On the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor during WWII, Chief Historian Ronald Drez provides new insight into the December 7, 1941 sneak attack, one of three attacks ever launched against the U. S. homeland. Many historians have rushed to label them as “surprises,” but that labeling deserves closer scrutiny.
The 80th Anniversary of the “Predicted” Attack at Pearl Harbor
December 7, 1941 was one of three attacks ever launched against the U. S. homeland. Many historians have rushed to label them as “surprises,” but that labeling deserves closer scrutiny.
The first attack occurred on August 24, 1814, when the British Amy, fresh from successfully attacking and destroying a small flotilla of annoying American rowboats on the Patuxent River. As they prepared for a withdrawal back to the main British fleet anchored in Chesapeake Bay, the leaders noticed that they were only forty-five miles from Washington, D.C.
The temptation was too great to resist, and British Admiral Cockburn and General Robert Ross decided on a run to greater glory. Against orders, they decided to march their army against the American Capital. It would be a lightning attack. The British Army proceeded to roll over a pathetic American defense, and marched into the city, setting President Madison and his government to flight.
It quickly occupied the abandoned city, dined at the President’s table, and then set the city ablaze, burning all the public buildings, except two (the Patent Office and the Marine Barracks). They departed the following day as quickly as they had come. Certainly, the attack was a surprise since not even the British had planned on it.
The Al Qaida terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 was indeed a “surprise” to all, as Americans, and their stunned political and military leaders, watched television images of hijacked American aircraft exploded on impact as they crashed into New York’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon in Washington, and a field in Pennsylvania after that plane had first failed to smash into the nation’s Capital. Intelligence had failed to detect the planning for the attack.
But what about the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on the United States Fleet at Pearl Harbor? That attack was another thing. It stunned the American people, and President Franklin Roosevelt was outraged over the sneak attack. And on December 8, he delivered one of the great speeches of the 20th Century, asking Congress to declare a state of war against Japan.
His “Infamy” speech was spiced with provocative words such as “suddenly” and “deliberately attacked,” and “treachery;” and it launched an outraged nation into war against Japan. But was it a surprise?
Japan had a past habit of attacking its enemies, with overwhelming force, just prior to declaring war against them. They had burst upon the international power scene late in the 19th Century, by using that tactic, and destroying the Chinese Fleet in the 1895 Battle of the Yellow Sea. Ten years later, they crushed the vaunted Russian Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima.
Between those two shocking Japanese victories, the United States pushed its own border into Japan’s back yard by acquiring Guam and the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American War. From that moment, war with Japan was inevitable. It was only a matter of when.
Long before the world panicked over Nazi Germany’s land aggrandizement, or even before it knew much about Adolph Hitler, Japan had been quietly on the move. By 1931 she no longer needed the cloak of deception and threw it off to invade China. In 1933, when her aggression had been filmed and observed by the whole world and condemned by the feckless League of Nations, she stormed out of the League.
The world made no move to confront Japan. Two years later, she again flexed her muscles and, this time, walked out of a naval arms control conference. As if to emphasize her feigned indignity, she simultaneously renounced all the previous naval treaties that she had signed. By 1937, she was embarked on a massive ship-building program.
What was there for the United States not to see? Sadly, it chose willful blindness and self-deception similar to that of the pathetically duped British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. But not all were blind, and a few who were not fooled by Japanese antics and perfidy, instead of choosing silence, they raised their voices in alarm.
The leading voice was that of a bold, brash, and swashbuckling American icon. He was the no-nonsense, adored aviation hero of the Great War, General William (Billy) Mitchell; and he was relentless in sounding the alarm concerning an eventual war with Japan. But those warnings were treated, by those who would not see, as the ramblings of a man who had lost his mind. His writings were ridiculed and ignored by military and political leaders, and consigned to gather dust on some obscure bureaucratic shelf.
In September 1918, Mitchell had been in command of the combined Allied air forces (U. S., British, French, and Italian) for an offensive against the deadly German salient at Saint Mihiel. In a climactic battle, he swept the German Luftwaffe from the skies; and two months later, Germany surrendered. He became one of the war’s great public heroes, and in that afterglow, he wasted no time in proclaiming the dominance of air power and the need to confront the expanding Japanese war machine.
He worked like a human dynamo, tolerated no one who disagreed with him, and was a thorn in the side of senior generals and admirals who championed protracted land campaigns, big battleships, and terrible battlefields that pitted cannons and quick-fire machine guns against flesh and bone. Mitchell wrote of the folly of the Great War:
“It was a slaughterhouse from beginning to end on the ground. Maybe one side makes a few yards, or maybe a mile, and thousands of men are killed. It is not war, it is simply slaughter.”
Mitchell saw war as getting at the vital centers of the enemy. Getting at the war-making industries that manufactured the weapons and ammunition before it could ever reach the battlefield.
“War is decided by getting at the vitals of the enemy,” he said. “that is, to shoot him in the heart.”
In 1923, his immediate superior, General Mason Patrick, succumbed to the folly of appeasement and sent Mitchell on a year-long “inspection” tour of the nations in the Pacific to “gather information.” In reality, Patrick just wanted to silence his voice and get him away from the press and the reaches of far Pacific Ocean seemed perfectly suited.
But Mitchell took his mission to heart and did a complete inspection of all the nations including Japan, and compiled his findings in a classified, 328-page report detailing just how and where Japan would attack. It was promptly hidden. Most likely because his report detailed how and where the war Japan would start, and how the U. S. should attack to win it.
Mitchell concluded that to begin the war, Japan would attack Pearl Harbor by air. He wrote these prophetic words:
“Attack will be launched as follows: bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island at 7:30 a.m.
“Attack to be made on Clark Field (Philippine Islands) at 10:40 a.m.”
His time predictions were only slightly off. At Pearl Harbor he missed it by twenty-five minutes; and at Clark Field he missed it by a little over an hour. When the attack came in 1941, the only surprise was to those who had ignored what Mitchell had foreseen.
Billy Mitchell, never lived to see his remarkable 1923 prediction come true. He died in 1936. But his legion of disciples became the air generals of WWII, and they carried out the air war against both Germany and Japan exactly as he envisioned – they destroyed their vital centers.
In the end, Mitchell’s military brilliance was honored in the naming of the B-25 Mitchell bomber after him. Sixteen of those bombers would be led by Jimmy Doolittle on the thirty-seconds over Tokyo; and it would be the only military war plane ever named after an individual.
Historian and Founding Member of Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours
Read Predicting Pearl Harbor!
Ronald Drez’s tenth book, Predicting Pearl Harbor, is a fascinating story about General Billy Mitchell, the father of the U.S. Air Force, who predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1923! If you’d like a signed, hard cover, first edition copy of Predicting Pearl Harbor, please email Ron with your request. The cost including priority shipping is $38.00.