By Bob D'Angelo
Because I enjoy reading about history, I don’t mind reviewing a book that was published nearly four years ago. Besides, I only recently bought it, so it’s new to me.
World War II ended 75 years ago, but for the United States, it began with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy.” It was a stunning moment in U.S. history. It is fair to say that a generation of Americans would never forget where they were when they heard about 353 Japanese warplanes swooping down and devastating the U.S. naval fleet in Hawaii.
Future generations could point to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, as defining moments. But Pearl Harbor “shattered America’s sense of itself,” according to author Steve Twomey.
Twomey’s book, Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack (Simon & Schuster; 2016; hardback; $30; 367 pages), is an excellent, intense narrative about the days leading up to the attack. Twomey takes the reader through a day-by-day buildup and writes about the major characters. We know what’s going to happen, but Twomey provides context and a deep perspective.
Twomey won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for feature writing while he was a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. His piece, “America’s Carrier Ultimate Weapon or Easy Target,” profiled life aboard an aircraft carrier. So, Twomey is familiar with the Navy and its inner workings, and his storytelling abilities are evident in Countdown to Pearl Harbor.
War with Japan was not a thunderbolt out of the blue. The hints were there. The headline in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 29, 1941, was typical: “Japan to Make Decision: Peace or War in East.” That same day, the San Francisco Examiner headlined an Associated Press story as “Orient Observers See War Move By Japan Certain.”
War was coming to the Pacific, Twomey writes, “and they all knew it,” and no one took it more seriously than Husband Kimmel, the admiral in charge of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. The only question was where the attack would occur. The betting money was somewhere in the southwestern Pacific, perhaps in the Philippines or in a territory owned by the British. Hawaii never factored into the equation in the minds of the Navy’s brass. It was a fatal oversight that resulted in the loss of more than 2,400 lives and ended 8,427 of peace for the United States, dating to the end of World War I.
Hawaii seemed like an unlikely target, Twomey writes. However, Japan had the advantage of secrecy. The Japanese changed their radio call signs and their ships began heading across the northern Pacific on Nov. 26. American military intelligence had lost track of four Japanese carriers. That would be nearly impossible today, as modern U.S. technology would have picked up the fleet’s movement. The U.S. Navy did not have that luxury in 1941.
In hindsight, an attack at Pearl Harbor made perfect sense. It gave the Japanese a chance to cripple the U.S. fleet and allow them to consolidate their power in the Western Pacific theater. Plus, the Americans were hampered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to concentrate on the European front. Roosevelt poached a good deal of the Navy’s power, diverting it to fight the Nazis. The fleet of search airplanes, that might have scoured the northern Pacific, was diminished.
Plus, the Americans underestimated the Japanese. On Nov. 27, Kimmel asked Soc McMorris, his war plans officer, whether there was a chance the Japanese could attack Pearl Harbor.
“None. Absolutely none,” McMorris said.
“Americans, as a rule, did not credit the Japanese with having deep reservoirs of logic, as Americans defined it,” Twomey writes. “Usually, they fell back on race-laden stereotypes. They reduced the entire nation to ‘the Jap.’
“The Jap was a creature of the mysterious East, strange and implicitly inferior. He was inept, easily led, premodern, and uncreative.”
Kimmel realized those impressions were baseless as he stepped out into his yard and saw Japanese planes strafing the American fleet.
“All of his assumptions were wrong, although he had copious company,” Twomey writes.
Japan was not only stealthy but also lucky. American intelligence was misread or interpreted incorrectly. Kimmel ignored instructions from the Navy Department in Washington, which were vague to begin with. The Navy had sent a “war warning” 10 days before Pearl Harbor, a communiqué that instructed Kimmel to “execute an appropriate defensive employment.”
It was not specific enough.
That Kimmel was caught flatfooted by the attack was probably the biggest surprise. Kimmel had a spotless record and had shaken the Pacific fleet “with a drill instructor’s gusto familiar to all who knew him,” Twomey writes. “He pushed, he inspected, he corrected, and he cursed.
“Laxness, lateness, and subpar performances were felonies as far as Kimmel was concerned.”
Kimmel knew the minutiae but was unable to see the big picture, Twomey writes. Even the fact that Japan was destroying its secrets in Washington and Manila — along with the Honolulu consulate — did not register with Kimmel.
“Like so many of his countrymen, both civilian and military, the fleet commander did not think Japan was crazy enough to attack America first,” Twomey writes.
Kimmel’s counterpart, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was the architect of Japan’s audacious plan. He was not a drinker, but he was a gambler who excelled at poker, bridge and other games of chance. Yamamoto also knew “a great deal” about the United States, Twomey writes.
Yamamoto believed that an “honorable samurai does not stick a sword into a sleeping enemy, but kicks his pillow first to wake him up” — and then stabs him, Twomey wrote for Smithsonian Magazine. Or, as pilot Minoru Genda put it, such an attack would be “like going into the enemy’s chest and counting his heartbeat.”
The prospect of a surprise attack thrilled Yamamoto, who said, “I like speculative games.”
Yamamoto the gambler got lucky when two privates — George E. Elliott Jr. and Joseph L. Lockard, who saw a “massive blob of unknown, inbound airplanes” — were ignored by their superiors.
As an aside, my high school colleague, David Castello, wrote a fascinating article for The Daily Beast in 2016, summarizing his correspondence with Elliott about what happened at Pearl Harbor that morning. Castello, a talented musician, successful businessman and novelist, spoke with Elliott and published the interview on Pearl-Harbor.com before the private’s death in 2003.
The attack achieved what Japan wanted — cripple the U.S. fleet. It was only temporary, however. None of the U.S. aircraft were at Pearl Harbor, as two were at sea and one was on the West Coast.
And an aircraft carrier would play a key role in the Battle of Midway in 1942, as the U.S. sank four of the six Japanese carriers that were involved in Pearl Harbor.
Twomey’s storytelling abilities focus on the people involved in the attack, and not the nuts and bolts. We already know the facts and figures; military mistakes were made at every level.
Speaking at the FDR Presidential Library, Twomey noted that Pearl Harbor was “a drama of very talented and well-meaning civilians and military officials, trying … to figure out what this mysterious, pretty quirky country on this far side of the Pacific was about to do.”
Countdown to Pearl Harbor is well-written, with a gripping narrative that humanizes a horrific event.