Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago was not the knockout punch the Japanese organizers had hoped for, and one historian says it most likely had just the opposite effect.
After just an hour and 15 minutes, approximately 353 Japanese planes attacking in two waves bombed, strafed and torpedoed military targets, leaving behind 2,403 American dead, nearly 200 U.S. aircraft destroyed, and 19 U.S. Navy ships damaged, sunk or sinking in the smoke-filled harbor.
But it was all for naught, said American historian Ian W. Toll in a phone interview.
“I believe that Japan lost the war on Dec. 7, 1941,” he said.
Author of the acclaimed “Pacific War Trilogy,” which included interviews with 300 Pearl Harbor veterans in 2006 and 2007, Toll said Japan should have never attempted its dawn raid on Pearl Harbor.
“I think attacking Pearl Harbor the way they did,” he said, “was one of the great miscalculations of history.”
Reluctance to attack
Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, had similar thoughts.
The Japanese admiral was one of the few naval men in his country at the time who opposed war with the United States. He knew a surprise raid would anger and arouse a mostly isolationist America. Its manufacturing, economic and technological prowess, he knew, would overwhelm Japan.
“Anyone who has seen the auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas,” Toll quotes Yamamoto in his book, “knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with America.”
Yamamoto had studied at Harvard University in Massachusetts, learning to speak English fluently. He traveled across the country and witnessed America’s abundant natural resources as well as its people’s determination during the Great Depression.
Fearing a long and drawn-out conflict with the U.S. yet knowing war was inevitable, Yamamoto proposed his single “punch to the gut,” in Toll’s words, on the U.S. Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor.
“We should do our best,” Yamamoto said, “to decide the fate of the war on the very first day.”
He hoped the raid, launched from four aircraft carriers, would have such a devastating impact on American’s psyche that, with hats in hand, American leaders would request a truce with Japan, Toll said.
“There was really no possibility of that happening,” Toll said. “As every schoolchild knows, the attack on Pearl Harbor had exactly the opposite effect — it enraged the American people. There was a (near) unanimous vote the very next day in Congress for war, and we really didn’t stop from there until we had achieved total victory over Japan.”
Some historians have pondered the consequences concerning Japan’s missed opportunities on the “date which will live in infamy,” a phrase Franklin D. Roosevelt used when he asked Congress for the declaration of war the next day.
For example, what if the Japanese carriers had launched a planned third wave of planes, targeting strategic sites such as oil storage tanks, key repair bays, armaments and dry dock facilities?
Or what if the planes had caught America’s two fleet aircraft carriers in the harbor that day? The carriers were crucial to America’s future war efforts in the Pacific. What if the U.S. Navy had been forced to abandon Pearl Harbor and launch future offensive naval operations from California?
Last Month, Toll attended a “what if” panel discussion at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where he and others contemplated the various scenarios that could have happened had history been different.
Under other scenarios, Toll said, the war would have likely been stretched out a bit, maybe into 1946 or 1947, if the American fleet carriers — mainly the USS Enterprise and USS Lexington — had been at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. It would have certainly altered the early part of America’s war against Japan, he said.
“We would not have had these series of carrier raids (on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands); we would probably not have been able to repel the Japanese landing at Port Moresby, which led to the Battle of Coral Sea — so the Japanese would have been able to make more progress in New Guinea than they did (in reality). Most likely we would not have landed on Guadalcanal, or least not as early as we did, and it’s possible the Japanese would not have launched their Midway operation because the real point (of that attack) was to destroy our carrier fleet.”
In the end, though, Toll said, none of it would have mattered.
“If the Japanese had sunk every ship at Pearl Harbor and destroyed every plane in the Hawaiian Islands, we still would have been in a situation where our economy was 10 times larger than theirs. We had already begun building this enormous new fleet, and I believe the result — it might have taken us longer to win the war — but there’s no doubt that the (United States) would have reacted much like it did — (a) unified sense of rage and purpose. and as soon as that happened, I think Japan was finished.”
A majority of Joplin residents were on their way to church the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when — more than 3,800 miles away — enemy planes were swarming over the Hawaiian naval base, headquarters of the U.S. Pacific fleet. It would be hours more before area residents learned details about the attack and the destruction and death it had caused.
Regardless, men born and raised in the Joplin area were in the thick of things that morning.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Walter Roberts became the first Joplin man to die in World War II. He was onboard the USS Arizona when a dropped bomb detonated a magazine deep inside the ship, causing it to sink. Roberts’ is among the more than 900 bodies that remain entombed on the ship.
Also onboard the ill-fated Arizona was Columbus, Kansas, resident Carl Christiansen. The 19-year-old was prepping to leave the ship after the enemy air raid commenced but hesitated when his brother, 20-year-old Edward, left his side and disappeared below deck to retrieve an item from his bunk. Carl survived the ship’s destruction; Edward did not.
Twenty-three-year-old Brian Lengquist, who would later settle in Riverton, Kansas, was stationed at Hickam Field when the attack began. He first thought the noise and explosions outside were some kind of elaborate Army Air Forces drill. Looking out a window and seeing the explosions, he promptly said to himself, “This ain’t the Navy.” It was utter chaos out there, he told The Joplin Globe years later. He took shelter and safely rode the raid out.
Dick Ferguson, who would later settle down in Carthage, was standing inside his battalion leader’s office when Japanese planes appeared, bombing and strafing. A friend ran into the office, screaming for the keys to the rifle rack to repel expected invaders. But out in the harbor, a Japanese bomb struck a Mahan-class destroyer’s magazine, blowing off its bow. A 5-inch shell, launched into the air by the force of the detonation, landed nearby, killing one man — Ferguson’s friend, the man who had just asked him for the keys.
Another future Carthage resident, Fred Russell Jr., was an 18-year-old signalman on the destroyer USS Conyngham who looked up and saw planes overhead, the red Rising Sun insignia visible on both wings. He watched as enemy pilots slammed several torpedoes into a nearby American cruiser. For the duration of the attack, Russell would carry ammunition from below deck to gun crews firing at the planes buzzing above.
Navy Signalman Nelson Glidewell, 26 at the time, was on the USS Oklahoma when enemy torpedoes pierced the battleship’s hull, forcing the 27,500-ton ship to eventually capsize. He survived. More than 400 others did not.
The Pearl Harbor raid abruptly ended America’s love affair with insulating itself from the rest of the world’s problems. Before Dec. 7, 1941, a majority of Americans felt like Hitler’s crusade against France, England and Russia was a “European problem,” and hardly affected their lives and livelihoods. A combination of the Great Depression and the memory of losses from World War I had hardened this stance throughout the 1930s, Toll said, and President Roosevelt was struggling to convince Americans the fight against Hitler was a noble cause that needed their undivided attention.
“In the fall of 1941 the isolationist movement in this country was in some measures growing even stronger” day by day, Toll said, “so you had this very strong isolationist sentiment in the country, particularly in (the Midwest). It had strength in the people, strength in both parties, it had strength in Congress, and it had strength in the press.”
But that abruptly changed during the early hours of Dec. 7, 1941.
“I believe … the most important outcome of Pearl Harbor was the change that it brought about in this country,” Toll said. People tend to think about the Japanese attack in military terms — lives lost and ships sunk, he said — but it was the impact the raid had politically on America that proved the key tipping point. After that, Toll said, “the nation was unified.”
Nineteen-year-old Lloyd Tillock, a farm boy from Sarcoxie, said he felt “hot” after learning the details of the Pearl Harbor raid. That following morning — Monday, Dec. 8 — Tillock and 20-year-old Harold Whaley, a close buddy, drove to a recruiting station in downtown Joplin to enlist. In fact, the two men were the first in line when the doors opened at 8 a.m. Hundreds of others would follow in their footsteps in the days and weeks to come. The two men chose the Navy “on account of Pearl Harbor,” Tillock later told the Globe.
Less than 48 hours later he was on his way to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago. He was assigned to the William P. Biddle, an assault ship. Over the next four years, the “Willie P” participated in seven invasions, including Tarawa, Eniwetok, Guam, Leyte and Luzon in the Pacific.
He and his ship was prepping for the invasion of the Japanese home islands in 1945 when the two atomic bombs ended the war for good. Relieved, Tillock picked up where he’d left things off four years earlier, settling back down on the farm in Sarcoxie, his service and duty to his nation completed.
Toll still finds it remarkable just how badly Japanese military officials underestimated the explosive rage that erupted from Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“It really was one of the worst decisions ever made, to go to war with us in the first place,” Toll said. “It resulted in their complete defeat for (Japan) and millions of deaths among the Japanese people and us achieving complete victory over them in less than four years.”