Pearl Harbor Japanese “The Re-attack Controversy”

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Many commentators have asserted that the Japanese missed a great opportunity by not launching follow-up attacks targeting the Navy Yard machine shops and repair facilities, the Submarine Base, and the fuel tank farm. Such criticism is part of the official US Navy account of the battle, where the Japanese are castigated as they “neglected to damage the shoreside facilities at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, which played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II.” This view is echoed by most historical commentators, for example, Goldstein and Dillon (coauthors of At Dawn We Slept) and Wenger have asserted that

One stroke of luck for the Americans on 7 December was the fact that the Pearl Harbor attack plan contained no provision for destroying the Navy Yard. Had the Japanese done so, they would have put the US Pacific Fleet out of action far more effectively than by wrecking individual ships. The fleet would have had no choice but to return to the Pacific Coast. This withdrawal could have significantly altered the course of the war.

This assessment appears to have begun with none other than Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, who once remarked that destruction of the fuel storage tanks “would have prolonged the war for another two years.” The venerable Morison picked up the theme in the semi-official History of United States Naval Operations in World War II and made the idea well-known. He asserted:

There is some question, however, whether the aviators were directed to the right targets, even from the Japanese point of view. They knocked out the Battle Force and decimated the striking air power present; but they neglected permanent installations at Pearl Harbor, including the repair shops which were able to do an amazingly quick job on the less severely damaged ships. And they did not even attempt to hit the power plant or the large fuel oil “tank farm,” filled to capacity, whose loss (in the opinion of Admiral Hart) would have set back our advance across the Pacific much longer than did the damage to the fleet.

Morison later expressed his opinion on the issue:

Tactically speaking, the Japanese committed the blunder in the Pearl Harbor attack of concentrating their attacks only on warships instead of directing them on land installations and fuel tanks. Not only was it strategically a folly, but politically, too, it was an unredeemable blunder.

Prange, the great historian of the Pearl Harbor attack, added:

By failing to exploit the shock, bewilderment, and confusion on Oahu, by failing to take full advantage of its savage attack against Kimmel’s ships, by failing to pulverize the Pearl Harbor base, by failing to destroy Oahu’s vast fuel stores, and by failing to seek out and sink America’s carriers, Japan committed its first and probably its greatest strategical error of the entire Pacific conflict.

Goldstein, Dillon and Wenger frame the point in these terms:

One stroke of luck for the Americans on 7 December was the fact that the Pearl Harbor attack plan contained no provision for destroying the Navy Yard. Had the Japanese done so, they would have put the US Pacific Fleet out of action far more effectively than by wrecking individual ships. The fleet would have had no choice but to return to the Pacific Coast. This withdrawal could have significantly altered the course of the war.

Van der Vat claimed that the fuel tanks and “vital shoreside facilities” were to be the “prime target of wave number three” and that their destruction “would have rendered the base useless and forced the US Navy back to the West Coast, over two thousand miles to the east,” a claim repeated by Clarke and others. Captain Joseph Taussig, Jr. claimed that “One lucky hit would have sorely curtailed the fuel supplies in the Pacific and created a logistics nightmare….” Admiral Bloch, the Naval District Commander with local defense responsibility, testifying before a post-attack inquiry, said that if Japan had struck the shore installations “we would have been damaged infinitely more than we were.” Peattie makes the claim that “… there is little doubt that these targets could have been destroyed by Nagumo’s force.” Another claimed that destroying the shipyard would have delayed serious operations in the Pacific by at least a year.

These assessments have been absorbed into the popular consciousness: a television program on “The Myths of Pearl Harbor” asserted that “had the Japanese launched a third wave attack against the fuel tanks and naval shipyard, the United States would have been forced to pull their crippled fleet back to San Francisco… leaving Pearl Harbor defenseless.”

The tale of the argument on the carrier bridge where stodgy Nagumo turned his back on his aviator’s demands for a third strike has been related in many places, based on Fuchida’s version of the event:

On his return at midday, Fuchida had told Nagumo that there were still many significant targets worthy of attack. There was a complete infrastructure of dockyard installations, fuel storage tanks, power station and ship repair and maintenance facilities which supported the US Pacific Fleet and without which its rebuilding would have been impossible. There were also plenty of vessels not touched in the first assaults.

According to Toland, the encounter happened this way:

Fuchida returned about an hour later and was greeted by an exultant Genda; then he went to the bridge and reported to Nagumo and Kusaka that at least two battleships had been sunk and four seriously damaged. He begged the admirals to launch another attack at once and this time concentrate on the oil tanks…. Kaga’s captain, at the urging of Commander Sata, also recommended a strike against installations and fuel tanks…. “We should retire as planned,” Kusaka advised Nagumo, who nodded. A staff officer suggested that they try and locate and sink the American carriers. Opinion on the bridge was divided. “There will be no more attacks of any kind,” said Kusaka. We will withdraw.”

Toland added, in a footnote,

Some accounts state that Fuchida and Genda repeatedly pleaded with Nagumo to return. In an interview in 1966, Admiral Kusaka recalled that they merely suggested a second attack and that his words “We will withdraw” ended the discussion; thereafter no one expressed a forceful opinion.

Clearly, Kusaka, the First Air Fleet Chief of Staff, had a different perception of what happened on the Akagi’s bridge that critical afternoon.

Fuchida published an article in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, which was reprinted in 1969 in an anthology, The Japanese Navy in World War II. This article was written as a first-person account.

My plane was just about the last one to get back to Akagi where refueled and rearmed planes were being lined up on the busy flight deck in preparation for yet another attack. I was called to the bridge as soon as the plane stopped, and could tell on arriving there that Admiral Nagumo’s staff had been engaged in heated discussions about the advisability of launching the next attack. They were waiting for my account of the battle. [After reporting the extent of the damage] I expressed my views saying, “All things considered we have achieved a great amount of destruction, but it would be unwise to assume that we have destroyed everything. There are still many targets remaining which should be hit. Therefore I recommend that another attack be launched.”… I had done all I could to urge another attack, but the decision rested entirely with Admiral Nagumo, and he chose to retire without launching the next attack.

In this account Fuchida mentions “heated discussions,” but only claims that he recommended an additional attack against the “many targets remaining,” implying targets from the original target set, ships and aircraft. No mention is made of attacking the shipyard or oil storage tanks. An approximation of this scene was included in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! Fuchida served as one of the principle Japanese advisors to the producers of that film.

There are two other accounts of Fuchida’s post-attack report, both by Fuchida as related to Prange, one in At Dawn We Slept published in 1981, and another in God’s Samurai, Prange’s biography of Fuchida, published in 1990. Both contain specific, line-by-line conversations, including quotations attributed to Nagumo, Kusaka, Genda, and other staff members.

On departing Pearl Harbor Fuchida claimed that he “mentally earmarked for destruction” the fuel tanks and the “vast repair and maintenance facilities” for the attention of a follow-on strike. Upon his return to Akagi, after collecting confirming information from other pilots, he went to the bridge to report to Nagumo. He claimed that “a fierce argument” ensued on the subject of a follow-on strike. In Dawn the exchange is related as follows (based on Fuchida’s testimony which Prange dramatizes in the third person):

Then Kusaka took up the questioning. “What do you think the next targets should be?” Fuchida drew a quick breath. The wording seemed to indicate an aggressive intent. He came back swiftly, “The next targets should be the dockyards, the fuel tanks, and an occasional ship.” He saw no need to attack the battleships again.

In God’s Samurai, Fuchida (again through Prange) gives the exchange a different flavor:

If we attack again, what should the targets be?” asked Kusaka.

Fuchida had no difficulty in answering, having thought of little else all the way back to the Akagi. “ The damaged battleships and the other vessels in the harbor, the dock yards, and the fuel tanks,” he informed them…. Nagumo made no immediate decision, dismissing Fuchida with a word of praise. As soon as he departed, Genda took up the battle…. However, Nagumo refused to attack Pearl Harbor again or to hunt for the elusive [American] flattops…. Akagi hoisted a signal flag indicating retirement to the northwest. Upset, Fuchida scrambled to the bridge.

What’s happened?” he asked Genda.

His classmate shrugged. “It can’t be helped.”

That wasn’t good enough for Fuchida. He turned to Nagumo, saluted, and asked bluntly, “Why aren’t we attacking again?”

Kusaka forestalled whatever reply Nagumo might have made. “The objective of the Pearl Harbor operation is achieved,” he said. “Now we must prepare for future operations.”

Silently, Fuchida saluted and stalked off the bridge. “I was a bitter and angry man,” he recalled, “for I was convinced that Nagumo should have attacked again.”

There are inconsistencies in these accounts that could be picked over at length. That is unnecessary, since the conversation, in whatever version, the “heated discussion,” Genda’s “begging,” stalking off the bridge after a second confrontation, re-striking the battleships or not re-striking the battleships—all, without a doubt, did not occur as related.

Kusaka stated in an interview that he had dismissed the subject of a follow-on attack from the outset. There was a one-question exchange on the subject initiated by a staff officer, not Fuchida or Genda; he did not consider the exchange to be sufficiently important to mention it in his account of the attack.

Nagumo and Kusaka had possibly discussed the question before Fuchida landed. In Dull’s account, intercepted radio traffic inferred to the Japanese that an estimated fifty land-based bombers were still operational, and they were still concerned over the unlocated American carriers. Nagumo and Kusaka decided that Kido Butai should quickly clear the area. Dull’s account did not mention a confrontation with Fuchida.

Genda categorically denied that any confrontation took place or that a proposal for an additional strike arose. He did not “take up the battle” for an additional strike, having realized long before that Nagumo had his mind set against such an attack. Genda believed bringing it up would be of no use. He stated in his memoirs that he was aware of the scene in Tora! Tora! Tora!, but explicitly denied that any such exchange took place or that a follow-on strike was proposed by Fuchida at all.

Fuchida apparently noted American post-war statements regarding the supposed importance of a third strike against fuel and shipyard facilities and created fictional conversations that raised his perspicacity to heroic stature.

The executive secretary of the US Naval Institute asked Genda why the Japanese did not bomb the fuel tanks. “He replied ingenuously that nobody had thought of this target.” When interviewed in 1945 immediately after the war, before all the American comments about striking the shipyard or the oil tanks were available in Japan, Fuchida was asked why there had been no third wave strike against Pearl Harbor. Fuchida made no mention of proposals to further attack the shipyard or the fuel tanks.

Infrastructure targets had been briefly considered by the Japanese planners. Genda rejected them in his initial estimates because there wasn’t enough ordnance to spare (recall his dictum that hitting a few critical targets decisively was better than hitting many targets with only minor damage). There wasn’t sufficient ordnance to thoroughly attack fleet and OCA targets as it was, and a few odd bombs directed against the shipyard or the oil tank farms during the first or second waves would have been a wasteful half-measure—more like a hundreth-measure.

Thousands of miles away, members of the Combined Fleet staff, including the Chief of Staff Ugaki and Yamamoto, considered follow-on strikes. These officers appear to have been looking towards a more complete annihilation of the Pacific Fleet, and were not considering infrastructure targets.

Genda considered remaining in the Pearl Harbor area for days and dispatching repeated attacks but, as Willmott has noted:

[Genda] was not necessarily thinking in terms of attacks on port facilities, shore installations and the like. He was thinking primarily in terms of inflicting crippling losses upon the US Pacific Fleet. Indeed, on the morning of the attack Genda limited himself to the proposal that returning Kates should be armed with torpedoes to meet any American forces which tried to mount a counter-attack, but that if none materialized, the Kates should be armed for the normal bombing role. Such deliberation amounted to no more than normal staff procedure, and there seems to be little evidence to suggest that Genda believed a follow-up attack would be necessary and on his own admission he made no representation to his superiors which suggested he was convinced of the need for such an operation.

Some, particularly the more junior staff officers assigned to the Combined Fleet, were inflamed with fighting spirit, stoked by relief that great things had been accomplished at little cost, and were ready for a repeat performance; some felt that Kido Butai was still in dangerous waters, and the additional gains were not worth the additional risk.

One man staunchly against such an attack was Nagumo. He had doubts about the raid from the outset, and had shouldered for weeks the worry that his fragile carriers could be hit while thousands of miles from the nearest friendly port. When the attack met its objectives, he was more than happy to accept an unexpectedly one-sided victory and depart.

The idea that others would suddenly want to champion a return attack to hit shipyard and fuel facilities does not fit with the logistics-blind worldview of Japanese naval officers.

Realizing that the Japanese would likely not have gone after the shipyard and docks and fuel farms does not finalize the debate. Would a third wave attack against those targets been as destructive and as debilitating as so many maintain?

Composition of a Third-Wave Strike

Three hundred fifty aircraft were sent in the two waves of the attack. Of them, 29 (8%) were shot down and another 111 damaged,52 of which 10 to 15 (perhaps as many as 20) were damaged so severely they were jettisoned. Others were written off as unsalvageable. Of the other damaged aircraft, it is not known how many could not be flown until they were repaired by the ships’ maintenance force. Willmott reports that once all the aircraft had returned to the carriers the Japanese had 265 aircraft available for operations.

The Japanese would not have launched another two-wave attack with all available bombers. They were concerned that the US carriers, so far unlocated, would appear and attack. A duplicate two-wave attack would not leave aircraft to search for or strike American carriers. They undoubtedly would have held ready a strike armed with counter-shipping munitions.

If another strike was to be launched, the first order of business would be to launch reconnaissance to ensure the American carriers would not interfere. They could be almost anywhere, to the northeast between Hawaii and San Francisco, east (San Diego), northwest (Midway), west (Johnston Island), or south (Palmyra and the southern training operational areas). Because the Japanese had made a high-speed night transit, they could not even be sure that carriers were not to the north. A 360-degree search out to 250nm would be prudent. If the Japanese used 10-degree search intervals with a single aircraft on each track, 35 aircraft would be required.

The aircraft for this search could come from several sources. First, there were two cruisers accompanying the force, Tone and Chikuma, specially designed to handle six reconnaissance floatplanes apiece. If they contributed ten aircraft, the balance of 25 would come out of the carriers’ complements. These would be B5N Kate carrier attack bombers on the carriers, which had the dual mission of reconnaissance as well as attack. There were the aircraft carried by the two fast battleships that accompanied the carriers, but these aircraft were usually employed in the inner anti-submarine patrol.

The Japanese carriers started with 144 B5N Kate carrier attack planes and 135 D3A Val dive-bombers. 16 Kates were lost or written off after the attack along with 31 Vals, leaving 128 Kates and 104 Vals. The crated spare aircraft would require at least 24 hours to assemble.

If one-third of the remaining aircraft were retained as an anti-shipping reserve, 70 B5N Kate carrier attack bombers (with two or three 250kg bombs each) and 70 D3A Val dive bombers (with one 250kg bomb each) could be employed in a third wave attack. They could deliver 210 to 280 250kg bombs.

This is a high estimate. It is more likely that the Japanese would have retained at least half their aircraft as insurance against enemy carriers, and, as they viewed the B5N Kate as their real ship-killer, they would have retained a greater proportion of them for the anti-shipping strike. 100 of the modified “shallow water” torpedoes were delivered for this operation, and 40 expended in the attack. That might have limited the number of B5N Kates in the anti-shipping strike to 60. However, there may also have been unmodified torpedoes aboard.

Two hundred eighty 250kg bombs can be used as an upper estimate of the ordnance a third wave attack might deliver.

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