The commanding officer of the Lexington, Captain F. C. Sherman, was convinced that relations with Japan had deteriorated so critically that he had combat air patrol and antisubmarine aircraft armed and ready for launch. The same was true for the Enterprise. The Lexington left Pearl Harbor the morning of 5 December as part of Task Group 11, commanded by Rear Admiral John Henry Newton. On board were a squadron of Marine aviators and planes to reinforce those at Midway and a group of naval aviators not yet carrier-qualified.
At dawn on 6 December, the Lexington was at routine General Quarters about 400 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor. Newly acquired experimental CXAM search radar was operating, and the antiaircraft defense officer, Lieutenant Jerry O'Donnell, was satisfied that all systems were functioning properly.
Suddenly, one of the lookouts reported an aircraft on the horizon. O'Donnell, along with another lookout, confirmed the sighting and reported it to the commanding officer as an unidentified aircraft. Additional observations determined it to be a single-engine plane. Given the Lexington's location, it was clear to O'Donnell that it must be carrier-based; he recommended that aircraft be launched to investigate. At about this time the CXAM reported an intermittent target in the vicinity. Both sightings lasted about ten minutes. The task group commander did not reply to the report of the sighting and a request to launch aircraft for about an hour, when General Quarters was about to be relaxed.
The Lexington sent back a message, asking what action she should take. The sighting was a PBY twin-engine patrol plane, came the response, which O'Donnell and the sky forward antiaircraft crew found ridiculous. Despite protests, however, no further actions were taken.
After the attack on 7 December, the name of the game was to find the Japanese Task Force. Following first notification of the attack, numerous messages indicated confusion regarding its location. At this point, a message sent to the task group commander requested that he review the identification of the Saturday sighting. He refused, citing the enemy force location as southwest, toward Johnson Island. Consequently, the task group headed in that direction at full speed. The Lexington prepared an air search plan to maximum range, but it turned up negative.
Tragically, several unqualified pilots pressed into service for the search were lost, because their navigational errors caused the planes to run out of fuel and crash. One slightly humorous note came from a search-plane pilot's reported sighting of a aircraft carrier with an escort. He saw no planes on the carrier's deck and radioed that he was attacking. As the pilot reported near misses, an irate tug skipper was screaming emergency messages that his barge had been bombed and advising that his barge was loaded with enough dynamite to bring down any plane in the area.
Thus, the results of the Pearl Harbor disaster would have been radically different, if the Lexington's aircraft sighting had been verified and her aircraft launched.
- She would have found the Japanese task force and would have fought valiantly. But her effort would have been futile against the six Japanese carriers.
- The Enterprise probably would have met a similar fate, for most of her planes were unarmed as they were en route home.
- The Japanese would have pressed home their attack on Pearl and on the many ships exiting the harbor.
- Opposition would have been greater but completely disorganized.
- Many of the ships that cleared the harbor would have been sunk at sea, never to fight again. (Such was not the case for those that sank at their moorings.)
The lack of response to the Lexington's messages, then, was a most fortunate blunder, enabling the Navy to fight another day.
Captain Gillette is Executive Director of the Naval Undersea Museum Foundation. He was relieved from the Lexington just before she was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea.