Pearl Harbor: How an American Failure of Imagination Probibly Saved Many American Lives


In part three of today’s installment of things “Pearl Harbor”, we will take a quick look at what seemed to be an abject failure on the part of the Americans (from the political, to intelligence, to general preparedness) to secure and defend our most important Pacific base on December 7, 1941. We will also see how that lack of readiness likely saved thousands of lives, shortened the war, and preserved dozens of her ships and aircrew to fight again another day.

One of the great ‘what-ifs’ about December 7th, 1941 (both among the alt. history crowd and the conspiracy theorists) is what, if any, prior knowledge of the attack existed and what could have been done with that prior knowledge. As near as I can tell, the answer to that question is that there was not ACTIONABLE prior knowledge to be had, and had we prior knowledge, we likely would have handed the Japanese a staggering strategic victory rather than the marginal tactical victory they enjoyed. Some even say they blew that opportunity as well. I will get into that in a later post.

What if we had known, what could we have done differently? Beyond the obvious of getting our planes into the air (likely to be shot down and their aircrews lost forever), or getting our entire Pacific fleet sortied (and much of it sunk in deep waters with all hands) or perhaps sunk while trying to escape Pearl Harbor, thereby blocking the harbor for possibly months, there really wasn’t much we could have done differently unless we would have had PERFECT knowledge of all Japanese movements, intentions, and battle plans. Unless we were able to read Admirals’ Nagumo, Kusaka, and Yamamoto’s minds, that information was simply unknowable.

At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was inconceivable that Pearl Harbor was actually vulnerable to a carrier air attack. Had the Japanese not devised a very ingenious means of keeping their areal torpedoes from diving too deep, deeper than the harbor itself (with break-away wooden tail fins on their torpedoes), Pearl Harbor would have remained immune to torpedo attack. That would have left the Japanese with dive bombers and they just did not have that many at their disposal at that time (less than 130 for all Japanese carriers assigned – split between two attack waves). The Torpedo Bombers could have carried bombs (as some did) but that was not their highest and best use.

I’d rather a bunch of obsolete P-40s be turned into flaming wrecks on Wheeler and Hickam Fields (with no one inside them) rather than at 10,000 feet over the Pacific in a guaranteed lose for Team America flying obsolete fighter aircraft against Japanese Zeros flown by combat-experienced pilots. It would have been a slaughter for the American pilots in P-40s with the P-36, P-39, and Brewster Buffalo pilots having it even worse. Later encounters would prove that to be true. We essentially lost a lot of obsolete aircraft that (as it turned out) would be replaced within a few weeks with aircraft from the mainland. Those pilots would have taken a year or more to replace.

As bad as it was, it could have been so much worse.

I will say this, the United States must have been born under a luck star!

  • Norman_In_New_York

    Here is the Pearl Harbor attack as shown in the celebrated 1952 documentary series “Victory At Sea.” Most surviving veterans of the war were still alive when this was broadcast, with navy footage shown to the public for the first time.

    • Xavier

      Just watched ‘December 7’, a ’43 propaganda film by John Ford and Walter Huston. It was commissioned by the government and then banned for decades as being bad for morale.

    • Just a thought

      Problem with Victory At Sea is that a small amount of material isn’t quite accurate, but it’s mostly excellent, and what I grew up watching.

      “WWII in HD” by The History Channel (no UFO’s or aliens, believe it or not) is an EXCELLENT documentary. Most episodes can be found here…
      Note that not all videos there are from the series.

  • It was not the great victory they imagined. A lot of poor target choices, but then with carriers at sea the USA truly lucked out.

  • Billy Bob Thornton

    Except that the US and the West were in a wartime economy like now. Don’t forget all the threats by the West leading up to WW2. Churchill didn’t care for Germany backing its currency and the records do show WW2 was inevitable as the West was desperate. I think the West would not have recovered if they did not have a world war. People are much smarter nowadays and won’t fall for a draft or calls for a new world war. The age of the Internet makes that reality extremely hard for our politicians, the failures with their policies, able to call for a draft and a world war. Of course we know who the world war would be against, meaning Russia, China, Iran and BRICS.

    • lucius

      Dude, you do understand we’re being led down the garden path to a very real confrontation with Russia via the Ukraine, don’t you?

      • Billy Bob Thornton

        A war with Russia/China/BRICS would instantly go nuclear and people have to understand that and we cannot have our politicians demonize Putin or else the framing alone will make world war more palatable. I know we are being led down the garden path. That is why I tell people constantly that we cannot rely on these major parties. They are the ones that frame and set the agendas but for one moment do people ever think that they are not necessary? Since when are we supposed to give major parties all the passes.

  • Even now, somewhere on twitter, some moron is typing “OMG! Did u no that Ben Affleck movie was based on an actual War that happened in Hawaii?!”

  • Just a thought

    Interesting perspective.