December 7, 1941 Aftermath

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes.  Across Hickam Field and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40′ were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

_oahuBilge inspection plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawled out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull. USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remaining within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona. Repairs were prioritized and USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma DiverRecovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3″ cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days, first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day, for the first time in over two years.

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USS Oklahoma, righting strategy

Fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

9781591147244CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay. She would never make it. Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around, when these two giant tugs suddenly found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

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Ocean-going tug Hercules, photograph by William Havle

Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached, but Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks directly over Oklahoma’s final resting place, the 409-ton tug bobbing to the surface like the float of a child’s fishing line.

“Okie” had been stabbed in the back, attacked and mortally wounded before she knew her nation was at war.  The causes leading to her final descent, remain uncertain.  Most will tell you, those plates couldn’t hold.  The beating of six years earlier, was just too much.   Those who served on her decks, might tell you she preferred to die at sea.

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May 21, 1944 That Other Disaster, at Pearl Harbor

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

Between June and November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and Army conducted Operation Forager with support from the United States Navy, an offensive intended to dislodge Imperial Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed during the last two years of WW2, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

In May 1944, the Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  Seventy-four years ago today, twenty-nine Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers, loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

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LST in Sicily

LST-353 exploded shortly after three in the afternoon, causing an incendiary chain reaction down the line of LSTs. 200 men were blown into the water in the first few minutes, in explosions powerful enough to knock vehicles on their sides. Eleven buildings on the shore were destroyed altogether and another nine, damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway, due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs began to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs, others were abandoned and left adrift and burning, before sinking in the channel.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires continued to burn for the next twenty-four hours.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines, but the idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was killed. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe that a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded, others that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack of two years earlier.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

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The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later, during salvage operations for a sunken LST.

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Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

On February 17, 1945, two divers were using jet nozzles to tunnel under a sunken LST, when the steel wreckage above them caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled with jagged pieces of steel, the pair was trapped under 40′ of water and another 20′ of mud.  There seemed no chance of survival, when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg went into the water.

Working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  Hammerberg reached the first man after hours of exhausting labor, freeing his lines and enabling the man to reach the surface.

Let Owen Hammerberg’s Medal of Honor citation, the one he would not live to read, tell what happened next.

Cmoh_army“…Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades…”.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in WW2 and the last person ever, to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

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March 4, 1942 Pearl Harbor, Version 2.0

If successful, this would be an endurance mission, one of the longest bombing raids ever attempted, and carried out entirely without fighter escort.  The mission was designated “Operation K”, and scheduled for March 4, 1942.

On December 7, 1941, forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States’ Pacific naval Anchorage, at Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress the following day, requesting a declaration that, since the attack, a state of war had existied between the United States, and Japan. Three days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, reciprocated by an American declaration against Nazi Germany, and their Italian allies. A two-years long conflict in Europe, had become a World War.

450px-Operation_K.svgIn the months that followed, the United States ramped up its war capacity, significantly.  Realizing this but having little information, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) determined to visit Pearl Harbor once again, to have a look around.

For the IJN, this was an opportunity to test the new Kawanishi H8K1 “Emily” flying boat, an amphibious bomber designed to carry out long distance bombing raids. So it was that a second, albeit smaller attack was launched against Pearl Harbor.

The IJN plan was complex.  This, the first Kawanishi H8K1 operation in Japanese military service, involved a small formation of flying boats to be sent to Wotje Atoll in the Marshall Islands, from there to stage the long-range attack.  The five flying boats would be loaded with four 550lb bombs apiece and flown to French Frigate Shoals northwest of Oahu, there to rendezvous with three Japanese submarines, waiting to refuel them.  Ten miles south of Oahu, the 356’ diesel-powered submarine I-23 was to hold watch over the operation, reporting weather and acting as “lifeguard” in case any aircraft had to ditch in the ocean.

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“A Kawanishi H8K1 of the 802nd Kokutai is lifted out of the water onto the decks of the HIJMS Akitsushima, 1942, off Shortland Island”. H/T fly.historicwings.com, for this image

After refueling, the bomber – reconnaissance mission would approach Pearl Harbor and attack the “10-10 dock”, so-called because it was 1,010 feet long and a key naval asset for the US Pacific Fleet.

If successful, this would be an endurance mission, one of the longest bombing raids ever attempted, and carried out entirely without fighter escort.  The mission was designated “Operation K”, and scheduled for March 4, 1942.

As it turned out, the raid was a “comedy of errors”, on both sides.

Things began to go wrong, almost from the beginning.  I-23 vanished.  To this day nobody knows where the submarine went. American forces reported several engagements with possible subs during this time frame.  Maybe one of those depth charges did its job.  It is equally possible that, unknown to the Imperial Japanese Navy, I-23 was involved in an accident, lost at sea with all hands.

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As it was, only two of the new flying boats were ready for the operation, the lead plane (Y-71) flown by Lieutenant Hisao Hashizume, and his “wingman” Ensign Shosuke Sasao flying the second aircraft, Y-72.

The staging and refueling parts of the operation were carried out but, absent weather intelligence from the missing I-23, the two-aircraft bombing formation was ignorant of weather conditions over the target.  As it was, a thick cloud cover woud leave the Japanese pilots all but blind.

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Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, USN

On the American side, Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, USN, worked in the Combat Intelligence Unit, tasked with intercepting enemy communications and breaking Japanese codes.  US code breakers had intercepted and decoded Japanese radio communications prior to the attack of four months earlier, but urgent warnings were ignored by naval authorities at Pearl Harbor.

Once again, Rochefort’s team did its job and urgent warnings were sent to Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) and to Com-14.  Incredibly, these warnings too, fell on deaf ears.  Rochefort was incredulous.  Years later, he would describe his reaction, at the time “I just threw up my hands and said it might be a good idea to remind everybody concerned that this nation was at war.”

American radar stations on Kauai picked up and tracked the incoming aircraft, but that same cloud cover prevented defenders from spotting them.  Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters were scrambled to search for the attackers, while Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats were sent to look for non-existent Japanese aircraft carriers, assumed to have launched the two bombers.

Meanwhile, the two Japanese pilots became confused, and separated.  Hashizume dropped his bombs on the side of Mt. Tantalus, about 1,000 ft. from nearby Roosevelt High School.  Hashizume’s bombs left craters 6-10 ft deep and 20-30 ft across on the side of the extinct volcano.  Sasao is presumed to have dropped his bombs, over the ocean.

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President Theodore Roosevelt High School, Honolulu

A Los Angeles radio station reported “considerable damage to Pearl Harbor”, with 30 dead sailors and civilians, and 70 wounded.  Japanese military authorities took the broadcast to heart, and considered the operation to have been a great success.  Talk about ‘fake news’.  As it was, the damage was limited to those craters on Mt. Tantalus, and shattered windows at Roosevelt High.

The United States Army and the US Navy blamed each other for the explosions, each accusing the other of jettisoning munitions over the volcano.

The IJN planned another such armed reconnaissance mission for the 6th or 7th of March, but rescheduled for the 10th because of damage to Hashizume’s aircraft, and the exhaustion of air crew.  The second raid was carried out on March 10, but Hashizume was shot down and killed near Midway atoll, by Brewster F2A “Buffalo” fighters.

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The results of the second Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, carried out on March 4, 1942, were limited to four craters on the side of an extinct volcano.

A follow-up to Operation K was scheduled for May 30, but by that time, US military intelligence had gotten wise to the IJN meet-up point.  Japanese submarines arriving at French Frigate Shoals found the place mined, and swarming with American warships.

In the end, the Imperial Japanese Navy was unable to observe US Navy activity, or to keep track of American aircraft carriers.  Days later, this blindness would have a catastrophic effect on the Japanese war effort, at a place called Midway.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

May 17, 1947  Final Voyage of the USS Oklahoma

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma.

Pearl Harbor attact mapIt was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 local time, December 7, 1941.  353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes, across Hickam Field and over the waters of Pearl Harbor.  Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma fought back furiously.  She didn’t have a chance.  Holes as wide as 40′ were torn into the hull in the first ten minutes of the fight.  Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the Battleship began to roll.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

Bilge inspection plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible.   Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home.  Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawled out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

The damage was catastrophic.  Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk.  Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, and another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground.  159 of those, were destroyed altogether.  2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Japanese torpedo strikes hull of the Oklahoma
Nine Japanese torpedoes struck Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma.  Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get to those trapped inside.  32 of them were delivered from certain death. 14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come.  Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hulk of that ship.  The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.Righting A Frames

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service.  USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.  The USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is a War Grave, 64 honored dead remaining within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.  Repairs were prioritized and USS Oklahoma was beyond repair.  She, and her dead, would have to wait.

The extraordinarily difficult salvage would not begin until March, 1943.  21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull, 3″ cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.  Two pull configurations were used over 74 days, first the configuration shown (above right), then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°.  In May the decks once again saw the light of day.Winch design

Fully righted, the ship was 10′ below water.  Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed the gaping wounds left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated.  A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations.  Divers stuffed kapok in the gaps as water was pumped out.

Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job.  Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day.  1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.  For all that, no military and only one civilian diver lost his life, when his air hose was severed.

Port side damage
Oklahoma prepared for drydock

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits.   Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life.  Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

 

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort.  She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

Rightng Strategy

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, headed for a scrapyard in San Francisco bay.  She would never make it.  Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm 540 miles east of Hawaii.  On May 17, disaster struck.  Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily.  Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around, when these two giant tugs suddenly found themselves slowing to a stop.  Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.Port side damage

Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma.  Monarch’s line played out and detached, but Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment.  With tow line straight down and sinking fast, Hercules finally detached directly over Oklahoma’s final resting place, the 409-ton tug bobbing to the surface like the float on a child’s fishing line.

Ordered in March 1911 and launched three years later, the 583’ Nevada-class battleship Oklahoma DiverUSS Oklahoma was designed to fight at the most extreme ranges expected by gunnery experts.  Commanded by Charles B. McVay, Jr., father of the ill-fated skipper of the USS Indianapolis Charles Butler McVay III, Oklahoma’s role in WW1 was limited, due to the unavailability of oil in major theaters of operation.  Notable among her exploits of the Great War, were the memorable fist fights that crew members got into with Sinn Féin members in Berehaven, and casualties sustained during the 1918-19 flu pandemic.

She was up-armored in a 1927 – ’29 refit, where additional anti-torpedo armor bulges were added, briefly making her the widest battleship in the United States fleet.  Oklahoma was dispatched to Europe in 1936, to evacuate American civilians during the Spanish civil war.  The only US warship ever named after the 46th state was destroyed in an enemy sneak attack, before she knew her nation was at war.  The final resting place of the USS Oklahoma, (BB-37), is unknown.

April 18, 1943 Terrible Resolve

Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to neuter the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia

Captian Isoroku YamamotoIsoroku Takano was born in Niigata, the son of a middle-ranked samurai of the Nagaoka Domain. His first name “Isoroku”, translating as “56”, refers to his father’s age at the birth of his son. At this time, it was common practice that samurai families without sons would “adopt” suitable young men, in order to carry on the family name, rank, and the income that came with it. The young man so adopted would carry the family name.  So it was that Isoroku Takano became Isoroku Yamamoto in 1916, at the age of 32.

After graduating from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, Yamamoto went on to serve in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, later returning to the Navy Staff College and emerging as Lieutenant Commander in 1916. He attended Harvard University from 1919-1921, learning fluent English. A later tour of duty in the US enabled him to travel extensively, and to study American customs and business practices.

Like most of the Japanese Navy establishment, Yamamoto promoted a strong Naval policy, at odds with the far more aggressive Army establishment. For those officers, particularly those of the Kwantung army, the Navy existed only to ferry invasion forces about the globe.

Yamamoto opposed the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the 1937 land war with

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Panay

China. As Deputy Navy Minister, it was Yamamoto who apologized to Ambassador Joseph Grew, following the “accidental” bombing of the USS Panay in 1937. Even when he was the target of assassination threats by pro-war militarists, Yamamoto still opposed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he believed would “awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”.

Yamamoto received a steady stream of hate mail and death threats in 1938, as a growing number of army and navy officers spoke publicly against him. Irritated with Yamamoto’s immovable opposition to the tripartite pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, army hardliners dispatched military police to “guard” him. In one of the last acts of his short-lived administration, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai reassigned Yamamoto to sea as Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, making it harder for assassins to get at him.

USS-Arizona-Sinking-Pearl-Harbor-Newspaper-December-7-1941-AP-Getty-640x480Many believed that Yamamoto’s career was finished when his old adversary Hideki Tōjō ascended to the Prime Ministership in 1941. Yet there was none better to run the combined fleet. When the pro-war faction took control of the Japanese government, he bowed to the will of his superiors. It was Isoroku Yamamoto who was tasked with planning the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nothing worked against the Japanese war effort as much as time and resources. Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to emasculate the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia. To accomplish this first objective, he planned to attack the anchorage at Pearl Harbor, followed by an offensive naval victory which would bring the Americans to the bargaining table. It’s not clear if he believed all that, or merely hoped that it might work out.

Yamamoto got his decisive naval engagement six months after Pearl Harbor, near Midway Island. Intended to be the second surprise that finished the carriers which had escaped destruction on December 7, American code breakers turned the tables. This time it was Japanese commanders who would be surprised.

Battle-Of-Midway-Turns-Tide-Of-Pacific-War-2American carrier based Torpedo bombers were slaughtered in their attack, with 36 out of 42 shot down.  Yet Japanese defenses had been caught off-guard, their carriers busy rearming and refueling planes when American dive-bombers arrived.

midway-copyMidway was a disaster for the Imperial Japanese navy. The carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, the entire strength of the task force, went to the bottom. The Japanese also lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma, along with 344 aircraft and 5,000 sailors. Much has been made of the loss of Japanese aircrews at Midway, but two-thirds of them survived. The greater long term disaster, may have been the loss of all those trained aircraft mechanics and ground crew who went down with their carriers.

The Guadalcanal campaign, fought between August 1942 and February ’43, was the first major allied offensive of the Pacific war and, like Midway, a decisive victory for the allies.

Needing to boost morale after the string of defeats, Yamamoto planned an inspection 2013-Yamamoto-10.1tour throughout the South Pacific. US naval intelligence intercepted and decoded his schedule.  The order for “Operation Vengeance” went down the chain of command from President Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King to Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, the only fighters capable of the ranges involved, were dispatched from Guadalcanal on April 17 with the order: “Get Yamamoto”.

Yamamoto’s two Mitsubishi G4M bombers with six Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes in escort were Yamamoto Wreckintercepted over Rabaul on April 18, 1943. Knowing only that his target was “an important high value officer”, 1st Lieutenant Rex Barber opened up on the first Japanese transport until smoke billowed from its left engine. Yamamoto’s body was found in the wreckage the following day with a .50 caliber bullet wound in his shoulder, another in his head. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Isoroku Yamamoto had the unenviable task of planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he was an unwilling participant in his own history. “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain”, he had said, “I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success”.Yamamoto

December 12, 1937 Panay incident

Though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story

USS Panay was a flat bottomed river craft, built in Shanghai as part of the Asiatic fleet and charged with protecting American lives and property on the Yangtze River, near Nanking.

Japanese forces invaded China in the summer of 1937, advancing on Nanking while American citizens evacuated the city.  The last ones boarded Panay on December 11:  five officers, 54 enlisted men, four US embassy staff, and 10 civilians.

Japanese air forces received word the morning of December 12, 1937, that Chinese forces were being evacuated on several large steamers and a number of junks, about 12 miles north of the city.

Anchored a short way upstream along with several Chinese oil tankers, Panay came under bombing and strafing attack that morning, sinking mid-river with three men killed.  43 sailors and five civilians, were wounded.  Two newsreel cameramen were on board at the time of the attack, and were able to film part of it.

The American ambassador to Japan at the time was Joseph C. Grew, a man who was morebaltimore_news_post_panay than old enough to remember how the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor brought the US into war with Spain in 1898.  Grew hoped to avoid a similar outcome following the Panay sinking, though Japanese authorities were less than helpful.  US cryptographers uncovered information shortly after the attack indicating that aircraft were operating under orders, while the Japanese government continued to insist that the attack had been accidental.

The matter was officially settled four months later, with an official apology and an indemnity of $2,214,007.36 paid to the US government.  The “accidental attack” narrative appears to have been a safe story both sides pretended to accept, but it seems a little hard to believe.   HMS Ladybird had been fired on that same morning by Japanese shore batteries, and the attack was followed a month later by the “Allison incident”, in which the American consul in Nanking, John M. Allison, was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier.

Added to the fact that American property was being looted by Japanese forces, it seems clear that relations between the two governments were poisonous at the time.

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

They came from citizens of all ages and walks of life, from doctors and professors to school children.  The wives of high ranking Japanese officials apologized to Grew’s wife without their husbands’ knowledge, while ten Japanese men describing themselves as retired US Navy sailors living in Yokohama, sent a check for $87.19.

A typical letter read: “Dear Friend! This is a short letter, but we want to tell you how sorry we are for the mistake our airplane made. We want you to forgive us I am little and do not understand very well, but I know they did not mean it. I feel so sorry for those who were hurt and killed. I am studying here at St. Margarets school which was built by many American friends. I am studying English. But I am only thirteen and cannot write very well. All my school-mates are sorry like myself and wish you to forgive our country. To-morrow is X-Mas, May it be merry, I hope the time will come when everybody can be friends. I wish you a Happy New Year. Good-bye.”

The two governments never did patch things up.  The US placed an embargo in September 1940, prohibiting exports of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel to Japan, in retaliation for their occupation of northern French Indochina:  modern day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japan occupied southern Indochina by the summer of 1941, as the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands retaliated by freezing Japanese assets.

Throughout that summer and fall, Japan tried to negotiate a settlement to lift the embargo on terms allowing them to keep their newly captured territory, while at the same time preparing for war.  General Hideki Tojo, future Prime Minister, secretly set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept a settlement without war.

Air and naval forces of the Imperial Japanese government attacked the US naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, about a week later.

December 7, 1941 USS Oklahoma

The Oklahoma turned turtle during the attack, trapping hundreds of sailors within her hull

Air forces of the Imperial Government of Japan attacked the US Navy anchorage at Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago, today. The attack killed 2,403 and wounded another 1,178.  All eight battleships then in harbor were damaged.  Four sank to the bottom along with a number of smaller ships. 188 aircraft were destroyed, most while still on the ground.

Most would be re-floated and some returned to service, but not all. The Nevada-class righting-of-the-uss-oklahomabattleship USS Oklahoma was raised from the bottom, but was never repaired. In 1947 she would sink under tow to the mainland, very nearly taking two ocean going tugs to the bottom, with her.

The Pennsylvania-class battleship USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.

The hulk of the Arizona is such a prominent part of the memorial today, that it’s easy to believe it’s the only ship still lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  But Arizona is not alone.

Less well known is the Florida-class dreadnought USS Utah, which defied salvage efforts. Now a War Grave, 64 honored dead remain within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.

Likewise, little remembered, is the fate of the 429 killed aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma. The Oklahoma turned turtle during the attack, trapping hundreds of sailors within her hull. Faint tapping sounds came from within.  Frantic around the clock rescue efforts resulted in the deliverance of 32 sailors.

Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days.

Seventeen days alone in that black, upside down place, they died waiting and hoping for the rescue that would come too late. The last mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve, 1941.