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Pearl Harbor
With Michael Gannon
Friday, Dec. 7, 2001; 2:30 p.m. EST

Sixty years ago a large Japanese bomber squadron attacked the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor killing 2,400 Americans, destroying 18 U.S. warships, 150 aircraft and thrusting America into World War II. Although the morning raid was a tactical victory for the Japanese it also bolstered the American people behind the war effort and led to the eventual downfall of the Axis powers.

Michael Gannon, author of "Pearl Harbor Betrayed," was online to discuss the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the events surrounding the attack and his book.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Michael Gannon: I have been in Honolulu since Saturday at the invitation of the USS Arizona Memorial Association in order to try and recreate the conditions and to debate some of the interesting questions related to Pearl Harbor. I gave three talks at a three day symposium held in the city of Honolulu. The first talk was on the question "Why did Adm. Kimmel not send out distant aerial reconnaissance aircraft to guard the approaches to the island of Oahu?" The second talk was the general defense of Adm. Kimmel against the charge of the case made against him 1942 of dereliction of duty. I also explored the question of inter-service confusion by way of defenses prior to 7 December 1941. With that background, I am ready to address some of the specific questions you have.

Silver Spring, Md.: I am incredibly interested in this time period of American history, some might say obsessed, however, I have not read your book and I do not understand what you mean by "betrayed."

Michael Gannon: The verb betrayed is defined at the beginning of my book. I take the meanings given in the Oxford English Dictionary: "to be disloyal to another, to prove false to another, to disappoint the expectations of another and to violate a trust." Basically, in the common usage, to let another person down. That is exactly what Harold R. Stark Chief of Naval Operations and his staff did in the case of Adm. Kimmel.

Stark promised Kimmel that he would send him any and all intelligence acquired pertaining to his pacific command. He also promised Kimmel that he would send him all of the weapons needed with which to defend himself. He did neither. The very little information that he sent to Kimmel understandably led him to think that that is all there was. But when Kimmel learned, three years after the attack, of the huge amount of intelligence that the Navy Department held in 1941 and had not transmitted to him he called the Navy's negligence patently and manifestly wrong. He said it made him sick to his stomach to learn how he had been betrayed by Adm. Stark and his staff in Washington. On the matter of weapons, Kimmel inherited at Pearl Harbor what he called wretchedly inadequate anti-aircraft guns. On April 26, 1941 he pleaded with Stark to give him Oerlikon and Bofors guns which were the standard anti-aircraft equipment in all other western navies. Another example relates to aerial torpedoes. As it happened, on Dec, 7 1941, the greatest damage inflicted by the Japanese against our U.S. Navy battleships was through the use of torpedoes dropped by torpedo bombers in the water off Pearl Harbor. In the months preceding the attack Adm. Stark assured Kimmel that he need not worry about being attacked by torpedo bombers because the water at Pearl Harbor was too shallow to permit their use. The depths at Pearl were 35 and 45 feet in the channels. Stark informed Kimmel that it was known that aerial torpedoes could only be dropped in water of 75 feet in depth and greater. But in July of 1941 Stark held in his hand information from the US Naval attachι in London reporting that the British Royal Navy Air arm had devised, with modification to the torpedo fins, a weapon that dove no farther than 24 feet before assuming its programmed depth to target. This information that such a shallow water torpedo had been devised and that the British had used it successfully from 1940 and 1941 was withheld from Adm. Kimmel.

That faithlessness is what I call "betrayal."

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Mr. Gannon,

I am curious why Admiral Yamamoto, brilliant as he was, launched this attack at a moment when all three of the USN Pacific Fleet carriers were not in Pearl. Had he sunk them, the U.S. might indeed have lost the war. Was this an intelligence failure or just fortunes-of-war?

Michael Gannon: The fortunes of war combined with poor intelligence.

One of Kimmel's three carriers was in overhaul on the West Coast of the United States. The other two carriers, the Enterprise and Lexington, departed for Wake and Midway Islands respectively on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5. Incredibly the Japanese espionage agent attached to the Japanese consulate in Honolulu failed to provide this information in a timely way to Adm. Yamamoto's fleet. The fleet did not learn of the absence of the carriers with certainly until its advance scout plane flew over Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7th.

Arlington, Va.: I was a student of yours at the University of Florida in the early 1970s when you taught Florida history. I still remember a field trip to St. Augustine when you discussed submarine warfare off the Florida coast.

My question: based on new revelations, is there any evidence that our policy-makers had advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor and allowed it to happen to bring us into the war?

Vince Polizatto

Michael Gannon: This is an excellent question and it has been asked repeatedly since the 1950s when the first so-called conspiracy theory books appeared. That literature has argued that President Roosevelt provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a means to getting the U.S. into the war against Germany. The theory goes on to state that FDR had advance warning of the attack and withheld that information from his Hawaiian commanders. This conspiracy has become a cottage industry. A book appearing no more than two years ago made these charges.

The problem with the conspiracy is that no author has ever produced an irrefutable original document to prove their case. The smoking gun simply does not exist. I am not alone in saying that. Just this fall the intelligence historian Joseph Persico in a book entitled FDR's Secret Wa, stated that his thorough review of the documents lead to the same conclusion -- there is simply no firm evidence for the theory. Certainly it would be astonishing if he, who had been an assistant Sec. Of the Navy, would sacrifice what he called "his precious ships" and 2,403 American lives as a first action of war. And if his intention was to get us into a war with Germany why on Dec. 8 he did not ask Congress to declare war against Germany?

Sterling, Va.: Could we have avoided such an attack? Thanks.

Michael Gannon: I do not believe that we could have avoided the attack and I do not think that there was any way given the weapons at hand that the Army and Navy commanders could have repelled the attack. Some have asked why, with war imminent, did Adm. Kimmel not disperse his fleet at sea? There are two answers to that question. First, half of his fleet was at sea. Three task forces were headed west to Wake, Midway and Johnston Islands. He could not have sent any more of his fleet to sea because of an absence of tankers capable of refueling vessels at sea. Second, if Adm. Kimmel had, say on the 6th or very early on the 7th of December, sent the remainder of his battle fleet out to sea a short distance with the fuel they had in their bunkers that would have created an extremely dangerous situation for him because the fast flying Japanese aircraft would have located those vessels and sunk them in deep water with the loss of all hands. That is why, after the war, Admiral Nimitz said "it was God's mercy that our battleship fleet was in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th."

Falls Church, Va.: Any comments as to the accuracy of the many Pearl Harbor movies, such as "From Here to Eternity," "Tora-Tora-Tora," "Pearl" and "Pearl Harbor?" My personal favorite of the group is "Tora-Tora-Tora."

Michael Gannon: I agree with the questioner that the only authentic film on Pearl Harbor is "Tora-Tora-Tora." There are manifest errors, some of them quite huge, in all of the motion pictures that were made. Scofield Barracks in "From Here to Eternity" was never attacked by the Japanese aircraft and that was the biggest battle scene in the film. Where the latest motion picture "Pearl Harbor" is concerned, I gave up counting major errors at 30.

Herndon, Va.: Mr. Gannon: Maryland's PBS station had some "specials" on Pearl Harbor last night, including one about Dr. Gordon Prange and his "At Dawn We Slept." Did you use much of his research as source documentation?

Michael Gannon: I certainly consulted Dr. Prange's book "At Dawn We Slept" during the course of my research and found much of it helpful, but Dr. Prange omits many essential points in the Pearl Harbor story, particularly with regards to withholding of critical information from the two Hawaii commanders, Army and Navy. Also, there are some unusual failures on the part of Dr. Prange and his associates in that book and another entitled "Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History" to report accurately the contents of an aviation estimate presented to Adm. Kimmel by the Army Air Commander and Navy Air Commander in Hawaii. Their estimate has come to be called the Martin-Bellinger Report. Prange states in the latter book that the Martin-Bellinger Report stated that an air attack, if one came, would be delivered from the north sector, but the report says nothing of the kind. That error, which reflected very poorly by Adm. Kimmel, has been copied and published by four other historians. In my lecture on distant aerial reconnaissance at this week's symposium I endeavored to set that record straight.

Annandale, Va.: Unlike the 9-11 attacks, it seems the Japanese avoided civilian targets. Was that intentional or was it simply a case of too many military targets to hit and not enough time to do so?

Michael Gannon: The Japanese deliberately focused their attack on military targets, specifically ships and aircraft. Among those targets, their principal ones were the eight battleships in harbor. They succeeded in sinking four battleships and forcing a fifth to beach herself and damaged three others. In point of fact the Japanese attacked the wrong targets and my reason for saying this was that only two of those sunk proved to be total losses. The other battleships were re-floated or repaired and set out to sea when they were needed to soften up invasion beaches throughout the war. It was no great loss to the U.S. Navy that it did not have that entire battleship fleet in the first year of the war, because the first year of the war proved to be a carrier war in which battleships played no role. It was known to Adm. Yamamoto that the battleship was an antiquated, slow, gun platform that had been superceded as a capital ship by the aircraft carrier. It is therefore astonishing to me as an historian that Yamamoto wasted so many of his torpedoes and bombs on targets that were not critical.

What then should have been his targets? The answer is the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, with its two tank farms containing four and a half million barrels of fuel oil and aviation gasoline, its maintenance and repair shops, its dry docks, its power station and its submarine base with five submarines moored along side. If the Japanese aircraft had concentrated on the Navy Yard the U.S. Pacific Fleet would have been taken out of the war for three to six months.

Meherrin, Va.: There was no 'Navy Air Commander' back then.

Michael Gannon: The senior Navy Air commander in Hawaii was Vice Admiral William F. Halsey who commanded all torpedo dive bombers and fighter aircraft in the pacific fleet. The patrol aircraft such as PBY-3 and PBY-5 Catalina Flying Boats was Rear Admiral Patrick N. Bellinger.

Farmville, Va.: Pearl Harbor movies and the reality of what took place certainly are distancing themselves, but I'd just like to share my thoughts. My heart goes out to everyone who suffered through that tragic day, and my heart is also with those who lost loved ones on September 11th. There have been comparisons. How do you see this?

Michael Gannon: One can name five similarities to the attacks on Dec. 7 and Sept. 11. Both attacks were made on United States soil (Hawaii at the time was a U.S. Territory). Both were made from the air. Both came as complete surprises. Both involved skillful planning and precise timing. Both had the result of uniting and arousing the American people.

But there were more dissimilarities than there were similarities. At Pearl there was no doubt from the beginning who was the enemy. All one had to do was look up and see the red roundels on the undersides of the attacking aircraft to know that these were Japanese and that there headquarters were in Tokyo, but it took 48 hours for the Justice Department to announce with confidence that the enemy of Sept. 11 was Osama bin Laden and his al Quaeda terrorist network. At Pearl the targets were armed military ships and aircraft. In New York and the Pentagon the targets were building and their civilian and unarmed military occupants. At Pearl the weapons of attack were conventional: high level, dive and aerial torpedo bombers as well as fighters. At NYC and the Pentagon the weapons were unconventional: hijacked commercial airliners loaded with combustible fuel. At Pearl the Japanese airmen, later known for Kamikaze tactics, did not crash their aircraft into targets. At NYC and the Pentagon the attackers did crash into their targets with the deliberate forfeit of their lives. Pearl Harbor was attacked only once. The World Trade Center was attacked twice, in 1993 and 2001. The fatal casualties at Pearl numbered 2,403. At last count the number of dead and presumed dead at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the hijacked planes has been placed at 3,075. A contrast can also be made in the amount of physical damage that resulted in the attacks. The material destruction at NYC and the Pentagon was far greater then the destruction at Pearl Harbor and surrounding airfields. A further difference lies in the American government's investigative responses. After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt established a commission to find who was responsible on the U.S. side or what happened at Pearl. In a rush to judgement, following only 4 days of hearings, that commission found that the two Hawaiian commanders, Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short, were "derelict in their duty" and solely to blame for the debacle. This time, however, the White House has shown no inclination to conduct an inquiry into the intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11th. The Democratic Chairman and the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence announced on Nov. 22 that their panel would not mount an investigation while the nation's focus was on prosecution of the war against bin Laden and his Taliban hosts.

Michael Gannon: In the year 2000, the Congress passed as Section 547 of the Defense Authorization Act of 2001 a recommendation that the president exonerate Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short from the charge of their being solely responsible for Pearl Harbor. Final passage was by a vote of 353 yeas to 63 nays. Specifically the recommendation of Congress asks that the president advance posthumously both men to their highest temporary rank held in the war and that they be so named on the retired list. That privilege of retiring at the highest temporary rank was provided in 1947 to every general and flag officer with the exceptions, punitively, of Kimmel and Short. The matter has placed in the hands of the Dept. of Defense where a committee is deciding on what recommendation the department will make on the matter. No indication has been given of the date that the question will be resolved. For the record, I strongly support the recommendation of the Congress based upon my reading of the historical documents.

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