At first glance, it’s tempting to regard the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a complete success. Think of the scene on 7 December 1941: a seemingly ordinary day in Hawaii, with American naval officers asleep, having breakfast and obliviously going about their everyday chores – all taken completely by surprise as Japanese planes swooped in to lay waste to the base. No fewer than 2,403 Americans were killed in the shocking attack, several US battleships were sunk, and President Franklin Roosevelt was soon calling it a “date which will live in infamy”.
But look a little closer, and Pearl Harbor seems to have been a hollow victory for the Japanese. Isoroku Yamamoto, the naval bigwig who ordered the attack, wanted to “decide the fate of the war on the very first day”. By that measure, he certainly failed, as the US was able to lick its wounds and come back fighting with a sense of outraged purpose. But could things have turned out very differently – could Pearl Harbor have been a REAL victory – if a third wave of Japanese attacks had been carried out that fateful day?
It’s important to understand the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor consisted of two distinct waves of attacks, overseen by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo – a respected if rather conservative sea dog who actually disagreed with the Pearl Harbor plan but was doggedly following orders. The first wave of almost 200 Japanese planes was led by the gung-ho Mitsuo Fuchida, raining down devastation on targets like the USS Arizona, which was obliterated with the loss of 1,177 lives.
Shortly afterwards came a second wave of Japanese planes, to continue battering the Americans. There were a few snags for the Japanese, though. Three vast US aircraft carriers, which were correctly regarded as crucial in any Pacific war, were not at Pearl Harbor that morning. This was immensely frustrating for the attackers. On top of that, they had failed to take out strategically significant sites, like oil storage tanks, repair bays, armaments and dry dock facilities. Experts on military strategy have since called the emphasis on battleships rather than land installations a massive blunder by the Japanese.
Gordon Prange, one of the most renowned Pearl Harbor historians, wrote damningly: “By failing to exploit the shock, bewilderment, and confusion on Oahu, by failing to take full advantage of its savage attack against Kimmel’s ships, by failing to pulverize the Pearl Harbor base, by failing to destroy Oahu’s vast fuel stores, and by failing to seek out and sink America’s carriers, Japan committed its first and probably its greatest strategical error of the entire Pacific conflict.”
Ever since then, Chuichi Nagumo – the reluctant leader of the Pearl Harbor attacks – has been criticised for not taking the initiative and launching a third wave of planes to do more significant damage to the base. Instead, he ordered a quick getaway, not wanting to add to the 29 Japanese aircraft which had been lost.
According to Pearl Harbor lore, several key officers including Mitsuo Fuchida, the intrepid aviator who’d led the first wave, implored Nagumo to order the third wave. If only he’d listened, the story goes. Japan might have dealt a truly lasting blow that may have even led to victory in the Pacific war.
But is this fair on Nagumo? It’s understandable that he didn’t want to overplay his hand. The two waves had caused huge damage, and the basic strategic objectives had been fulfilled. Plus, most Japanese casualties had been sustained during the second wave, as the Americans had started fighting back in earnest, so a third wave may have led to even bigger aircraft losses. Without the benefit of hindsight, Nagumo was arguably acting with the best interests of his men in mind.
And then there’s the question of whether a third wave was even possible. According to World War Two historians such as Jonathan Parnall and Anthony Tully, the logistics were simply not in place for extending the assault on Pearl Harbor. It seems likely that all the excited talk among Japanese officers of a third wave was spur-of-the-moment thinking in the heart of victory, rather than a viable strategy.
Indeed, much of what we think happened between Nagumo and his men comes from accounts written much later by first wave leader Mitsuo Fuchida, who looks to have seriously exaggerated his own enthusiasm for a third wave, in order to make himself look like a brilliant, forward-thinking officer who knew the shipyard facilities needed to be hit. Oddly, in prior accounts by Fuchida, before the importance of the shipyard targets became widely known, he said nothing about any argument over a third wave. In the eyes of some historians, Fuchida essentially made the whole story up to polish his own heroic credentials.
Whatever the truth, military historians will always wonder how Pearl Harbor might have been different, and what the consequences might have been for human history.