Countdown to Pearl Harbor
By David H. Lippman
August 2015

On 22 November 1941, the First Air Fleet under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo arrives in Tankan Bay in Japan’s remote Kurile Islands. This force of six aircraft carriers, two battlecruisers, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and 10 destroyers is the first multi-carrier task force assembled in history. Its presence in Tankan Bay is a total secret. The six carriers' radio operators are left behind in Sasebo and Kure to bat out imaginary traffic to fool Western radio eavesdroppers. Sailors from other ships are driven on public bus tours of Japanese national shrines to give the impression the fleet is staying in home waters. And at Tankan Bay, Chief Engineer Yoshiburi Tanbo is ordered to dispose of the carrier Akagi's trash. He does so by burning it at pierside. On the battleship Hiei, communications officer Cdr. Kanjiro Ono removes a vital part from his main transmitter and hides it under his pillow. Meanwhile, Japanese negotiators in Washington present a new document to the Americans.

The next day, Nagumo assembles his senior officers in the wardroom of his flagship Akagi. Yanking a sheet of a massive and excellent physical map of the island of Oahu, he reveals their target: Pearl Harbor.

The U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, May 1940.


On November 24, the U.S. War Department issues a warning to all Pacific commanders that there is a possibility of a "surprise aggressive moment in any direction, including an attack on the Philippines or Guam." There’s no mention of Pearl Harbor.

On the 25th, Adm. Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, tells Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, CINCPAC, that neither Stark nor President Roosevelt nor Secretary of State Cordell Hull would be surprised if the Japanese were to launch a surprise attack. The two admirals discuss the probable location and decide it will be the Philippines, which would be "most embarrassing," though Stark also guesses Burma.

Kimmel reacts by discussing anti-aircraft guns with Gen. Walter E. Short, who commands all U.S. Army troops in Hawaii. Kimmel wants to deploy ships and AA guns at Wake and Midway, but is short of the latter. It turns out the Army is short of guns, too.

Shortly before midnight, at Tankan Bay, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo's six carriers and 15 escorts weigh anchor amid thick gloom and thicker secrecy. They sail west, heading for the International Date Line... and Pearl Harbor.

In Washington on 26 November, the Americans offer the Japanese ten points for a settlement. Japan must yield territory she has occupied in both China and Indochina, end recognition of their puppet Chinese government in Nanking, and withdraw from alliance with Hitler. The Japanese reject the demands. Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo's force has been at sea for a day.

On the 27th, President Roosevelt and his advisors decide that Japan is bent on war. With Gen. George Marshall attending maneuvers in Georgia, his aide, Lt. Gen. Miles Gerow, sends out a pre-written war warning to all Army commands in the Pacific, stressing that the "United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act." In Hawaii, Gen. Short puts his men on anti-sabotage alert, fearing that the 350,000 Japanese in Hawaii are actually Fifth Columnists.

Adm. Kimmel dispatches the carrier Enterprise to Midway to deliver Marine air units and the Lexington to Wake to do the same, sailing at top speed all the way. This decision leaves eight of the Pacific Fleet's nine battleships in Pearl Harbor (USS Colorado is at Bremerton Navy Yard in Washington).

At sea, the Japanese task force en route to Pearl Harbor struggles through fog and rain. Tankers assigned to keep the warships topped up keep losing their way, and destroyers have to round them up. On the carrier Hiryu, 28 November, naval aviators turn ice cream and milk into American milkshakes. On the carrier Akagi's bridge, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo blurts out to Rear Adm. Ryunosuke Kusaka, "Mr. Chief of Staff, what do you think? I feel that I've undertaken a heavy responsibility. If only I'd have held out and declined it." Kusaka tranquilly replies, "Don't worry, sir. Everything will turn out all right."

On 29 November, Premier Hideki Tojo tells a meeting of Japan's top officials, including Emperor Hirohito, that Japan must go to war, and that diplomacy has failed.

In the Pacific Ocean on 30 November, rain and sleet turn the flight deck of the carrier Kaga into a skating rink. Aviators kill time by studying flash identification cards of American battleships.

Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, left, and Saburo Kurusu (right) with Cordell Hull, moments before the attack on Pearl Harbor.


All across the Pacific, Japanese troops and ships move to their action stations. Most are in French Indo-China, China, or Formosa, preparing for assaults on the American-held Philippines, British-held Malaya, Hong Kong, and Borneo, Dutch Java, or neutral Thailand. These moves, many of them quite visible, set off alarms in Singapore, but nobody detects the carrier fleet heading for Hawaii.

In Washington, Japanese emissaries Kichisaburo Nomura and Saboru Kurusu continue to talk peace with Cordell Hull. Their conversations are disrupted by Hull's cleft palate and Nomura's deafness. The British put Malaya on full alert on 1 December 1941.

In Japan, the final meeting of the Imperial Privy Council is held. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo argues the case for war. Some advisers warn that Japan's economy cannot match America's, and point out there are no plans in case of air raids on Tokyo, a mostly wooden city. Privy Council President Yochimichi Hara retorts, "The United States is acting in a conceited, stubborn, and disrespectful manner." Tojo tops that by saying that the Japanese Empire stands at the threshold of glory or collapse, and promises that a "united nation will go on to victory."

There is nothing more to be said. The ministers sign the documents declaring war, and give them to Hirohito, who signs them a few hours later, telling his aides that he does not feel that a constitutional monarch can overturn his ministers on such a momentous decision.

Shortly after that, the Imperial Japanese Navy's main radio towers in Tokyo, grind out orders to the far-flung fleet to commence hostilities on 8 December, Tokyo time. One signal goes out to Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo's carrier force: "Niitaka Yama Nobore," which means, "Climb Mt. Niitaka." That order tells Nagumo to proceed with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Niitaka, a peak on Formosa, was at that time the highest (13,599 feet) peak in the Japanese Empire.

Back in Japan, the leading English-language paper, Japan Times and Advertiser, headlines: "Japan Will Renew Efforts to Reach U.S. Understanding."

Tokyo fires a telegram to its chief spy in Pearl Harbor, German Julius Otto Kuhn, to ask if there are any barrage balloons over Pearl Harbor, or any anti-torpedo nets. The answer is no. The Americans break this message faster than Kuhn, but regard it as a routine intelligence inquiry.

In Hawaii, Lt. Cdr. Edwin D. Layton, the U.S. Pacific Fleet's intelligence officer, tells his boss, Vice Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, that he has "no information" about the location of Japan's six aircraft carriers, but presumes they are in "home waters."

Kimmel jokingly asks, "Do you mean to say that they could be rounding Diamond Head this minute and we wouldn't know?"

Layton replies blandly, "I would hope they would be sighted by now, sir."

On 3 December 1941 the Japanese Consul-General in Hawaii fires a radiogram to Tokyo reporting the American warships at anchor in Pearl Harbor, which include the battleships Oklahoma and Nevada, both sisters, and the carrier USS Enterprise. This information is radioed to Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo's First Air Fleet, whose six carriers have just reached a point 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii and are now headed southeast, towards its target.

In his office aboard the battleship Nagato, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto writes a letter to a friend who has expressed jingoistic rhetoric. "If we attack America," Yamamoto chides his friend sarcastically, "it will not be necessary for us to seize California. In order for us to make peace, we would have to march into the White House. I wonder if those who would blindly lead us to war have thought about that!" Japanese propagandists turn this warning of American determination and toughness into a boast that Yamamoto is looking forward to dictating peace to the Americans in the White House.

In the north Pacific, Nagumo's force gets word from Tokyo on 4 December that an American submarine is nearby. The fleet changes course, but it turns out to be an error; there is no submarine. That evening the force gets another scare when lights of an aircraft are seen. They turn out to be sparks from the carrier Kaga's funnel. She gets a stiff warning to be more careful.

A cartoon found in a downed Japanese fighter after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In Tokyo, the Japanese Foreign Ministry goes over the final note to the Americans, the one that will declare war. They agree to deliver it at 1 p.m., Washington time, half an hour before the attack. It will not include a simple declaration of war, but simply say that "in view of the attitude of the American Government it must be concluded that it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations."

Lead domestic American news stories on 6 December 1941 are a car crash in Baltimore, a train wreck in Kentucky, the death of a Civil War veteran, and the murder of a 12-year-old girl at a "petting party." In Seattle, a gun-toting burglar breaks into a local doctor's home at 4:30 a.m., and makes off with a purse's entire contents: 15 cents. As there are only 16 shopping days til Christmas, newspapers are packed with ads that link consumer goods to the defense push ("This Christmas... Give the 8 Freedoms of (Glover) Pajamas That Really Fit!")

The New York Times headlines its story on Japan's aggressive tone: "Japan rattles sword but echo is pianissimo." Life magazine says, "Japan is desperate and getting weaker every day."

That afternoon, Japan sends a the first segments of a 14-part message to its embassy in Washington, ordering them to present their final demands to the United States at 1 p.m. Washington time, tomorrow. This message is intercepted and decoded by the Americans faster than the Japanese can do it.

This intelligence lands in the hands of Lt. Cdr. Alvin Kramer of the Navy's Cryptographic Department, who drives around Washington that evening, showing the message to top officials. The message indicates that the Japanese intend to break off negotiations completely, and is filled with inconclusive posturing.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt reads the document and says, "This means war." He then sends a personal message to Japan's Emperor Hirohito, begging him to start negotiations afresh. Other American senior officers are less certain that the message means war. Some senior officers, like Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, and Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner, Chief of War Plans, cannot be reached that evening. No warnings go out to Hawaii, or anywhere else, for that matter.

When Roosevelt's message reaches Tokyo (after a long delay by the Japanese telegraph agency), U.S. Ambassador Robert C. Grew passes it on to the Foreign Ministry and asks for an immediate audience with the Emperor. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, the fiercest militarist, denies the American request.

At Pearl Harbor, all eight battleships of the Pacific Fleet are in port, and all three carriers are at sea.

Pearl Harbor, October 1941.

On the battleship USS Arizona, YN3 Oree Weller stands zone inspection in the ship's navigation office. He just manages to clean up dripping red paint before Capt. Franklin Van Valkenburgh inspects the space. Weller's space passes inspection, and Weller is handed his liberty card for that evening.

"A river of white flows down Hotel Street" that evening as thousands of sailors descend on Honolulu's main entertainment area, filled with shooting galleries, pinball machines, taxi-dancehalls, and cafes named the Black Cat, the Bunny Ranch, or Lousy Lui's. However, both the shore patrol and the military police have a quiet night. One sailor is jailed for a "malicious conversation," and another from USS California for using a shipmate's liberty card. Only 80 out of 100,000 military on liberty or pass are carted off to brigs and guardhouses.

Many sailors and soldiers enjoy simpler pleasures. Private First Class Aloysius Manuszewski has a beer at the PX, and then writes home to his parents in Buffalo, N.Y. Officers' clubs hold small parties and Dutch treats. Ensign Victor Delano spends a properly respectful evening at the home of Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, who is COMBATDIV 2. It is the last night Kidd will be alive.

A lot of sailors go Pearl Harbor's Bloch Recreation Arena, where the main event is the "Battle of Music," a musical contest between ship's bands. The contest is won by USS Pennsylvania. The band of USS Arizona finishes second. The musicians are rewarded by being allowed to sleep late the following day. Not one member of Arizona's band survives the attack.

At midnight, Hawaii's stern blue laws kick in. At bars and clubs throughout Honolulu, the national anthem is played. Sailors and soldiers snap to attention, face the music, then race for the doors, buses, and liberty boats.

Some have to work. The swing shift at the Pearl Harbor drydock puts new steel plates on the destroyer USS Downes and aligns boring bars on the USS Pennsylvania's propeller shafts, while loudspeakers blare "Moonlight Serenade." Japanese midget submarines use the work lights to navigate towards the base.

Radio station KGMB is ordered to stay on the air after midnight to guide in a flight of 12 B-17 Flying Fortresses due in from the West Coast.

North of Hawaii, the attacking Japanese task force increases speed to 25 knots, and six midget submarines are released from their mother boats off Oahu, in a bid to cause additional chaos at Pearl Harbor. Among them is a midget sub commanded by Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki.

On the carrier Akagi, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo sends a message to his fleet: "The fate of the Empire rests on this enterprise. Every man must devote himself totally to the task at hand."

To be continued.

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.