About the Author
Steve Twomey began his career in journalism as a copyboy at the Chicago Tribune when he was in high school. After graduating from Northwestern University, he began a fourteen-year career at The Philadelphia Inquirer, during which he won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and then worked at The Washington Post for the next thirteen years. More recently, he has written for Smithsonian and other magazines and has taught narrative writing at the graduate schools of New York University and the City University of New York. The ghostwriter of What I Learned When I Almost Died and author of Countdown to Pearl Harbor, Twomey lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife, Kathleen Carroll. They have an adult son, Nick.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Countdown to Pearl Harbor ONE
AN END, A BEGINNING
Saturday, February 1, 1941
BENEATH OAHU’S CLOUDLESS blue canopy, men in white jackets, slacks, hats, even shoes, surged over a gangway and spilled onto the polished wooden deck of a ship named for one of the forty-eight states. Every battleship in the fleet bore the name of one, as if its species embodied the very Union itself. The officers snapped salutes to the Stars and Stripes at the Pennsylvania’s stern, 608 feet from her bow. By now, each of the sixteen American battleships was older than most members of her crew and not exactly gazelle-like, lugging armor plating, crowded magazines, big guns, small guns, antiaircraft guns. But they remained tough and still occupied the rung of highest naval prestige, which was to sink the enemy’s big ships so America could rule the waves of commerce and impose its will, should that seem desirable.
To witness a broadside from their main batteries was to see an angry Zeus hurl tons of explosives a dozen miles or more. A radioman aboard the California would recall the 35,000-ton ship’s “convulsive lurch” as blasts from the fourteen-inch guns slammed her in the opposite direction, “sideways in the water.” There would be “mighty thunderclaps of sound,” and flames, and smoke that “smelled as if it had just come from the nether regions.” Hanson W. Baldwin, the military-affairs reporter for the New York Times, found it “frightening” to be aboard a battleship and “have a sixteen-inch gun go off at full load and high elevation, because you get an awful whump in the stomach and ears, and everywhere else!” In a few months, the program of the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia would feature a photo of the Arizona crashing bow-on through formidable seas, seemingly unsinkable and certainly intimidating. Battleships had panache, and people loved the sight of them.
Arriving from throughout Pearl Harbor, the guests in white uniform eddied aft and formed into a square, its center left empty, beyond the last of the Pennsylvania’s four main turrets, whose three barrels had been elevated slightly to make more room for the capped heads beneath. Above, on the turret’s roof, stood announcers of the Columbia Broadcasting System. One microphone for the outgoing admiral had been placed in the middle of the human square, another for the admiral ascending. Two thousand ninety-one nautical miles to the northeast, on the mainland, it was Saturday afternoon.
“The ceremony is about to get under way,” CBS’s Victor Eckland said, “and as we take a sweeping glance from one side of this giant battleship to the other, we see an array of manhood in naval officialdom of which every American can be justly proud.” The navy did seem to inflate the national pride. More than the army and the marines—there was no separate air force yet—it wore a halo of glamour, sailing the country’s two flanking oceans, slicing protective wakes. As was often and simply put by press and politicians alike, America had invincible warships. Visiting Hawaii the previous September, the secretary of the navy, Frank Knox, had let himself positively roar: “The greatest, most powerful and the most effective fleet on the high seas anywhere in the world.” He would utter similar claims during the coming months, including one that would be published on the front page of the New York Times edition that would be delivered to doorsteps on the first Sunday morning of December, the seventh. Some officers on Oahu wished Knox would be less enthusiastic. They knew the navy was not ready to fight. The public might get the wrong idea.
That day’s change of command would be less celebratory than was traditional during peacetime, not because America was at war, but because it was rapidly approaching one and was rearming as fast as it could, faster than at any time in its history, racing against an emptying hourglass. Since 1939, the Nazis had overrun much of Europe and had besieged Great Britain, and since 1937, the Japanese had consumed much of China and had swarmed into Indochina. Full-dress attire would not be in order aboard the Pennsylvania. Guns would not boom in salute. Air fleets would not dapple the sky in review. Nor would the harbor pause in respect. “We hear the hum of work—riveters, steel workers, ship fitters, boilermakers, and all of the other men and machines that are being kept busy here at Pearl Harbor,” Eckland went on.
The geologic miracle that was the harbor was a substantial reason the United States had decided it ought to own Hawaii, having egged on political unrest—minority whites versus the indigenous—that opened the door to annexation. The islands had been an independent kingdom, blessed—or maybe cursed—with a huge lagoon stamped into the southern coastline of Oahu. Its name, Pearl, may have arisen from its oyster beds. Its shape evoked an alluvial fan. Or maybe a clover: a narrow stem leading from the sea to three watery petals, west, middle, east. Echoing a Scotland that was nowhere within nine thousand sea miles, the petals had come to be called “lochs,” Gaelic for “lakes.”
During annexation hearings in 1898, General John McAllister Schofield, who had explored Hawaii extensively, told the US House of Representatives that Oahu’s clover lagoon would be ideal for a modern navy—meaning a late-nineteenth-century one, which had no worries about being trapped in a confined harbor and riddled by airplanes, for there were none of those yet. Pearl’s narrow mouth and channel could easily be guarded against an incursion by hostile warships. Any shells fired from offshore could not reach warships tethered inside. The lochs and surrounding land could support dozens of warships, as well as docks, maintenance shops, and coal stocks for ship boilers. If we don’t take Pearl Harbor and Hawaii, General Schofield testified, the Spanish might. The Japanese might. Imperial lust had triumphed. On August 12, 1898, in a ceremony in Honolulu, the flag of the United States had risen above its newest acquisition, probably against the wishes of most Hawaiians.
At ten a.m., the two highest-ranking participants in the Pennsylvania’s formalities emerged from its innards. “With the dignity of their rank and surrounded by their fellow officers and men who share with them the tradition of 165 years of U.S. naval history,” the announcer said, “Admiral James O. Richardson and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel make their appearance on deck. Admiral Richardson steps from the port hatch to the quarterdeck, and Admiral Kimmel steps from the starboard hatch to the quarterdeck. They approach Columbia’s microphones together.”
For Richardson, who was sixty-two, the moment overflowed with humiliation. He had risen out of the backwater of Paris, Texas, to the navy’s best job, commander of the Pacific Fleet, only to have it yanked away after a dozen months, not the minimum eighteen, let alone the twenty-four that most fleet commanders actually served. “My God, they can’t do that to me,” he had said upon reading the message an aide delivered to him on an Oahu golf course on January 5. The public removal of a man considered smart, witty, and competent dumbfounded many serving under him who, using the initials of his first and middle names—J and O—called him Uncle Joe. The victim professed he hadn’t foreseen his demise, either, but that was more fib than fact. Richardson was a font of negativity and a know-it-all. “Unfortunately,” he said later, “I am definite in most of my opinions.”
Attending the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1934, for example, he had simply declined to write his thesis on the assigned topic, the relationship in naval warfare among strategy, tactics, and command. Too broad for one paper, he had told his instructors. With sarcastic understatement, he had written that the assignment left him “confused by the multiplicity of tasks and by the realization that an industrious and gifted writer”—presumably him—“might, somewhat inadequately, cover the subject [only] in a lifetime.” So he would not try. He framed his own topic and proceeded to discuss that.
Rising, nonetheless, to commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet in early January 1940, he began to question the strategy and acumen of his ultimate superior, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he had known a long time and had worked closely with as head of the Navy Department’s personnel division. He did not care for him. The president had two hobbies, Richardson would say later, “stamp collecting and playing with the Navy,” and he was accurate on both counts. Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the navy during the Great War, did love ships. The proof dotted his second-floor study at the White House: glass cases sheltering ship models, and walls dotted with oil paintings of ships under sail, in one spot stacked four high. His fondness for things nautical was so well-known that citizens wrote with offers to sell or give him ship logs, models, and prints. His secretary, Grace Tully, once had to decline a miniature of the French liner Normandie, telling the owner, “He already has a model of this steamship.”
The president did not merely collect knickknacks of the sea. He took the title of commander in chief to mean naval expert. Ten days from then, on February 10, for example, he would write the Navy Department that he would “hate” to see it go through with plans to sell a couple of old ships. “Let me see the bids for their sale when they come in,” he would write, apparently hoping he would find them insufficiently high to warrant a sale. About the same time, he would ask if catapults to launch planes could be installed on two warships. In yet another query, he would wonder about “the use of 70- and 77-foot sea sleds with pompom and Y gun.” And on April 23, he would write to Navy Secretary Knox, “Please speak to me about the possibility of a patrol on Hudson Bay this summer.”
Richardson regarded Roosevelt as a meddling amateur, a dangerous one. As relations with Japan deteriorated, the admiral feared that the president did not appreciate just how undermanned and untrained his navy was, even as Roosevelt counted on it to scare the Japanese into staying in line. “If you do not tell the boss what you really know and feel about the possible cost and duration in an Orange war, NOBODY WILL,” he had written the department on January 26, 1940, using the euphemism for Japan employed in American war games. It was deeply misguided to think the Pacific Fleet had the manpower, the guns, the supply system, and the training to back up the tough statements and strategies of the civilian leadership, Uncle Joe felt, and Japan knew it.
Traditionally, the fleet had lived on the West Coast, in the ports of San Diego and Long Beach, visiting Pearl only on maneuvers. The harbor’s lochs had been more of a forward outpost with a small permanent flotilla, and it lacked much of the infrastructure of a major base. But on April 29, 1940, a few months after Richardson had taken command, Roosevelt ordered the entire fleet to take up station in the embracing arms of Pearl until he said differently. With France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands diverted by the brutal struggle against Germany, he had reasoned that their Far East colonies would tempt the Japanese, which indeed they did. A fleet sitting so much nearer would deter them, the president thought. But to Richardson, FDR’s move smacked of bluff, given how unready the fleet was, all for the sake of a part of the world, the Far East, that he thought should not mean that much to the United States anyway.
“I feel that any move west [to Pearl] means hostilities,” Richardson had written to Washington on May 13, 1940. “I feel that at this time it would be a grave mistake to become involved in the [Far East] where our interests, although important, are not vital.” In a September 12 memo, he told Secretary Knox that the president’s policies were “aggressive.” The memo had wondered whether anybody in the capital had given careful thought to anything. Not only was the navy not ready for war with Japan, neither was the public, Richardson believed, because Roosevelt had not been straight about the threat, not wishing to upset voters so near the 1940 election.
Nor did Richardson confine himself to questioning grand strategy and national policy. In the same memo, the admiral gave Knox all the practical reasons Roosevelt had erred in moving the fleet to Pearl. Morale among crews had dropped because their families remained in California; every single necessity—oil, munitions, replacement personnel, oceangoing targets for gunnery practice—had to be brought from the mainland. Oahu’s recreation and training facilities could not absorb thousands upon thousands of newly arrived officers and enlisted men. The sheer volume of ships clogged even spacious Pearl.
“Americans are perfectly willing to go anywhere, stay anywhere, do anything when there is a job to be done and they can see the reason for their being there,” Richardson said later, “but to keep the fleet—during what the men considered normal peacetimes—away from the coast and away from their families, away from recreation, rendered it difficult to maintain a high state of morale that is essential to successful training.”
These were excellent, almost undeniable points. Putting the fleet at Pearl was disruptive. But by complaining so loudly, Richardson came across as uncooperative, pessimistic, defeatist. And those were unwelcome qualities in a military commander in a dangerous global environment. Summoned to the capital, the admiral sat down with the president on October 8, 1940, and promptly removed any doubt about how long he ought to serve. “Mr. President,” he said, “I feel that I must tell you that the senior officers of the Navy do not have the trust and confidence in the civilian leadership of this country that is essential for the successful prosecution of a war in the Pacific.” Richardson was not unburdening himself spontaneously. He had planned exactly what he would say. “I thought that the President could be shocked into either changing his policies, or providing adequate implementation of them,” he said, by beefing up the fleet, especially by bringing ship companies up to full complement. In Richardson’s view, a misguided civilian needed a healthy face slap of reality from a career officer. “I can state with complete accuracy that when the President heard my statement, he looked and acted completely crushed.” Well, of course he did. The navy, the object of Roosevelt’s lifelong affection, had just spurned his love.
After he was fired a few months later, Richardson told Knox, “I have never known a commander in chief to be detached in such a summary manner as I have been, and I feel that I owe it to myself to inquire as to the reason for my preemptory detachment.” Knox must have been amused at the presumption of innocence. “Why Richardson,” he replied, “when you were in Washington last October, you hurt the President’s feelings by what you said to him.” At least the admiral would savor a morsel of grim satisfaction. Ten months after the change of command, listening to the radio at home on a Sunday afternoon in Washington and as shocked as every American, Richardson would realize that being removed in a humiliating ceremony aboard the Pennsylvania in February was not as bad as commanding the fleet in December.
The other officer striding across the flagship’s deck had grown up, as Richardson had, hundreds of miles from the sea, in Henderson, Kentucky. If a civilian had been told to conjure the visage, carriage, and career of an admiral in 1941, Husband Edward Kimmel would have materialized. He owned the part. During th...
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