This is No Drill

19 Jan 19
Posted by: Richard Channon

It would appear that this book is part of a Pearl Harbor tactics studies series, and it is almost exclusively focused on the events of Sunday 7th December 1941 at and associated with the Naval Air Station on Ford Island, the primary target with the US Pacific battlefleet, of the Japanese strike. Although of course that “Day of Infamy” already has an enormous literature, the authors plead that ever more archival material has been being released into the public domain, both in the USA and Japan, and that therefore, while we know a tremendous amount about what went on, there is still detail to be revealed.
They start with a brief history of the island: it first received a western name on being surveyed and christened “Rabbit Island” by Lieutenant Malden RN of HMS Blonde in 1825. In 1914 it was bought by the US Government for an Army airfield, and the first aircraft, flying boats and seaplanes, arrived in September 1918. In 1919 the US Navy moved in and by 1936 had effectively elbowed the Army out to Hickam Field nearby on the mainland; much infrastructure development had taken place in the meantime.
The uncertainties of the political situation with Japan are mentioned only insofar as they affected the military in Hawaii, and the life of Navy people in Oahu is described as the background to their somewhat relaxed routine. But then we have a very detailed description over five chapters of the events of the day from both the American and Japanese points of view. Much of this will already be known to many readers, at least in outline, but Chapter 9 tells a fascinating story which few will know. It covers the exceptionally courageous, not to say foolhardy, actions of a number of pilots who, infuriated by the cowardliness of the attack (as they saw it), jumped into any of the few remaining serviceable aircraft, often of a type unknown to them, and unarmed, to search for the Japanese fleet. Fruitlessly, it must be said. Two of these airborne targets were intercepted by Japanese fighters, but both escaped destruction by pulling up into cloud.
It is at this point that the account becomes exceptionally difficult to follow. The authors have deliberately chosen not to refer to aircraft types by the nicknames used later in the war such as Catalina or Zero so that the reader is near-drowned in an alphabet soup exemplified by the caption to one of the (numerous and excellent) photographs – “VJ-2s [i.e. Utility Squadron 2s] parking lot. A J2F-4 [Grumman Duck floatplane] 2-J-22 in the foreground with one of the unit’s PBY-1s [Catalina] behind.” This, combined with rank acronyms – e.g. AMM1c = aviation machinist’s mate first class – makes the head spin. Confusion is compounded because the account of those outstandingly gallant reconnaissance flights is written from the standpoint of each of the three squadrons involved in turn, so that you are taken forwards and then backwards in time, three times.
The final chapter covers the sad blue-on-blue losses of six aircraft from the carrier USS Enterprise trying to land at Ford Island late that day through a hail of trigger-happy fire which killed three pilots and destroyed five planes. The summing-up concludes that the senior officers did their best while labouring under assumptions distorted by poor intelligence, underestimates of Japanese capabilities, and shortage of men and materials. It does not mention the fact that, consonant with their “fleet action” outlook, the Japanese went for the battle fleet, but failed even to strafe the conspicuous tank farms which gave the ships their mobility.
While the text is well supported by many photographs, the presentation of maps leaves much to be desired, and Seaforth’s War at Sea Naval Atlas 1939-1945 provides a much clearer picture of how the action developed – even if the two sources do not entirely agree on the inbound course of the two waves of the strike. It is also most irritating to be presented with, for example, a picture of USS Nevada grounding herself on Hospital Point, and not to be shown where it is.
So, something of a curate’s egg, and the question must be why have the Naval Institute Press published it? There surely cannot be a large market, even in the US, for what we might call the microscopic view of history? Perhaps they see it as contributing to the historical record, and that is all that matters.