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The U.S. was looking for the enemy near Pearl Harbor — but it was looking in the wrong direction

U.S. planes were told to avoid war, while the enemy armada was bent on starting one

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress. Here's an excerpt of the now-famous speech. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

It was Dec. 5, 1941, and Lt. Ted S. Faulkner’s mission would be delicate and dangerous: fly his B-24 Liberator thousands of miles from Pearl Harbor, sneak over Japanese-held islands in the South Pacific, and take photographs — without starting a war or getting shot down.

Tensions between Japan and the United States were at the boiling point. The United States suspected that the Japanese were up to something, but it didn’t know what or where. It looked as if an attack could come in the area of the Philippines. Faulkner’s task was to photograph the Japanese buildup around islands east of there.

“It was a rather delicate mission,” Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall said later. If detected, the flight might be seen as a hostile act. But his caution was misplaced. Even as Faulkner’s plane landed in Hawaii to prepare for the mission, the massive Japanese fleet was already closing in.

The attack on Pearl Harbor: Unforgettable photos of the bombing

The would-be mission is detailed in a new blog post by National Archives senior archivist Greg Bradsher. And on the 77th anniversary of the Dec. 7 attack, it is another illustration of how the United States was unprepared and tragically wrong about where the main enemy blow would fall.

Even if Faulkner’s plane had taken off, it probably would not have detected the enemy fleet, Bradsher said. Faulkner would have been looking in the wrong direction. He was assigned to fly well to the southwest of Hawaii, where Pearl Harbor is located.

The Japanese, with six aircraft carriers and hundreds of airplanes, were approaching silently from the northwest, thousands of miles away.

“It’s just one more piece of the puzzle,” Bradsher said, “basically a footnote to the larger story.”

But it carries the inevitable Pearl Harbor what-ifs.

This fighter pilot flew the last mission over Japan during World War II

By the end of November 1941, the United States and Japan were locked in a tense standoff over Japan’s military aggression, its alliance with Nazi Germany, and the resulting American economic embargoes, historian Gordon W. Prange wrote in his 1981 book, “At Dawn We Slept.”

Negotiations in Washington were still underway, but essentially stalemated. And with war raging in Europe, Japan was preparing steps that would drag in the United States.

U.S. intelligence intercepts were picking up more and more evidence of extensive Japanese military activity in its so-called “Mandates,” South Pacific island groups such as the Marshalls and Carolines that came under Japanese control after World War I.

The Americans knew little of what was going on there and were desperate to find out, Bradsher wrote. They had been wary of flying there before, for fear of provoking the Japanese. But now it was time to chance it.

The order for the reconnaissance, specifically of Truk Island, in the Carolines, and Jaluit, in the Marshalls, seems to have been issued on Nov. 26.

That same day, at 6 a.m. in northern Japan, the 28-ship enemy armada steamed in radio silence from Hitokappu Bay, now called Katsatka Bay, into the North Pacific, bound for Pearl Harbor.

“The crew shouted, ‘Banzai!’ as they took what might be their last look at Japan,” remembered lead Japanese pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, according to historian Craig Nelson.

Meanwhile, the U.S. plan was for its recon planes to fly from California to Hawaii. From there, they would fly northwest to Midway Island. But then they would head southwest to Wake Island, toward New Guinea, flying fast and high over the Japanese mandates, taking pictures en route, Bradsher wrote. The final destination was the Philippines.

“Pilots should be warned islands strongly fortified,” the War Department advised. “Photography and reconnaissance must be accomplished at high altitude and there must be no circling or remaining in the vicinity . . . instruct crews if attacked . . . use all means in their power for self preservation . . . Insure that both . . . airplanes are fully equipped with gun ammunition upon departure.”

Two new B-24 bombers were selected for the mission and two crews from a squadron based at Fort Douglas, Utah.

After Pearl Harbor, this mail plane had a new mission: Find the attackers

One plane would be flown by Faulkner, 28, with an eight-man crew. The other plane would be piloted by 1st Lt. Harvey J. Watkins.

The B-24s, which had been ferrying passengers and cargo, would be outfitted with guns and cameras for their mission. The pilots were to pick up their planes at the Sacramento Air Depot, where the aircraft would be equipped, and fly about 70 miles west to Hamilton Field, north of San Francisco.

At 9:08 p.m. on Dec. 4, Faulkner’s plane left Hamilton Field for the 2,400-mile hop to Hickam Field, adjacent to Pearl Harbor. It arrived on Thursday, Dec. 5. (Watkins’s plane took off minutes after Faulkner’s but had to turn back because of mechanical problems, according to the military records website fold3.)

Three days earlier the Japanese force had been sent the code phrase, “Climb Mount Niitaka” — the go-ahead to attack Pearl Harbor. Its ships had rendezvoused and refueled and were now closing in from the north/northwest, Bradsher wrote.

But the United States was still looking for the trouble in the wrong place, coming from the wrong direction.

A week earlier, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, asked his war plans officer, Capt. Charles H. McMorris: What were the chances of an attack on Hawaii?

“I should say none, Admiral,” McMorris replied.

After Faulkner’s plane landed, inspectors found that it was outfitted with only three machine guns and no ammunition. It also lacked any protective armor plating, Bradsher wrote. It was still basically a cargo plane. Combat equipment from other planes could be installed, but more needed to be flown in.

“Plane being held here until satisfactorily armed,” Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short messaged from Pearl Harbor on Dec. 5.

The next day, at 11:30 a.m., the Japanese task force, looming north of Hawaii, turned south, increased speed to 20 knots and headed for Pearl Harbor, Prange, the historian, wrote.

On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, Faulkner’s B-24 was sitting outside Hangar 15, awaiting its refit, with Faulkner and crew nearby.

At about 8 a.m., bombs began falling on Hickam Field.

Faulkner’s navigator, 2d Lt. Louis G. Moslener Jr., 23, from Beaver, Pa., and crewman Pvt. Daniel J. Powloski, 36, of Rochester, N.Y., were killed. Four other crew members were wounded. Faulkner and two other men were not hurt, according to Robert F. Dorr’s history of the 7th Bombardment Group/Wing.

The B-24 was smashed to pieces, its would-be secret mission overtaken by events.

Faulkner went on to fly other missions in the war. He was promoted to colonel and commanded the 468th Bombardment Group.

On Nov. 4, 1944, he was flying a B-29 bomber nicknamed “Lethal Lady” back to the Calcutta area after a raid on an enemy installation in Singapore. About 8:30 that night, Lethal Lady exploded in the sky west of the Andaman Islands and went down on fire in the Bay of Bengal.

The remains of Faulkner, 10 crewmen and a 24-year-old United Press war correspondent named John J. Andrew were never recovered.

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