Pearl Harbor War Warning

On Thursday, November 27th, 1941, a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chief of Naval Operations sent this message to CINCPACFleet at Pearl Harbor:

“Consider this dispatch a war warning. The negotiations with Japan in an effort to stabilize conditions in the Pacific have ended. Japan Is Expected to Make an Aggressive Move Within the next Few Days. An Amphibious Expedition Against Either the Philippines, or Kra Peninsula or Possibly Borneo Is Indicated by the Number and Equipment of Japanese Troops and the Organization of Their Naval Forces. You Will Execute a Defensive Deployment in Preparation for Carrying out the Tasks Assigned in Wpl 46. Guam, Samoa and the Continental Districts have been directed to take appropriate measures against sabotage. A Similar Warning Is Being Sent by the War Department. Inform Naval District and Army Authorities. British to be informed.”

This would seem to be about as direct as it gets. It’s what the Indications and Warning community would consider a true warning — the leaders have been warned, and they know they have been warned. On the other hand, the Army commander at Pearl got a wishy-washy-waffling kind of a warning from the War Department:

“Negotiations with the Japanese appear to be terminated to all practical purposes with only the barest possibilities that the Japanese government might come back and offer to continue. Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense. Prior to hostile Japanese action. You are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary, but these measures should be carried out so as not, repeat, not to alarm the civil population or disclose intent. Report measures taken. Should hostilities occur, you will carry out the tasks assigned in Rainbow Five so far as they pertain to Japan. Limit the dissemination of this highly secret information to minimum essential officers.”

Neither one was directly warned of the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor (all locations mentioned were in the Western Pacific or Asian littoral), and each took their own measures to prepare. General Short believed that the biggest threat to his forces (mostly, the Army Aviation units) was from 5th columnists among the second and third generation Japanese, almost all of them American citizens by birth. (Those are the ones who today say things like “The Jap planes came in over that ridgeline there”.)  That being the case, he had the aircraft brought to central locations, where they could be guarded, and drained of fuel, so they would be harder for a saboteur to ignite. The result was a massed target that couldn’t respond to an air attack in time. Interestingly, the only mention of possible sabotage was in the Navy message.

I think the underlying cause of the failure of commanders up and down the chain was the lack of a war mentality. We hadn’t been in on the start of a major declared war since the Civil War, and that uncoiled with a lethargic 18th Century slowness. The Great War was one we saw start elsewhere and slowly girded our loins to fight. Even after Pearl Harbor, our commanders might have been combative, but they were not really combat-minded. Witness all the lessons we had to learn during the early days of the Guadalcanal campaign, when we lost one night surface action after another. If you can’t conceive of what a war might be like, you can’t properly prepare for it, no matter how strong the warning.


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