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Pearl Harbor: 70 years of secrets

December 7, 2011
By Lee Gaillard

Up here in the Adirondacks, our small church's congregation includes a number of veterans of World War II. To mention just a few: One flew as radio operator on B-17 missions over Germany, another directed his destroyer's anti-aircraft defenses against kamikaze attacks off Okinawa, and a third flew Marine F4U Corsairs against the Japanese over the Pacific.

For them all, Dec. 7. 1941, was a catalyst that changed their lives.

On that infamous Sunday morning 70 years ago today, against our Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's carrier task force launched its attack that, on the ground and in the air, destroyed almost 200 American aircraft; sank five battleships; severely damaged three cruisers, three destroyers and three auxiliaries; and killed 2,476 U.S. servicemen and civilians. It was a devastating tactical surprise exacerbated by American incompetence and miscommunication.

And to this day, 70 years later, there's been a government cover-up about Pearl Harbor.

Advance intelligence vacuum? Hardly. Numerous reports and warning signs all pointed toward the coming debacle, and the sheer mass of transcribed radio intercepts bordered on overwhelming.

For seven decades, questions have festered. In 1925, English novelist Hector Bywater wrote "The Great Pacific War," featuring a surprise Japanese assault on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Eagerly translated into Japanese, this novel was included in the curriculum of the Japanese Naval War College - information easily available but overlooked by the U.S. military.

A 1932 Army-Navy war game exposed Pearl's vulnerability, as had an earlier Sunday morning exercise in 1927. Why were our Navy and War Department blind to these results? How did they then also overlook 1940's victorious British carrier raid against the Italian fleet in Taranto harbor? Commander Minoru Genda didn't; he used it in planning Admiral Nagumo's Pearl Harbor attack.

Then there's Ambassador Joseph Grew's January 1941 telegram from Japan to Secretary of State Hull, alerting him to a Peruvian diplomat's incontrovertible information that "JAPANESE MILITARY FORCES PLANNED IN THE EVENT OF TROUBLE WITH THE UNITED STATES, TO ATTEMPT A SURPRISE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR." And dire warnings in the March 1941 report written by Maj. Gen. F.L. Martin and Rear Adm. Patrick Bellinger about the appalling state of our air preparedness.

Given late 1941 U.S.-Japanese relations so tense that our carriers were reinforcing Midway Island with fighters, why were radar reports of huge numbers of incoming aircraft not taken seriously on Dec. 7? When the destroyer Ward intercepted a Japanese minisub trying to enter the harbor at 4 a.m., why no immediate war emergency alert?

Scholars still argue about U.S. decryption of Japanese naval codes. Stephen Budiansky, author of "Battle of Wits," writes that newly discovered "documentary evidence ... decisively refutes the claim that JN-25 or any other high-level Japanese codes were being read in the months leading up to the Japanese attack"; David Kahn, author of "The Codebreakers," supports Navy cryptanalyst assertions "that no five-numeral messages were read before Pearl Harbor."

But Robert B. Stinnett's meticulously researched "Day of Deceit" pointedly states that "seven Japanese naval broadcasts intercepted between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6 confirmed that Japan intended to start the war and that it would begin at Pearl Harbor." Furthermore, two specialists identified for him 129 radio intercepts proving the Japanese First Air Fleet did not maintain radio silence on the way to its launch point.

When did these messages actually get translated from the Japanese after initial decoding? Confusion reigns. When, for verification, Stinnett requested original documents from U.S. government files, the Navy refused to declassify some, then-Attorney General Janet Reno denied access to others (still labeled "National Defense Secrets" in 1999!), and many released under the Freedom of Information Act had portions removed or entire passages blacked out.

What information could remain so threatening that, after 70 years, our government refuses to release files proving what we knew? American veterans who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II are now in their 80s and 90s; few are left. They deserve the truth. So do we all.


Lee Gaillard lives in Saranac Lake and writes on defense issues, military technology and the airline industry. His article on the Battle of Midway appeared in U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings in 2004.



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