On 7 December 1941, a massive strike of 183 aircraft roared off six Japanese carriers to strike Pearl Harbor. Sixteen torpedo bombers were to attack U.S. aircraft carriers moored on the northwest side of Ford Island. If there were no carriers in port (as would be the case), they were to look for alternate targets.
One order was stressed: Do not waste a torpedo on the USS Utah (formerly BB-31, then AG-16).
The Utah was a demilitarized battleship converted into an antiaircraft gunnery training platform. She often rested at the carrier moorings, and the Japanese knew it. The torpedo bomber air crews were drilled intensively to recognize her silhouette.
Yet six attacked the Utah. She took two torpedoes and capsized. One torpedo missed so badly it hit the aging cruiser Raleigh (CL-7). Another torpedo ran up a Ford Island beach. Two nosed into the harbor mud. This blunder wasted 15 percent of the attack’s primary antiship weapons.
Why was the Utah attacked?
I was very curious about what the Soryu and Hiryu aircrews encountered when they descended past the slopes of Oahu’s Waianae Mountain Range to identify targets at the carrier moorings. On a business trip to the islands, I was fortunate that the next day’s weather forecast and sun position would nearly duplicate the conditions of 7 December 1941. So, I roused myself predawn and drove to the southern tip of the range, left my car in a sleepy neighborhood, and, in the dark, hiked out to a location near where the attacking torpedo planes passed during their approach to target.
I waited to see what 0750, 7 December 1941, looked like.
At the appropriate moment I took a photograph, then scrambled forward to the edge of the range and took a second photo.
Some Japanese torpedo bombers skimmed this knob in their descent to their attack altitude of 60 feet; others approached even lower along the plain seen to the left in the first photograph above. The angle from which I was observing was not much different from what the Japanese aviators saw. The area of the carrier mooring is just to the right of the peninsula of Pearl City (in the center of the first photograph and to the left in the second, closer photograph).
Ford Island was a gray, shiny blob. The camera filtered out much of the glare that hurt my eyes.
None of the buildings on Ford Island were identifiable (or even seen). No details were evident. If this was 1941, gray-painted ships at the carrier moorings would have blended into the background of the island. In my current view, none of the many buildings on the island were visible; not even the huge battleship Missouri (BB-63) moored on the far side of the island could be seen.
The Japanese aviators reported they were challenged by sun glare and haze. Six saw the Utah as a viable target. Confirmation bias is the tendency to see what you expect (or hope) to see.
I now can understand how young aviators under great stress—they expected 50 percent losses in the attack—would misidentify the Utah’s battleship hull as either a carrier or an active battleship.
This was not the only intervention of the weather. Clouds rolled in and covered the harbor before the arrival of the Japanese second wave, with 81 dive bombers hunting carriers and cruisers. Trained to attack in 60-degree dives from 10,000 feet, the low cloud deck forced them to attack in 10 to 30 degree glides beginning at 3,000 feet—a technique in which they had not been trained and which is inherently less accurate than dive bombing. They achieved only eight hits on their battleship and cruiser targets, less than 10 percent accuracy—far less than the 60 percent they had achieved in training and were expected to achieve on the battlefield.
The weather gods showed kindness to the U.S. Navy.