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Pearl Harbor Reconsidered Part III
Hit and Miss and The Third Strike
This is the third installment of my "Pearl Harbor Reconsidered" essay, and for those of you who have read the other two, thanks for sticking with me. Of course, I know you've all bought copies of Why the Samurai Lost Japan for yourselves and for all your friends (perfect Christmas gifts) as soon as you saw the first mention...
No? What are you waiting for? This essay is just a sample of our research and analysis. Get the complete picture.
As far as “gambles” go, Japan's Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t much of one, either strategically or tactically. It became clear during the planning that only two air attacks were possible in a single day, and that was all the fleet had fuel for—one day loitering north of Hawaii. The air attacks were a practiced ballet of logistics, material handling, and timing—and were nearly impossible to repeat on the same day if there were any damaged aircraft at all, or if there was significant air resistance. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had to think about the last ton of fuel, and bomb, torpedo, and bullet; resources were scarce. The Fleet could not carry more bunker oil than they did for an attack so far away.
The attacking force, called the Kido Butai, used nearly half the fleet oilers in the IJN.
And Nature had a say, too. A strong tropical storm battered the Kido Butai on the way to Hawaii. It did not slow the fleet, but it made them consume more oil (as much as 20% more in the smaller ships) to stay on schedule. Such unexpected developments, called “friction” in Clausewitzian terms, were not a part of Japanese planning. Their plans could not deviate from what they desired to happen. They ignored such distractions as the weather.
Beginning very early in the morning of 7 December, they prepared the airplanes in a flurry of activity. The second wave being hoisted to the flight deck as the first was launching. As the slightly battered first strike was returning to their carriers, they launched the second strike. Both attacks had intended to catch the American aircraft carriers in the harbor.
But the American carriers were not there.
The same storm system that battered the Japanese task force en route to Hawaii kept two American carriers outside Pearl Harbor; a third was on a mission to Wake Island. That the American carriers weren’t in Pearl Harbor (and their air groups parked on the airfields) was a grave disappointment…and created a grave danger. They and their 100+ aircraft were somewhere in the area…but Japanese intelligence could not say where. For that reason, Nagumo Chuchi, commanding the Kido Butai, had reason to fear for the safety of his command. Worse, he did not know how severe the American land-based aircraft losses were.
Changing the plan to add a third strike meant risking his ships, which was not in the Japanese mindset.
His fleet was already low on fuel, including aviation fuel. Staying an extra day would have meant that some of the escorting destroyers would have been sucked dry of fuel for the carriers and abandoned…not recommended at the beginning of a trans-oceanic war.
The Myth of The Third Strike
Of all the missions ever planned or executed, The Third Strike on Pearl Harbor is by far the most devastating attack never planned or executed…or even discussed (except, of course, in the movies). The first time any Japanese spoke of The Third Strike (that we know of) after the second strike went in on 7 December 41 was in the summer of 1943, a brief discussion between several staff officers, who spoke ironically. Sending the superbly trained pre-1941 carrier pilots on a third mission that day would have been a tremendous risk for an uncertain (and unlikely) result.
In 1945, Chester Nimitz declared that the Japanese should have attacked a third time, but he also acknowledged that it would have cost more than it won. A more romantic and unlikely version has Nimitz expounding to a boat coxswain as he viewed the damage done. Nimits held that the Japanese “sparing” the dockyards, maintenance shops, and the tank farms meant the US could swing into action in the Pacific faster (check the link above). History does not say how this speech was recorded, either. Even if it is authentic (got a time machine?), it is unlikely that these less-than-vulnerable facilities could have been significantly harmed, because…
At 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at, it is impossible to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop.
The odds against hitting the drydocks effectively were even higher, and severely damaging the concrete basins or the massive doors with a freefall bomb would have been sheer luck for any pilot of that time and place.
Successful, concerted attacks on the fuel farms would have required that the Americans either do absolutely nothing to stop the attacks on those big targets, or that they do everything wrong. Letting out a few thousand gallons and setting it alight would have created a good smokescreen in a few minutes that could have baffled any further attacks…and a single successful bomb on one tank or pump complex might have done the same thing.
As it was, they did some damage to both Pearl Harbor’s dockyards and tank farms, but it was minimal. It is said that Yamamoto regretted Nagumo's decision to withdraw (though he supported his decision at the time). Some say he afterward declared it had been a mistake not to order The Third Strike. The “when and where” and “heard by who” of this declaration is never made clear: Yamamoto wasn’t known for that kind of introspection and such stories emerged only after his death. Impossible to verify, but such an exposition from Yamamoto seems unlikely.
The Third Strike Misses The Point
The Japanese “missed” these “opportunities” for one simple reason: their strategic plan saw no need to do so. Japanese planners did not foresee a protracted conflict with the United States that could end in Japan’s favor. The Pearl Harbor attack was at its core tactical, not strategic. Delaying the deployment of the Pacific Fleet was all that the Eastern Operation was meant to do. Japan’s strategy did not need to cripple American capabilities in the Pacific. Those who wax philosophical about The Third Strike are usually Americans thinking about the end of the war from their perspective...from Tokyo Bay. From the Japanese perspective in 1941, there was simply no reason for a Third Strike, or to risk the Kido Butai for such a scheme.
While our take on Pearl Harbor is less detailed, our analysis of Japanese strategy, hopes and desires in 1941 should make it clear. We believe that, once you get to December 1941 in our book, you just might agree that there really was no point, from the Japanese perspective, to attack Pearl Harbor a third time on 7 December 1941. In fact, the success of the raid was a surprise to them.
Pearl Harbor Reconsidered IV
On 17 December:
1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew their powered heavier-than-air flying machine for the first time in the Kill Devil Hills of North Carolina. The witnesses from a nearby lifeboat station later said that they were only slightly surprised when it took off under its own power.
1925: A court martial convicted Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell of violating the Ninety-Sixth Article of War, which included “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service.” Mitchell had been an outspoken critic of US aviation policy, and was suspended in rank, pay, and duty for five years. Having significant private means, Mitchell resigned instead.
And today is NATIONAL MAPLE SYRUP DAY, for those of you who indulge in the stuff.