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BOOK REVIEW – Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions

Zimm_Alan_Attack on Pearl HarborBy Alan D. Zimm, Casemate Publishing, Havertown, PA (2011)

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

There seems to be no end to new publications on the subject of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. By September 2014, WorldCat (an international library catalog) listed 18,353 publications and other media on Pearl Harbor; among these there are 6,903 catalog records for the actual attack on Pearl Harbor which includes 3,105 books, 1,293 videos/CDs/DVDs, 644 articles, and 134 theses and dissertations. The less comprehensive Library of Congress catalog has 1,247 cataloged items on Pearl Harbor, of which 590 concerns the attack. It appears that more than 200 articles and books on this subject are published each year.

One of the most recent publications is Attack on Pearl Harbor by Alan D. Zimm. Like your reviewer, Zimm was “bitten by the Pearl Harbor bug.” He is a game designer who was formerly a highly qualified naval officer (Commander USN, Retired) specializing in operations analysis. He was also a long-time member of the wargaming community. Zimm earned a doctorate from the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. He has recently been a section leader of the Aerospace Performance Analysis Group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he provides Operations Research analytic support to Department of Defense policy and decision-making processes. He wrote and published the computer simulation “Action Stations! Naval Surface Combat Tactical Simulation, 1922-1945,” which was nominated for Wargame of the Year by Computer Gaming World magazine. He’s also written for Naval History.

Zimm points out that his book is not a history of the “Day of Infamy,” but rather a critical look at selected topics like Japanese planning, execution, and post battle analysis of the attack in the context of their overall strategy. This 464-page volume has 13 chapters, five appendices, a smallish bibliography (81 books, 17 journal articles or reports, 27 document citations, 24 Internet site entries, and two television program citations), chapter-by-chapter endnotes (a total of 425), and a nine-page index. Each of the chapters is focused on one aspect of the background, execution, or consequences of the attack. Zimm employs Operations Research methods and computer simulations (based on U.S. Naval War College combat simulations from 1922-1946) to assess the attack. Each chapter is a detailed and well-documented evaluation of the background, strategic goals, operational and tactical levels and capabilities, execution, or consequences of the attack. He presents a scrupulous analysis from the viewpoint of the Japanese, but does not neglect the American perspective. The text contains numerous Latin and French terms as well as acronyms and Japanese terminology (defined in Appendix B). These do not seriously detract from the attack assessment, making the volume an engrossing study for those readers who consider themselves knowledgeable on the topic. His book, however, should not be considered a “fun read.” Students of the subject would benefit by perusing histories about the attack (see below).

I want to digress and mention some of the primary and secondary sources upon which authors (including Zimm) base their writings about the attack. Next I’ll summarize the contents of his book and, lastly, suggest some pros and cons.

Some Primary Sources

Eight hearings on the Pearl Harbor attack were held over the course of World War II. The first was held from 18 December 1941 to 23 December 1942: Owen J. Roberts, Thomas Charles Hart, Chester R. Clarke, H. Kent Hewitt et al. United States Congress Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, 39 parts in 19 volumes (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946). This is the Roberts Commission established by presidential executive order, and chaired by Roberts, a justice of the Supreme Court. The Commission was charged to determine the facts of the Japanese attack and establish if any dereliction of duty had occurred. MAGIC was discussed, but who received it and the details of the reports were not covered. The hearings were hostile to the two area commanders – General Short and Admiral Kimmel.

The others included The Hart Inquiry (15 February 1944-15 June 1944) ordered by the Navy Department, which directed Admiral Thomas Hart, former commander of the Asiatic Fleet, to conduct a one-man inquiry on Pearl Harbor so that important testimony would not be lost by hazards of war. The Army Pearl Harbor Board (20 July 1944-20 October 1944) directed the army’s adjutant general to convened hearings during which MAGIC evidence was taken only during the last week. Radio intercept information was downplayed and the board censured Generals George Marshall and Leonard Gerow (War Plans Division) for not fully advising General Short. Simultaneously, The Naval Court of Inquiry (24 July 1944-19 October 1944) convened and made full use of MAGIC (the testimony on it was classified and kept from the public). The findings of the inquiry exonerated Admiral Kimmel but Admiral Harold Stark, CNO at the time of Pearl Harbor, was blamed for failing to adequately advise Kimmel.

The Secretary of War personally directed Major Henry Clausen as a one-man investigator (Clausen Investigation: 23 November 1944-12 September 1945) to obtain testimony to supplement the Army Board’s completed investigation. On the naval side, the Navy Secretary ordered Admiral Kent Hewitt to continue the naval inquiry (The Hewitt Inquiry: 14 May 1945-11 July 1945). The Clarke Investigation (14-16 September 1944 and 13 July 1945-4 August 1945) ordered by the Secretary of War directed Colonel Carter Clarke, head of the Military Intelligence Division, which oversaw the army’s COMINT efforts, to investigate the handling of communications by the military intelligence division prior to Pearl Harbor.

Established by a Joint Congressional Resolution, the Joint Congressional Committee Investigation into the Pearl Harbor disaster commenced on 15 November 1945 and promised to be the most thorough investigation possible. Relevant classified documents, including the MAGIC translations, and all participants still alive, except Henry Stimson, testified. A single volume report contained twelve findings that divided the blame among all the principals: Hawaiian area commanders and the War and Navy Departments. However, a minority report also censured Roosevelt but concluded, like the majority findings, that Secretary Stimson, Secretary Knox, Generals Marshall and Gerow, and Admiral Stark, as well as General Short and Admiral Kimmel, were culpable for the disaster. The “Magic” Background of Pearl Harbor (United States Department of Defense, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978) provides relevant material. The Kimmel Hearings on 27 April 1995 at the Office of the Secretary of Defense between the secretary and members of the Kimmel family who sought the posthumous restoration of the rank for Admiral Kimmel. Lastly, the five-part Dorn Report submitted 15 December 15 1995 by Undersecretary of Defense Edwin Dorn to Congress was in response to the Kimmel Hearings of the previous April.

Relevant Secondary Publications

Materials from these hearing have provided the basis for a deluge of commercially published books, especially about Admiral Kimmel and General Short. Samuel Eliot Morison’s definitive History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 3: The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931-April 1942 (Little Brown, 1948) presented an “uncharitable” (his term) view of Admiral Kimmel. However, by 1961, Morison had completely changed his unsympathetic view of Kimmel and Short’s performances, and his favorable view of General Marshall, Admiral Stark, Admiral Turner, among others; see Morison’s Saturday Evening Post article, “The Lessons of Pearl Harbor” (October 27, 1961). He became convinced by Roberta Wohlstetter’s research (see below). Rear Admiral (Ret.) Robert Theobald’s The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor (Devlin-Adair, 1954) and Admiral Kimmel’s Story by Husband E. Kimmel (Regenry, 1955) told the story from his point of view. General Short died in 1949. Few historians came to his defense.

Readers are likely familiar with some of the better-known books, particularly Walter Lord’s classic, bestselling account, Day of Infamy (Henry Holt, 1957); Roberta Wohlstetter Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, 1968); and Steven Pelz The Race to Pearl Harbor (Harvard, 1975). Gordon W. Prange, who served as an historian under General MacArthur during the occupation, researched and drafted three monumental volumes: At Dawn We Slept : The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (McGraw-Hill, 1981), Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History (McGraw-Hill, 1986), and December 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor (McGraw-Hill, 1988). Prange was a perfectionist and kept editing the manuscripts so that his co-workers published his Pearl Harbor research posthumously after his death in 1980. Hence, historian Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon are, in reality, the final authors. Prange’s papers are deposited at the University of Maryland. [The Kimmel and Lord volumes “hooked” me on Pearl Harbor, as did the Prange volumes — I corresponded with both Lord and Don Goldstein but didn’t become a military historian.]

Among other notable works on the attack are by John Toland, Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath (Doubleday, 1983); Edwin T. Layton, Roger Pineau and John Costello, “And I was there”: Pearl Harbor and Midway: Breaking the Secrets (William Morrow, 1985); Burl Burlingame, Advance Force Pearl Harbor (Naval Institute Press, 1992); and Goldstein and Dillon’s The Pearl Harbor Papers (Brassey’s, 1993). Other titles include Michael Gannon, Pearl Harbor Betrayed: The True Story of a Man and a Nation Under Attack (Henry Holt, 2001); Carl Smith, Pearl Harbor 1941: The Day of Infamy (Praeger, 2004); Charles Robert Anderson, Day of Lightning, Years of Scorn: Walter C. Short and the Attack on Pearl Harbor (Naval Institute Press, 2005; Edward “Ned” Beach, Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short (Naval Institute Press, 1995); Jack Lambert and Norman Polmar, Defenseless, Command Failure at Pearl Harbor (MBI, 2003), and Frederic L. Borch and Daniel Martinez, Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor: The Final Report Revealed (Naval Institute Press, 2005).

During the years following the investigations, there have been a multitude of revisionist histories and rationalizations, primarily for Admiral Kimmel but also General Short. For more information, see Frank Mintz, Revisionism and the Origins of Pearl Harbor (University Press of America, 1985). Conspiracy theorists have also attempted to “prove” that President Roosevelt or others suppressed intelligence about the Japanese attack plans or its execution. Some “we should have known” authors point to Hector Bywater, The Great Pacific War (Houghton Mifflin, 1925) and Thomas P. Lowry and John W. G. Wellham, The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor (Stackpole, 1995) or revisionist works by James Rusbridger and Eric Nave, Betrayal at Pearl Harbor (Summit 1991) and Robert Stinnet, Day of Deceit (Free Press, 2001). The British planning of their attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, Italy experienced some of the same tactical shortcomings that the Japanese would demonstrate at Pearl Harbor. Significantly, British documents relating to Winston Churchill and November and December 1941 have not yet been made public. What is available is often redacted.   

Contents and Pros and Cons

The initial chapter covers the strategic and operation settings, Japanese strategies and objectives since the 1920s, comparisons of the U.S. and Japanese Pacific fleets, and American warplans, notably, Orange. Targets and weapons pairings are the emphasis of the second chapter which includes information on bombs and torpedoes versus capital ships. The third chapter focuses on three styles of wargames, including the games of 16-17 September and 13 October 1941. In planning the attack, Zimm considers Japanese carrier limitations, target selection, aircraft allocations, the American defense capabilities in aircraft, mooring including Battleship Row, attack routes, and anticipated results of the two-wave attack. Chapter Five reviews Japanese pre-attack training, rehearsals, contingency plans, and last-minute intelligence.

The execution of the attack covers 21 pages and centers on the use of midget submarines and Fuchida’s attack plan attack routes. The seventh chapter details the assessment of the attack including pre-dawn reconnaissance, final updating of the plans, Commander Genda’s flawed tactical plan, Commander Fushida’s “blunder,” and evaluation of the effectiveness of the torpedo plane and dive bomber attacks and level bombing successes. The attack on the Nevada was seen as a tactical error in that the channel was not blocked. Target assignments, decisions, and accuracies are recounted. There were malfunctions in dropping the 250 kg bombs and a high dud rate with the 800 kg bombs. Comparative attrition and shortfalls, fighter aircraft performances, and an assessment of Japanese command and control are summarized. The Japanese fleet submarine effort is also recounted. Chapter eight provides a comparative evaluation of battle damage inflicted by torpedo planes and dive bombers, the success in sinking the Arizona, actual versus claimed hits on vessels on Battleship Row and at other moorings, the misidentification of targets by Japanese airmen, and some lessons learned. The subsequent chapter considers what might have happened if the Pearl Harbor defenses had been alerted, a “what if” there had been a 40-minute notice. Attention is given separately to the U.S. Pacific fleet, the U.S. Army, and Army Air Corps and if these combined defenses had opposed the attack.

Chapter 10: “Assessing the Folklore” is a unique contribution in which Zimm considers such issues as Japanese “superpilots,” attacking the U.S. fleet outside of the harbor, the “reattack” controversy (third strike wave), hitting the shipyard facilities, destroying the Pearl Harbor power plant and fuel storage tanks, blocking the channel, and the tardy Japanese diplomatic message. In an up-to-date chapter, “The Fifth Midget Submarine: A Cautionary Tale,” he reviews the mission results (known and presumed), probabilities, facts and initial assumptions, and penetration into the harbor and West Loch. The attacks on Oklahoma and Arizona, the question of dud torpedoes, and a final assessment of the overall operation are provided. In a valuable Chapter twelve, he reassesses the actions of the major participants: General Short, Admiral Kimmel, Admiral Nagumo, Admiral Yamamoto, Commander Genda, and Commander Fuchida. The “Summary and Conclusions” raises and responds to nine salient questions related to the “imperfect” attack. The five appendices: present a tabulation of the second wave dive bomber attacks; identify abbreviations, acronyms, and Japanese terminology; tabulate ships in Pearl Harbor and vicinity on 7 December 1941; detail “The Perfect Attack” (pp. 401-412); and list the author’s acknowledgments.

Zimm’s volume illuminates a complex historical event from the Japanese point of view, something no Western author has attempted previously. It is far from a simple retelling of the familiar story but is an in-depth study of the Japanese planning, preparation, and execution of the attack, with particular focus on factors not thoroughly considered. Numerous aspects of the attack are clarified as to what the Japanese did, could have done, and should have done by examining such questions as: Was the strategy underlying the attack sound? Were there flaws in planning and/or execution? How did Japanese military culture influence the planning? How risky was the attack? What did the Japanese expect to achieve, balanced against what they actually achieved? Were there Japanese mistakes? If so, what were their consequences? And what might have been the results if the attack had not benefited from the mistakes of the American commanders in Washington and/or Pearl Harbor? The book also serves as a useful introduction to operations analysis.

Zimm’s thorough analysis of the execution of the Japanese attack illustrates serious issues. He demonstrates that the Japanese carrier strike force did not plan the attack very well, nor did they train effectively for it. Two of the four Japanese carriers had just been commissioned and had raw recruits rather than veteran seamen and aviators. He also considers the fictitious assumption that sinking a ship in Pearl Harbor’s channel would “bottle up” the Pacific fleet, or that the destruction of the repair facilities and oil tanks would have a devastating effect on the Americans. He argues that if the Japanese had launched a third wave it would have been ineffective, concluding that only minor damage would have been achieved and the naval base would have been fully operational in a relatively short period of time. In particular, he is especially critical of the allocation of strike aircraft to various targets on Oahu, the way the planned strike tracks for aircraft were allowed to cross on their final approach runs over the harbor, and the failure of the torpedo planes to provide mutual support during the first attack. Importantly, he concludes that the Japanese primary targets were the Pacific fleet’s battleships rather than the aircraft carriers because the loss of these symbols of naval power would psychologically demoralize the American public. Zimm also presents a convincing case that the Arizona was not torpedoed by a Japanese midget submarine. Most intriguing is what might have happened under alternative circumstances, Appendix D” “The Perfect Attack,” which demonstrates how the attack should have been conducted by taking the perspective of proficient professionals who based their decisions on competent staff work and the most recent available intelligence rather than hindsight. He also condemns Japanese planning for its “inflexibility.”

On the negative side, some readers may see the book as disorganized, jumping from one topic to another, and burdensome with facts, statistics, and analyses that need not be rehashed. The analysis does contain some very interesting new details and interpretations, some of which derives from U.S. Naval War College Studies of the attack. Zimm’s analysis regarding the interpretation of Japanese operational war gaming tactics may be seen as overly critical and dismissive of Japanese abilities and skills, especially the fighter pilots are berated. Commander Fuchida, a major Japanese participant in the attack, sought to conceal his mistakes and embellish his reputation by misinforming his superiors and, in the post-war period, American historians. Or, was he just “careless” about the truth regarding his role at Pearl Harbor (and later at Midway)?

Readers will be left with a great deal to think about and consider new aspects of the attack that are illuminated in Zimm’s book. This excellent analysis is a definitive critique of the Japanese planning and execution of the attack. For any serious student of the Pacific War, the volume makes for fascinating, “must” reading and should be included among the very best books on the Pearl Harbor attack.

Dr. Kolb is an independent scholar (National Endowment for the Humanities, Ret.)

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  2. S.F. Panning

    A good read – note one should note re HIHER (HI historic engineering reports) that unlike the Israeli oil take he references , The PH tanks were only 1/2″ riveted steel with fixed tops , not floaters (as can be seen in era photographs). Maybe revisiting one of his conclusions.

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