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!

  • Very lucky indeed.

    • Drunk_by_Noon

      The entire Japanese battle plan for the Pacific, for the first year at least, makes a lot more sense when you realize that they were counting on the US being driven all the way back to the west coast for a couple of years.
      It would have been a much different game.
      I still think we would have nuked them into oblivion, and much harder than we did.
      Admiral Halsey might have made good on his threat that: “Before we’re through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.”
      I really do think we could have waged a war of annihilation against Japan at the end of such a knock down drag out fight.
      In a way, Japan got even luckier.

      • Frau Katze

        And to this day idiots complain about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese had no intention of surrender until the bombs were dropped.

        • Drunk_by_Noon

          And they had no intention of surrendering until after the SECOND bomb was dropped.

          My take on it is this: good people do not create bad cultures, and bad cultures do not animate such monstrosities as either the cult of bushido or the Taliban.
          Only something so thoroughly wicked can come up with that nonsense.
          Naaa… the Japanese got everything they deserved.
          They earned it!

          The Imperial Japanese really were much worse than the Nazis.

          • winniec

            ISIS is similar, but nowhere nearly as well organized.

          • Drunk_by_Noon

            Thank God!

  • winniec

    Remarkable description. The commander of the expedition did not finish the job. An egregious error.

  • AlanUK

    Fascinating. I hadn’t heard that before!

  • David Murrell

    Good post. As well, the Japanese made strategic errors as to the anger of the U.S.’s

    response, and the amount of war materiel they could produce. As the post states, the Essex-class carriers:

    once they came on stream in mid-1943, tilted the naval balance of power ludicrously in favour of the U.S. As the post states, the surviving four U.S. carriers had to do the heavy lifting between December 1941 to mid-1943, but from then on the U.S. engaged in lop-sided naval conflicts. Mind you the island taking was bloody, and this is why the U.S. had to use the two nuclear weapons. Taking Japan by actual invasion would have been too bloody.

    • Drunk_by_Noon

      The Essex class carriers were some serious death dealing naval vessels in the Pacific. We ordered 32 but only completed about 24 by war’s end.
      That didn’t count our light-carriers or our escort-carriers.

  • Raymond Hietapakka

    It would be interesting to read a translation of what the Nipponese school system teaches their kids about WW2…apparently, no-one on the isle of Iwo even knew about the Jima battle when Eastwood directed his “Letters from…” motion picture there.

  • DaninVan

    For anyone not really clear on what the Japanese were capable of, and perpetrated, I highly recommend this book:
    To be honest I had no idea it was still in print! I read it back in the early ’60’s.
    Cleared up any misconceptions I might have had…

  • MannieP

    Tank farms are more resilient than they look. Still, they could have done us a lot of damage.

    • Exile1981

      Those tanks would have been most likely 3/8″ thick mild steel, a 50 cal bullet would have punched some holes and marine oil is less flammable than most people realize. A fee incendiary bombs would have wrecked the tank farms though. Once marine oil catches it’s hard to put out but it doesn’t ignite as easily as say aircraft fuel.

      • Drunk_by_Noon

        The ‘Zeros’ also had two 20mm cannons with explosive shells.

        • Exile1981

          Good point, a 20mm tracer would do serious damage and have a good chance of igniting marine oil.

          • Drunk_by_Noon

            I think the 7.7mm (similar in ballistics to a British 303) with tracer ammo could have pierced (and ignited) those 3/8″ mild steel tanks, but the 20mm explosive cannon ammo would have been ‘sure thing’.

            That’s what the “Zeros” were carrying as their ‘nose armament’, synchronized for shooting through the propeller of course. They were loaded with armor piecing and incendiary/tracer.
            That would be in addition to the 20mm cannon ammo.

          • Exile1981

            It would depend on a few things, speaking from someone who knows storage tanks.

            1) Marine oil is pretty thick and doesn’t create vapours easily.
            2) If the temperature was below 143F then it will not create vapours, but those tanks are painted black and it’s Hawaii.

            In a normal fuel tank that large you would have a portion of the tank that is full of fuel and any source of ignition that impacted that portion would be snuffed out as the fuel itself will not ignite. The upper portion of the tank will have a mix of vapours from the fuel and air. In some tanks they use what is called blanket gas (effectively just nitrogen or something without air) to fill that upper area so that there is no source of combustion. The critical part would be what percentage of marine oil vapours is in the upper section. If it is below the lower explosive limit (LEL) of the fuel then there is insufficient fuel in the air to ignite and if there is too much fuel (ie not enough oxygen) then it will also not ignite – this upper limit is called the Upper explosive limit (UEL). In some tanks they try and make sure that the vapours are so rich that they are over the UEL to prevent ignition. It was a common method for about 10 years back in the 30’s; the downside is if the system that is used to keep the vapours that rich fail then you will have to drift down through the whole explosive range prior to being safe again below the LEL. Obviously this is not an acceptable method anymore except for some really exotic materials.

            In the case Diesel it’s LEL is about 0.6% and the UEL is about 8%.
            In the case marine oil it’s LEL is about 0.9% and the UEL is about 7%.

            From my own experience a 303 will punch through 3/8 mild steel (think SA-36 or SA-53 for 1940’s tanks).

            So if an incendiary bullet hit the upper section (above liquid level) and if the mix was right it would explode, but enough holes in a tank that has blanket gas will allow in air and make the mix right for a fireball. It would of course depend on the temperature as well.

          • Drunk_by_Noon

            Thank you for such a detailed explanation!
            That was wonderful!
            God I love this place.

          • Exile1981

            Modern tanks have what are called frangible roofs; that means they deliberately re-enforce the upper edge of the tank walls and weaken the weld of the wall to roof. That way if an explosion happens the roof rockets up into the air, but the tank retains it’s structural integrity and you don’t end up with huge amounts of flaming liquid flooding an area.

            They started building tanks like that pre-ww2 but I’m not sure of the exact date but they were not the more common method until the 80’s and riveted or bolted tanks are less often built that way because of the nature of building them vs a welded tank.

            There are good reasons to build them that way – here is a video of a tank not built that way exploding in Texas
            Notice how the tank at 44 seconds decides to launch itself and spray flaming fuel everywhere. Then at 1.34 a second tank ignites and it blows it’s top (frangible) and doesn’t spray flaming fuel everywhere.

            I “witnessed” once a tank blow from 5km away. The blast shook the building I was in and I’m sure it was much worse for the poor guy who was 5 feet from it when the roof blew off. A 20 foot diameter tank roof of 1/4″ steel lifted about 80-100 feet into the air according to the guys on site and was a full 600 feet from the tank in the parking lot when we arrived on site.

            The point of all of this is that depending on the construction of a tank farm like the ones at Pearl Harbor you could have had one tank setting off those around it or if properly designed they will not cause a cascade effect.