Early Warning


A few air-minded admirals, including the outspoken Yarnell, argued that his Blue attackers had won a stunning victory that demanded a re-evaluation of American naval tactics. But the battleship admirals, a comfortable majority, quickly voted them down. In the end, the final report of the Grand Exercises’ umpires made no reference whatsoever to Yarnell’s Sunday-morning raid. On the contrary, the umpires concluded: “It is doubtful if air attacks can be launched against Oahu in the face of strong defensive aviation without subjecting the attacking carriers to the danger of material damage and consequent great losses in the attack air force.”

But though the U.S. Navy refused to pay attention, the navy the admirals worried about in Plan Orange immediately grasped the significance of Harry Yarnell’s raid. Like all major powers, the Japanese paid close attention to a potential enemy’s naval maneuvers, and their observers forwarded a thorough report of Yarnell’s exploit to Tokyo. In 1936 Japan’s Navy War College circulated a monograph, Study of Strategy and Tactics in Operations Against the United States . One of its principal conclusions was: “In case the enemy’s main fleet is berthed at Pearl Harbor, the idea should be to open hostilities by surprise attack from the air.”

The next year, Japan declared war on China. The admiral in command of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet was Harry Yarnell. He was bitter about his assignment to what was known in the Navy of that time as “the small fleet.” The admiral was paying the price for his outspoken advocacy of airpower.

Admiral Yarnell repeatedly urged the United States to take a stronger stand against Japanese aggression. He was ignored as he had been when he spoke out for airpower. Between 1936 and 1940, the Navy laid keels for 12 battleships and only one aircraft carrier. In 1939 Harry Yarnell retired, a baffled, disappointed man.

So, on another Sunday a few weeks short of a decade later, another carrier task force, undetected beneath thick clouds, operating under radio silence, plowed through heavy seas northeast of Hawaii. This time, Admiral Yarnell’s colleagues would get the point.