Title banner: Pearl Harbor * Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal

Washington's Response to the Japanese Attack


When President Roosevelt read the intercepted "purple" messages just prior to Pearl Harbor he remarked: "This means war." He did not foresee a Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet but he knew that the Government of Japan would rather go to war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands than give up their alliance with Germany and Italy, or recede from their depredations in China. By now it was easy to anticipate that eventually we would have to go to the assistance of Great Britain against Hitler if freedom was to prevail, but it was hoped that peace in the Pacific would continue until the Atlantic peril was satisfactorily met.

Thus was war thrust upon us, and hindsight proves that the attack on Pearl Harbor, despite its losses, brought the blessings of a nation unified in spirit and purpose and was for us the easiest way to open hostilities with Japan and the Axis Powers. If the United States had not been attacked, the alternatives were a naval attack on the Mandated Islands or a naval excursion into southern Asia. Either would have been hazardous and the military recoiled from the necessity of fighting a long war against such odds with a divided public opinion at home.

The losses at Pearl Harbor seemed staggering at the time. Washington was as surprised as the personnel at Pearl Harbor that the Japanese had decided somewhat inscrutably to attack the Pacific Fleet. Four years of bloody warfare lay ahead and victory over the fanatical "Sons of Heaven" seemed assured, -- at least eventually. The attack on Pearl Harbor proved that the impossible was possible after all.


Image: 80-G-33058 USS Arizona burning after the magazine explosion. The ship forward is USS Tennessee which is playing water over the stern to keep oil fires from Arizona at a distance. USS West Virginia is on the far left.
USS Arizona burning after the magazine explosion. The ship forward it USS Tennessee which is playing water over the stern to keep oil fires from Arizona at a distance. USS WestVirginia is on the far left.


The President lost no time in taking official action against Japan. On 8 December 1941 the President told Congress: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." Congress then declared war on Japan. One vote was cast against the measure by a Congresswoman from Montana. Agreeable to their alliance with Japan, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States four days later. So the United States was at war not only with Japan but with the front-runners of the European War, Germany and Italy.


Almost immediately the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, set out for Pearl Harbor to see at first hand what damage the Japanese had wrought. He remained until Friday the 12th. On his return he had a conference with the President, and held a news conference on the following Monday, 15 December 1941. He lauded the heroic action of the fleet in resisting the


enemy, and gave a number of instances of fearless and intrepid action. Secretary Knox admitted that the attack was a surprise to all concerned. Before leaving Washington for Pearl Harbor he sent a message to all Naval ships and stations. It is quoted because it is so appropriate for all times:

The enemy has struck a savage, treacherous blow. We are at war, all of us! There is no time now for disputes or delay of any kind. We must have ships and more ships, guns and more guns, men and more men -- faster and faster. There is no time to lose. The Navy must lead the way. Speed up -- it is your Navy and your Nation!

Frank Knox
Secretary of the Navy

Although the Japanese took pictures of the damage they had caused, and these pictures were published abroad, Japan was relatively uninformed of the full extent of the damage. As is customary in warfare, the enemy was not told more than he already knows. For that reason Secretary Knox minimized the damage. At that time the fleet in Pearl Harbor felt that the Secretary's report was less than half the truth, -- but time proved that his estimates were excessive and that the full extent of the damage was less than at first visualized. This proves the adage that people are prone to see the worst or pessimistic sides of a situation rather than the best or optimistic aspects.


Official Washington lost no time in appointing a Commission to investigate Pearl Harbor. This was headed by Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts of the United States Supreme Court, a Republican. Three of the members were retired officers of the Army and the Navy while one member was on active duty with the Army Air Corps.

The Commission met as early as 18 December 1941 in the Munitions Building at Washington. After getting statements from the top officers of the Army and Navy it went to Hawaii where it viewed the wreckage and held hearings at Fort Shafter, at the Submarine Base, and at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The Commission received sworn testimony until 10 January 1942. After that it returned to Washington where it received sworn testimony from various Army and Navy officers from 19 January 1942 to 23 January 1942 when the Commission's report was made to the President.

The report to the President disposed of a number of wild rumors, and


included a number of basic facts about the Hawaiian Command. Washington knew the possibility of air raids, and so did Hawaii, but both considered such a circumstance remote. Both were of the firm opinion that collision courses in national interests would result in eventual warfare, but neither considered Japan so desperate or foolhardy as to attack Pearl Harbor.

The Roberts Commission went on record with the following summary and recommendations, among others: "Army preparations were primarily based on fear of sabotage while the Navy's were based on fear of submarine attack. . . . The first surprise attack . . . caught them completely unprepared. It was about four minutes before the first anti-aircraft fire by the Navy began, and as the Army aircraft batteries were not manned nor their mobile units in position it was some time before their anti-aircraft fire became effective. . . . The final results . . . left the Army airfields and the Naval station very badly damaged and resulted in the practical immobilization of the majority of the Navy's battle fleet in the Pacific for months to come, the loss of 75 percent of the Army's air forces on the Islands, and the loss of an even larger percentage of the Navy's air force on Oahu. . . . The loss of life and the number of wounded in this attack is a shocking result of unpreparedness."

The Commission concluded: "This attack has emphasized the completeness of the Naval and Military information in the heads of the Japanese, the meticulous detail of their plans of attack, and their courage, ability and resourcefulness in executing and pressing home their operation. It should serve as a mighty incentive to our defense forces to spare no effort to achieve a final victory."


On 23 February 1942 the President gave a fireside chat to the nation entitled "We Must Keep on Striking our Enemies Wherever and Whenever We Can Meet Them." This was delivered on the day after Washington's Birthday, and the President drew a parallel between Valley Forge of colonial days and the odds which faced the American people of the present. He discounted wild rumors and called attention to the relatively moderate losses which we suffered at Pearl Harbor. Although we had been compelled to yield ground to the enemy he said, "we will regain it. So spoke Americans in 1776, and so speak Americans today!"



The President did not wait for the Roberts report before taking action with regard to Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short. It was traditional in the services that they should be relieved. Their commands had suffered a tragedy, one which was greatly exaggerated in the mind of the public, but nevertheless one which seemed sizable at the time. There was no air reconnaissance to the north on that fateful Sunday. They left their posts with the good wishes of their subordinates. Admiral Kimmel was affectionately regarded in the fleet as an officer of unqualified loyalty and efficiency. His going was deeply regretted, but the nature of things required that he be relieved. Had he remained as Commander-in-Chief he would undoubtedly have proven himself one of the Navy's greatest heroes of all time.

The poisonous rumors that gained credence is illustrated by letters which Mrs. Kimmel received following his departure. The first was from a woman who deprecated the fact that two pregnant women were required to get off the clipper plane to the mainland (planes were very infrequent in those days) to make room for her and her belongings. The nephew of the woman asserted that demands upon the plane's personnel deprived other passengers of the attention which was due them. In the other letter the woman writer said that she had it on good authority that Mrs. Kimmel and Mrs. Short were never invited to the same party because of their conflicting temperaments. To both of these letters Mrs. Kimmel replied that she had never been on a clipper plane and had never been in Hawaii! Too bad that other ill-founded rumors and gossip could not be scotched so easily at the time!

Vice Admiral William S. Pye relieved Admiral Kimmel on 17 December 1941 as temporary Commander of the Fleet. He was number two in the fleet echelon of command and assumed the job as additional duty until a regular relief arrived. Admiral Pye was hard put to decide whether to take action in relieving Wake Island. He had two task forces near enough to the island to subject the Japanese forces to an aircraft carrier raid. But to do so required him to risk the loss of a carrier, which at that stage he could ill afford. Hindsight proves that action even against the land-based planes of the Japanese from the Marshall Islands only about 500 miles away would have been successful. But Wake is nearer to Japan than Hawaii, and holding it would have been impossible without changing the whole complexion of the war which lay ahead. The relief of Wake would have


prevented the capture of military and some 650 civilian personnel which the Japanese took into custody. There were a number of other considerations involved, including the state of the weather, the shortage of fleet oilers, and the lack of loading and unloading facilities at Wake. As it appears now, Admiral Pye acted wisely, about 22 December 1941, in sacrificing the manpower on Wake without risking the loss or crippling of one or more aircraft carriers.


Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, formerly Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, took command on 31 December 1941. He was a fortunate choice for the position. Although he was unknown to the public at that time, his appointment restored public confidence in the abilities of the United States Navy.

Image: USN NR&L (MOD) 27151-A "Admiral Chester W. Nimitz assumes duties as Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet, 31 December 1941, on board USS Grayling at Pearl Harbor."
USN NR&L (MOD) 27151-A
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz assumes duties as Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet, 31 December 1941, on board USS Grayling at Pearl Harbor.


He not only got along with all elements of a unified command but proved a strong commander in his quiet sort of way. He was destined to remain in command throughout the war and to be promoted in due course to Fleet Admiral.

Fleet Admiral Nimitz was a plain man who had no use in wartime for furbelows and ruffles. He was non-argumentative, but used his common sense to arrive at decisions which had to be made. He was a good listener, but used his own judgment in making decisions. Here was a man who in due time gained the confidence of all by the sheer demonstration of ability and good will.

Although originally a pessimist in salvage operations, his interest is well illustrated by the fact that for six months he required the Salvage Officer to see him at an appointed time once a week to talk over the progress of the work. Whenever significant salvage operations occurred, such as the entry into dry dock of a ship that once rested on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, he and others in high command were always present to show their interest and to add their prestige to the work.


In order to coordinate the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, the Commander of the Atlantic Fleet was, on 30 December 1941, assigned as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet. He became the over-all Commander-in-Chief of the Navy under the general direction of the Secretary of the Navy and the President of the United States. Admiral King later became the Chief of Naval Operations as additional duty, when he relieved Admiral Harold R. Stark as the Chief of Naval Operations in March 1942, and eventually was promoted to Fleet Admiral. For the rest of the war Admiral King wore both hats.

Admiral King sent the following message to the Navy shortly after taking the oath as "Cominch:"

The way to victory is long
The going will be hard
We will do the best we can with what we've got
We must have more planes and ships at once
Then it will be our turn to strike
We will win through in time.


He and Admiral Nimitz made a strong team which operated harmoniously throughout the war. To them island hopping was not new or novel because in their naval warfare they had many islands to contend with and many islands to conquer. These two officers were a portent to our enemies, especially to Japan, that no effort would be spared to bring ultimate unconditional victory.


Since the days of John Paul Jones the Navy had pursued the policy of using the offensive as the best defense. Nimitz was hard put to find means in the Pacific Fleet to take the offensive without undue risk. Obviously we were far inferior to the Japanese, and undue risk was out of the question until the industrial marvel of American production permitted the fleet to sail for Japan's strongholds. Nimitz was under great pressure from Washington, to take the offensive against Japan's Navy. He refused to move until he had sufficient time to size up the situation which confronted him. Then, about the first of February he solved this riddle by the adoption of the "Limited Offensive" policy in directing fleet operations. This policy was inaugurated for the purpose of restoring morale in the Pacific Fleet, of holding the line against any further expansion of Japanese power in the Pacific, of staging raids against the Pacific enemy, of diverting Japanese strength away from the East Indies if possible, and of safeguarding communications to Hawaii, Midway, and Australia.


Admiral Nimitz used the intrepid Vice Admiral William F. Halsey to carry out his policy. On 1 February 1942 Halsey bombed the Marshalls with the Enterprise force while Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher with the Yorktown force bombed the Gilberts. On his way home Halsey struck Wake arid Marcus, the latter only about 600 miles from Japan. Then Fletcher joined Vice Admiral Wilson Brown's Lexington force which bombed Lae and the Solomons as well as the northern coast of New Guinea. The military effect of these raids was not consequential but they proved to the


Japanese that American forces were on the loose and had to be reckoned with. They proved that aircraft carriers were capable of air raids even when the enemy was fully alert.

As early as mid-April 1942, the Halsey-Doolittle team bombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities. This was accomplished with sixteen medium range B-25's launched from the deck of Hornet, commanded by Captain Marc Mitscher. The carrier Enterprise carried Admiral Halsey in command of the expedition which besides the two carriers was composed of the cruisers Nashville and Vincennes, four destroyers, and one oiler. Enterprise maintained air patrol over and in advance of the task force.

The air raid was originally conceived by Captain F. S. Low and Captain Donald Duncan of the Staff of Admiral King in Washington. They with the cooperation of General "Hap" Arnold, who was head of the Army Air Corps, modified the Army B-25's for their mission.

The raid had to take off from a distance of about 650 miles to avoid detection by one of the many Japanese patrol vessels. All of the Ameri-

Image: USN NR&L (MOD) 39734 "Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle, USA, and Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, USN, on board USS Hornet."
USN NR&L (MOD) 39734
Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle, USA, and Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, USN, on board USS Hornet.


can pilots landed in China or Russia or in waters near China; the few who were captured by the Japanese in China were imprisoned or put to death. Nevertheless, the raid was successful and served notice on the Japanese as early as April 1942 that even Tokyo was not exempt from American sea and air power.

The President referred to the Halsey-Doolittle air raid as having originated from "Shangri-la." This was released for the benefit of the American public, but primarily for the confusion of the enemy.


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Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Larry Jewell & Terry Welshans for the HyperWar Foundation