The second wave of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor included 78 D3A Val dive bombers assigned to attack the warships below. The Vals were to complete the incapacitation of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet begun so promisingly by the B5N Kate bombers of the first wave. Instead, the Vals’ attack can be considered at best a disappointment—more critically, an utter failure.
None of their assigned objectives was achieved. No strategically significant damage was inflicted. In short, the attack was a disorganized, chaotic mess.
What contributed to this chaos? Elements of the aviators’ training and equipment.
Intensive—and Fatally Flawed—Training
Training for the Val crews was intense. There were six weeks of flying, sometimes multiple flights a day. The program was handicapped by remote bombing ranges requiring long, tiring flights. Most of the aircrews were young, green, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old nuggets just out of primary flight school. The idea the Pearl Harbor attack was conducted by steely-eyed veterans of the China wars is a myth; there was only a sprinkling of high flight-time aviators. (The myth likely was begun by people who could not believe America’s Navy could be devastated by a bunch of teenagers.)
Much of the six-week regimen was dedicated to basic flying skills, carrier qualifications, and formation flying. Night training was attempted but proved too ambitious. Originally, the first strike on Pearl was to launch before dawn. That was changed when the pilots’ skills were judged inadequate.
The Val pilots learned the team dive-bombing technique unique to the Imperial Japanese Navy—and that was to be their downfall.
Attacks were made in shotai (teams of three aircraft), beginning from a 9,843-foot altitude. The leader would dive first, assume a 60-degree dive angle, and center his bombsight’s central dot on the top of the target’s foremast. Bomb release was 1,968 feet. For the Pearl Harbor operation, the head dive-bomber training officer, Lieutenant Commander Takashige Egusa, lowered release altitude to 1,312 feet to improve accuracy. Lives were lost in training when aircraft did not recover from their dives. Where the bomb hit relative to the aim point was assumed the result of wind drift and target motion. The shotai’s following two bombers would adjust their aim on the bombsight grid to compensate. Using this method, they averaged 55 percent hits in practice sessions.
The Target Revealed
Then came excitement—and anxiety. The pilots were to attack the American fleet in Pearl Harbor. The fate of the Japanese nation was on their shoulders, they were told. Their second wave would arrive one hour after the defenses had been awakened, so half the young men could not expect to survive the day. But that was not to be their concern. They were to dedicate their lives to that one bomb they carried into battle.
Their target was aircraft carriers, which were to be hit even if sunk or capsized from the first-wave attacks. They were to be pulverized, hammered, made unsalvageable. This was the particular directive of the chief planner, Commander Minoru Genda, “Mad Genda,” who thought battleships obsolete and unimportant in modern warfare. He wanted U.S. carriers smashed to oblivion.
After the carriers were demolished, the target would be cruisers. The bombers were not to attack battleships. Their Type 99 Number 25 Model 1 554-pound bomb could penetrate only 2 inches of armor, insufficient to inflict more than superficial damage to the behemoths. This was a disappointment. Battleships, the pilots knew, were the core of American sea power. Aviation could prove its worth only if they could sink battleships.
But in their hearts, for this most important of all battles, no one wanted to expend their lives to hit a mere secondary target.
The carriers departed Japan in the middle of November. En route, they received briefings by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, one of the primary planners. He would serve as the captain general of the attack, flying in a first-wave Kate level bomber armed with an armor-piercing bomb cobbled together from an obsolete battleship shell.
Fuchida’s briefings were a mass of contradictions: Bombers were to concentrate their attacks but avoid overconcentration, strike nearly simultaneously, adhere to a complex prioritization scheme, sink all the targets instead of inflicting mere damage, and avoid ships already sunk except for carriers, which were to be hit even if sunk or capsized. How they were to differentiate a capsized hulk as carrier or battleship was not evident. They were to watch out for any battleship under way in the channel and sink it, to trap the entire Pacific Fleet in harbor, regardless of their bomb effectiveness.
As the pilots examined the charts and a huge, beautiful plaster model of the harbor, one can only wonder how they processed this mass of conflicting instructions, and if anyone noticed that the channel was too broad to be blocked by a sunken ship.
After the first wave departed, the Vals were hoisted up from the hangars. In a ballet of brute strength, on a pitching and spray-soaked deck, the flight-deck teams spotted them for launch. The task was completed 15 minutes ahead of schedule. That was important—it meant less time for the Americans to ready their defenses.
They launched and formed up efficiently with accompanying Kates and Zeros. Approaching Oahu, the massed formation separated to pursue their individual missions: Zeros and Kates to smash airfields, the Vals to the harbor.
Over Oahu, the Vals put their noses down and increased speed while descending from cruising altitude to 9,843 feet. Over the harbor they would be released by their chotai (units of three shotai) leaders by hand signals to attack. Each shotai leader would select a target. The attack would be over in a frantic five minutes.
Only, it couldn’t be.
Lousy Visibility, Lousy Radios
To their horror, they saw a solid cloud deck 4,922 feet below them. They couldn’t dive through that! How thick was it? Where were the targets? Where was the harbor? Did clouds conceal one of Oahu’s mountains?
The Honolulu weather forecast called for a front arriving with solid clouds between 3,500 and 5,000 feet. The young aviators were not prepared, not trained, not briefed for this. They needed direction, command-and-control from their experienced leaders. Perhaps Commander Fuchida knew what to do; he was orbiting the harbor below them. Fuchida could inform them of the clouds’ thickness. Perhaps one of their planes had penetrated the cloud deck and could report. Perhaps their experienced chotai leader had guidance.
But if one of the pilots had slipped on his voice radio headset hoping for instructions, all he would have heard was static.
Their voice radios were junk.
A few months before the attack, the Imperial Japanese Navy had retrofitted their aircraft with voice radios. There was little coordination between installation technicians and airframe manufacturers in the rushed effort. The technicians were paid per radio, without quality control. Many slammed them in as quickly as possible, hanging electronics boxes in a frame of bungee cords as “shock mounting.”
The radios were often inaccessible. Dials were obscured. Controls and switches could not be seen or reached. Wires were not cut to measure; the extra cable looped and notch-clipped anywhere, making an internal antenna. This picked up the electromagnetic signal emitted by the engine’s spark plugs, resulting in a constant roar in the headphones. Worse, the fuselage would build up static electricity when flying and periodically discharge. The wiring loops would transmit an explosion of static into the headphones.
Some pilots later tore the radios out. They were considered worthless, a heavyweight drag on aircraft performance.
In the 7 December 1941 attack, voice radio was not employed for reports or command-and-control over the harbor. Instead, each shotai leader was to choose his own target independently.
A Scattershot Attack
The Vals’ formation broke up. Individual shotai leaders searched for a way through the clouds. There was no overall control, no coordination using voice radio, no way to inform others when a clearing was found. When spotting a hole, a shotai leader would accelerate, reach it, and dive or spiral down. Often, the shotai became separated. Then each pilot had to search for his own way through the murk.
Below the cloud deck, the Vals were greeted by tremendous antiaircraft (AA) fire. It exceeded anything seen by the veterans of the China wars; for the rookie pilots, it was beyond their wildest imagining, frightening. There was no time to search for the best target. Target identification was difficult; with awnings shading their decks and concealing gun turrets, battleships looked like auxiliaries, and auxiliaries could be battleships. Massive columns of smoke obscured the scene.
The low cloud deck made the Japanese pilots’ dive-bombing technique impossible. They could not line up targets in 60-degree dives beginning from under 3,280 feet and pull out in time. Aircraft weaved about trying to identify a suitable target. Attacks were delivered in 20- to 40-degree glides in which the bombsights were useless. Pilots could bomb only “by eye,” something they had never done before. Some were observed setting up an attack against one ship, only to divert mid-dive to a different target.
Through a break in the clouds, pilots saw the battleship USS Nevada (BB-36) under way in the channel. Ace dive bomber Egusa led elements of two chotai down, and 14 Vals attacked the Nevada. She took five bomb hits, the Vals’ best accuracy of the battle.
Hits started a fire forward. The forward magazine was ordered flooded. In a critical misunderstanding, the after magazine also was flooded. The mass of water in both magazines pushed the Nevada deep into the water.
First commissioned in 1916, the battleship Nevada was short years away from being scrapped. Her material condition had been neglected. A torpedo hit during the first wave’s attack had caused her torpedo bulkheads to leak. The old ship’s internal decks were not watertight. Water poured down through overheads and past ill-fitting watertight doors, through leaking wireways and pipe runs, filling compartments in progressive flooding.
The ship was beached clear of the channel—the victim of poor maintenance and a mistaken order more than bomb damage.
Non-Priority Targets Galore
The Vals’ attack stretched over 40 minutes as the remaining bombers, 60 or more, searched for holes in the overcast. AA could concentrate as aircraft popped out below the cloud deck in ones and twos. Fourteen Vals were shot down and another 14 so damaged they were written off after returning to their carriers.
Attacks were scattered throughout the harbor. Some pilots were disoriented and thought the carrier moorings northwest of Ford Island—with the tenders USS Curtiss (AV-4), Tangier (AV-8), and Dobbin (AD-3)—were actually Battleship Row. Sixteen Vals attacked auxiliaries.
Seven Vals attacked the underway destroyers USS Helm (DD-388) and Dale (DD-353), two of the attacks coming when the ships were in the harbor, five when they were at sea outside the channel’s entrance buoy. All they achieved were two damaging near-misses, which did not impair the destroyers’ fighting ability.
Seventeen Vals attacked cruisers. In other words, only 17 out of 78 Vals attacked targets on their priority list and vulnerable to their weapon. If the Nevada is considered a briefed target, that number expands to 31; even then, less than half the aircraft attacked targets assigned in their briefings.
Forty-nine hits were claimed—against 15 actual hits. It is usual for aviators’ claims to be optimistic. In the Japanese Navy this tendency was exaggerated, since a pilot’s honor was at stake. Pilots who were killed always were credited with a hit. Thirty-three hits were claimed against battleships and 16 against cruisers—but there was only one actual hit on a cruiser.
Destroyers took six hits. The USS Shaw (DD-373), taking three hits, was in a floating dry dock and presented an odd silhouette. She might have been misidentified as a cruiser or battleship. Hits on the Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375) were from bombs aimed at the battleship Pennsylvania (BB-38) in the same dry dock.
In all, only 10 percent of the bombs hit ships at which they were aimed, vs. an expected 60 percent.
After the battle, Fuchida collated the hits for a report to Emperor Hirohito. The commander had been orbiting the harbor and observing the attack. The number of hits he reported exactly matched the number of hits expected in his pre-battle calculations.
Fuchida had several motives for this. First, he had personal friends among the dive-bomber pilots (particularly Egusa) and did not want to cast doubts on their skills and their training. Second, the carriers vs. battleships question was still raging in the Japanese Navy. High hit rates by the Vals would attest to the lethality of carrier aviation. Third, as one of the principal planners of the attack, Fuchida had every reason to show that his plan was effective and his pre-battle predictions were accurate.
A Shift to Battleships?
Another mystery emerged postwar. Some aircrews said that, on the flight deck just before launching, they had been told an intelligence agent had reported there were “no carriers in Pearl Harbor.” With no carriers to hit, one aviator said, they “were told to attack the same targets as the first wave,” meaning battleships. Another aviator said they were told to “finish off ships damaged in the first attack, preferably the battleships.”
This story is suspect.
There was such an intelligence report, received the previous day, but it was dismissed by Genda and Fuchida. Why wait to inform the aviators until they were on deck about to launch?
Any such instruction could not have come from Fuchida, who was aloft, or Genda, who thought battleships were a waste of ammunition. Those were the only men with the authority to make such changes.
So, why the tale?
Would Japanese warriors, fighting a battle in which they were told the fate of Japan rested, with a 50 percent chance of not returning, be satisfied with hitting mere secondary targets? The lack of radio command-and-control gave each shotai leader a free hand. Most attacked battleships, or what they thought were battleships.
The alleged last-minute instructions might have been a post facto tale to cover for these attacks. Or a pilot, thinking he knew better than the planners, might have fabricated a fictitious order and circulated it on the flight deck on his own. Or it might have been a collective passive-aggressive revolt by the pilots, who were going after battleships regardless. The answer is buried in history.
Lack of positive control over the radio by experienced leadership allowed the individual shotai leaders to “do their own thing” and return to Japan with the satisfaction of striking a battleship, the core of American sea power.
The story also covered, and perhaps contributed to, a monumental mess of confusion.
With no carriers available, the second-wave dive bombers should have attacked the eight cruisers in port. Three or four Type 99 hits would sink a cruiser. There was sufficient firepower to sink or cripple all eight—that is, with good attack distribution and a backup means for low-altitude bad-weather bombing. Those unscathed cruisers later would form the core of carrier task forces and would emerge as key combatants in the surface battles around Guadalcanal.
The planning staff did not consider the possibility of anything but clear, visibility-unlimited weather in their plans. The pilots were not trained to bomb in anything but perfect conditions. The failure of planners to consider typical seasonal Hawaiian weather conditions sabotaged the second-wave Vals’ chances. The desire of the Val pilots to hit battleships further defanged the attack, saving the cruisers while inflicting inconsequential damage to battleships and destroyers.
Except for Egusa’s attack on the Nevada, command-and-control was nonexistent; it was will-he-nil-he, every man for himself. The huge discrepancy between reported and actual attacks testified to the confused nature of the engagement, the pilots’ disorientation when they broke out of the clouds, and the stress induced by intense AA fire.
With voice-radio control the formations could have stayed together and descended through the same hole in the clouds. Laggards could be informed of the altitude of the bottom of the cloud deck, so they could come down without fear. Leaders could have exerted positive control over target selection. If all the aircraft had appeared simultaneously, AA fire would not have been able to concentrate on just a few aircraft at a time. The cruisers surely would have suffered. But the planners did not consider the use of voice radio in their plan, a decision that could be traced in part to the individualistic bushido spirit and the “usual way of doing business,” but more to the men who installed the sets, and those who accepted faulty radio installations.
None of the hits delivered by the Vals were of strategic significance. Their shining success, the Nevada, was a chimera. Eighteen months later, she was shelling Imperial Japanese Army positions in the Aleutians.
Through flawed planning, poor equipment, and the intervention of the god of weather, the second-wave dive-bomber attack on 7 December 1941 was neutralized. Pearl Harbor was a tactical disaster for the U.S. Navy—but it could have been worse.
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