Midway, The naval Campaign in the Pacific and a Catch All

We have had this thread running in Cafe Society and it is clearly not the correct forum. There have been quite a few participants and a "robust " discussion has of course had plenty of thread drift.

I’m just restarting the thread so we can fight the war again and front up with our clever tactics. Please feel free to contribute and correct what I will try and answer from the previous thread:

  1. It was asked if the conspiracy theory about FDR or Churchil knowing of the attack had any validity. I said that I couldn’t see how as having the military forewarned would have saved lives and ships and still given FDR reason to go to war. I think it was John diFool who suggested a book he read had said an attack on the Japanese fleet when it was in position would not have made the American public as committed and the war would have lasted longer.

I would counter that by saying Washington was very aware that Japan had to be seen to be the aggressor and would not have committed to a first strike. It was quite clear that the USA was to avoid firing the first shot.

I think also that Pearl harbour is often seen in isolation- there were Japanese attacks in the Phillipines as well on American forces. There was ample provocation.

(I am aware that the attack on the Panay didn’t seem to provoke much reaction).

  1. It has been suggested that the USA knew where the Japanese fleet was at Midway and Coral Sea but didn’t appear to know where they were before the attack on Pearl harbour.

Well yes, but the American code breakers were a lot more coordinated by the time of Coral sea and Midway. Although the diplomatic code of the Japanese had been broken prior to Pearl Harbor did not give warning of the outbreak of hostilities and certainly not of a direct attack on Pearl harbor. Also, to the military, the idea of the Japanese fleet being able to travel 4,000 miles and attack Pearl harbor was inconcievable (at the time).

Finally, there was also mention of the attack by Catalinas on the Japanese at Midway. I think this is a bit confusing, as from what I have read the attack was on the force going to the Aleutians.

Anyway, I have blithered on enough. Over to you guys.

Good points all around. The code breakers were certainly more coordinated
at Coral Sea and Midway since over 3,000 of our guys were murdered at Pearl Harbor,
something people in this forum forget.

I believe the Japanese changed the key to the JN-25 naval code somewhat before Pearl Harbor and it took the codebreakers some time to catch up. ISTR they did the same before Midway, but not before the US had sussed out the plan.

(Another thing to consider is that codebreaking rarely delivers a word-for-word clear text. Usually less than half comes through; the rest is filled in by circumstantial evidence, inference, and the codebreaker’s own experience. Even a radioman’s distinctive keying style — his “fist” — is useful because it may identify his ship even though its call sign changed.)

As for the Catalina attack, I believe it was against the Midway invasion force which was approaching the island from the south.

Re: Identifying radiomen by how they signal: I’ve heard this from various different places. Supposedly back in the days when Western Union was the preferred way to send an electronic message, many of the operators could recognize each other just by their keying style. Granted, they were always communicating with each other, both in terms of passing on messages and just having idle chat during the slower hours.

As far as Midway goes, supposedly the radioman on Yamamoto’s flagship tapped in such a way that the American codebreakers wondered if he just sat on the radio key and bounced up and down on it.

I don’t know that this is the right forum either. GD or IMHO would both be better, I think.

The claim about foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor is that Roosevelt, and perhaps a couple of people at the Cabinet level and among the Joint Chiefs knew, but didn’t not pass along sufficiently explicit warning to the military commands in Hawaii. In fact they did send warnings. One went to the Army command, but it was interpreted to mean a warning against sabotage by locals, and it resulted in lining up aircraft wing to wing out in the open so they could be more easily guarded. That turned out to be a very costly error. There was another, more explicit warning sent that did not get a high enough priority and wasn’t delivered until after the attack.

I don’t think there’s any question that an accurate and more timely warning would have saved many ships and thousands of lives. If nothing else, the battleships wouldn’t have been sitting dead in the water at anchor and would have been far more difficult targets. And there would have been hundreds of American fighters in the air instead of lined up as ground targets.

I’m pretty sure that even if the attack had happened and largely failed, the American public’s response would have been the same. The public certainly didn’t know the extent of the disaster by the time Congress declared war. And as noted in the OP, there were multiple other attacks all around the Pacific within hours of Pearl Harbor.

The story about why we knew about subsequent battles but not Pearl Harbor is that the Japanese fleet left harbor with their orders in hand, and so the orders weren’t sent by radio. Once they were at sea, orders to prepare for continuing operations would have to be sent by radio out of necessity.

This is a great start. I meant to put it in Great Debates. I have had a shit weekend.

Thanks Boyo Jim- if a mod has nothing better to do than help me out a move would be appreciated.

My understanding is that we did not know “where” the Japanese fleet was prior to Midway and we were uncertain whether their target was Midway or Peal Harbor.

The story goes Midway sent a message in the clear that their water condenser had broken (it hadn’t, it was a ruse). We knew the Japanese were attacking “AF” but did not know what “AF” was. We intercepted a Japanese communication that “AF” had a broken water condenser and we then knew where to send the carriers.

Still, once at Midway they had to find the Japanese fleet and for awhile we couldn’t. Knowing the Japanese were after Midway certainly helped but it is a big ocean and we still had to go looking for them.


The disaster at Pearl Harbor (not “Harbour,” no matter where you live - it’s a proper noun) is one of the more extensively studied intelligence and operational failures in military history.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of the conversation but the case for the U.S. government specifically knowing of the attack and allowing it to happen is about as strong as the case for the attack having been carried out by Martians. It is not only unsupported by direct evidence, but is contradicted by mountains of evidence as well as whole continents of circumstantial evidence and common sense.

I’m having a hard time finding a citation, but I recall a quote from Chester Nimitz that kind of contradicts this, at least as far as the USN was concerned. The gist was that had Admiral Kimmel (the Pacific Fleet commander at the time of the attack) known far enough in advance that the Japanese were coming, he would certainly have ordered the fleet out to meet them; and lacking air cover, the battle line would have been sunk in blue water rather than at dockside where they could be salvaged.

(Of the US carriers, only the Enterprise was close enough to Pearl to provide air support, and Bull Halsey would most assuredly have charged into the fray. In that case, he would have had had one carrier with a trained-but-inexperienced air group facing six carriers whose pilots included many China veterans; I’ll let the gentle reader draw his or her own conclusions as to the likely outcome.)

Minor sidebar, but I have known many places to have different names based on who is talking about them (excellent examples of course including the United States of America and the Empire of Japan).

I suppose it would depend on the timing and specificity of the warning. If the Navy knew approximately the time it was coming, but nothing else, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have found the Japanese fleet in order to be sunk by them. And there were certainly enough Army fighters stationed in the area to provide decent air cover – that is assuming anyone thought it through, which is highly questionable.

OTOH, had the Americans had a LOT of warning, they might have had time to recall the carriers, and fly in a bunch more air power from the mainland.

Any of these possibilities could still have resulted in a American defeat, of lesser or greater severity than the real attack. But at the very least the Americans would have been mentally prepared and properly armed. All the guns would be manned the ammunition lockers unlocked. If the military being prepared would result in a worse defeat than the military being unprepared, well… I just have no idea what that implies except a very bad future.

Personally, I think the best possible outcome would have been if the Japanese had attacked an essentially empty harbor, or an emptying one. And there would be hundreds of Army fighters in the air to do their best against the attacking Japanese planes.

Don’t forget that MacArthur had 24 hour’s warning and still had most of his air force caught on the ground. Not to mention all of his other screwups that might have been excused had he been the first target, but not with the warnings he had.

Some cites would be nice.

It seems to me there are a few possibilities:

  1. We knew the attack was imminent and let it happen anyway.

  2. The information it was going to happen was there but no one thought to put 2 and 2 together and we were caught flat footed.

  3. We had no freaking clue anything at all was about to happen and were caught utterly by surprise.

I think #3 has been debunked. So pick between #1 or #2.

I’m not sure that would have actually helped the US, instead of hindered us.

If the battleships had survived, that would have left the ‘big gun’ admirals in charge of the Pacific Fleet, using their obsolete WWI strategy. But since they were sunk, the US Navy was forced to move to a carrier-based strategy ahead of other navies, which turned out to be a good thing for us.

(Note how the German Navy had Bismarck & Tirpitz (instead of the couple dozen submarines they could have built instead), and the British had the Home Fleet sitting at Scapa Flow to counter them, etc. Most of these navies were still controlled by ‘big-gun’ Admirals.)

Well, MacArthur was a screwup in general, IMHO. Look at the rest of WWII, then his administration of Japan after the war, then his service in Korea.

But that should be another thread.

IIRC it was more like 8 hours. The Japanese air attack was delayed several hours by heavy fog over their Formosa bases. MacArthur’s fighter planes had taken off to avoid getting caught on the ground, but hours later had to land to refuel. Unfortunately they were running out of fuel and landing about the same time as the Japanese attack arrived overhead.

MacArthur did get a lot of flack for not using his own bombers to strike at the Japanese bases. And since the Japanese planes were stuck on the ground for several hours, they would also have been sitting ducks. It’s one of those things that just might have changed the course of the war.

I mentioned Pearl Harbor 5 times in the post. Three times I managed to force myself into (for me) the unnatural spelling. Yet you need to correct me. Is it not clear that I am aware of what the spelling should be? This is really nit picking that is not going to tell me anything I didn’t know.

It’s hard to cite in this message board’s format the product of 65 YEARS of research. It’s like me saying “Evolution is fact” and you asking for a cite.

Google “Pearl Harbor Intelligence Failure.” Start with the first hit and go from there, seriously. You’ll get informative hits for much longer than you will have time to read them. The U.S. didn’t analyse the data right. They over-relied on electronic warfare. The intelligence agencies did not work well together. They didn’t understand their enemy; more tragically, they were contemptuous and racist in their analysis of Japanese capabilities (which is one of the reasons the conspiracy theory about Pearl Harbor exists, to justify being ass-kicked by the Japanese; I am not saying you hold such views, only that this is one of the reasons the theory has been as popular as it has.)

For one of the cites you can find with that search:

This is probably the best read I’ve found freely available on the net, by the way:


I find this fact truly amazing. It’s not like the Japanese started building their navy in 1940; they had LONG since been the major threat to Western interests in the Pacific and quite obviously the most likely dangerous enemy, and it took until then to assign one damned officer to oversee the compiliation of intelligence about the Japanese? That’s positively imbecilic. It is exactly as crazy as if the USA had only decided last year to have someone look into the military capabilites of these North Korean folks.

In addition to the staggering failure in intelligence, operationally, they made a dozen or more errors.

With due respect, those are simply NOT the only possibilities.

An organization the size of an industrialized nation’s armed forces isn’t like a single person who’s either caught unawares or ignorant or in the know; the failure of intelligence in December 1941 was the product of a very complex set of errors, both human and systemic, that led to the Japanese being wildly successful. 1, 2 and 3 are ALL wrong; the U.S. certainly did not know of the strike against Pearl, and of course 3 is false. 2 is only sort of true; the fact is that everyone knew something was going to happen sooner or later but it’s not a matter of putting 2 and 2 together, it’s more like coming up with the third derivative of a hideously complex function except you’re working with 180 other guys all of whom have a different part of the word problem you have to plug your function into to come up with the right answer, and not all of them want to do their work or help you out or are even working on the same problem at all.

Pearl Harbor was a disastrous error of intelligence, but World War II is positively RIFE with disastrous errors of intelligence, so it’s not like Pearl was unique.

Yes, I made much the same point in the thread before this one. In this thread I was talking about the outcome of the Japanese attack in the battle rather than on long-term strategic impact.

And had the US battleship fleet remained intact or nearly so, who knows what the long term impact on Japanese thinking might have been?