COUNTDOWN TO PEARL HARBOR: THE TWELVE DAYS TO THE ATTACK
By Steve Twomey
Simon & Schuster, $30, 384 pages
Dec. 7, 1941, a day that haunts us still.
After 75 years, nine formal investigations, innumerable books, stories and endless speculation, no one has properly concluded why America was caught defenseless and totally off guard when a mob of Japanese Zeros zoomed in and nearly obliterated the entire U.S. Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor that sleepy Sunday morning.
The sneak attack, which found the ships berthed side by side within the confines of the harbor, was devastating. The United States was stunned. More than 2,000 military personnel were killed along with 68 civilians and all eight battleships sunk or badly damaged.
Fortuitously, the three aircraft carriers were out on maneuvers. President Franklin Roosevelt called the Japanese treachery “a date that will live in infamy.”
How could the inconceivable have happened? After reading Steve Twomey’s exhaustive and unflinching, “Countdown To Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days To The Attack,” the conclusions are as follows:
An astonishing lack of communication between Washington and the military thousands of miles away in Hawaii.
Garbled, delayed and incoherent instructions within the military itself. Even though in close contact with each other the Navy brass did not know exactly what the Army brass was doing and vice versa.
There were gross misjudgments, wrong assumptions and a multitude of missed opportunities beginning at the White House all the way down the chain of command.
Though the U.S. had broken the Japanese code and realized war was imminent somewhere in the Pacific (most thought the Philippines) there was a laissez faire attitude in the tropical paradise.
War warnings were acknowledged but ignored. No one was in total command.
Inexplicably, early the morning of the attack two Army privates, who were fiddling with a primitive radar set, spotted a swarm of unidentified planes coming in over the ocean heading straight toward Oahu. Alarmed, they called headquarters only to be told to forget it.
They were just a bunch of B17s returning from the mainland. Even though the chief of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, knew a destroyer had fired at a foreign submarine suspiciously lurking offshore, he went to his office and issued no orders. He was not sure the assault was real.
Above all, there was breathtaking ignorance and prejudice. Because the Japanese were dismissed as inferior — “the yellow peril” — there was basic disbelief their imperial navy was capable of undertaking such a long, daring and dangerous sea voyage. Their pilots were deemed second-rate, unable to pull off such a daunting task.
The West knew little about the suave, Japanese Adm. Isoruko Yamamoto, a dapper man who had spent time in the United States as a naval attache, spoke fluent English and was known as a brilliant tactician. He was also a consummate bridge player and a highly sophisticated gambler.
Despite the fact he opposed war, he realized early on conflict with America “was inevitable” and Japan, the smaller power, must strike on “its first day.” His aim: to send aircraft carriers to Pearl Harbor in order to crush U.S. naval power and traumatize the unsuspecting nation.
Implacable determination and total secrecy were crucial to success. Complete radio silence, total blackouts and incredible luck, allowed his convoy of 30, featuring six aircraft carriers, to cross more than 3,000 miles of ocean undetected and unscathed.
It was the ultimate gambit.
In Japan the sagacious, Boston Brahmin, Joseph Grew, longtime U.S. ambassador to that country, knew war was on the horizon. He had been en poste for 10 years and acquired a raft of Japanese friends, contacts and a profound understanding of the secrecy and bellicosity of the nation.
In his letters to the president, whom he addressed “Dear Frank,” they had been classmates at Groton School, he wrote, “Japan has become openly and unashamedly one of the predatory nations,” and warned that Japan might act with “dangerous and dramatic suddenness.’
He told the U.S. State department he and his staff were increasingly isolated and would be unable to provide any substantial information on troop movements or overt aggression. He knew Japan would strike soon. But where?
Incredibly, Yamamoto’s battle plan never leaked.
Grew was in the embassy confiscating papers and destroying codes when he learned of the disaster at Pearl Harbor. He was interned in his residence for nine months and then exchanged for Japanese diplomats in the United States.
In an ironic twist of history, the Japanese employed the exact same surprise tactic more than a century ago. They launched a raid on the Russian fleet moored outside Port Arthur in Manchuria in 1904, kicking off the bloody Russo-Japanese War.
Mr. Twomey’s book gives us the tick tock of the lead-up to the most infamous day in U.S. history. He has put together the pieces of the bewildering puzzle and written a riveting account of a catastrophe that never should gave happened.
• Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast.