By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
As the Japanese Imperial Navy Strike Group steamed toward Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was preparing to fend off a suspected amphibious attack by their former ally – just about everywhere but Pearl Harbor.
To prepare for a possible Japanese attack on U.S. interests, such as the Philippines, the last remaining aircraft carrier, USS Lexington (CV 2), along with Task Force 12, steamed out of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 5, 1941, carrying Marine aircraft toward the atoll of Midway approximately 1,100 miles away.
The decisions to reinforce Midway and Wake Island were based on a series of dispatches which led to the decisions to send Lexington west on Dec. 5.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark wrote a letter Nov. 25, 1941 to Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. Husband Kimmel that stated: “Neither [President Franklin Roosevelt nor Secretary of State Cordell Hull] would be surprised over a Japanese surprise attack.”
Stark wrote while many thought the attack would be on the Philippines, he thought an attack on Indo-China, Thailand or Burma would be more likely.
On Nov. 26, Kimmel received an order from the Navy Department concerning reinforcement of Wake and Midway: “In order to keep the planes of the Second Marine Aircraft Wing available for expeditionary use, OPNAV has requested and Army has agreed to station twenty five Army pursuit planes at Midway and a similar number at Wake provided you consider this feasible and desirable. It will be necessary for you to transport these planes and ground crews from Oahu to these stations on an aircraft carrier.”
Then on Nov. 27, Kimmel received a dispatch saying Japanese force levels and equipment “indicate an amphibious expedition against either the Philippines, the Thai or Kra Peninsula, or possibly Borneo.”
Based on that information, Kimmel started building up forces at Midway and Wake Island. On Nov. 28, USS Enterprise (CV 6) and Task Force 8 began a secret mission ferrying more Marine and Army aircraft to Wake Island. The aircraft carrier left on its regularly scheduled departure date on the pretense of a few days of maneuvers so not to arouse suspicion in case war could have been averted.
Having finished their mission Dec. 4, they prepared to return to Pearl Harbor for a previously scheduled 10 days of maintenance. But weather delayed Enterprise’s return. As dawn rose on Dec. 7, 1941, the task force was approximately 215 miles west of the island of Oahu.
The third aircraft carrier assigned to the Pacific Fleet, USS Saratoga (CV 3), had just finished its regularly scheduled overhaul at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash. On Dec. 7, the aircraft carrier arrived during the late hours of the forenoon watch at Naval Air Station San Diego. She was set to embark her air group, as well as Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 221 and a cargo of miscellaneous airplanes to ferry to Pearl Harbor.
Ironically, both Lexington and Saratoga had conducted simulated attacks on Pearl Harbor during exercises.
As bad as the damage was in human, aircraft and ship casualties, had the three carriers been in port with their personnel and aircraft, the attack could have been catastrophic.
“If the carriers had been present, they would have had no positive influence (on the outcome of Pearl Harbor),” explained Curtis Utz, historian for the Naval History and Heritage Command. “They most likely would have been sunk or severely damaged, most likely from fires, at their assigned berths. In addition, many of the planes of their air groups would have been destroyed or damaged at Ford Island.”
Along with that one stroke of American good luck, was a string of Japanese bad luck that hampered their execution of the strike.
With no carriers in port, the torpedo bombers dedicated much of their bombing efforts on the battleships, many of them already obsolete compared to faster aircraft carriers and newer ships.
It was a sentiment echoed by Adm. William “Bull’ Halsey in Elmer Potter’s 1985 book “Bull Halsey.” Halsey thought the battleships ineffective. When offered a battleship escort for Enterprise to reinforce Wake Island, Halsey, the task force commander, replied, “Hell, no! If I have to run I don’t want anything to interfere with my running!”
Another strategic Japanese mistake was that during the heat of battle, their aviators lost awareness of their mission progress, continuing to strike mortally wounded ships and runways instead of branching out to hit new targets. None struck at the critical components of infrastructure on the base that would have been a critical blow to the Americans.
Another major mistake came when Japanese aviators argued for a third wave of attack at the crippled and burning naval base, but senior officers nixed the notion because they didn’t know where the aircraft carriers were located.
Adm. Chester Nimitz, upon taking command of the Pacific Fleet, remarked the Japanese made a serious error when they failed to include the destruction of oil farms, the fuel depot, dry-docks, repair shops and the submarine base at Pearl Harbor as part of their battle plan.
Less than 2 percent of the ships in Pearl Harbor or around Oahu were permanently damaged by the attack and 84 percent saw little to no damage. Of the eight battleships damaged and/or sunk, all but three returned to fight the Japanese.
At the end, while the attack hurt American pride and the casualties shocked the country into full involvement in World War II, it did little to stop the U.S. Navy. Despite serious damage from torpedoes, bombs and kamikaze aircraft, USS Enterprise and USS Saratoga would survive their battles in the Pacific Campaign to the end of the war. USS Lexington, saved from the Dec. 7, 1941 bombs from the Japanese, would succumb to an onslaught of torpedoes during the Battle of Coral Sea on May 8, 1942.