Today, of course, is the 62nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Everyone knows how the Japanese sent six aircraft carriers on a secret mission to bomb our main naval base in the Pacific even as their diplomats pretended to continue working for a peaceful resolution in Washington, DC.

The image is that of the USS Arizona exploding after a horizontal bomber hit on her main forward magazine. Click on the image for a larger version. The site I pulled the image from notes

The motion picture from which this image is taken has been, and continues to be, shown backwards, with the fireball oriented to the left. The image is correctly oriented as shown here.

For more info and more pictures, check this page. I wasn’t able to find more detailed info about the “reversed” pictures of the explosion, and I don’t know if it was intentional for some reason, or an honest mistake. Also, for an interesting look at efforts to map the wreckage, including detailed drawings, go here.

What a lot of people don’t remember, though, is that WE fired the first shots of the Pacific War.

In addition to the massive air raid, the Japanese plan called for midget submarines to sneak into the harbor and torpedo US ships as the planes began their attack. The Japanese were not at all sure that the air raid would be able to acheive surprise, and they wanted to maximize their results.

The old four-stack destroyer USS Ward was on routine patrol south of the entrance to the harbor when look-outs on the auxiliary ship USS Antares noticed what appeared to be a submarine periscope trailing them and the barge they were towing to Pearl. The Antares contacted the Ward, and the destroyer moved in to investigate. It was the second time the ship had been contacted that night about a possible submarine, but their previous search had come up empty. I imagine they expected this one to end similarly. Here are excerpts from the after action report, filed on December 13th:

The facts are as follows:

  1. At 0637 the Officer-of-the-Deck said, “Captain come on the bridge”. A conning tower with periscope of submarine was visible. She was apparently headed for Pearl Harbor trailing the U.S.S. Antares. The Antares was standing toward the channel entrance towing a lighter.
  2. At 0640 the attack was started. The Ward bore down on the submarine while accelerating from 5 to 25 knots.
  3. At 0645 the Ward opened fire with No. 1 and 3 guns and began dropping depth charges. One shot was fired from each gun. The shot from No. 1 gun missed, passing directly over the conning tower. The shot from No. 3 gun fired at a range of 560 yards or less struck the submarine at the waterline which was the junction of the hull and conning tower. Damage was seen by several members of the crew. This was a square positive hit. There was no evidence of ricochet. The submarine was seen to heel over to starboard. The projectile was not seen to explode outside the hull of the submarine. There was no splash of any size that might results from an explosion or ricochet.
  4. Immediately after being hit the submarine appeared to slow and sink. She ran into our depth charge barrage and appeared to be directly over an exploding charge. The depth charges were set for 100 feet.
  5. The submarine sank in 1200 feet of water and could not be located with supersonic detector. There was a large amount of oil on the surface where the depth charges exploded.
  6. The attack was made at 0645 which was before Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japanese planes.
  7. A dispatch by voice transmission was sent to Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District at 0645 which stated:
    “We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges on a submarine operating in defensive sea areas.”

  8. The performance of duty by the officers and men during this attack was in accordance with the traditions of this service.

For decades, although the story of the encounter was usually included in accounts of the day’s events, many doubted its accuracy. japsubsound.jpgBut in August of 2002, researchers from the university’s Hawai’i Undersea Research Laboratory discovered the wreck of the sub 1200 feet down while conducting test dives of submersibles. (It’s not insignificant that Robert Ballard, the guy who’s found everything else that ever sank, failed to find the sub when he searched for it for two weeks in 2000.) For more info and tons of pics and videos, check out the HURL site on the discovery.

The United States and Japan weren’t at war in the pre-dawn hours of December 7, 1941. We fired first, sank a vessel of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and killed the two crewmen. All without proof of an imminent direct threat against US interests.

The biggest question raised by critics of the Navy’s actions have been “Why didn’t US forces at Pearl Harbor take action after this incident?” At the very least, if an alert had been raised, anti-aircraft stations may have been manned and the radar contacts phoned in may have been taken seriously. Aircraft may have been in the air, and ships may have been more prepared for attack.

I don’t think anyone anywhere has suggested that the Ward shoudn’t have fired at the midget sub until after the general attack began. Why do so many people suggest we should do exactly that today?

Of course, comparisons are never exact, and I’m not suggesting that an immediate invasion of Japan would have been warranted if we had discovered the Japanese plans in July of 1941. First of all, we were not militarily capable of such a thing in 1941. We weren’t even able to defend the Pacific bases that we had. Second of all, the European War was first in everyone’s mind at the time, and rightly so. Still, we would have been perfectly in the right to take whatever action we felt was appropriate.

Even if many Americans thought we should stay out of international affairs. Even if many Americans thought we were just asking for trouble by maintaining friendly relations with small nations who stood more or less alone against a savage enemy determined to wipe them out.

The Japanese attacks on 12/7/41 were a far more serious blow against the United States than the attacks of 9/11/01 were. Many forget that Pearl Harbor was merely a part of an orchestrated assault by the Japanese military against Western bases in the Pacific. The sinking of the battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor seriously weakened our nation’s defenses. If a couple of carriers had also been in port and sunk, we would have had serious trouble defending our West Coast if the Japanese decided to attack it in earnest. Only the fact that our precious carriers were all at sea that morning, and their valiant victories against their Japanese counterparts in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in 1942 stopped Japan in its tracks and gave us a chance to win a war we could barely afford to fight simultaneously with the European conflict.

And, 62 years later, does anyone whine about the US still not being “over” Pearl Harbor? We should never get “over” Pearl Harbor. It can happen again.