- Historic Sites
Pearl Harbor: Who Blundered?
Though war with Japan was expected momentarily, and four carriers of the Imperial Navy were ominously unaccounted for, no one thought to protect our most important Pacific base from surprise attack. Why?
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
[In the North Pacific Admiral Nagumo’s fleet continued refueling.]
General Marshall, returning from his usual Sunday morning horseback ride at Fort Myer, found another intercepted Japanese message awaiting him; the Foreign Ministry was cautioning its envoys in Washington to keep talking and “be careful that this does not lead to anything like a breaking-off of negotiations.” He agreed with G-2’s conclusion that the Japanese were stalling until their South China Sea assault was ready.
Stark, at his desk, was called that morning by Secretary of State Hull, gravely concerned about Premier Tojo’s warlike speech. The Secretary told him he was going to urge the President’s return from Warm Springs. A later call from Hull informed Stark that President Roosevelt would be back Monday morning; Stark must see the President and report on the naval developments in the Far East.
General Short, in light of his instructions “not to alarm the civil population,” must have been annoyed to read the Honolulu Advertiser headlines that morning: “Hawaii Troops Alerted.” There wasn’t anything he could do about it, however; even the limited nature of his Alert No. 1 would draw newspaper attention in a critical time such as this. He also read that “Leaders Call Troops Back in Singapore—Hope Wanes as Nations Fail at Parleys” and “Kurusu Bluntly Warned Nation Ready for Battle.”
Kimmel ordered a squadron of patrol planes to Midway, to replace temporarily the squadron which he had ordered to reconnoiter about Wake. He was also interested in an information copy of a Navy Department message to Admiral Hart, commanding our Asiatic Fleet at Manila, directing him to scout for information as to an intended Japanese attack on the Kra Isthmus of Thailand, just north of Malaya.
Kimmel didn’t think that war could be delayed much longer. He wrote on the top of a piece of paper the words—“Steps to be taken in case of American Japanese war within the next twenty-four hours,” an aide-mémoire of the orders he must issue to his fleet.
[The Japanese First Air Fleet was still engaged in the arduous refueling job, while continuing its eastward course at slow speed.]
A busy day. Stark learned from his intelligence staff that the Japanese Navy had changed service radio frequencies and call letters for all units afloat—a normal prewar step. He went to the White House with Secretary Hull and briefed the President.
In the afternoon both Stark and Marshall digested an unusual number of important Magic intercepts of Japanese messages. Japan’s Foreign Minister was urging his ambassadors to prevent the United States “from becoming unduly suspicious,” emphasizing that it was important to give the impression to the Americans that “negotiations are continuing.” Tokyo also had ordered its diplomatic offices in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Manila “to abandon the use of code machines and to dispose of them.” Japan’s ambassador at Bangkok reported his intrigues to maneuver Thailand into a declaration of war on Great Britain.
But most significant was an exchange between Japan’s ambassador to Berlin and his foreign office. The ambassador reported that Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop had given him Hitler’s unequivocal assurance that “should Japan become engaged in a war against the United States, Germany, of course, would join the war immediately.” Tojo promptly told the ambassador to inform the German government that “war may suddenly break out between the Anglo-Saxon nations and Japan through some clash of arms…This war may come quicker than anyone dreams.”
And how quickly would that be? This was the question which sprang immediately to the minds of Admiral Stark and General Marshall, the men responsible for readying the armed forces of the United States for the coming clash of arms. They had no way of knowing that the answer lay in a brief uncoded message picked up by several American radio intelligence intercept stations just a few hours earlier. “Climb Mount Niitaka,” was the message. No significance could be attached to it, so it never came to the attention of Marshall or Stark. Nor would it have meant anything to either of them.
Kimmel and Short held another routine conference. Presumably they discussed at some length the grave international situation. Supplementing the cryptic but alarming official intelligence reports and warnings were the headlines blazoning the Honolulu newspapers.