09 December 2006

Mea Culpa

I caught some flak about not writing a Pearl Harbor Day post, especially since I'm a Navy vet. What can I say, it was a bad day for the battleship guys, but I was an airdale. At any rate, the day was pretty well covered in posts around the blogosphere.

I did two things on Pearl Harbor Day, the first was to lead a tour of my son's school around the semiconductor fabrication plant that I work at, which was a lot of fun. The second thing was to cozy up to the History Channel and watch the Pearl Harbor documentaries over and over.

It's easy to say that the Japs executed a cowardly dastardly sneak attack and if we had only known things would have been different, but watching the shows leads me to the conclusion that if we had to be attacked, that was the best way for us to get it.

Much has been said about the failure to heed the radar picket's warnings, or the failure to see that the USS Ward's attacks on the midget sub was the forerunner to the main event, but the bottom line is that it's easy to second guess and armchair quarterback after the fact.

Communications weren't as good then as they are now, nor were targeting computers (they weren't electric and digital, but they were computers), and deck guns were aimed and fired manually instead of electrically and radar guided, so there was some skepticism on the part of the brass about the Ward's claims (they did find that sub, 60 years later, with a hole in it just where the USS Ward guncrews said it would be). There was also a flight of B-17s that arrived just in time to be destroyed during the Japanese attack, just as the radar officer said there would be. The timing, in other words, was perfect. In fact, if the Japanese ambassador had been able to deliver his message on time, the attack would be remembered as the opening battle and not as a sneak attack at all.

But as I was saying, it was the best possible scenario for us aside from not being hit at all. Had the battleships received adequate warning to put to sea it is likely that they would have been attacked by aircraft and subs as they left the channel, and then they would have been truly lost in deep water instead of being recoverable from the shallow harbor floor. Of the battleships that were sunk that day, only the USS Arizona was never raised from her shallow grave. She lies there still, as the USS Missouri keeps watch.

Likewise, had the Army Air Corps been given ample warning to scramble aircraft it would have only ensured their destruction while airborne (with a corresponding loss of aircrew). The new Zero fighter was a much more able and agile craft than anything the Army owned at the time, and since the Army brass had not paid attention to the Flying Tiger's reports they did not learn the tactics that would have enabled the airmen to survive aloft. Therefore, even though the cost in aircraft was high, the cost in aircrew would have been a much worse blow.

Best of all is the fact that the Navy's three PacFleet carriers were out on that fateful Sunday, and so escaped the harm that befell their deck-gunned siblings. These three carriers were the nucleus of a force that went on to deal death and destruction to the Japanese fleet at Coral Sea and Midway, thereby turning the tide of the war in the American's favor. Also, since the carriers weren't accounted for, a third Japanese attack was cancelled. The intended targets for this third attack included drydock facilities that were instrumental in recovering the sunken battleships as well as ammo and fuel supply depots. With these facilities intact, the Navy was able to quickly recover from the devastating attack and go on the offensive.

We learned many lessons from Pearl Harbor, but unfortunately we haven't yet learned the key one. The secret to thwarting attacks is not to think of the possible and take preventative measures, the secret to thwarting attacks is to think of the impossible, determine how to make the impossible possible, and take preventative measures against them.

No one was ready for an attack on Pearl because no one believed the Japanese capable of such a thing. No one believed that torpedos could run in the shallow harbor without hitting bottom when they were released. The Japanese didn't settle on impossible as an answer; they figured out how to make the torpedos work and they learned the lessons of carrier warfare from the British and the use of aircraft against surface ships from Billy Mitchell. It was an ironic lesson, one that we have yet to learn; the secret to surprise is making the impossible possible.

Likewise, no one was ready for the September 11th attacks. Once more, no one believed such a thing to be possible. It had never been done before, so it wasn't a possibility that anyone considered, therefore it wasn't a thing that we were ready to prevent. Tom Clancy thought of it, but of course that was just fiction. Nineteen young Arab men made the impossible possible.

Those who fail to learn from their history are destined to repeat it.


Dick said...

I smell very good reading coming from this place.
Glad you're writing Larry.

Larry said...

Thanks for dropping by Dick, I'll do my best to not disappoint.