What if the U.S. Had Been Prepared for Pearl Harbor?

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A Brief History

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted a devastating surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and the Hickam Field Airbase on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. 

Digging Deeper

American Naval and Army forces were caught by surprise that fateful sunny Sunday morning and paid a terrible price for their lack of vigilance.  All the American battleships were either sunk or disabled.  Of the 390 warplanes, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged.  Over 2,400 Americans died.  The Japanese were met with some token anti-aircraft fire and air-to-air interception, but the results were scant.  One U.S. destroyer managed to sink a Japanese midget submarine, but even that feat was not believed until proof was finally found decades later.  Further Japanese losses included another 4 midget subs, 29 airplanes and 64 men. 

Much has been made about the lack of American preparation for the attack, including the fact that American radar had detected the raiding air force.   Although it is true that the Japanese were detected by radar, it was at the time assumed that the incoming planes were a flight of B-17s that were expected that day.  Even if the alarm had been raised, the fact remains that fighter planes would still have had to scramble, so it is likely the attack would still have been successful.

If the U.S. had had sea and air reconnaissance forces combing the seas, the Japanese forces might have been detected earlier, which might well have prevented the disaster.  Or, perhaps a U.S. preemptive strike or show of force may have averted the attack.  On the other hand, the better trained and more experienced Japanese may then instead have dealt an even deadlier blow to the U.S. by sinking its aircraft carriers that were luckily spared from the real attack as they were out to sea at the time.  Obviously, had the U.S. forces had interceptors scramble ready, anti-aircraft crews on notice and aircraft scattered on fields instead of bunched together the damage would have been far less.  And had the battleships also been at sea, they would have been maneuverable and more elusive.  

So, would Hitler still have declared war on the U.S. four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor had the Japanese been averted by detection?  Perhaps the American entry into the war would have been delayed long enough for the Germans to be able to concentrate their forces against Russia, possibly changing the outcome of the war. 

As it was, though the attack was initially seemed successful, the Japanese failed to sink the all-important American aircraft carriers, to permanently put the battleships out of commission (all but the Arizona were re-floated), to destroy U.S. fuel and dry-dock ship repair facilities and lastly to cow the U.S. into an immediate negotiated peace.

Some “what if” speculators have claimed the U.S. would still have suffered a crushing loss even with preparation and warning, assuming the Japanese would have sunk American ships at sea as easily as in the harbor.  Better leadership by Admiral Kimmel and General Short might have made all the difference, but this will never be known for sure.  Seventy plus years on: Rest in peace, all brave men who died that day.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.