Remember Pearl Harbor

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Don Bacon
  • 55th Wing commander
The phrase, "Remember Pearl Harbor," mobilized our nation for total war after our Pacific fleet was severely damaged during the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

Today, 70 years later, we honor those who fought that terrible day, but as military professionals we should also "Remember Pearl Harbor" for the lessons learned. Our military was caught by surprise despite dozens of intelligence indicators and warnings, and the results were tragic: more than 2,400 Americans killed and more than 18 ships were sunk or heavily damaged.

The following are some key lessons learned:

Bad assumptions can be deadly. Our leaders didn't think Japan would attack the United States because of our superior strength in manpower, manufacturing and raw resources. If Japan attacked, we knew it would only be a matter of time before our nation would achieve victory, and we thought the Japanese would come to the same conclusion.

We also assumed that if Japan attacked Hawaii, it would be a prelude for a ground invasion or acts of sabotage. Most of our leaders assumed the Japanese were going to attack the British and the Dutch in Southeast Asia. Military professionals must always question their assumptions.

Underestimating the threat can be deadly. Many Americans didn't respect the fighting abilities or technological innovativeness of the Japanese. We didn't expect the Japanese navy to modify their torpedoes with wooden fins that would allow torpedo attacks in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. Even the thought of the Japanese conducting an air raid on Hawaii from carriers seemed farfetched. Not respecting the resourcefulness or toughness of an adversary can be disastrous.

Poor communications and lack of intelligence sharing can be deadly. The Pearl Harbor attack is full of miscommunications between leaders in Washington D.C. and the Pacific, as well as between the Army and Navy leaders working only a few miles apart in Hawaii.
According to Gordon Prange in his book, At Dawn We Slept, vague orders and ambiguous warnings from Washington D.C. were misunderstood, not all intelligence was relayed to Hawaii, and the Army and Navy on the Island didn't share all of their intelligence nor did they properly coordinate their response plans for the defense of Hawaii. Everyone was out of synch.

Poor operations security can be deadly. Prange also states the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu was able to closely monitor our daily naval and air activities, and was stunned at the predictability of America's operations. From this, the Japanese knew the best day to attack would always be Sunday. Even the local Honolulu newspaper reported when ships would arrive and depart.

We are always being studied by our adversaries who are looking for weaknesses to exploit. You should always assume someone else is reading your email.

Lack of preparedness can be deadly. The Navy and Army units on Hawaii were well trained for combat operations, but were not well prepared for how to defend against an attack. For example, the new radar installed on Hawaii was used for an hour a day for training, but no one was too sure what to do if enemy aircraft were spotted on the radar, or how to discriminate friendly from enemy aircraft observed on radar. According to Prange, the local leadership put a premium on training, but exerted little thought on defending the Hawaiian Islands.

Plato's maxim that "only the dead have seen the end of war" remains true. Thus, we should always prepare for what our potential adversaries may do. Exercises, "red teaming" and challenging our assumptions helps us prepare, and thorough preparedness serves as a great deterrence.

The attack on Pearl Harbor may have been 70 years ago, but the lessons learned are no less valuable today than they were that "date which will live in infamy."