For 80 years, the Imperial Japanese military attack on Pearl Harbor and the broader Pacific theater-wide assault that brought the United States into World War II has seen countless narratives, analysis, and even its share of conspiracy theories.
Much of this story was told from a distinctly American perspective to an American audience. But a book published last year offers a detailed account, delving into previously untranslated primary sources, from a Japanese perspective.
Dr Takuma Melber, modern Japanese historian and lecturer at the Center for Transcultural Studies in Heidelberg, Germany, spoke with Military Times about his new book, “Pearl Harbor”, and the fragility of the launch and success of the operation and of the ultimate end of Japan. maybe written in bad decisions made at the end of the attack.
Melber wrote his doctoral thesis on the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army in Malaysia and Singapore between 1942 and 1945 before writing his recent volume on Pearl Harbor.
* Editor’s Note: The questions and answers below have been edited for clarity and content.
Q: What caught your interest in Pearl Harbor, especially from a Japanese perspective?
A: I am the son of a Japanese mother and a German father, raised in Germany. I never met my Japanese grandfather who served in the war. I never had the opportunity to speak with him about that time. While there is a lot of material on the attacks, historical and otherwise, there is very little that has been translated from Japanese to English. So, over five years ago, I began to consult secondary sources, monographs, books, and memoirs written by Japanese people involved in the planning, decision-making, and conduct of the attack.
For example, Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, who led the attacks, later wrote a lengthy memoir detailing what led to the decision to lead the attacks and internal struggles, resistance and conflict within government. in times of war. Barely five years ago, it still had not been translated.
Q: What is some of the key information from the Japanese side that readers should know about what led to the attacks?
A: Following an oil embargo and stalled negotiations over Japan’s territorial claims to China, members of the military and some heads of government saw a preemptive strike against US positions what would determine the survival of the Japanese Empire. But as recently as the summer of 1941, just five months before the attack, most leaders wanted to avoid a fight with the United States. The Japanese leadership realized that the United States had vast resources and vast reach and could win a protracted war with Japan.
Some of the top leaders, including Admiral Osami Nagano and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, have opposed a war with the United States.
“A war with such a small chance of success should not be fought,” Nagano said in the Imperial Congress transcripts before the attack.
“A decision (to go to war) has been made which is diametrically opposed to my attitude as an individual,” Yamamoto wrote to a friend before the operation. But he saw no other choice as his duties to his government and his emperor were foolproof. âI should consider it my fate,â he wrote.
Oddly enough, Yamamoto was a bit of an Anglophile and had many friends in the United States. He told leaders he doubted Japan could match the industrial might of the United States for wartime production and viewed shortages of resources such as reserves of oil and other materials as major obstacles to the process. success from Japan.
But U.S. diplomats and officials firmly believed that Japan was abandoning the territories it had taken in its war against China. Ashley Clarke, a member of the British Embassy in Tokyo at the time, had warned that the Japanese government could not go to its people and tell them it was giving up the territory for which so many of their sons had recently died to obtain.
Q: This was a large-scale operation. How was the Japanese military able to plan and execute the attack in secret and what challenges did they face?
A: Warships had gathered in the Tankan Bay area on November 22, 1941, ahead of the November 25 deadline for negotiations with the United States. A “mobile force” of six aircraft carriers with more than 360 aircraft on board, two battleships, three cruisers and nine destroy escorts set sail on November 26 for Hawaii. If they had spotted any enemy ships, they were ordered to sink them immediately to prevent the fleet from being detected.
This whole mobile fleet was in complete radio silence. False radio signals were transmitted from the Japanese coast to deceive US intelligence units.
Even with the fleet in place, the official decision of the Japanese government to attack Pearl Harbor did not come until December 5, 1941.
At first there were plans for a night attack, but these were changed when the pilots encountered problems forming squadrons in the dark. While training for the attack, the pilots also discovered another problem, the Model II torpedoes released from the air sank 65 feet into the water, meaning their explosions would be ineffective in the harbor. , which was 40 feet deep at most points.
They had to equip the torpedoes with wooden fins, which stabilized them and prevented them from sinking below 40 feet. These new torpedoes were put into rapid production and delivered to the fleet on November 17th.
Japanese spies in Hawaii have proven invaluable. This is how the military knew how to attack when they did. Officers learned that American ships were not protected by torpedo nets and that the ships maneuvered during the week but returned to port on weekends.
Q: What were the mistakes or missed opportunities on the US side at the start of the attack?
A: Just before 4 a.m. on December 7, a U.S. destroyer commander received reports from minesweepers that they had spotted a submarine periscope a few miles south of the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The commander immediately searched the area but, finding nothing, canceled the alarm. Half an hour later, the American patrol boats and minesweepers returned to the port and the net lowered to allow them to enter and remained open for the next four hours.
During this window, another alarm sounded that a submarine appeared to be entering the harbor in the wake of an American ship. The USS Ward dropped four depth charges, believing that at least one had hit its target. This should have been a big warning to senior command, but neither the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet nor his staff paid much attention to the report as previous similar reports had turned out to be false. alarms.
In fact, reports were deemed unrealistic even a decade after the attacks. But in 2002, a Hawaiian research team discovered the sunk Japanese dwarf submarine and its crew dead in the harbor.
As the Japanese pilots were halfway to Pearl Harbor, an Army radar station on the north coast of Oahu spotted incoming planes. Due to a “strong echo” on the radar screen, both radar operators assumed that a huge fleet of aircraft was approaching and immediately reported it to headquarters.
But the entire Fort Shafter signals platoon was at breakfast, and an inexperienced young duty lieutenant misinterpreted the radar operators report and assumed it was a B-17 squadron that had taken off from California and was due to arrive in Hawaii around this time. time.
Q: Despite the devastation of the attack, were there any missed opportunities for the Japanese?
A: Japanese military planners had refueled and prepared planes for a possible American counterattack after the first wave. They regarded the protection of their aircraft carriers as their main concern. However, they missed the opportunity to neutralize the oil tanks and shipyards at Pearl Harbor, which turned out to be a fatal mistake, allowing the US fleet to recover much faster than expected.
Q: How was the attack perceived immediately by the Japanese military and people, and how has this changed over time?
A: They saw it as a huge success and that was until the turn of the Battle of Midway. Most Japanese learned the news through wartime propaganda. Until Pearl Harbor, many people did not believe that Japan could win a war, even against China. There were many famous voices calling for an end to the war with China, and Pearl Harbor was a bit of a booster, not just for the soldiers but for all of Japanese society.
Now most see the attack as a big mistake, they still wonder why the politicians made this wrong decision. At the time, it had to be clear to all Japanese people that they just couldn’t win this war. Today, Japan is the United States’ closest ally in the region. There was a partnership between nations before the war. Why did we give up that friendship in the 1940s with that stupid attack on Pearl Harbor?
Q: What should American readers take away from this work you did on Pearl Harbor?
A: American historians came to this after the war and the first reaction was that the Japanese trapped us, but it was our fault. Racism and cultural superiority before the attack saw that the Japanese did not have the capacity to plan such an attack, so its success must be a failure of the American leadership. This has led to conspiracy theories, including one that President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the attacks because he wanted an excuse to go to war, which is not true. I hope American readers will understand the other side. It’s always easy to blame culture and others, it helps to understand that there were also human beings on the other side involved in these decisions.
Todd South has written on crime, courts, government and the military for several publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-authored project on witness intimidation. Todd is a veteran of the Iraq War Marines.