Defending Pearl Harbor
By Patrick Collins
December 2016

Pearl Harbor is one of the most analyzed events in U.S. military history. There were nine investigations by Congress, as well as boards of inquiry from the Armed Forces. There are numerous books on the subject, from many viewpoints. Conspiracy theories abound, and some even still believe them. The fact that a major U.S. base was caught off guard, the waste of lives and material that were so precious, caused as much outrage as the fact that it was a “sneak attack.”

And yet, one question not often asked or answered is this: Could they have done much better, given the limitations in material, training, that existed in the Territory of Hawaii, that fateful day? While we can never know, we can at least explore the question.

Five battleships and a carrier moored at Pearl Harbor, November 1941.


Some things are well known. Navy anti-aircraft batteries opened up soon after the first bombs fell, and the second wave reported much heavier flak than the first. One of the considerations that led Nagumo NOT to order a third strike was the damage done to the second strike, as compared to the first. A few U.S. planes managed to take to the air. What might have happened if all the batteries had been ready? If all the planes had been airborne?

Now, this is not a “Final Countdown” exercise. What we want to do is to see what difference might have been made, if those responsible had made different decisions. While it is true that the United States was short of all sorts of war materiel, and that Pearl Harbor was no exception, it is also true that the Territory of Hawaii had a priority on what was available. As Gen. Marshall put it, “if Hawaii was 100, then the Panama Canal was 20, and the Philippines was 10.”

What did they have? Enough planes to make a search through about 90 to 100 degrees. In the aftermath Adm. Husband E. Kimmel made much of the fact that he had to do a lot of training, and that spare parts were short for his best search planes (PBY). But it is also true that searching could well be combined with training. Also, the hearings made clear that they COULD have done a search through a limited area (based on the planes they had, and the numbers they quoted as needed for spares, maintenance, and all I calculate that area to be about 100 degrees). True, they expected trouble from the south of Hawaii. What search they did do was concentrated to the south of the island group from roughly 140 to 250 degrees.

There is no doubt that AA could have been better, in places. When the attack started, some 25 percent of naval batteries opened fire in less than two minutes. Within 10 minutes, 100 percent of naval AA batteries were firing. Four HOURS after the attack, Army mobile AA units were not ready to fire. The Army fixed batteries did have ammo in storage lockers.

One large problem the Army had was getting permission to site the batteries. Many locations were on private land, and in land-scarce Hawaii (even today you often lease land, you can’t buy it) that was a big issue for an Army used to peacetime frugality, and avoiding issues with the politically connected property owners. The other problem was ammunition.

Anti-aircraft fire bursts over Battleship Row, 7 December 1941.


Not lack of ammunition. But the department did not want to issue it on field exercises. “Ammunition ...  it goes out, gets damaged, comes back in, and has to be renovated.” So there was no practice of the mobile units actually moving to their assigned positions, being issued ammo, and reporting as “ready for action.” The peacetime belief of “when you need ammo, you will get it in plenty of time” met the reality of a surprise air raid. That, and the famous “lined up wingtip to wingtip” alignment of planes on their fields, meant that the airfields were easy pickings that December morning.

The other aspect of Pearl Harbor is the allocation of scarce resources. While the U.S. industrial machine was gearing up to make massive quantities of planes and things, the pipeline was just filling. Not much was coming out at the end. Lend-Lease to Britain consumed some. Complaints that the British were getting material that American forces needed missed the point that the material was destroying Axis material, so it was not exactly being wasted.

As Gen. Marshall noted, the Territory of Hawaii was getting the bulk of the material that was available. However, more COULD have made its way to Hawaii, in one way or another.  Planes being sent to the Philippines could have been kept in Hawaii. U.S. planning wrote off the Philippines anyway, so it could have made do with the P-26s and B-18s the United States had available.

Also, after the attack the U.S. was scoured for planes to be sent to Hawaii to replace what was destroyed. That effort could have been made sooner. Certainly if Gen. Short had taken vigorous action, the AA batteries could have been sited, and realistic drills taken that had them moving to the field, getting ammo, and reporting as ready for action. He could also have accelerated the operation of the air defense network. The radar station that was operating that morning was only part of that network. Sadly, the network was very close to complete, and certainly could have been fully operational that morning.

An operational network would have not only detected the incoming planes, it would have had communication to AA batteries, airfields, and liaison with the Navy. Officers with the rank and authority to order a scramble would have been on duty. In short, the system needed to get planes in the air, AA batteries ready, and the fleet at General Quarters and "buttoned up” would have been working.

So far we have seen that, altering really only the actions of Gen. Short and Adm. Kimmel, the following:

1. A distant air search, although only partially effective, could have been carried out.
2. Army AA batteries and Naval batteries could have been standing ready.
3. Effective warning could have been received in enough time that all Naval batteries and fixed army batteries were ready. Army fighters could have been airborne.

Wreckage of U.S. Army fighters (apparently all P-40 types), Wheeler Field.


But would Kimmel and Short really have had any reason to be more alert that normal? Was there anything more than the "This is to be considered a war warning” that was received Nov. 27. At Pearl, that message was widely thought to be very bad news for Manila, Malaya (modern Malaysia) and the Netherlands East Indies (modern day Indonesia). But not that Pearl itself was in danger.

Yes, there was reason. As Clausen reported to Congress, Gen. Short was told on Dec. 5 that the Japanese embassies in the west had been ordered to destroy their codes and machines. Destroying codes and machines is a one-way street. After that is done, the embassy is really useless for its normal duties. Therefore, one very logical conclusion is that the embassy won’t be needed much longer. That is, war is coming, and very soon.

The defense that was offered at many hearings was that training was needed, and that it interfered with search and battle drills. But if you know that war is coming, and soon, you can do the search, and do the drills for a limited period of time without affecting other priorities. And, when war came, those priorities would be changed anyway.

Had Short made the proper deduction, and alerted Kimmel, not only would the air defense system been operating, AA batteries could have been sited and ready for action. Pursuit squadrons could have been ready for scramble at short notice. And intensive search could have been done. It all COULD have happened.

The Variant

So, how do we use Second World War at Sea: Midway to game it out?

If you wish to game the campaign, use operational Scenario 5 except as modified below. The following are available for search:


The following are available for CAP:


The other planes are available as per normal rules.

One thing needs to be stressed. If you want to play an operational scenario, your room to alter is limited. The IJN HAD to strike, no matter what. Had they been detected the day before, they would have had to close and launch anyway. Also, the strike was timed to match the day the ultimatum was delivered. So, Pearl would have had just a day or two's notice in any event. So, you need to place the Strike fleet as per operational scenario 5.

The U.S. player will get one turn of search to find the TF the day before. This is limited to a maximum of four steps. No night searches. The US player may of course search again the next day turn, but any strikes coming in will hit their targets. Add +2 to the search the turn AFTER the raid, as radar gives a good idea where the carriers are at. Add +1 two turns after the raid. There after, search as normal. Please note that the U.S. CVs would STILL be on their missions, but of course may be given a new mission once the raid happens, or a IJN force is detected.

Regardless of detection, handle the strike as per Midway Operational Scenario 5 with these changes:

1) Full AA is applied to strike planes that survive CAP as per normal SWWAS rules.
2) Cap may intercept one zone away from Pearl Harbor.
3) Only 10 steps of fighters may be on CAP for the first strike. Same for the second.

A key player decision is: if he does detect the Nihon Kaigun, does he sortie (and risk ships sunk) or stay put?

There is one other possibility. While Pearl had a priority, it did not get sole possession of U.S. production. Less likely, but still possible would have been a decision to “write off” the Philippines, and send most of those planes to Pearl. To show this, add the following to any base in Hawaii. These units can be found in Second World War at Sea: Strike South.

4 B-17D
6 P-40E

They are available for search, strike, and CAP/escort duty as usual.

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