Tag Archives: Pearl Harbor

“Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill!”

Photo of battleship USS West Virginia under attack

USS West Virginia, Pearl Harbor 12/7/1941

Tomorrow marks the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. The next day President Roosevelt asked for, and received from congress a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.  On December 11th, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. America had become an official combatant in World War II.

As a military maneuver the Japanese attack was an almost perfectly executed assault of torpedo and bombing attacks on the anchored US Pacific Fleet, in concert with bombing and strafing attacks on nearby Army and Marine airfields, barracks, and related facilities.  American efforts at guessing Japanese intentions and assuming a competent defensive posture were ineffective, and in the case of the Army Air Corps. counterproductive.  Thinking that local sabotage was a greater threat than an “enemy” attack, instead of being dispersed, aircraft were lined up wingtip to wingtip so they could be guarded more effectively.  It also made them sitting ducks.  Not everything went the Japanese way. Their desired primary targets, the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga weren’t in port, and the Japanese didn’t damage the submarine fleet or the 4.5 million barrels of bunker oil on hand, needed to keep the fleet at sea. Had the Japanese destroyed that reserve, what was left of the fleet might have had to relocate to the West Coast from Pearl, endangering both Hawaii and our lines of communication to Australia and New Zealand.

What did the Japanese accomplish?

  • 2,402 sailors, soldiers and Marines killed (1,177 from the USS Arizona)
  • 1,247 wounded
  • Four battleships sunk of which two were re-floated, refurbished and returned to service.
  • Three battleships damaged, 1 battleship grounded. all returned to service
  • 2 other ships sunk
  • 3 cruisers damaged
  • 3 destroyers damaged
  • 3 other ships damaged
  • 188 aircraft destroyed
  • 159 aircraft damaged

More significantly, the Japanese united a nation split on whether the then two-year old war with the axis was “our” war or not. Between December 7th and December 8th, the America First movement and isolationist sentiment ceased to have a place at the table of public policy.  What the Japanese did was seen as treacherous and sneaky, without honor – because at the moment of the attack, they were supposedly negotiating in good faith in Washington.  Since they couldn’t decode and type fast enough, the Japanese emissaries – ignorant of the military plans in motion – failed to break off negotiations and deliver a declaration of war before the attack on Hawaii commenced.   Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, planner and commander of the attack, a former Naval Attache to the US and Harvard student knew that offending the Americans sense of fair play was perhaps worse than the actual damage caused.  Said he:

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

The story of Pearl Harbor has of course generated historical accounts, memoirs, assessments, literature, fictional accounts and movies.  Wherever your tastes and curiosities lie, it’s worth remembering that there are fewer than 3,000 Pearl Harbor survivors alive today, and the youngest would likely be 88 years old (assuming he lied about his age and was 16 in 1941.)


infamy Day of Infamy / Walter Lord

One of the first, and still one of the best historical overviews of the day (along the lines of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day) written for the casual reader.  It’s well written and well researched (for the period it was written in,) though newer research has dated it somewhat.

dawnAt Dawn We Slept / Gordon W. Prange

Through extensive research and interviews with American and Japanese leaders, Gordon Prange has written what is widely regarded as the definitive assessment of the events surrounding the attack on pearl Harbor, and providing first-hand accounts and recollections from both viewpoints.


Pearl Harbor : FDR leads the nation into war / Steven M. Gillon

Historian Steven Gillon provides a vivid, revealing, minute-by-minute account of Roosevelt’s skillful leadership after Pearl Harbor; perhaps the most pivotal event of the twentieth century. Remaining steady and sure-minded, Roosevelt transformed a grave and potentially demoralizing attack into an occasion for national unity and patriotic fervor.

Fiction & Alternative History:

Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th / Newt Gingrich & William Forstchengingrich

Gingrich and Forstchen provide a detailed account of the background and personalities leading up to the Japanese decision to attack the US.  Then they add the what-if scenarios that subtly change what happens as the Japanese follow their successful attack on the fleet with the additional waves to render the Pacific Fleet wholly ineffective, and Hawaii untenable as an anchorage.

Days of Infamy / Harry Turtledoveinfamyturtle

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In a well written of the type he excels at creating, Turtledove explores the logical “it could have happened scenario”, what if the Japanese followed up their air attack with an invasion and occupation of Hawaii?

From Here to Eternity / James Jonesfrom here

It’s December, 1941 at Schofield Barracks, just north of Pearl Harbor. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt is a bugler in the US Army. He’s transferred to an infantry unit whose commander is less interested in preparing for war than he is in boxing. But when Prewitt refuses to join the company team, the commander and his sergeant decide to make the bugler’s life hell.

The Cinema:


Tora Tora Tora (1970)

Highly innovative grand and epic film that looks at the preparations for, and the attack itself through the eyes of both the Japanese and American participants, both high and low. From Admirals Yamamoto and Kimmel to Privates Lockard and Elliot (radar operators with no one to warn,) The inevitable unfolds.  Without a doubt the best feature film about Pearl Harbor. Featuring Martin Balsam,  E.G. Marshall, Jason Robards, Takahiro Tamura, James Whitmore, and Sô Yamamura.

from heremovie

From Here to Eternity (1953)

A fantastic ensemble cast featuring some of Hollywood’s best actors as they’re starting out.  The film is faithful to the novel, capturing the rigidity, frustration and tempo of peacetime barracks’ routine and the seedy allure of Honolulu.  Featuring Ernest Borgnine, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra.

affleckpearlPearl Harbor (2001)

Great special effects minimally redeem a love story of brotherly sacrifice that plays footloose with history and made me cringe, though the misdated Battle of Britain scenes were great.  If you’re a connoisseur of long “B” movies, then maybe it’s worth your while.  Features Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Hartnett, Jon Voight as Pres. Roosevelt.  

– Richard


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What if Napoleon Had a B-52 at Waterloo?

That skit — and I don’t remember which of the SNL cast were in it* — may be one of the best one-sentence summations of that offshoot of fiction:  alternative history.

In 30 seconds or less, what distinguishes AH from regular fiction and its close relative, historic fiction?  Well, fiction is fiction.  In 1851 George Payn Quackenbos wrote, in First Lessons in Composition:

Fiction is a species of composition in which events are narrated that have no foundation except in the imagination of the writer.

For historic fiction, take that definition, add your storyline and characters, and deposit them into an event or events that are matters of historic record — Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Columbus sailing from Spain, Gettysburg, the Soviet blockade of Berlin, etc. — and make them part of the story. Even as characters and plot are added, the outcome of history isn’t altered, nor do the facts change. Leon Uris, James Michener, Herman Wouk, Michael Shaara and James Jones come to mind as examples of great authors of the genre.

What is alternative history?  Take the formula for historic fiction and bend history.  Use the characters and plot to alter events and change the outcome: Pickett doesn’t charge, Lincoln goes to bed early, Napoleon gets a B-52, etc.  For me, good AH needs to be plausible and believable, without compelling me to suspend belief.  The change in the course of events or in the flow of history has to be logical . . . but that’s just me.  There is certainly excellent AH that borders on (or is outright) science fiction, but that sets my “plausibility meter” going.

Recently several authors’ works have drawn me in. Among them are:  

Robert Conroy, whose books take the titles of the years he’s altering: 1862, Conroy 18621901, 1942, 1945, and Red Inferno: 1945.  They are dominated by war, but they aren’t techno-thrillers.  The circumstances are very credible, the characters are sympathetic, but all too human; they could be us. Conroy’s historic twists are well thought out and compelling.  In one or two cases he has to line up a copious quantity of ducks to have events fall into place as he intends, but he’s the author, and he gets to do that.

GettysburgNewt Gingrich, collaborating with William Fortchen, has also written an enjoyable and plausible set of novels that include a civil war trilogy: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat.   They also collaborated on an equally well-written pair of books, Pearl Harbor and Days of Infamy, which explore the emerging diplomatic crisis between the United States and Japan and culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As in Conroy’s 1952, Hawaii doesn’t remain uncontested.

Harry Turtledove, one of the deans of AH, and perhaps its most prolific How Few Remainwriter.  Turtledove has published over 50 books ranging from true AH to regular sci-fi.  He’s not as conventional as Conroy or Gingrich & Co., but can easily draw the reader in. 

Turtledove has written several series that cross over each other, covering almost 100 years of history from the Civil War through the mid-1940s.  In How Few Remain, the work that introduces this combination series, the Confederacy is victorious over the Union, and both U.S. and world history going forward are radically changed. Utah and Quebec are independent republics, and Imperial Germany is the ally of a rogue United States, while the Confederate States of America are allied with Britain. The next sets of series, the Great War and American Empire trilogies and the Settling Accounts tetralogy, provide a thorough and well-planned century of angst and patriotism, as well as the rise of a Nazi-like movement and unmitigated efforts by the stronger but unsuccessful North to reunify the two Americas.

Turtledove stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but also presents the most disturbing scenarios that ask hard questions in the guise of literature.  Could Americans be just as susceptible and guilty as the Germans of two generations ago were of “just following orders?”

The Plot Against AmericaAnd — last, but certainly not least — Philip Roth, who asks the same questions Turtledove does in his pseudo-autobiographical work of fiction, The Plot Against America.  In Roth’s case, the backdrop is an America confronted by a Europe at war, domestic politics dominated by America Firsters, and Charles Lindbergh as president.  Like Turtledove, Roth wonders if American democracy and its traditions of liberty and individual belief could withstand everything thrown at it.  Roth portrays a U.S. dominated by the isolationist sentiments that were very prevalent in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. His projections for what could have been aren’t wholly unwarranted.


*Editor’s Note:  According to this transcript, both Jane Curtin and John Belushi were involved.

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