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Pearl: The 7th of December 1941

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D. 

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the most written about military events in the history of the United States. For example, WorldCat lists 11,700 items in various formats, among these, as of February 2021, are 8,821 books and e-books, 2,604,articles and book chapters, and 1,759 videos and films). As might be assumed, the quality and accuracy of these publications varies from the excellent to the good, bad, or ugly (inaccurate). It is a topic about which I have enjoyed reading since my pre-teen years as I was born before this infamous happening occurred.

In December 2021, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of this event and I expect that there will be a number of publications commemorating the period before, during, and after the attack just as there have been in the past. I especially recall the 60th, 70th, and 75th anniversaries when my friend, the late author Donald M. Goldstein (1931-2017), was often called upon to give oral presentations and updates on the history of the attack. A colleague of Gordon W. Prange (1910-1980), “Goldy” and Katherine V. Dillon had been tasked by Prange to edit and publish the voluminous sets of manuscripts about Pearl Harbor and Midway that Prange had prepared as drafts. 

As readers of the Navy Historical Foundation Book Reviews may recall, I have previously reviewed a half dozen or more books related to Pearl Harbor and the beginnings of World War II. I recall first seeing the Butler volume last December, a month after it was published, and I initially took a deep breath and thought “here we go again,” just another summary of the event. I was wrong – this is a first-rate summary of the before, during, and aftermath of the attack. It is substantially different than the vast majority of publications and it is my task to summarize Butler’s presentation and tell you “why and how” this rendition differs. Dan Butler states in the “Introduction” (p. v) “Pearl: December 7, 1941 steps away from a narrow, technical, or academic focus, to instead present to someone who may be unfamiliar with the larger story as much of that story as can be included between the covers of a single volume.”  Hence, the book is a readable narrative of the events written for the layman and it is “story telling” in its finest form, with a focus on what transpired and what really happened at Pearl Harbor and how it all came to pass.

As a former academic, I’ll provide some facts and background about the author and his book. Butler is an American author of maritime and military histories and playwright who lives in Los Angeles and who has studied in the United States and Germany.  He has a website “Daniel Allen Butler: Author, Historian, Speaker”, in which he writes: “Somehow, whether by accident or design, you’ve stumbled across the online home of Daniel Allen Butler, author, historian, semi-professional beach bum and curmudgeon extraordinaire. Whether you choose to stay is entirely up to you.” He is the author of more than a dozen books since 2000; a list of some of these follows my review (I intend to read several of them).

Pearl: The 7th of December 1941 has a “Note to the Reader,” “Prologue,” an “Introduction, “12 chapters, an “Epilogue” two useful “Appendices,” explanatory “Endnotes,” “Bibliography and Sources,” and a detailed 11-page “Index.” There are two unlisted maps: p. 151, “Track of the Japanese Strike Force (Kido Butai)” with no scale, and p. 181 “United States Navy, Pacific Fleet, Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941” with a scale in miles and kilometers. Between pp. 186-187 there are 38 black-and-white images: portraits of 3 American and 5 Japanese participants, 6 Japanese aircraft carriers, 8 U.S. battleships, 2 American and 3 Japanese aircraft, 4 aerial views of Pearl Harbor and 7 ships during or just after the attacks. Other material includes 183 endnotes (some are references to publications and some are explanatory notes). “Bibliography and Sources” often indicate the level of original research undertaken or what is simply paraphrased from existing publications. There are 100 books, 14 periodicals, nine U.S. Government sets of documents, and 16 miscellaneous sources. The book list includes “Classic” primary and secondary works by Beach, Bergamini, Burlingame, Fuchida, Gannon, Kahn, Layton, Lord, Morison, Prange and his colleagues, and Toland. The Joint Congressional Investigation reports are included, as are publications on Pearl Harbor authored by William Walters, Report 84-2705, and Robert Isaman, Report 85-1305, both from the United States Air Force Air Command and Staff College. Butler also utilized microfilm from the Admiral Kimmel Collection in the archives of the University of Wyoming. Notably, his miscellaneous sources are all from the Naval History and Heritage Command, retrieved online 2016-2017.

Butler initially provides the reader with history lessons, “The Rising Sun” and “The Sleeping Giant,” in which he comments on the arrogance of both American and Japanese leaders as a factor in the history of Japan. He traces Western encounters with the Japanese since 1853, including the modernization of the Japanese military using European military experts. The Russo-Japanese War, Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, annexation of Korea in 1910, the “Great War” (1914-1918), and Washington Naval Conference of 1922 are among the historic events reviewed, as are the American enactments of the Export Control Act of 1940 and related embargoes, as well as the relocation of the US Pacific fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invasion of French Indochina, and Japanese war plans through November 2-5, 1941. A subsequent chapter focuses on America’s The Monroe Doctrine (1823), the Civil War, the Spanish American War and American acquisition of the Philippine Islands as a part of the 1898 Treaty of Paris.  World War I and the 1922 naval conference. The US Immigration Act of 1924 and Great Depression are also appraised, as are American foreign policies enacted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt including the Neutrality Act of 1935 and others through 1939, and, beginning in 1924, 93 Congressional Hearings. Despite Japan’s invasion of China, American defense priorities were given to the Atlantic Fleet since Germany was regarded as the mortal threat. That perception was challenged when, on September 27, 1940, Japan became a signatory to the Tripartite Pact with the Axis, and the US continued embargoes on Japan’s purchase of American-made aircraft parts, engines, and aviation gasoline.

The third chapter provides summaries of the careers of IJN Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, his trips to the United States (1919 and 1926 as attaché) and training as a pilot at age 40 contrasted with CINCIPAC Admiral Husband Kimmel’s World War I experience, and his appointment to the Pacific command in February 1941. The careers of Lieutenant General Walter Short and that of Major General Hideki Tojo receive less attention. War Plan Orange, by 1940 “old and inflexible,” the Two-Ocean Navy Act, logistical issues at Pearl Harbor, notably sabotage vs. military attack, the unreadiness of the Hawaiian Air Force and shortage of patrol planes, and aircraft vs. battleships – the British attack on Taranto, Italy is mentioned (pp. 87-88).  Interservice infighting in Washington is also noted, while USN fleet exercises (1920-1940), especially the 21st Annual Fleet Problem (XIII 1932) — an attack on Pearl Harbor — and the Army’s Blue versus Black (US vs. an enemy) are profiled. Another chapter characterizes MAGIC and the Color Purple, differentiating codes and cyphers, introducing Yardley, Friedman, Rochefort (who came to Pearl Harbor on June 1, 1941), Safford, Layton, other codebreakers, and Station HYPO. ONI’s reading of Japanese diplomatic codes and work on the decoding of JN-25 are reviewed and balanced by Butler’s explanation of the vulnerability of the State Department’s Grey and Brown codes to the Imperial Army’s decryption effort. The posting of Yoshikawa Takeo (an IJN Ensign, as a “diplomat” to the Japanese Embassy in Hawaii) was, in reality, an assignment to spy on the USN Pacific Fleet and naval and military installations.  Butler comments how the Army SIS and OP-20-G, who had collaborated in decoding, became rivals, and he castigates Richmond Turner’s “lust for power” in the War Plans Division and the attempt to subordinate ONI to his own department,

In “Climb Mount Niitake,” the author introduces other members of the cast, notably Ambassador Nomura Kichisoburo, a diplomat with 40 years’ experience in the IJN but American Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew, receives lesser treatment.  Combining of Carrier Divisions 1 and 2 under Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi and the plans for the Hawaii Operation with IJN aviator Genda Minoru, are also evaluated. In Washington, Nomura and Secretary of State Cordell Hull exchanged memoranda while the Japanese Army advanced into the southern half of French Indochina, resulting in President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8832 of July 26, 1941, freezing Japanese assets in the United States. The IJN Combined Fleet conducted wargames on September 11, practicing the Pearl Harbor attack, while Yoshikawa began tracing ship movements at Pearl. Kimmel and Short, Butler confirms, were “kept in the dark” by Washington while diplomatic negotiations floundered and Kurusu Saburo joined Nomura in negotiating with Hull. IJN aviators trained using Type 91 torpedoes fitted with wooden fins. Other authors have commented about the shallowness of Pearl Harbor and the “recent” development of Type 91 torpedoes just before the attack – Butler gets this right, noting that the Japanese had solved that problem in 1936. The Japanese also resolved issues such as refueling warships at sea and planned the use of five midget submarines with Type 97 torpedoes to be transported by modified fleet submarines to Pearl Harbor; the author does a splendid job in detailing these submarines and missions. A map of Kido Butai (the Japanese Strike Force) illustrates movements from November 26 through December 23 (p. 151).  

Chapter 6 covers the period from the North Pacific transit of the Combined Fleet from Hitokappu Bay to the attack on December 7th. Butler introduces Station S on Bainbridge Island, Washington State, which intercepted the infamous 14-part message from Tokyo to Washington, DC. The roles of Lieutenant Commander Kramer and Army Colonel Bratton and reactions of the “Top Brass” (Stark, Miles, and Marshall) are recounted, including the atmospherics issue in transmitting a warning message from General George Marshall to the military commanders in Hawaii. Butler also recounts the problem of deducing the potential target: Manila, Canal Zone, or Hawaii. Likewise, the Japanese Embassy’s problem of Okamura’s poor typing skills are reported The latter part of this chapter focuses on initial events in Hawaii: the USS Ward’s encounter with a Japanese midget submarine, the incoming flight of Army bombers (4 B-17Cs and 8 B-17Es) from California to Hickam Field in route to the Philippines, intercepts by Lockard and Elliot on SCR-270B radar, and the “total and complete surprise” arrival of Fuchida’s flight over Pearl Harbor. A Map of Pearl Harbor and the Location of Ships in the Pacific Fleet (p. 181) accompanies the narrative.

Three subsequent chapters (pp. 182-251) document the attack: “This is not Drill” – the word “a” was not in the original message; “A Devastating Sight…, and “Inferno.”  The 38 images mentioned earlier are strategically clustered for the reader between pp. 186-187, and two Appendices are important in understanding the situation: I: “Imperial Japanese Navy ‘Hawaii Operation’ Order of Battle, December 7, 1941” (pp. 322-324) and II “United States Armed Forces Order of Battle Pearl Harbor and Oahu, December 7, 1941” (pp. 325-320). Butler covers the attack by documenting American ships and military bases and Japanese sorties and inserting information about the combatants garnered from archival records and personal oral recollections. He does a masterful job in organizing these complex sets of information into a compelling narrative about the attack, results, and stories about the personnel involves. Butler focuses initially on Hickam and Ford Island; ships both small and larger (Utah, Helena, Oglala, West Virginia, Arizona, Vestal, Oklahoma, California, Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Cassin and Downes, and St. Louis; airfields: Wheeler, Ford Island, Hickam, Kaneohe Bay, and Haleiwa. He reviews the First Wave by discussing the attacks on Battleship Row, and draws a parallel in devastation between USS Arizona (with 1,177 sailors and Marines killed) and HMS Hood (sunk in the North Atlantic, May 24, 1941, by the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, with a loss of 1,300 British seamen). In “Inferno,” which covers the Second Wave of the attack, Butler verifies the locations of all five Type A (miniature) submarines [tou = “tubes” in Japanese] and their fates (pp. 229-231) — something few authors report – three were attacked by surface ships and lost (I-20tou sunk by Ward, I-22tou sunk by Monaghan, and I-24tou attacked by Helm and grounded; I-18tou, discovered as a wreck in 1960, had not fired her two torpedoes; while I-16tou had penetrated the Pearl Harbor defenses and recovered in 1944 as “scrap from the West Loch Disaster had fired on Oklahoma successfully, but missed West Virginia. The Second Wave focused especially on airfields at Kaneohe Bay, Wheeler, Hickam, and Pearl Harbor, and particularly on the Nevada which was deploying toward the South Channel but later grounded so as not to block the harbor entrance. The Japanese had sent 354 aircraft (fighters, high-level bombers, torpedo bombers, and dive bombers, 325 returned to their carriers but 73 of these had been seriously damaged. These losses, coupled with a lack of information on the location of American aircraft carriers, and resistance from almost all airfields and ships that could fight, resulted in a cancellation of a third wave. Hence, the submarine base and petroleum facilities remained basically intact. Out of 402 American aircraft in Hawaii, 188 had been destroyed and another 159 damaged. Some of the B-17 bombers headed for Hickam were lost as were some aircraft arriving from the American carrier Enterprise. Butler reports that 2,402 Americans were dead and 1,178 “wounded” (p. 251); elsewhere, he lists the 1,178 as “missing” (p. 273).     

In Chapter 10, “Shock and Awe,” the author reviews the post-attack responses by the White House and State, War, and Navy Departments, while the Japanese commanders the Combined Fleet’s return to the Inland Sea. Admiral Yamamoto felt “dishonored” that the diplomatic message to Hull had been delayed until after the attack had begun. The lack of both supplies and staff overwhelmed Wheeler, Tripler, and the Navy hospitals in Hawaii, while the US initially began to search for the Japanese carriers in the wrong direction. This debacle preceding Admiral Kimmel’s receipt of the warning message from General Marshall at 3:00 pm. Initial attempts at rescue and salvage are also explicated. Notably, Butler reports that Yamamoto never stated that “all Japan had done was awaken a sleeping giant.”

Most books written about the Pearl Harbor attack conclude with FDR’s address to Congress or mention the Japanese attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, and Wake and Midway islands. Butler does not. His detailed chapter, “Retribution,” moves forward to consider the April 18, 1942 attack on the Japanese homeland by 16 American Mitchell B-25 bombers flying from the carrier Hornet. In addition, he covers the Japanese strike toward Port Moresby, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and subsequent “Midway Operation.” Much of the chapter is devoted to details on Coral Sea (May 4-8), ship losses on both sides, and the decisive blow at Midway (June 6) resulting in the destruction of four Japanese aircraft carriers and the American loss of the carrier Yorktown and destroyer Hammann. Butler doesn’t stop his narrative here either and in his chapter “Reckoning” recounts briefly the remainder of the War in the Pacific – 3 years, 8 months, and 8 days – to the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945. He covers the topic “could it have been avoided?” reviewing Japanese concepts of America and America’s concepts of Japan. In addition, he considers the importance of the Battle of Midway and Station HYPO, the death of Yamamoto (April 18, 1942), and some of the seven Pearl Harbor hearings: Roberts Commission, Hart Inquiry, Clausen Investigation, and Congressional Hearings. Butler concludes that Admiral Kimmel felt betrayed by Turner and had animosity toward Stark and his reputation should be resurrected, following Edward L. (Ned) Beach: Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995). Beach presented proof that authorities in the Army, Navy, and State Departments, as well as the White House, knew through special intelligence that Japan was planning an attack on December 7th, and blames these agencies for not informing the field commanders.  Short made no effort to defend himself and died on September 3, 1949. Lastly, Butler discusses the fate of the battleships and destroyers at Pearl Harbor as well as subsequent battles at Samar Island, Philippine Sea, Surigao Strait, and Leyte Gulf — the latter effectively crushing the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Pearl: The 7th of December 1941is a highly readable and up-to-date account of events at Pearl Harbor for general readers and contains a prequel, the actual attack and results, and long-term results without a plethora of scholarly notes. The findings on Kimmel and Short set the record straight, and information about the midget submarines are appropriately integrated into the narrative and correlate with the latest uncited interpretations. See: and The Lost Submarines of Pearl Harbor James Delgado et al. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016). Alan Zima’s important book, Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions (Philadelphia and Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2014) is referenced by Butler, but Gene Sale Cher’s The Second Pearl Harbor: The West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) is not. Nor are the three books in the Pearl Harbor Tactical Studies Series by J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Crossman, and John F. Di Virgilio, recently reviewed by me (No One Avoided Danger: NAS Kaneohe Bay…, 2015; This is No Drill: The History of NAS Pearl Harbor…, 2018; and They’re Killing My Boys: The History of Hickam Field…, 2019), which provide more detailed assessments. Although a majority of Butler’s source material is derived from the secondary literature, he has done his homework and skillfully and carefully constructed summaries of older and recent findings making this volume a valuable source for any reader.  

Butler’s previous works include:

Unsinkable–the Full Story of RMS Titanic. New York: Da Capo Press (2 editions: 2002 and 2012).

Warrior Queens: The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in World War II. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books (2002).

The Age of Cunard: A Transatlantic History, 1839-2003. Annapolis, MD: Lighthouse Press Publication (2003).

Distant Victory-the Battle of Jutland and the Allied Triumph in the First World War. Westport (CT): Praeger Security International, 2006.

The Other Side of the Night: The Carpathia, the Californian, and the Night the Titanic was Lost. Havertown, PA and Newbury: Casemate (2009, 2011)

The Burden of Guilt: How Germany Shattered the Last Days of Peace, summer 1914.  Havertown and Newbury: Casemate (2010, 2013).

The Shadow of the Sultan’s Realm: the Destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.  Washington, DC: Potomac Books (2011).

Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel. Havertown: Casemate (2015, 2017).

The First Jihad:  The Battle for Khartoum and the Dawn of Militant Islam. Philadelphia: Casemate (2007, 2011, and 2018)

Pearl: The 7th of December 1941 (Daniel Allen Butler, Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia and Oxford, England, 2020)

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