Tuesday, December 6, 2011

At Dawn We Slept - The story of the Attack on Pearl Harbor

Those on Hawaii back in early December 1941 were mindful that there was fighting occurring in other parts of the world, but it seemed miles away. When you are there, Hawaii seems to be in another world entirely. The magic of the Islands is that they are the most isolated populated island in the world. The military had been sending ships from the Pacific fleet to the Atlantic to fend off the real threat of the German U boats that had been sinking merchant ships. While Japan was gearing up for an attack, most in the Pacific fleet saw their duty as quiet and uneventful.

That all changed on December 7th, 1941.

The book " At Dawn We Slept" is without peer in detailing the events and actions that occurred up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It provides a detailed overview from both the American and Japanese point-of-view. A good read and the book that gives the best assessment to the "date that will live in infamy."

REMEMBERING PEARL HARBOR
By GADDIS SMITH;



Gaddis Smith teaches American diplomatic and maritime history at Yale.
Published: November 29, 1981

AT DAWN WE SLEPT The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. By Gordon W. Prange. In Collaboration With Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. Illustrated. 873 pp. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. $22.95.

THE JAPANESE attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, has served for 40 years as a test of what Americans think about their nation and its leadership, about Japan in particular and enemies in general, and about the requirements of national security. Gordon W. Prange's ''At Dawn We Slept,'' the result of half a lifetime of research, is a brilliant re-creation of the thoughts and personalities of the officers on both sides who fought that day, and it takes frank delight in the intellectual elegance of successful military planning.

The initial American reaction was a combination of patriotism, vengeful indignation and racism. The attack confirmed American courage in adversity. The Japanese were portrayed as a race inherently deceitful and cruel, fanatical creatures devoid of redeeming human qualities. A banner inscribed ''Remember Pearl Harbor'' would stream figuratively behind the atomic bombs falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

A second reaction, suppressed during the early part of the war but open and bitter after 1944, was to see criminal negligence and even treacherous conspiracy within the American Government. Strange bedfellows, united principally by hatred for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, advanced the proposition that the President had used American ships and lives as bait to tempt the Japanese into a war he wished to wage for a variety of nefarious reasons. Roosevelt allegedly knew the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor and when, and withheld this information from the local commanders in Hawaii in order to insure Japanese success. The conspiracy theorists included naval officers seeking to protect the reputation of their service and of their colleague Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet; isolationists who believed the United States had no business fighting in Asia or Europe; haters of the British Empire, which was supposed to have benefited from Roosevelt's plot; and radical anti-Communists who saw Roosevelt bent on advancing the cause of world Communism. (How else explain his antipathy to such a staunch anti-Communist nation as Japan?)

A counterwave of historians in the early 1950's attacked the conspiracy theory as nonsense. Roosevelt, they said, did make mistakes, but he and his advisers were grappling in good faith with forces beyond American control. The defense of Roosevelt was implicitly an argument that, in a permanently dangerous world, the nation's security required that the President be trusted by a sophisticated public on guard against simplistic theories, especially those which claimed that our problems were caused by traitors within.

As political passions that once flared around the name Roosevelt cooled after 1960, commentators on Pearl Harbor looked to the future. Roberta Wohlstetter's classic ''Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision'' (1962) explained how the American intelligence community, even though it was reading Japan's secret diplomatic radio traffic, was overwhelmed by too much data and lacked the manpower to separate real signals about Japan's intentions from irrelevant ''noise.'' Her purpose was to improve strategic intelligence.

During the Vietnam War distrust of Presidential foreign policy reappeared and with it a small new wave of Pearl Harbor revisionism with an emphasis more antiwar than anti-Communist. Roosevelt was now portrayed as leading the country into an unnecessary war that did not serve national security. Japan and the United States should have compromised their differences and abandoned unrealistic objectives founded on rigid ideology.

''At Dawn We Slept'' falls into none of those categories and takes strong issue with several of these groups of historians. What Prange sees above all else in the attack on Pearl Harbor is the professional skill, daring, imagination and dedication of the Japanese officers who conceived and carried through the most difficult and immediately successful naval operation in history. His original intention was to write only about the Japanese side and to present the participants as distinctive human beings, not faceless stereotypes. He began thinking of the project while serving as an officer in the American Naval Reserve during World War II, and he commenced intensive work in Japan, where from 1946 to 1951 he was a historian with Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. He interviewed virtually all the important surviving Japanese naval participants and in the process became intellectually and psychologically at one with them. This accounts for the power of the book and for its unusual perspective.

In 1953, back in the United States at the University of Maryland as a professor of history, Prange signed the contract for this book. The years went by. He decided to deal with the American as well as the Japanese side; he interviewed hundreds more people, read millions of pages of documents, and his manuscript grew to 12,000 typescript pages. His explanations to his publisher of how much he had done and why the book was not yet ready are themselves almost long enough to make a book. On the publisher's side there must have been a temptation to abandon the project in frustration. In May 1980 Prange died. Two former students agreed to reduce the manuscript and fashion the present volume, and it is a Herculean editorial achievement.

Mr. Prange demolishes the conspiracy theory as others have done before him. Roosevelt and his advisers knew by November 1941 that war with Japan was likely. They wanted to buy as much time as possible, but were unwilling to abandon support for China, Japan's victim in the war raging since 1937, or to give Japan the petroleum and other resources for waging war. But, as Prange shows, they did not have substantial evidence of an attack on Pearl Harbor. The fragments of intelligence data pointing in that direction were misinterpreted and mishandled through human error. But even if these fragments had been properly understood and acted upon, the Japanese attack would still have taken place. The Japanese would have encountered the resistance and suffered the losses they had anticipated, instead of escaping almost unscathed in the short run. One might compare the Pearl Harbor situation to a hypothetical major California earthquake at some point in the future. The early warnings will be detected, but the exact location and date will be unknowable. The quake will do terrible damage. People will be caught asleep. Afterward there will be recriminations. The authorities knew there would be a quake. Why did they not warn the people? Perhaps they were involved in a conspiracy of concealment.

The author also finds the conspiracy theory repugnant because he believes it demeans the Japanese, who were far too headstrong and shrewd to be anyone's pawns. He reveals how the Pearl Harbor concept originated in the mind of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Japanese combined fleet, in the spring of 1940; how it was perfected by a group of the admiral's disciples, most notably the aviation expert Comdr. Minoru Genda; how it was tested in war-gaming rooms; how it was accepted by the Naval General Staff only after Yamamoto threatened to resign; and how weapons, men and ships were prepared in secret and with arduous training. The author refutes the American view of Yamamoto as a bloodthirsty monster, and shows him to be a thoughtful man who doubted Japan's ability to defeat the United States. But the admiral believed that, since war had become inevitable through the actions of the two Governments, the Pearl Harbor attack offered the Japanese their only chance of success.

The strategy was designed to cripple the American fleet and thus protect the Japanese forces during their drive through the Philippines, Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. Nothing short of complete and unthinkable capitulation by the United States to Japan's expansionist demands would have stopped the attack. Here Mr. Prange makes clear his disagreement with those who think war could have been prevented by lesser American concessions. He does note that the plan, however brilliant, was fatally flawed by the assumption, held more through hope than conviction, that the blow to Pearl Harbor would destroy American morale as well as ships and lead the United States to sue for an early peace.

But Prange's awareness of this flaw does not dim his enthusiasm for the Japanese military achievement. Suspense builds chapter by chapter as the fleet avoids detection and approaches Pearl Harbor. The planes are launched. Surprise is complete. So thorough is Prange's immersion in the Japanese point of view that he even conveys a feeling of disappointment that Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, the officer commanding the force on the scene, was too cautious to launch a second attack, which could have destroyed vital American fuel reserves and shore facilities.

Prange's exhaustive interviews of people on both sides enable him to tell the story in such personal terms that the reader is bound to feel its power. His descriptions of the Japanese officers are vivid and memorable, but so are those of many of the Americans. At the very beginning of the book he sets up the coming attack almost in the way of an epic poet, comparing Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Kimmel: ''Both were small-town boys. Each had graduated from his country's naval academy in 1904.... Each gathered to himself a staff of exceptional capability, taking these men into his complete confidence and treating them like a family. Each encouraged individual initiative in his officers, disliked yes-men, and was always ready to hear both sides of a question. Each gave his staff intense loyalty and in return gained a devotion which withstood every pressure and bridged the years with a span of steel. Above all, each was a patriot and a sailor's sailor down to the last drop of his blood. And each admiral had a summer-lightning temper.''

But Prange has also a definite gift for reporting a story. During the air attack on Pearl Harbor, he writes, Lieut. Fusato Iida ''drilled the station armory and swooped down just as an aviation ordnanceman named Sands stepped out the side door and got off a burst with a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). A sailor of the old school, he called to his mates in the armory, 'Hand me another BAR!' ... As Iida moved in for the kill, the defiant sailor 'emptied another clip' and escaped Iida's bullets which 'pockmarked the wall of the building.' Iida appeared to break off the unequal duel ... but as he did so, a spray of gasoline began to flow from his plane, and he 'headed directly back to the armory.' ... A sailor saw him returning and, evidently considering Iida Sands's particular pigeon, shouted, 'Hey, Sands! That sonofabitch is coming back!' Sands grabbed a rifle; Iida roared straight at him. Ignoring the bullets splattering around him, Sands 'emptied the rifle at the roaring Zero.' ... The Zero crashed into a road winding up a round, flat-topped hill and struck the pavement about five feet below one of the married officers' quarters, 'skidded across and piled up the embankment at the opposite side.' The impact ripped out the engine, turned the plane upside down, and shattered Iida's body to pieces.'' It is impossible to forget such an account; there are many like it in this book, told in the words of those who were there.

''At Dawn We Slept'' adds some details to what was previously known about the American side and includes a useful if anticlimactic appraisal of the many American investigations into what happened, but here the main outlines of a familiar story remain unchanged. Failures of imagination, excessive adherence to routine, bad coordination and communication between Washington and Pearl Harbor and between Army and Navy, and bad luck contributed to the debacle. Almost everyone involved must share some of the blame, though almost all were hardworking men doing their best within their own limitations and the limitations of the system.

Prange is sympathetic in his criticism, but his conclusion is clear, if not comforting. In a summary chapter called ''The Verdict of History,'' Prange analyzes carefully what the American military commanders knew at the time of the attack and how they misunderstood what they knew. These failures to realize ''at all levels'' what their intelligence information really might have meant ''have a common denominator - the gap between knowledge of possible danger and belief in its existence,'' he writes, ''... yet it would be a mistake of the first magnitude to credit the success of the Pearl Harbor operation solely to American errors. We have seen how meticulously the Japanese perfected their planning; how diligently they trained their pilots and bombadiers; how they modified weapons to achieve maximum damage; how persistently they dredged up and utilized information about the U.S. Pacific Fleet. They balked at no hazard, ready to risk a wild leap to achieve their immediate ends.'' In other words, when Americans argue about placing blame for Pearl Harbor they should recognize that the enemy was real, and, in Prange's view, first class.

No comments: