U.S. Navy Vice Adm. William S. Pye is alleged to have said one day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, “The Japanese will not go to war with the United States. We are too big, too powerful and too strong.”

Last Wednesday marked the 80th anniversary of that attack Pye never thought possible. Beginning at 7:48 a.m. local time, the first wave of Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. When the second wave of Japanese aircraft, launched from carriers steaming off the island of Oahu, had completed its deadly mission, four U.S. battleships had been sunk, and the four other battleships moored in “Battleship Row” in Pearl Harbor had been severely damaged. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers and three destroyers. Almost 190 aircraft, neatly parked in rows on the island’s airfields, were also destroyed. Most tragically, 2,402 Americans were killed, and 1,282 were wounded.

The attack mobilized America, which declared war on the Empire of Japan the following day. While tactically a victory and a complete surprise occurring as it did early on a lazy Sunday morning in Hawaii, the Dec. 7, 1941, attack was, strategically, a massive mistake. Pearl Harbor and Hawaii would ultimately become an instrument of Japan’s destruction in World War II.

While they severely damaged the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Japanese failed to attack the infrastructure of Pearl Harbor and Hawaii. Power stations, shipyards, torpedo and fuel storage facilities and submarine piers were up and operating shortly after the attack.

A story by an unknown author highlights their mistakes.

“Adm. Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington, D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the commander of the Pacific Fleet.

“Adm. Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat — you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters everywhere you looked.

“As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, ‘Well, Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?’ Adm. Nimitz’s reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice.

“Admiral Nimitz said, ‘The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?’

“Surprised, the young helmsman asked, ‘What do mean, sir?’ Nimitz explained:

“‘Mistake number one: The Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every 10 crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk, we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.’”

“‘Mistake number two: When the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.’

“‘Mistake number three: Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top-of-the-ground storage tanks 5 miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That’s why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make…or God was taking care of America.’

“Adm. Nimitz was a born optimist. He was able to see a silver lining in a situation…able to see a silver lining in a situation everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.”

In fact, the battleship U.S.S. Nevada, severely damaged during the attack, was repaired at a Pearl Harbor shipyard, fought in World War II, and was in Tokyo Harbor during the Japanese surrender ceremony four years later in 1945.

Sadly, the mainland does not commemorate the attack on Pearl Harbor to the degree it is remembered in Hawaii. As a “mainlander,” I was honored to be present at Pearl Harbor for the 69th anniversary commemoration in 2010.

It was a moving experience for two reasons. First, many of the Pearl Harbor veterans with whom I had the chance to speak said it would be their last visit to Hawaii, advanced age sapping their strength and desire to attend again next year, most of whom were then 90 years old, give or take a year or two.

At the end of the moving ceremony commemorating the Japanese attack, the Pearl Harbor vets slowly walked — many pushed in wheelchairs, their oxygen bottle carts in tow — through a gauntlet of young uniformed sailors and Marines lined up in two columns holding their salutes for nearly 30 minutes as the vets marched by. The veterans, too, returned the sailors’ and Marines’ salutes holding them to the brim of their “U.S.S. Arizona Veteran” and “U.S.S. Utah Veteran” hats with crooked hands, tears of pride streaming down their faces, salty droplets from their eyes in remembrance of shipmates lost to the briny waters of Pearl Harbor.

Secondly, attending the ceremony and visiting the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial that day was a moving experience for me because I have a personal connection to the Battleship Arizona, still leaking rainbow-colored oil into the clear waters of Pearl Harbor.

A pretty 15-year-old girl in 1939 met a young sailor on a Greyhound bus. They struck up a friendship and wrote to each other frequently. The last letter she received from him informed her he was being transferred to Hawaii. After several months of no correspondence from her sailor, that girl received a letter from her sailor’s mother, saying that that sailor, Ensign Robert Booth, had been killed in the Japanese attack on the U.S.S. Arizona.

At the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 2010, peering at the name of Ensign Robert Booth engraved on the Wall of Honor memorializing the crewmen killed during the attack, I couldn’t help but selfishly wonder if I would even exist if Robert Booth had survived World War II and perhaps married that pretty young girl — who would, instead, marry Robert Fetzer and become my mom. Then, tears of thanks — for the sacrifices of Ensign Robert Booth and his fellow crewmen, sacrifices made for my mother’s life and ultimately for my life — welled up in my own eyes.

Adm. Pye may have been sadly mistaken, but the “Greatest Generation” — men and women like Ensign Robert Booth — didn’t care.

Thank God he and the hundreds of thousands like him who followed the day that lives in infamy did what they had to do.

Barry Fetzer is a retired U.S. Marine aviator who lives in Southern Pines. He wrote columns previously for The Havelock News.

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(2) comments

Peyton Cook

An excellent article about Pearl Harbor. The war in the Pacific would have lasted longer hah the Japanese had destroyed the fuel farm. The Navy would have to retire to the West coast for maintenance and refueling. I was born a raised in the Army Air Corps. My father was stationed at Wright Field, Dayton, OH on that awful day. Wright Field was the material center for the Air Corps. He had been stationed there previously from 1929 to 1934, where he had been head of the propeller lad and was a test pilot.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I was playing with my led soldiers. My parents and two younger brothers were napping. When the phone rang I answered it and the voice at the other end asked, “Is your father there?” I said he was and awaken him. They talked very briefly. My father told us about the Japanese attack and got dressed in his uniform which he had not worn for a long time. He drove to Wright Field and was there for three days. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor we had gone to the Commissary at Patterson Field, and I had noticed alone row of P-40s with out propellers. When we went to Patterson Field after the attack the P-40 were gone. A shipment of propellers bound for the USSR were rerouted to Patterson Field, attached to the aircraft, manned by pilots and flown to the West coast in case of a Japanese attack. I was twelve at the time.

Conrad Meyer

Peyton, thanks for sharing that insight into Pearl Harbor. There are thousands of stories like yours. In my family my father wanted to enlist but was too young. By the time he enlisted in the Navy to become a pilot, the war ended.

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