Snatching Defeat From The Jaws of Victory: The Japanese Make Huge Mistakes At Pearl Harbor


As bad as the Pearl Harbor attack was for the United States Pacific Fleet with the associated loss of men, ships and aircraft, the Japanese committed some egregious blunders that would later cost them dearly. The most obvious, and oft cited, example is that they failed to catch any American aircraft carriers at port on December 7, 1941. Although important, that was not their greatest error. I say that not because those carriers didn’t cause them endless headaches for the next 12 months, until the even more capable Essex Class carriers began to join the fight, in addition to the various hastily converted cruiser hulls that could have became operational even sooner. No, they screwed up even worse than that. Much worse!

The greatest harm that could have been done to the US Pacific fleet would have been the destruction of our vast oil tank farms that keep the entire forward deployed Pacific fleet in motion. Had those tanks and fuel stocks been destroyed on December 7, the war would have likely could have been extended by another 18-24 months (by estimate of no one else other than Admiral Nimitz himself) with a disorganized American fleet having to be pulled back to bases in San Francisco, San Diego, and Washington State, and kept there until the oil storage depots could have been rebuilt and restocked. That would have been a while.

Why would the most obvious target of the entire plan, and not just obvious with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but a target that was actually on the official Japanese target list, be missed? Well, it came down to two different problems that affected the Japanese for the entire raid. First, it was one of situational awareness on behalf of the Japanese pilots in that they repeatedly hit targets that had already been hit, repeatedly, namely Hickam and Wheeler Airfields, and all of the battleships on the outside pair of “battleship row”.

The Japanese pilots in the excitement of battle simply lost situational awareness and continued to strike the very same targets over and over, while neglecting relatively untouched secondary and tertiary targets of serious military value.

This also explains why the Arizona and Oklahoma were repeatedly pummeled to the point of overkill, while the submarine pens and dry docks went relatively unmolested. How exactly this was allowed to happen I am still uncertain other than I speculate that pilot fixation and the desire to be THE ONE that put the final bomb into a battleship without realizing that the battleship was already a flaming wreck and that it was not going to sink upright into the mud any further than it already was.


Notice the large numbers of untouched targets?

Also, Hickam and Wheeler Airfields were needlessly worked over on even the second raid (wave 2) and that their is little military value in strafing an already burning pile of wrecked aircraft unless you just happen to have a particular hatred of firefighters.


You want a THRID strike? Ain’t happening!

Getting back to the neglect of the oil storage terminals, they were scheduled for targeting during the third wave that was subsequently canceled because the second wave was beaten up so badly by the now very alert antiaircraft gunnery at and around Pearl Harbor. For whatever reason, other than excessive caution on behalf of Admiral Nagumo, whom after the second wave, said “screw it, we’re quitting while we are ahead”, whilst forgetting that the most important target was still untouched.


Oil Storage depots in red taken on October 30, 1941.

My first question was if that target, the oil terminal, was recognized as so important that it actually made the targeting list, then why was it never actually targeted? The answer is surprisingly simple as it is an operational necessity. Hitting the oil depots early in the attack would have decreased the effectiveness of the rest of the attack because the amount of smoke created by all of that burning oil would have obscured everything else at Pearl Harbor for that day, and likely the next. So, quite rationally, the terminal was scheduled to be the very last thing destroyed, but the very wave that was to destroy it (wave 3) was canceled by Nagumo.

Just a single lone Zero fighter, raking that terminal with machinegun fire, would have likely been enough to send America back to it’s own west coast, but for some beautiful oversight of history and fate, it never happened.


Like I said earlier, America must have been born under a lucky star!