- 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
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.
But neither Kimmel nor Short in their conversation discussed local security precautions or a possible threat to Oahu. Politely but inconclusively they continued discussion of the divided responsibility at Wake and Midway. Kimmel never thought to mention to Short that he had received another Washington warning about the “winds code” and that he had also been informed of the change in Japanese military frequencies and call letters. It never occurred to Kimmel that Short might not have been told about either matter.
Routine training continued in Army posts. General Short was quite pleased that his limited alert—which the War Department had apparently approved—had not interfered noticeably with training programs.
[“Climb Mount Niitaka!”
Admiral Nagumo sucked in his breath as the message was laid before him this day. This was it; the prearranged code which meant “Proceed with attack.”
Obedient to the signal flags broken out aboard the flagship, the gray ships came foaming about to a southeasterly course, vibrating to the thrust of increased propeller speed. Inside the steel hulls the mustered crews, learning the news, cheered, quaffed sake, and burned incense to the spirits of their ancestors.]
Additional Magic intercepts indicated further Japanese preparations for war, with the enemy’s known offensive weight still massing in Southeast Asia.
Kimmel, discussing intelligence reports with his staff, noted the change in Japanese radio frequencies as related in the Navy Department’s fortnightly intelligence summary, received late the previous day. The gist of it was that Tokyo was preparing for “operations on a large scale.”
Then Kimmel called for intelligence estimates on the location of Japanese aircraft carriers. Captain Edwin T. Layton, his intelligence officer, gave estimated locations for all except Divisions 1 and 2—four carriers.
“What!” exclaimed Kimmel, “you don’t know where [they] are?”
“No, sir, I do not. I think they are in home waters, but—”
Sternly, but with a suspicion of a twinkle in his eyes, Kimmel delivered himself of a masterpiece of unconscious irony.
“Do you mean to say they could be rounding Diamond Head and you wouldn’t know it?”
The conference ended after a discussion on the difficulty of locating a force operating under sealed orders while preserving radio silence.
Short met Kimmel that day again. They continued debate over jurisdiction at Wake and Midway.
[Nagumo’s fleet was steadily driving south toward Oahu. In prearranged code—unintelligible to American Magic interceptors—Tokyo had confirmed the target date: “X-Day will be 8 December”—December 7, Honolulu time.]
SIDEBAR: BILLY MITCHELL'S PROPHECY
Along with the other recipients of Magic information, General Marshall and Admiral Stark noted but attached no particular significance to a pair of intercepted messages made available to them that day.