Despite reams of nonsense to the contrary, the top three US commanders in Hawaii in December of 1941 –Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, 14th Naval District commander Admiral Claude C. Bloch, and U.S. Army Hawaiian Department commander General Walter C. Short– are not scapegoats for what happened on December 7th, 1941. Though all three commanders were capable, dedicated, loyal men, their combined mistakes conspired to leave the island of Oahu vulnerable to the Japanese attack which slammed into the island like a tsunami 72 years ago today.
The lion’s share of the mistakes could be said to have been made by Admiral Bloch and General Short. Both men were supposed to devote attention to the protection of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which had been sent to Hawaii to act as a deterrent to rampant Japanese aggression in Asia as the situation in the Pacific worsened. But General Short was a commander whose skills pertained to the infantry and training troops. Short did not understand either air power or his mission to defend the Pacific Fleet. In fact, General Short somewhat naively assumed the Pacific Fleet was the main line of defense for Oahu, not vice versa. General Short also shared in suspicions related to the Japanese-American population on Oahu, who were suspected of being fifth columnists in waiting should war break out. The result was Short placed a great deal of focus on preventing sabotage against U.S. Army installations on Oahu, which at the time also included air units, since the Air Force at the time was the U.S. Army Air Force, a quasi-independent branch yoked to the Army. The result was Hawaiian Air Force commander Harold Martin had to obey orders from General Short issued after a war alert message was received on November 27th, 1941, to line up his planes wingtip to wingtip when not in use so sentries could be easily placed to guard against Japanese Americans sympathetic to Japan from infiltrating the airfields and destroying aircraft, hangars, etc. The fact that such destruction could come courtesy of the Imperial Japanese Navy never crossed General Short’s mind, even as General Martin’s men felt bad feelings in their guts about lining up the aircraft in such a manner. But they were not being paid to think, just obey.
Admiral Bloch had once commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet and was now on his last tour of duty before retirement presiding over the Fourteenth Naval District. One of the tasks assigned Bloch was making sure the Navy’s own defenses at Pearl Harbor were up to snuff. Unfortunately, Bloch was by now not the energetic officer he once was, always being in bed by 9 P.M. Hawaiian time each night. This meant the Fourteenth Naval District was in essence run on a “nine to five” basis rooted strictly in a peacetime mentality. Bloch also underestimated Japanese capabilities, but that was only the icing on the cake of his mistakes.
Admiral Kimmel was the most energetic of the troika of commanders on Oahu when the Japanese attack swept through the skies. Hard-working, brave, and outspoken, Kimmel would have done well had his opposite number Isorouku Yamamoto attacked Hawaii by going via the American possession of Wake Atoll, a distant outpost taken from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American war of 1898. Kimmel dreamed of being bait for a trap for the Japanese fleet when war came, and had made energetic plans for it to become such a tempting target, the Japanese would snap at the bait and Kimmel would unleash the Pacific Fleet against them.
Unfortunately for Kimmel, his preoccupation with offensive preparations once war broke out, coupled with a severe underestimation of Yamamoto, meant that Kimmel neglected to protect his northern flank, where the winds that bore aircraft into the Hawaiian Islands came from. It should have been clear to not only Kimmel, but also Bloch and Short, that if these winds could assist American planes into the islands, they could easily do the same for a Japanese carrier task force. In fact, no less than three pre-WWII fleet exercises held in the islands had seen U.S. Navy planes approach Oahu from that direction and take Pearl Harbor by surprise each time. But the results of these exercises were always shrugged off by the Army, and ultimately lost on the U.S. Navy as well.
The biggest mistake all three men made, however, was an assumption all three men shared about Japan: that her warlords would be so polite as to make an official declaration of war before hostilities commenced. Only then would they put their forces on a war footing. Not even the message Short received on November 27th warning him of the imminence of hostilities with Japan nor a similar, even more strongly worded than the Army’s message received by both Kimmel and Bloch could shake them from this mindset.
The result was that when Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the first attack wave over Oahu’s shores early on December 7th, 1941, not a shot was fired at them nor so much as one Army Air Force plane approached them.
I should point out in closing that the Navy’s message to Kimmel and Bloch included the phrase “war warning” and that the Army’s message to Short encouraged him to do nothing that would jeopardize his defense of Oahu. If there had been a conspiracy put out by big, bad, Franklin Roosevelt, no such wording would have been included in those messages, nor, indeed, would any alerts have been sent at all.
Kimmel, Bloch, and Short were good, decent men, but even such men can make mistakes if they are not careful.
The core of this article is based on information contained in the books At Dawn We Slept and Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, by Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. Additional information comes from Gregory J.W. Urwin’s article “The Trap That Never Snapped: Admiral Kimmel and Wake Island,” which appeared in the January, 2003, edition of World War II magazine.