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The Strange Mission of the Lanikai
“My God! What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!” the Admiral told Lanikai's skipper when she finally sailed into port
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
Verbal promises to Churchill were one thing, but commitments in black and white were quite another. During mid-1941 the finishing touches were put on Rainbow 5, a world-encompassing war plan hammered out in Washington by American planners after a series of secret Anglo-American military consultations officially referred to as ABC-I (American-British Conversations). The U.S. Congress, which then still jealously guarded its treatyand war-making prerogatives, had no inkling of the plan’s existence, let alone the fact that it gave first priority to the survival of Great Britain rather than to the defense of U.S. territories in the Pacific.
Roosevelt had verbally approved Rainbow 5 for distribution to the major commands, but it was to be inoperative “until we get into the war,” as chief of Naval operations Admiral Harold “Betty” Stark later testified F.D.R. had said. Roosevelt also took the precaution, considerably to the disappointment of the British, of not officially approving the ABC reports in advance, instead making this contingent upon a United States declaration of war.
On July 7 the President made a more open move toward war; by executive order, and with the agreement of the Icelandic government, American forces occupied Iceland. Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, chief of the Navy War Plans Division, asked the President if this didn’t conflict with his October 30, 1940, speech in Boston, where he had ringingly proclaimed that “I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again, and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars!” According to Turner, the President answered not a word but leaned back, his long cigarette holder elevated at a jaunty angle, and gave vent to a hearty chuckle.
On September 4 the technically neutral U.S. destroyer Greer assisted a British patrol plane in a fight with a German submarine about 175 miles from Iceland. A week later the President issued his “shoot on sight” proclamation, authorizing and presumably legalizing American warships’ firing on German or Italian warcraft wherever met in the western Atlantic.
On October 17, in response to the new doctrine, the U.S. destroyer Kearny attacked a U-boat west of Iceland and managed to survive a German torpedo. Germany did not declare war but countered off Iceland: on October 31 the U.S. destroyer Reuben James was sunk, with the loss of most of her crew. But to F.D.R.’s discomfiture these events apparently did little to stir the American public out of its lack of interest in Europe’s war.
Before the shock of Pearl Harbor finally and dramatically reversed the course of U.S. opinion, before Congress became aroused enough or informed enough to ask embarrassing questions about commitments, much less become aware of such rather informal Naval operations as conducted by Isabel and Lanikai in the western Pacific, a sequence of events had with inexorable urgency filled the five weeks preceding December 7. In the lexicon of a later age the countdown approached zero in the following fashion: November 5 . Unknown, of course, to the Americans, a Japanese combined-fleet operation order directed that war preparations be completed by early December.
A memorandum from Army chief of staff General George Marshall and Admiral Stark warned the President that the U.S. Pacific Fleet was inferior to Japan’s fleet and could not take the offensive: November 7 . Stark wrote to Hart that although the Navy was already at war in the Atlantic, the country didn’t seem to realize it and was still apathetic. November 10. Churchill said in a public speech thai in case of war between Japan and the United States a British declaration would follow “within the hour.” November 17. United States Ambassador Joseph C. Grew, in Tokyo, warned Washington to guard against “the probability of the Japanese exploiting every possible tactical advantage, such as surprise.” November 19 . The State Department warned U.S. citizens in the Far East to get out. November 20 . Japanese envoys Nomura and kurusu conveyed to Secretary of State Hull Japan’s demands for the preservation of peace: the United States must keep hands off China, resume trade relations with Japan, help Japan get supplies from the Netherlands East Indies, and stop American Naval expansion in the western Pacific. November 21 . Things looked black to Hull, but the day was brightened somewhat by Kurusu’s telling him Japan would not necessarily be bound by the terms of its tripartite mutual assistance pact with Italy and Germany.