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 winter day was too short to launch and recover [another wave of aircraft], and in any event Japanese bomb loads were too small to plausibly wreck Pearl’s repair bases,” Mr. Hastings writes.Skip to next paragraph
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What would have happened if the US had won the battle?
How would the world have been different if US forces had been on alert that Sunday morning in December? After all, it would have taken only a few hours' early warning to perhaps reverse the battle’s decision. US fighters would have been aloft and anti-aircraft batteries alerted. They could have taken a large toll on Japan’s incoming planes.
Today’s conventional wisdom is that Japan, in winning the battle, lost the war. Many of the ships destroyed at Pearl were refloated and rebuilt for later fights. Most important, a US public that had been divided over entry into the war became united at a stroke.
“No more did Americans ask whose fight it was or question what they should do about it,” wrote Prange.
As Prange also notes, it is likely that the US would have entered World War II at some point even if Pearl Harbor never happened. Whether US civilians would have universally supported such a move in the absence of a surprise attack is a great historical unknown.
As to what might have happened if the Pacific Fleet had repulsed its attackers, it’s quite possible that the fleet’s commander, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, would have launched his battleships and carriers out on a mission to catch and destroy the Japanese, writes Ohio State University military historian Mark Grimsley.
Kimmel was an offensive-minded commander who dreamed of replicating the victories of the great British admirals of the past. Within several weeks he could have gathered US naval power near Wake Island for a possibly decisive encounter.
Both sides would have had eight battleships available for a fight, writes Mr. Grimsley. The Japanese would have had a slight edge in aircraft carriers, but the US would have benefited from land-based planes from Wake Island bases.
The outcome would have been impossible to predict. A US victory could have greatly shortened the Pacific War. But “a decisive American defeat would have been far worse than the historical Pearl Harbor attack,” writes Grimsely. “Most of the vessels damaged or sunk [at Pearl] were subsequently repaired and returned to action, whereas any warships lost in the Central Pacific would have disappeared beneath thousands of feet of water,” writes Grimsley on Military History magazine’s website.
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