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Pearl Harbor Day 2011: three enduring mysteries

On Pearl Harbor Day, historians continue to debate the mysteries of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack created some of the great unanswered questions of military history. 

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The late Gordon Prange, a University of Maryland professor who was perhaps America’s foremost authority on the attack, believed that the core problem was that the US government did not in its heart believe that its own warnings about imminent Japanese aggression were true.

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“This fundamental disbelief is the root of the whole tragedy,” concluded Mr. Prange in his book, “At Dawn We Slept.”

A congressional committee conducted extensive hearings into the Pearl Harbor disaster after the war ended. Among its conclusions were that Army forces were so focused on training they lost sight of possible attack – and that Army commanders were so worried about sabotage they locked up anti-aircraft ammunition rather than distribute it to gun sites. The Navy did not maintain aircraft patrols at sea due to lack of equipment – but neither did commanders order a picket line of surface ships instead.

In the current issue of Naval History, a journal of the US Naval Institute, historians Jonathan Parshall and J. Michael Wenger argue that an overlooked answer to the question of why the US was surprised is that US commanders did not understand how quickly aircraft carrier warfare was evolving.

The Pearl Harbor strike plan involved the melding of planes from many carriers into a hornet swarm of attackers. That was a skill the US did not know the Japanese military possessed.

“The US Navy had no real inkling of Japanese carrier warfare capabilities and therefore could not accurately assess likely operational targets,” write Messrs. Parshall and Wenger.

Why didn't the Japanese press their advantage?

After two waves of aircraft devastated Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row and US air bases, Japanese pilots returned to their carriers in triumph. Adm. Chuichi Nagumo then led a discussion on whether another attack was feasible. Many air commanders supported such a follow-up, believing that fuel dumps, repair shops, and other US logistical sites were now vulnerable.

A cautious commander, Nagumo decided against more action. It would have required reloading aircraft on deck at sea at a time when the location of US carriers and submarines was unknown. Japanese forces had already won a spectacular victory. Why waste that gain?

“Nagumo’s decision to turn back came as a disappointment to many of his airmen, who wanted to exploit their opportunity,” wrote Prange.

Destruction of Pearl Harbor’s infrastructure might have forced the US to withdraw its naval forces to the US West Coast. For decades, some historians have argued that Nagumo missed an opportunity that maybe, just maybe, could have turned the course of the war.

However in his book, “Inferno,” Max Hastings argues that new research shows a follow-on attack was not feasible.


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