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!