Pearl Harbor: Who Blundered?

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Marshall, back at his desk, thumbed through a sheaf of radio replies to the “war warning” message. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, commanding on the Pacific Coast, reported instituting a harbor alert at San Francisco and similar precautions in Alaska in liaison with naval authorities. He requested permission to direct air as well as ground deployment of his far-flung command. It was a long message, contrasting sharply with Short’s succinct report of sabotage defense measures in Hawaii. But the Chief of Staff didn’t pay much attention; it would be Gerow’s job to handle any necessary responses. So Marshall initialed most of the messages and then forgot about them.

Short’s message, however, was not initialed by Marshall. He would later testify he had no recollection of ever having seen it, although it bore the routine rubber stamp, “Noted by Chief of Staff.”

As for Admiral Stark, he was pushing off a long message to Navy commanders on the West Coast, and to Admiral Kimmel, quoting the Army alert message of the twenty-seventh, including its admonition that Japan must commit the first “overt act.”

Honolulu, Friday, November 28

Kimmel read Stark’s long quote of the Army’s alert message. He was particularly interested in its stress that “if hostilities cannot…be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.” This appeared to confirm his decision of the previous day: limiting defensive deployment to one patrol squadron cruising from Wake to Midway and sending carrier task forces for local defense of those outposts.

Admiral Kimmel received several other interesting reports. The U.S.S. Helena reported contact with an unidentified submarine. An intelligence estimate based on radio intercepts indicated Japanese carriers were still in their own home waters. Another report on intercepted Japanese messages established a “winds code,” by means of which Japan would notify its diplomatic and consular representatives abroad of a decision to go to war: “east wind rain” meant war with the United States; “north wind cloudy,” war with Russia; “west wind clear,” war with England and invasion of Thailand, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies.

It was all very interesting. However, the Admiral never thought of mentioning any of these reports during his conference with General Short that day. They discussed mutual responsibility for security of Wake and Midway—in light of the mixed Army-Navy garrisons at both places. But neither thought of asking the other what action he had taken on the November 27 warnings, nor did either volunteer any information on matters he considered to be of interest to his own individual service only.

[Admiral Nagumo’s fleet spent the day in attempts to refuel in a plunging sea—an operation which, as it turned out, would continue for several days under almost heartbreaking conditions of bad weather.]

Washington, Saturday, November 29

Both General Marshall and Admiral Stark received Magic copies of more intercepted Japanese messages. One of these from Premier Tojo in Tokyo to the ambassadors in Washington was quite ominous:

The United States’…humiliating proposal…was quite unexpected and extremely regrettable. The Imperial Government can by no means use it as a basis for negotiations. Therefore…in two or three days the negotiations will be de facto ruptured.…However, I did not wish you to give the impression that the negotiations are broken off. Merely say to them that you are awaiting instructions.…From now on, do the best you can.

To Marshall and Stark this was clear evidence indeed that the Japanese were stalling for time only long enough to get their forces ready to attack in the Indonesia-Southeast Asia area. It seemed now only a question of time, as more reports streamed in about Japanese convoys moving into the South China Sea.

For a good part of the morning Stark and Marshall were working closely with Secretaries Knox and Stimson in preparing and revising drafts of the presidential messages to Congress and to Emperor Hirohito, in accordance with the agreement at the previous day’s meeting of the War Council. Finally, about noon, the two secretaries were satisfied, and their proposed drafts were sent to Secretary Hull.

Late in the afternoon both read with considerable interest reports of a warlike speech which Premier Tojo had delivered that day (November 30, Tokyo time). The twenty-ninth had been the deadline established in the messages from Tokyo to the ambassadors. The speech, while violently warlike in tone, failed to give any indication of Japanese intentions.

Honolulu, Saturday, November 29