Wednesday, December 7, 2011


So I called my parents today, just because I was thinking that it was the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day and I happened to know two people who actually remembered it.

Well, sort of.

My pop freely admitted that he didn't remember what he was doing that Sunday. He was 15 and in high school, so he thought he might have been hanging around with his pals. But he didn't remember being very excited, or even particularly worried. "We were a long way from the West Coast," the Master Chief recalled, "...and it didn't seem likely that Tojo would be coming ashore that day." and that it wasn't really a big fat hairy deal.

But the Master Chief is an engineer and he's always been that way, I think.

My mother was on the West Coast, though, and remembers that at 13 she thought it was a big deal - she was worried that the Japanese would invade San Francisco. She didn't remember many specifics, either, and perhaps after seventy years that's not surprising.

At any rate, that's their Pearl Harbor Day stories.

Four years later the Master Chief was an Ensign in the U.S. Navy and in the last stages of primary flight training on the way to the Fleet as an aviator.

(I don't know why I've always assumed that he would have been a dive bomber pilot; he doesn't seem the sort of cocky sort that fly in fighters but he has a sort of bounce that seems a little too impatient for a low, slow torpedo-bomber driver. But he and I will never know; the bombs of August 1945 ended his trajectory to the deck of a carrier and ensured my arrival twelve years later.)Meanwhile my mother spent a good part of her war in California; long enough to see her parents' Japanese-American friends and fellow Salvation Army officers the Kobiyashis off to Manzanar, anyway. In the Sixties and Seventies I recall her telling me about working with her father, who was the West Coast Salvation Army commander, at railroad stations and embarkation ports and the long trains full of tired soldiers spilling onto the platforms hopeful for a last treat and a friendly face before the long journey resumed that would end, for some at least, in a grave on some crappy little island or in some southwest Pacific jungle.

So I don't get anything from my family other than the long-dimmed sense of duty done and done well.

And I don't see any real reason to write up today's battle. It's been discussed, analyzed, hashed and re-hashed to death. I certainly don't have anything new to add to what smarter and better historians than I have written.

But I do have some thoughts on the events of the Sunday seventy years gone by, as general observations and for what it can tell us about ourselves and the lessons we have learned - or not - from the day that lived in infamy.First, I think the single salient fact of Pearl Harbor is how it shows how individual military success can be - and often is - meaningless in securing political victory.

Which is something we seem to have a hard time comprehending.

By the military calculus of 1941 Japan beat hell out of the U.S. Navy that day. Mind you, there will always be the open question of why Nagumo Chūichi didn't rearm his aircraft and return to finish the job, which would have included destroying the sub docks, the fuel tank farm, and the drydocks and other repair facilities as well as hunting for the U.S. carriers. But the battleship was still considered the naval arm of decision in '41, and Nagumo's force had pretty well hammered the Battleship Divisions of the U.S. Fleet. The USN of '41 was crafted like most of the other navies of its day, to bring its enemies within the big-gun range of its battleships and destroy them, and Pearl Harbor meant that wasn't going to happen.


As we all know, the Pearl attack forced the brown-shoe Navy to lead the counterattack over the next year. And the battles of '42 - Coral Sea and Midway - proved that naval war had moved into a new era and that the Japanese Navy wasn't ready for it. Technically, yes; it had good aircraft, good pilots, and a solid carrier force. But many of the officers who lead it were, like Nagumo, cruiser and battleship guys. They were outguessed and outplanned by their USN counterparts who also had considerable access to the Japanese codes - the tremendous success of Allied decryption was the great secret of WW2 - and the IJN also proved fatally unable to adapt to the rapid changes of modern war.

Which brings us to my next observation; if you think you can design your military for the "next war" you're kidding yourself.

The combatants of Pearl Harbor couldn't even design their armed forces in 1941 for the war they were fighting three years later. And the Japanese industrial capacities of the Forties were completely inadequate, a fact Japan had no clue about until they dragged the U.S. into their war.

Look at the Japanese aircraft in the sky that day; A6M "Zero" fighter, D3A "Val" divebombers, and B5N "Kate" torpedo bombers. Good aircraft, well employed. But in the hangers of the U.S. carriers that Sunday you'd have found F3F "Wildcat" fighters, SBD "Dauntless" divebombers, and TBD "Devastator" torpedo bombers. The Grumman fighter and Douglas bombers were comparable to their Japanese counterparts
(the poor reputation of the Devastator seems to have developed after the massacre of the torpedo squadrons at Midway, an event caused largely by misfortune (the torpedo squadrons got separated from rest of the USN stroke force, arrived alone and were swarmed by the Japanese fighter cover) and the problems inherent in torpedo-bombing tactics (flying low, slow, and straight - the way you had to to deliver an aerial torpedo - turned out to be - surprise! - fatal when your enemy had decent AAA and fighter protection. Go figure)
but had been completely replaced three years later.By 1944 the F6F and F4U were better than the A6M, the SB2C at least no worse than the D3A (though the American aviators called it the "Sonuvabitch 2nd Class" and generally disliked it) and the TBF faster and more maneuverable than the B5N.

And the IJN?

Well, the real problem for the Japanese at this point was death.


The Japanese pilot training system was never efficient and by 1944 it was completely broken. The IJN never developed the equivalent of the USN V-12 program that took in the Master Chief back in his day. Combat losses and the inevitable attrition of a high-risk profession combined with slow training meant that experienced pilots were irreplaceable. So when their fleet air arm guys started coming down with a bad case of death it didn't matter so much that poor industrial capacity meant that the D4Y "Judy" divebomber couldn't fully replace the Val or the B6N "Jill" torpedo bomber the Kate.

But they didn't, and even if the IJN had managed to produce enough decent pilots the USA/USN would have just shot them down as well. It just would have taken a little more work but the Hellcats and Corsairs (and Lightnings and Mustangs) were just that much better; in three years the military situations had changed that much.

Within three years the strike force, and entire the Japanese Naval Air Service, that had been so violently successful over Pearl Harbor was dead, maimed, and destroyed.

Anyone who thinks they can outguess war is an utter fool.

My other thought is that Petroleum will Fuck You Up.

Pearl Harbor and the Great Pacific War in general was as much about Blood for Oil as it was about anything. The Japanese wanted the petroleum then being produced in the South China Sea area, particularly in the then-Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). But the Dutch had cut a deal; Japan had to buy Dutch oil from us. And after the Dutch took their cut and we took ours the Japanese were paying a pretty steep price to kill all those Chinese they were killing.Because the real objective of Japan's foreign policy in 1941 had nothing to do with the U.S.; it wanted pieces of China and the Asian mainland. We were just in the way.

But we WERE in the way. The U.S. forces in the Philippines were a constant threat to the Japanese moves to the southwest into south China and French Indochina. In September 1940 Japanese forces attacked Vichy troops around the northern province of Indochina, Tonkin. In return the U.S. froze Japanese assets and - more devastating - on 26 JUL 1941 we embargoed all that lovely Indonesian and West Texas crude.

Without petroleum the Japanese conquest of China was going to grind to a stop.

And you know the rest: the military men who ran the Japanese government needed that fuel. They were going to get it from Indonesia. And to get it they were going to have to take a slap at the United States.

So the slapping commenced.
And we're still in the slapping business today.

Not slapping the Japanese, though. They came looking for trouble that Sunday morning and found all they could handle. After the millions they killed, and the million of their own people who died the nation of Japan now sits quietly as the western edge of the Pacific still mired in their second decade of economic depression.

So that leads me to my final thought on the anniversary just past; that war makes you do stupid things.

Not because it makes you stupid, but because you don't have the time or the inclination to look your options over, because war demands you make decisions NOW regardless of how much you know, or what you think you know that's wrong, or whether you really know anything at all.

So you make dumb choices. If you're Japan in 1941, you attack the Americans instead of taking that Dutch oil and then making them decide to fight you. You fight them in the mid-Pacific instead of making them come all the way to you at the end of a 3,000-mile supply chain. You risk everything on a throw of the iron dice...and then you fail, because of little stupidities like not returning to destroy the submarine pens, or the drydocks, or the fuel tanks outside Pearl City.

The Japanese appear to have learned the lesson of December 7th and are unwilling to revisit their dumb choices...but we seem to be demanding to be everything they were in 1941.

We're throwing the iron dice all over the world but especially in the Middle East, because petroleum and our craving for it.

We're powerful enough to take on the world, without wondering if taking on the world is the smartest thing to do, the enduring lesson of Pearl Harbor.We seem to still collectively remember December 7th, 1941, and one would think we'd remember these lessons as well.

But one has to wonder if we understand what they are.

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