It’s tough to be me. This week I winged my way from waterlogged Providence to tropical Honolulu to lecture at Pearl Harbor on—of all things—the unification, rise, and fall of Imperial Germany. (Actually, it’s not that big a stretch: the Kaiser’s Germany coveted a ‘place in the sun’ empire. Berlin entertained designs on Pacific ‘coaling stations’ such as Samoa and the Philippines. But that’s a subject for another day.)
Tuesday, while trying to recover from jetlag, I paid an early morning visit to the Pearl Harbor Historical Sites, a collection of museums adjacent to the naval station. The site also encompasses the USS Arizona and Missouri memorials at ‘Battleship Row,’ a short boat ride away off Ford Island. Some 1,100 sailors and marines lie forever entombed in Arizona, which blew apart after an armour-piercing bomb pierced its ammunition magazines during the initial Japanese air assault on December 7, 1941. A small oil sheen lingers above one of the battlewagon’s leaking fuel tanks. The rusting barbette, or base, of one of the ship’s aft gun turrets juts plaintively above the waters. USS Missouri, on the other hand, constitutes the bookend to Pearl Harbor, a reminder of the triumphant end to the Pacific War. A medallion implanted in Missouri’s teak decks commemorates the site of the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur formally accepted Japan’s capitulation.
This wasn’t my first visit to the historic sites. In fact, I stayed at the enlisted quarters on Ford Island in 1984 during my very first at-sea experience, as a midshipman on a two-month Pacific cruise on board the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. (Carl Vinson is the vessel last seen disposing of Osama bin Laden’s remains and, before that, rendering humanitarian assistance off earthquake-stricken Haiti last year). Somehow the memorial left little impression amid the jumble of new experiences—first time underway, first time on board a flattop, first time in the Pacific Ocean, first time to Hawaii. It was far more moving this time.
There is a point here besides the trip down memory lane. As bad as Pearl Harbor was, it could’ve been—and should’ve been, from Tokyo’s standpoint—far worse. The Imperial Japanese Navy pulled its punches during the attack, neglecting to strike fuel dumps, dry docks, and other critical infrastructure needed to support the US Pacific Fleet’s ‘forward’ operations in the Central and South Pacific. My colleague David Kaiser has been researching the outbreak of the Pacific War for a new book. For historians that means a lot of sleuthing work—sifting through archives for nuggets of ‘primary’ data that have escaped the notice of previous scholars. He unearthed an intriguing find this past summer: a formerly secret, now declassified memorandum from US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The subject: ‘The Dangerous Strategic Situation in the Pacific Ocean’. The date: December 20, 1941, less than two weeks after the Pearl Harbor raid.
Looking back across 70 years, it’s easy to see the outcome of World War II as a foregone conclusion. Marshall told a different story. He pointed out to ‘FDR’ that Imperial Japan still boasted ‘a very strong naval force in the Mid-Pacific which is now free to operate directly against Hawaii.’ Having seized naval outposts in the Marshall and Gilbert islands, the navy could ‘concentrate its entire attention on the offensive,’ unencumbered by the largely demolished US battle line. After taking inventory of the belligerents’ assets, Marshall reported that ‘insufficient airplanes and vessels remain available to ensure detection of hostile carriers in time to attack them with bombardment and carrier planes before they can launch their air attacks.’ Existing defences on Oahu were ‘inadequate to prevent additional severe damage to naval and merchant vessels in port, and severe damage to the Navy Yard and power, fuel, and water facilities.’
Marshall deemed it doubtful that Japanese forces could overrun Oahu through amphibious landings, but ‘without adequate defensive measures, other islands of the (Hawaiian) group could be taken easily.’ The remnants of the American fleet might inflict significant losses on the invaders but would run the risk of themselves being wiped out—leaving the United States without meaningful sea power in the Pacific Ocean. Once the Japanese Navy emplaced air bases on islands such as Hawaii, Maui, and Molokai, it could use air power to ‘blockade Oahu, and starve it out.’ Or it could launch ‘ruthless air attacks on Oahu, followed by landings, which sooner or later could not be effectively resisted.’ The general insisted that ‘this picture is not overdrawn.’ He implored Roosevelt to order reinforcements to the islands forthwith, lest the United States lose this vital Pacific outpost. ‘The danger is imminent. Speed is essential.’
Why didn’t the Japanese—a savvy opponent if there ever was one—exploit this opportunity? The Japanese Navy chief, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, likened the US fleet at Pearl Harbor to a ‘dagger being pointed at our throat.’ Yamamoto also informed his superiors that Japan could expect to ‘run wild’ and ‘win victory upon victory’ for the first six to twelve months of war, until American industry began manufacturing war materiel in vast quantities. By this sound reasoning, it appears that Tokyo found itself on ‘death ground,’ facing a fight to the finish, and that it should have done its utmost when opportunities such as those described in the Marshall memorandum presented themselves. Some historians suggest there is something in the Japanese ‘strategic culture,’ or national way of war, that discourages the killing blow. And it’s certainly true that Japan had opened numerous theatres. The conquest of the Philippines was still in doubt, and fighting raged in the South China Sea. It was hard to manage multiple efforts spread across the map of the Pacific.
We also shouldn’t overlook the Japanese fascination with the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the fin de siècle American sea-power theorist. Mahan, whose works were wildly popular in Japan, urged naval commanders to target enemy fleets in battle, amassing ‘overbearing power’ that swept opposing navies from important expanses. This may help account for Japanese myopia. The Pearl Harbor attacks aimed squarely at the US Pacific Fleet, overlooking the logistics infrastructure that made forward operations possible. Japanese commanders failed to correct their error, as Marshall feared they might. Similarly, Japanese submarine operations targeted US warships, ignoring the merchantmen and transports that carried ‘bullets, beans, and black oil’ to forces prosecuting the counteroffensive against Japan. But at the same time, Mahan lamented that navies without forward bases were like ‘land birds’ unable to fly far from home.
Why Japanese commanders neglected this common sense observation remains a mystery. We shouldn’t assume that future adversaries will repeat the mistakes the Japanese committed at Pearl Harbor and in the ensuing weeks. Take away logistical support—bases, refuelling and resupply ships, and the like—and the strongest fleet’s combat capacity withers on the vine. Leave that infrastructure intact, and the fleet can be rebuilt. That’s a lesson wise strategists will take from December 7.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of ‘ Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy.’ The views voiced here are his alone.