. It seems to be clear from the record that the admiral and his staff were totally surprised when the bombs started falling less than 24 hours later. Why they were surprised rather than having been adequately alerted is still a question which no one can yet answer decisively. The suspicion lingers that someone, somewhere else than at Pearl Harbor, deliberately withheld information which might have caused Admiral Kimmel to brace himself and his command for the attack. In the latest version of the conspiracy theory Winston Churchill, in London, may have done the deed. This will remain a conceivable, although almost certainly false, explanation until the British release the records of their intelligence intercepts for 1941. Those records are supposed to remain sealed until 2016. For anyone who wants the best information presently available, I recommend a book written six years ago by Rear Adm. Edwin T. Layton, USN (Ret.), who was Fleet Intelligence Officer at Pearl Harbor when the Pacific war began. The title is, "And I Was There," published by William Morrow, New York. According to Admiral Layton's findings, the culprit was a fatal combination of inadequate reading of available information, inter-bureaucratic infighting at the Navy Department in Washington, and a mind-set which prevailed almost everywhere outside of Tokyo that "it can't happen here." I WOKE up the next morning in my hotel room on Waikiki Beach hearing loud banging sounds. I woke my wife and said to her: "You have often asked me what an air raid sounds like. Listen to this. It's a good imitation." I took it for granted at the time that the noise came from just another war exercise, which was a frequent and familiar part of the Hawaiian scene. I assumed that it was an exercise even after my wife and I had had a morning swim on the beach and seen columns of black smoke rising over Pearl Harbor. Then a woman came in the dining room of the Halekulani Hotel in a semi-hysterical condition screaming that "the battleships are burning." It was then, and only then, that naval officers in their summer whites began standing up and heading for their ships or offices at Pearl Harbor. It was only then that I, too, finally realized that this was something more than just another exercise. Sometime that day, Dec. 7, a message was left at the hotel desk from Pan Am saying that my flight to Tokyo had been delayed.

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