“At Dawn We Slept” was the title of one of the most influential books about the disastrous Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy” as President Franklin Roosevelt called it in his declaration of war speech. However, I respectfully disagree with the premise of the title, as it gives the impression that the U.S. Navy was laying around the beach drinking Mai Tai’s and was totally unprepared for the outbreak of war.
The reality is somewhat different. To the extent that anyone in the Navy in Hawaii was asleep the morning of Dec. 7, it was a sleep of exhaustion from months of intensive exercises and preparations for a war that everyone in a position of senior leadership knew was imminent, particularly the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Husband Kimmel.
The story of Pearl Harbor as it is now usually told in popular culture, that the U.S. was not expecting to be attacked, has led to a sense of complacency today; the sense that we could never be so stupid or unaware as we were back then.
The reality is that the story of Pearl Harbor actually represents the razor thin line between defeat and victory against a highly capable adversary. It is a story of incredibly intense effort to get ready by some very smart people, with decisions that were made with great deliberation and purpose, some of which proved incorrect, but were not due to complacency. It is a story of an incredible effort to be ready, that was heartbreakingly close to success, but that still failed. And it should also be noted that virtually every carrier strike in WWII, U.S., Japanese and British, achieved tactical surprise, as did the multiple exercise carrier strikes conducted on Pearl Harbor in the inter-war years.
When it comes to readiness on Dec. 7, 1941, the ship whose duty it was to be on alert that morning, was on alert, and performed her duty in an extraordinarily effective and efficient manner. Destroyer USS Ward (DD 139) sank a Japanese midget submarine (launched from mother submarine I-20) attempting to gain access to the harbor a little over an hour before the air raid commenced (but an hour after the Japanese strike had already launched.)
In doing so, the Ward fired the first shot of the battle, the first U.S. shot of WWII in the Pacific, and with her second shot achieved the first kill.
Well before the attack, in response to extensive intelligence pointing toward an outbreak of hostility in the Far East and a build-up of Japanese submarines in the Marshall Islands, Admiral Kimmel had on his own initiative, and without consulting Washington, issued orders that any submarine operating in the restricted area in the approaches to the harbor, and not under positive surface escort, was to be sunk without need to refer to higher authority. Kimmel also directed that any submarine prosecution tactical communications be conducted in the clear, to ensure the widest situational awareness amongst the forces at Pearl Harbor.
The duty patrol ship, Ward, was manned almost entirely by enlisted reservists from the Minnesota Naval Reserve, who had been activated on Jan. 21, 1941 and deployed two days later, to bring Ward, inactive since WWI, into operational status. The ship’s CO, Lt. William Outerbridge (USNA ’27), had been in command less than two days, but nevertheless acted immediately and decisively to attack the submarine as soon as it was spotted by the supply ship USS Antares (AG 10) attempting to trail her into the harbor at 0645, coordinating with a PBY Catalina flying boat as he did.
Closing the sub at 20 knots, Ward opened fire with 4″ gun #1 (bow) at 100yds and just missed over the sub’s conning tower. Gun #3 (amidships, starboard) fired at 50yds and scored a direct hit at the base of the conning tower, which proved fatal, and was a feat of gunnery greeted with some degree of skepticism until the sub was found in 2002. As Ward passed between the submarine and the Antares, she rolled four depth charges over the stern, which detonated 100′ under the sub, which was observed to roll over and sink. The PBY dropped depth charges on the datum as well.
At 6:53 a.m., Outerbridge passed the first of several clear voice and coded messages, with his second message in the clear stating what he hoped was unambiguous, “we have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in the defensive sea area.” While previous false reports had been numerous, firing on a target was something new. The watch officer ashore reacted with alacrity, and the duty destroyer USS Monaghan was quickly notified to get underway and assist. However, a linear, sequential notification process was slowed by “busy signals” and multiple requests to have the Ward re-confirm the report before passing it up the chain. Nevertheless Kimmel was notified at 7:35 a.m., cancelled his regular golf game with General Short (unlike in the movie Pearl Harbor), and was on his way into the headquarters in reaction to the report when the air attack commenced at 7:55 a.m.