Could Pearl Harbor Have Been Prevented?

Could Pearl Harbor Have Been Prevented?

Fact vs. Fiction

How the events of that morning unfolded has been told and retold several different ways and the blame is often passed between Tyler and Lockard. Tyler, being the commanding officer that morning, made the ultimate call to ignore it, but some may say Lockard wasn’t quite clear in relaying the magnitude of the blip Elliot had come across.

In newspaper reports from shortly after the attack, Lockard was given credit for the sighting. Lockard was the more experienced operator, so it’s not surprising that Elliot’s discovery was misattributed to him.

Prior to his death in 2003, Elliot finally publicly give his version, the one that portrays him as the one who gave the warning that went ignored.

History 340

The Pacific fleet was on an alert the four previous weekends, which means that any ship in harbor had to have steam pressure built up in the boilers and ready for departure at a moments notice. For some unknown reason, the weekend of December 6,7 that order was not given and most of the ships were at anchor, boilers cold, essentially helpless. I don't think we could not have prevented an attack, but we could have been better prepared. We had warnings, we saw the attack forming on radar, the USS Ward attacked a submarine. Had the US Officers in Hawaii put the pieces of the puzzle together that morning, we could have had some of our capital ships put out to sea and provided the Japanese fewer targets. Then again, if our battleships were caught at sea with no air cover, it could have been a much bigger loss.  The Japanese were well trained, well equipped and tough fighters. The US was very lucky that the ships that were destroyed were for the most part WW1 vessels (Arizona was built in 1916). The more modern ships were at sea with the aircraft carriers.  Do you think we could have done anything differently that would have changed the outcome of the attacks on Pearl Harbor?  


I would agree with you that the attack on Pearl Harbor couldn't have been prevented entirely, but the U.S. could've been prepared. I don't know why the U.S. wouldn't consider all possible targets for the Japanese attack, or why the Japanese fleet of planes seen on the radar were ignored.

One of the things that most astounds me was the organization of Battleship Row. There had been rumors of an attack for weeks, and yet, we had the majority of our Pacific Fleet lined up one after another in the harbor, essentially sitting ducks for the Japanese. Had we had a little more foresight or even just more common sense, perhaps we would've been able to limit some of our naval losses through a different arrangement of the fleet. However, no matter what the arrangement, I have no doubt that the attack on Pearl Harbor couldn't have been prevented.

Well the disregard placed on the radar information isn't that surprising. Radar was a new technology at the time and IFF systems hadn't been invented yet. All a radar operator wold have to go on to determine friend from foe was whether or not anything was scheduled to be in the air at about that time. And, in the case of Pearl Harbor, there was that bomber flight scheduled to be coming in.

the attack could have been better prepared for. They ignored many warnings of a coming attack. it might have been thier thinking that Pearl Harbor was in no way a possible target that led to them being so unprepared.

If The Treaty of Versailles didn't blame Germany, then Germany wouldn't be so powerful. Also, we knew what hitler was doing for a while, and we did nothing about it. If we stopped him while he was building up, then we could have stopped ww2 from happening. The last thing is The League Of Nations should have done way more to prevent from Hitler from even gaining his army.

Due to the fact that when Hitler was a small boy in the midst of a cold winter he was drowning in a lake. A priest came over and rescued him because he had heard him. Had the priest not heard him Hitler would have died and his beliefs also.

Could Pearl Harbor Have Been Averted?

Just over 57 years ago, at 7:55 A.M. on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, thrusting the United States into the crucible of World War II. Tucked away in a footnote to his memoirs, "Pacific Encounters," Marshall Green, onetime U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the Far East, wrote that Joseph Grew, the American envoy in Japan when the Pacific War broke out, believed to the day he died in 1965 that war could have been avoided without sacrificing any U.S. or Allied principles or interests.

Mr. Green began his diplomatic career as private secretary to Mr. Grew. It was, he wrote, a golden opportunity to observe at first hand how one of America's greatest diplomats performed under fire, including his frequent warnings to Washington not to press too far with embargoes unless it was prepared militarily to live with the consequences.

Mr. Green was followed as Mr. Grew's private secretary by Bob Fearey. In the December 1991 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, Mr. Fearey wrote an account of Mr. Grew's support for Prime Minister Prince Konoye's "fervent desire for peace, backed by the Emperor, for a face-to-face meeting with President Roosevelt to achieve a settlement of all outstanding issues and reverse the trend toward war."

To protest Japan's activities in China and incursion into Indochina, Washington had put an embargo on the export of aviation fuel and iron ore to Japan, and had frozen all Japanese assets in the United States. As these sanctions began to bite, Prince Konoye on Aug. 28, 1941, proposed a meeting with Roosevelt in Hawaii to "solve the unsolvable."

Roosevelt countered with the proposal that the two should meet aboard a battleship off Alaska. Prince Konoye accepted and had a ship standing by secretly at Yokohama to convey his delegation to Alaska. The Japanese army leaders, backed by an inflammatory anti-American propaganda campaign, were now strongly in favor of war against the United States. Prince Konoye knew that time was rapidly running out.

Against this background, Emperor Hirohito presided over a conference on Sept. 6, attended among others by General Hideki Tojo, the war minister. The meeting decided that if diplomatic efforts had failed by early October, Japan would determine on war with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.

Mr. Grew's repeated warnings to Washington of the dangers in putting too much pressure on Japan were received skeptically in the State Department. It did not share his confidence in the outcome of a meeting between Prince Konoye and Roosevelt, and discounted the view that desperation would push Japan into war. The department's insistence on agreement before the meeting on the

battleship, and not at the meeting itself, finally scuppered the plan.

By mid-October, the United States had neither agreed to nor rejected Prince Konoye's view that all decisions should be made at the meeting. Prince Konoye resigned, and on Oct. 17, Tojo became prime minister and war minister. Less than two months later, the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.

Could the war, as Mr. Grew believed, have been averted by the Alaskan meeting? Mr. Grew's optimism was based partly on a long and deeply secret talk with Prince Konoye on the night of Sept. 6, after the conference with the emperor. It was also based on his assumption that since the Alaskan meeting carried the imperial imprimatur, the army component of the Japanese delegation would accept any concessions he made.

Whether Prince Konoye would have been able to make real concessions is another matter. Tojo was agreeable to the meeting only if the Japanese side made clear to the United States that if it failed to understand and accept Tokyo's aspirations it would mean war.

If Mr. Grew had been proved right, however, what then? Might we have been spared the horrors of the Pacific war? And what of the war with Germany?

Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In weeks, the Nazi blitzkrieg had smashed its way deep toward Moscow. The Soviets appeared all but defeated and dreaded the possibility of a Japanese attack in the east.

Within two months of signing a neutrality pact with Japan, Stalin knew that Tokyo was contemplating an attack on Siberia. Forty Soviet divisions, all of them desperately needed in the defense of the western sector, were tied up in the east and could not be moved while the Japanese threat remained.

At this critical moment, a Soviet spy ring in Tokyo headed by Richard Sorge, a special correspondent for a German newspaper, came to the rescue. Mr. Sorge was on terms of complete trust with the German ambassador, while Ozaki Hotsumi, his principal Japanese collaborator, was a member of Prince Konoye's brain trust. From these sources, the two spies drew out highly classified intelligence, which they sent to Moscow.

From Mr. Sorge, Stalin got advance warning of the planned German attack on the Soviet Union. In May 1941, Mr. Sorge reported that between 170 and 190 German divisions would be concentrated for the attack, which he predicted would begin on June 20, an estimate that erred by two days.

The German Embassy in Tokyo at this time was doing its best to persuade Japan to enter the war against the Soviet Union. By the end of August 1941, however, Mr. Sorge was able to report the encouraging news that the embassy had lost all hope of Japan joining the war against Russia in 1941.

On Oct. 15, with the German army near Moscow, he transmitted the intelligence Stalin most wanted to hear: Tokyo had decided to embark on a major military campaign to the south, capturing Singapore and attacking the United States. Plans to attack to the north had been abandoned.

Japan no longer posed a serious threat to the Soviet Union. Reinforcements could now safely be rushed across the trans-Siberian railroad for the defense of Moscow. By Nov. 17, they had arrived in Moscow. Less than a month later, Pearl Harbor was bombed. The threat to Moscow was never so acute again.

Even if Mr. Grew was correct in his assumption that the Pacific War could have been averted, it is difficult to believe that the likely alternative — a combined German-Japanese attack on the Soviet Union — would not have led inevitably to a war involving the United States, probably in circumstances that would have been far less favorable to the Allies.

The writer, who covered the war in the Pacific for Australian and British newspapers, was the chief Reuters correspondent in Tokyo from 1945 to 1949. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Preventing Pearl Harbor


Good discussion. But be careful of Stinnett-he ignores some of the basic, established works on cryptanalytic history (Wohlstetter, for one) in his standard "Roosevelt knew" revisionist tome.

There should be an award for people who are punished for telling the truth. Call it the Richardson Prize. It should be presented in person by whoever authorized the punishment, and come with a mandatory public apology.

I have read other accounts that included this speculation of FDRs sacrificing Pearl Harbor lives to gain acceptance for the US's entry into WW II. It seems possible, given the supporting documentation of Japanese fleet movements and the general consensus at that time that the conflict with Japan would occur. But, where were the US carriers that were saved from the Pearl Harbor attacks and what was the basis for the order for their movement away from Pearl Harbor?

But, where were the US carriers that were saved from the Pearl Harbor attacks and what was the basis for the order for their movement away from Pearl Harbor?

They were covering the reinforcement convoy for Wake Island.

Nobody was under any illusions about war coming--we simply underestimated where the Japanese would strike. The Phillipines was expected. Hawaii was not.

GOP In answer to your question - "But, where were the US carriers that were saved from the Pearl Harbor attacks and what was the basis for the order for their movement away from Pearl Harbor?"

Lexington and Enterprise were the only carriers based out of Pearl at the time of the attack.

They were on a mission delivering aircraft to Wake Island and Midway.

Enterprise was due to be in port on Dec 6th, but was delayed by heavy weather.

I had a barber for many years who was a lookout on the Enterprise from May 1941 until her return stateside for refitting later in the war. He said the devastation at Pearl when they did arrive was heartbreaking.

The Naval Air Staion at Kanoehe was the first target hit - In order to neutralize the carrier planes that were flown off when the carriers were in port. Their absence was a godsend, but the attacke were fierce. This is where John Finn performed his actions which were recognized with a Medal of Honor.

Dusko Popov, the great double agent of WW2 wrote about this in his memoir Spy/Counter Spy.

Excellent post. Could it also be that those above Richardson aimply failed to realize what he, Mitchell and others already did - the potentcy carrier based aircraft could place in the Pacific theatre?

Excellent post. Could it also be that the CNO et. al. simply failed to realize what Richardson, Mitchell and others already did - the potentcy carrier based aircraft could place in the Pacific theatre?

I'm just getting started on M.Stanton Evans' Blacklisted by History, the untold story of Senator Joe McCarthy. The references made there to the International Pacific Institute's role in influencing prewar American policy toward the Far East make a very plausible scenario. After HItler attacked Russia it was very much in Stalin's interest to draw America into the war. The IPR was a front organization run by Owen Lattimore who had close contact with Lauchlin Currie, ". an executive assistant to President Roosevelt in the early 1940's whose portfolio included policy toward China." Not only did Stalin have agents in the U.S. who may have deflected the influence of men like Admiral Richardson, but he also had agents in Japan pushing the Japanese toward attacking America. There is so much to absorb in this book that it is head-spinning. Highly recommended reading- should be mandatory in college courses on American history. As if!

FDR seemed to follow a policy of joining in the war but with the purpose of allowing a Soviet victory. Clearly the worst President ever.

Don't forget the Harry Hopkins statement that on the night before the attack, he discussed the impending attack with FDR and FDR admitted that he knew what was coming.

Remember we intercepted and decoded both the Japanese naval code and the diplomatic code. FDR's December 8th speech to Congress was lies.

We had an opportunity in October to negociate a Japanese withdrawl from SE Asia and most of China. However, that would not due, it would not help get the U.S. into the European war and would ensure a German victory over the Soviets.

FDR was a Soviet first President.

>FDR seemed to follow a policy of >joining in the war but with the >purpose of allowing a Soviet >victory. Clearly the worst >President ever.

While FDR deserves critique for a number of his policies (foreign and domestic), the idea that he was some sort of enabler of Soviet world domination is baseless speculation, if not nonsense.

Could the U.S. Have Saved the Philippines From Japanese Conquest in 1941?

Questions linger concerning the deployment of U.S. heavy bombers on the first day of World War II.

Here's What You Need to Know: Any action would have merely delayed the inevitable.

Ever since word of the disaster in the Philippines reached the rest of the world, there has been much speculation about what would have happened if the B-17s had been launched against the Japanese airfields on Formosa immediately after word of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached the islands.

Many, including his biographer, William Manchester, have accused General Douglas MacArthur of being personally responsible for the failure to mount an attack. But those who make the accusations fail to consider the true situation of the bomber force in the Philippines on December 8, 1941. For one thing, only half of the 35-plane heavy bomber force was on Luzon that morning. Two squadrons had been transferred some 500 miles south to Mindanao. Even if all of the B-17s at Clark had been able to take off for a mission against the Japanese airfields, they would have made up too small a formation to effectively defend themselves against the hordes of Japanese fighters they would have likely encountered over Formosa. The two squadrons at Del Monte would have had to fly to Clark or San Marcelino to refuel and take on bombs and ammunition for their guns before they could fly a mission.

Hindsight is Always 20/20

Another consideration is the weather that lay over the Japanese airfields. The same fog that kept the Japanese naval aircraft on the ground until midmorning would have also prevented the American B-17 crews from finding the airfields and the bombardiers from successfully bombing the targets. Furthermore, all of the B-17s at Clark had been ordered into the air in the early morning so they would not be caught on the ground by the inevitable Japanese attack. In fact, it was the decision to recall them to refuel and rearm for an attack on Formosa that caused them to be on the ground when the Japanese bombers and fighters struck Clark.

The gift of hindsight indicates that the best course of action would perhaps have been to send the bombers south and keep them aloft until after the attack. They could have then been recalled to Clark, along with the two squadrons that were at Mindanao, for a night or early morning attack on the Japanese airfields on Formosa. Or, the bombers could have been held in reserve at Clark to attack the Japanese invasion fleet when it came.

Pearl Harbor Hype

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited Franklin D. Roosevelt in the afternoon of Dec. 7, just after the president had learned about our devastating losses at Pearl Harbor. Knox later told his naval aide,"FDR was as white as a sheet. He expected to get hit but not hurt."

Several months later, Admiral Thomas Hart, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, returned to Washington D.C. and visited Roosevelt in the White House. By this time, Hart's small fleet was at the bottom of the Java Sea, overwhelmed by Japan's vastly superior navy. FDR told Hart that the army had misinformed him about its ability to defend the Philippines. If he had known the truth, he would have"stalled off the Japs" for another year.

Stop for a moment and ponder the meaning of these two statements. They reveal some startling facts about Pearl Harbor that you will not find in the movie or in the hype that is gushing from the TV screen. The first reveals that FDR knew the Japanese were going to attack the United States somewhere. But he did not think they would inflict serious damage. The second makes it clear that Franklin D. Roosevelt could have averted or at least delayed a war with Japan.

Perhaps more disturbing, what the president told Admiral Hart was a lie. In November 1941, the top commanders of the U.S. Army and Navy had begged FDR to keep negotiating with the Japanese for at least another three months to give them time to complete a buildup of air and ground forces in the Philippines. He chose to ignore these pleas, which were couched in unmistakably serious language.

Until November 26, 1941, Roosevelt had been negotiating with two Japanese diplomats who had come to Washington to try to resolve a crisis with the United States which began in August 1941. At that time, with no warning, the United States embargoed all shipments of oil to Japan. The Japanese were baffled and infuriated by this decision. For three previous years, the United States had supplied fifty percent of Japan's oil, while her army conquered much of China. Why had Roosevelt chosen this moment to cut off the oil?

The answer, it is now apparent, was FDR's desperate desire to start a war with Japan that would get America into the war he wanted to fight -- with Nazi Germany. Roosevelt had tried hard to start a war with Germany. He had flaunted documents fabricated by British intelligence, supposedly proving Berlin was planning to invade South America. He ordered the Navy to attack German U-boats on sight, in effect fighting an undeclared war in the Atlantic.

A U-boat put a torpedo into the magazine of the USS Reuben James. One hundred and fifteen American sailors died in the freezing Atlantic. The public reaction? Robert Sherwood, FDR's speechwriter, summed it up: people were more interested in who was going to win the Army-Notre Dame football game.

Until the day before Pearl Harbor, polls showed eighty percent of the American people did not want to fight either Germany or Japan. They approved Roosevelt's policy of all aid short of war to the nations fighting the Axis powers. But they trusted FDR's 1940 promise that he would not send their sons to fight in a foreign war. That promise was another lie -- whereby the president had painted himself into an agonizing political corner.

Instead of negotiating seriously with the Japanese, Roosevelt let Secretary of State Cordell Hull present the Tokyo diplomats with a ten point ultimatum that included a demand for an immediate withdrawal from China and Japan's repudiation of her alliance with Germany. The Secretary of State went to the White House on the morning of November 26, 1941 and read this document to the president who"promptly agreed" with it.

Roosevelt permitted Hull to deliver this intransigent message to the dismayed Japanese without any further consultation with the secretaries of the army or navy or the service's military leaders, who had begged him for more time. Even historians who attempt to defend the president describe his conduct on this day of decision as"extraordinary."

The Japanese diplomats were stunned and dismayed. They had offered a 90 day cooling off period in which neither Japan nor the United States would move troops or warships anywhere in the Far East while the two nations discussed their differences.

The historians' judgment of FDR's performance connects to something else we now know. American cryptographers had broken the Japanese diplomatic"Purple" code. The president was aware that Tokyo had set November 29 as a deadline for a settlement. After that the Japanese negotiators were told that war would become inevitable.

In the White House, Roosevelt met with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark, Army chief of staff General George Marshall, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The chief topic they discussed was how to make sure, in Stimson's words, Japan"fired the first shot."

On November 27, war warnings were sent to American commands throughout the Pacific, with a special emphasis on the Philippines. The Army message contained a sentence missing from the Navy warning: IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT, REPEAT, CANNOT BE AVOIDED, THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT. Obviously, Roosevelt assumed the war would begin there.

Why did FDR think he would get hit but not hurt in this war? Because the president and many others in the U.S. Navy and Army were convinced the Japanese were inept pilots and mediocre sailors. This racist superiority complex gave Roosevelt and his aides an incredible sense of complacency. On Dec. 4, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told a group of big businessmen that we would be at war with Japan in three or four days. But he said not to worry. It would not last more than six months.

This ignorance of Japan's fighting ability meant the president exposed thousands of American servicemen in the Pacific to a conflict they could not win. Along with the destruction of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the Philippines were invaded and swiftly conquered. The 20,000 soldiers stationed there were killed or captured. Similar fates befell smaller garrisons on other islands.

Toward the end of the losing fight in the Philippines, General William E. Brougher, commander of the 11th Division, angrily asked:"Who had the right to say that 20,000 Americans should be sentenced without their consent and for no fault of their own to an enterprise that would involve them in endless suffering, cruel handicaps, death or a hopeless future?"

After the war, Admiral James O. Richardson, who had warned Roosevelt not to keep the fleet at Pearl Harbor --and had been fired for his unwelcome advice -- said:"I believe the President's responsibility for our initial defeats in the Pacific was direct, real and personal."

A final irony: if Roosevelt had stalled the Japanese for another three months, almost certainly we would never have gone to war with Tokyo. During those ninety days, the Russians counterattacked and threw the German Army into stunned retreat before Moscow. Suddenly Germany no longer looked like the winner of a two front war. Japan would have been much more amenable to abandoning what one historian has called their"hollow alliance" with Hitler and ending their stalemated war with China.

Merlo Pusey, editorial writer for the Washington Post and later a distinguished biographer, had this to say about Franklin D. Roosevelt's performance in the months before Pearl Harbor."Inevitably, we had to get into it [the war]. I just wish we had done it honestly and openly in our constitutional way of doing things instead of. by the back door. I think Roosevelt had a moral responsibility for leadership. If he had been less of a politician and more of a statesman, he would have taken a stand instead of trying to do it covertly."

Why had Franklin Roosevelt found himself forced to resort to this immensely risky, morally dubious pattern of deceit? Why was he unable to tell the American people the truth about one of the most important political decisions in the history of the country -- for that matter one of the turning points in the history of the world?

It is time for Americans to find an answer to this question. It is a crucial first step to seeing Pearl Harbor and the rest of World War II as history rather than a vainglorious mixture of memory and myth. That in turn may enable us to look at other wars -- notably Vietnam -- with adult eyes.

Could a Young Army Pilot Have Prevented the Pearl Harbor Tragedy?

Ships burn on Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row the morning of the Japanese attack the USS Arizona is in the foreground.

(U.S. Navy/Naval History and Heritage Command)

Joseph Connor
December 2020

A fateful day—and question—shadowed Kermit Tyler all his life.

FIRST LIEUTENANT KERMIT A. TYLER was the n ext man up on the squadron duty roster, so he resigned himself to spending the coming Sunday morning, 4 to 8 a.m., at the Aircraft Information Center at Fort Shafter on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. At 3 a.m. on that day, December 7, 1941, the 28-year-old fighter pilot drove south from his house on Oahu’s North Shore to Fort Shafter, listening to Hawaiian music on his car radio.

The Information Center was the hub of a cutting-edge system designed to warn of air attacks aimed at Hawaii. A half-dozen radar stations were located throughout Oahu, the site of several military bases including the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The radar operators’ job was to detect approaching planes and report unusual contacts to the center. Center personnel would evaluate the information and determine if the aircraft might be hostile, in which case they would scramble pursuit planes to intercept them.

The idea was sound, but the system was not yet a smooth-running operation. Pilots were randomly sent to man the center, serving as little more than warm bodies. Tyler, for example, had no training in radar—and no idea what he was supposed to do at the center. A few days earlier, he had asked his superior, Major Kenneth P. Bergquist, about his role. Bergquist only suggested that if a plane crashed, Tyler could help with the rescue operation. Even the center’s location was makeshift: a room above a warehouse, pending construction of a permanent home.

The first three hours of Tyler’s Sunday shift were uneventful, even boring. Only a skeleton staff was on duty. The officer whose job it was to identify approaching aircraft wasn’t scheduled to be there that morning, but it didn’t seem to matter because there were few planes in the air. Tyler passed the time writing letters home and thumbing through a Reader’s Digest. But at 7:20 a.m., fate intervened to ensure the young pilot an unwelcome and enduring place in history, branded as the man who had a chance to thwart the Pearl Harbor attack—but didn’t.

Pilot Kermit A. Tyler, here as a lieutenant colonel in 1944. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

BORN IN IOWA IN 1913, Kermit Tyler grew up in Long Beach, California. After two years of college, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1936 and earned his wings the next year. In February 1941, Tyler was assigned to the 78th Pursuit Squadron in Hawaii. For a young airman, life in idyllic Oahu was “very pleasant indeed,” he said. He and future ace Charles H. MacDonald shared a beach house on the North Shore, splitting the $60 monthly rent, and Tyler took up surfing, an avocation he pursued for the next 50 years.

While Tyler and his fellow pilots honed their flying skills with aerobatics and mock dogfights in their P-40 Warhawks, other officers studied technological advances that would help win the next war. One of the most promising was known as “radio detection and ranging,” or radar. When high-frequency radio waves hit an object, like an airplane, they deflect back, producing an image on an oscilloscope screen pinpointing the object’s location. The British had pioneered important advances in the field the previous year, radar had proved pivotal in the Battle of Britain, alerting the Royal Air Force to approaching German bombers and enabling its fighter planes to intercept them.

The advent of aircraft carriers had made even island outposts like Hawaii vulnerable, so radar became the linchpin of Hawaiian air defense. Operating at the upper end of the present-day FM broadcast band, the radar sets in use at the time, called SCR-270Bs, could detect planes more than 100 miles away. Still, they had limitations. Foremost, they could not distinguish between friendly and enemy planes. The British had technology to do that—a system called Identification, Friend or Foe—but the U.S. Army Signal Corps was still developing an American version. The SCR-270B also couldn’t discern the number of planes in a contact.

Many junior officers had embraced radar, but the higher-ups showed little interest, noted Major Bergquist, who was setting up the Hawaiian radar system. Commander William E. G. Taylor, a navy officer then working on radar in Hawaii, observed that radar was “sort of a foster child at that time, we felt.” Turf battles between the Signal Corps and the Air Corps didn’t help either, Bergquist said the result was bureaucratic inertia, a shortage of trained personnel, and a lack of spare parts, which limited radar station operating hours to 4 to 7 a.m. each day. Even when they were active, the sets weren’t used to detect hostile aircraft. Instead, radar was used more to train for hypothetical future threats rather than for “any idea it would be real,” explained Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, the army commander in Hawaii.

By late 1941, American relations with Japan had reached their breaking point. U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall issued a war warning to General Short on November 27, alerting him to “hostile action possible at any moment.” Marshall also ordered Short “not, repeat not, to alarm the civil population,” so Short confined Marshall’s warning to officers he deemed to have a need to know. Short placed his command on alert—but at the lowest possible alert level, one that warned only against “acts of sabotage and uprisings within the islands, with no threat from without.”

The radar system then used in Hawaii, the SCR-270B (above), technologically lagged behind one in use by the British, which could distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft—like this German Me-109 fighter near the English coast (below). (Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

(Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

AT THE SAME TIME that Kermit Tyler started his shift on December 7, Private Joseph L. Lockard, 19, and Private George E. Elliott Jr., 23, fired up the radar station on Opana, some 30 miles north of Fort Shafter, on the upper tip of Oahu. Of the two, Lockard was the more experienced, although he had no formal schooling in radar. He operated the SCR-270B, and Elliott plotted radar contacts on a map. It was a “rather dull morning. There was not much activity,” Lockard recalled. At 7 a.m., with the day’s scheduled radar operations completed and an hour remaining in Tyler’s shift, Lockard and Elliott prepared to shut down. But the truck scheduled to bring them back to their camp was late to arrive in the meantime, they kept the radar on to give Elliott practice operating it.

At 7:02 a.m., his eyes popped at what he saw on his screen: a large blip 132 miles north of Oahu. Lockard was surprised, too, as it was the largest contact he had ever seen—so large he initially thought the radar had malfunctioned. After verifying that his equipment was working properly, he told Elliott that it looked like a large flight of planes. The SCR-270B, however, could not ascertain how many planes were there or whether they were American. Lockard and Elliott were curious, but not alarmed. Neither had been privy to Marshall’s war warning, and neither suspected that the planes might be Japanese. Nevertheless, the contact was so unusual that Elliott thought they should report it to the Information Center. Lockard laughed and told him he was crazy after some prodding, he relented, and Elliott made the call.

At about 7:20 a.m., Elliott reached the center’s switchboard operator, Private Joseph P. McDonald, and gave his report: “Large number of planes coming in from the north.” McDonald thought that he was alone and didn’t know what to do. When he saw that Tyler was still on duty, he had Tyler speak with Lockard. Lockard told Tyler about the contact, which was now 20-25 miles closer to Oahu, deeming it the most substantial reading he had ever gotten.

Tyler remembered the Hawaiian music he had heard on his car radio earlier that morning. He knew that the radio station, KGMB, broadcast overnight only when American heavy bombers flew in from the mainland. The air force wanted the station’s signal available as a navigation aid. That must be it, Tyler thought, and he concluded that the radar contact was a flight of friendly planes. He told Lockard not to worry about it and decided against disturbing his superior, Bergquist, who was at home. In the peacetime military, Tyler knew, lieutenants did not drag majors out of bed on a Sunday morning without good reason. That this contact might be Japanese planes was the farthest thing from Tyler’s mind because he, too, was unaware of Marshall’s war warning. In fact, from the news accounts he had read, he thought the United States’ relations with Japan had actually improved over the previous few weeks. Lockard and Elliott continued to track the planes until 7:39 a.m., when they lost them 22 miles from Oahu once the island’s topography interfered with the radar beam.

Private Joseph L. Lockard (above) was part of the team that picked up radar warnings of incoming aircraft, like this Aichi D3A carrier dive bomber (below). (Bettmann/Getty Images)

(U.S. Navy/National Archives)

A flight of 12 B-17 Flying Fortresses was, in fact, coming in from California that morning. But what Opana had picked up wasn’t American bombers, but the first wave of Japanese planes bound for Pearl Harbor. They struck at 7:55 a.m.—35 minutes after Elliott’s call. Tyler sensed an inkling of trouble at 8 a.m. when, his shift over, he stepped out of the center for fresh air. Glancing toward Pearl Harbor, five miles away, he saw antiaircraft fire and diving planes but thought it was a drill. Five minutes later, he learned the truth when nearby Wheeler Field called to report that it was under attack.

The Japanese had achieved complete surprise. Their attack killed 2,335 American servicemen, sank or damaged 19 ships, and damaged or destroyed 328 army and navy aircraft. Since General Short’s alert had warned only against sabotage, the planes at the Hawaiian airfields had been lined up wingtip to wingtip—making the planes easier to guard against interlopers but easy prey for the Japanese attackers.

The Pearl Harbor attack was a seismic shock, and Americans could not grasp how the army and navy could have been caught so flat-footed. The tragedy became one of the most thoroughly investigated events in American history, with a presidential commission, an army board, a navy court of inquiry, and a congressional committee all trying to figure out what had happened and who was to blame. These panels focused on the commanders—Short and the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel—but Tyler’s dismissal of the Opana radar contact did not escape scrutiny.

IN 1942, the Roberts Commission, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and chaired by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, took testimony and cleared Tyler, noting he had firm reason to believe that the approaching planes were American. Tyler’s commander, Brigadier General Howard C. Davidson, backed Tyler, telling the commission that Tyler would have needed “prescience beyond the ordinary person’s capacity” to recognize the radar contact as Japanese planes.

Two years later, a Navy Court of Inquiry likewise excused Tyler’s failure to heed the Opana contact due to the SCR-270B’s inability to identify hostile planes and Short’s failure to disseminate Marshall’s war warning. That same year, however, the Army Pearl Harbor Board was more critical, chastising Tyler for failing to call Major Bergquist. Tyler “had no knowledge upon which to base any action,” the board noted, “yet he assumed to give direction instead of seeking someone competent to make a decision.” The board’s presiding officer was more understanding. Upon hearing how Tyler had arrived at the center without orders or a defined role, Lieutenant General George Grunert, a soldier since 1898, noted, “It seems all cock-eyed to me.”

The final investigation, conducted by a congressional committee from 1945-46, placed the blame squarely on General Short. Tyler’s failure to alert Bergquist would have been inexcusable had he known of the war warning, the panel concluded, but he didn’t. “The real reason…that the information developed by the radar was of no avail was the failure of the commanding general to order an alert commensurate with the warning he had been given by the War Department that hostilities were possible at any moment,” the committee concluded.

For more than a half-century, history enthusiasts have debated whether Tyler could have changed the course of history by passing the Opana radar contact up his chain of command. Would the army and navy have been better prepared to meet the attack? Navy Secretary Frank Knox thought so. In a report issued on December 14, 1941, he asserted that if the Opana radar contact had been “properly handled, it would have given both Army and Navy sufficient warning to have been in a state of readiness, which at least would have prevented the major part of the damage done, and might easily have converted this successful air attack into a Japanese disaster.”

Other factors, however, dispel the navy secretary’s conclusion. Nothing Kermit Tyler could have done would have been likely to have made a difference.

Private George E. Elliott Jr. (above), who had insisted on reporting the radar contacts, testifies at one of the 1945-46 Congressional hearings (below). (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

The main impediment was American complacency—what Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King later called “the unwarranted feeling of immunity from attack that seems to have pervaded all ranks at Pearl Harbor—both Army and Navy.” Japan had been viewed as a second-rate power whose planes and ships were inferior to their American counterparts. Few imagined that Japan would have the audacity to attack heavily defended Pearl Harbor—and it’s hard to be ready for an attack believed to be impossible. It took defeats at Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines to show the United States that Japan was indeed a formidable foe.

If Tyler had acted, he would have called Bergquist, who was home in bed and also unaware of Marshall’s war warning. For that call to have had any impact, Bergquist would have had to have believed the contact might be hostile planes and passed a warning to his superiors. Furthermore, Bergquist’s superiors would have had to have promptly issued a full alert and notified the navy. Given the hubris of which Admiral King had complained, none of these actions was likely, as another incident that December morning shows.

At about 6:45 a.m., the destroyer USS Ward sank a Japanese mini submarine near the mouth of Pearl Harbor. The Ward’s skipper reported this action to his superiors at 6:51 a.m., but naval commanders did not take the report seriously enough to issue an alert. There is no reason to believe that an ambiguous radar contact would have led army commanders to act any more decisively than their navy brethren had. Time was also short: Lockard spoke to Tyler at 7:20 a.m., just 35 minutes before the attack. Even with a prompt alert, there was too little time for ships to get underway or warplanes to get off the ground.

The most tantalizing “what if” involves an omission that cannot be laid solely at Tyler’s feet. After the attack began, more experienced officers like Bergquist and Major Lorry N. Tindal, an air force intelligence officer, took over for Tyler, although Tyler stayed on duty at the center. Due to “the shock of the attack,” the center was in “quite a turmoil,” Tindal said. No navy liaison officer was present, and no one from the army thought to tell the navy about the Opana radar contact until two days later—a lapse that Admiral Kimmel called “incomprehensible.” The Opana station’s radar plot showed the path the Japanese planes had taken to Oahu, a valuable clue to the location of the carriers that had launched them. If the navy had had that information on December 7, it might have found and attacked those carriers, Kimmel believed—but without it, the navy chased its tail, searching to the west and southwest instead of to the north.

A senator gestures at a chart showing waves of attacking Japanese aircraft around Oahu. (Bettmann/Corbis/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

THERE WAS A WAR TO BE FOUGHT, and Kermit Tyler moved on. In September 1942, he was promoted to captain and given command of the 44th Fighter Squadron, flying combat missions in the Solomon Islands. Tyler was later promoted to major, named operations officer for the 13th Fighter Command in May 1943, and promoted to lieutenant colonel in November of that same year.

The Opana station’s Private Lockard emerged from the Pearl Harbor attack as a minor celebrity. On February 10, 1942, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for detecting the Japanese planes. The press portrayed him as one of the few people on the ball on December 7, unaware that he had laughed off the radar contact until Private Elliott prodded him to report it. Lockard was commissioned a lieutenant and spent the war as a radar officer in the Aleutians Elliott stayed out of the spotlight and served as a radar operator in the States for the war’s duration.

Radar had done its job in detecting the Japanese planes, and the brass took notice. The attack unlocked a cornucopia of resources for radar operations. “After the 7th I just had to snap my fingers and I got what I wanted,” Major Bergquist said.

But Pearl Harbor followed Tyler for the rest of his life. He remained in the air force after the war, but a postwar effectiveness report questioned his ability to react in a crisis—the kiss of death for advancement. He retired from the service in 1961 as a lieutenant colonel, the same rank he had held since 1943. Books and films have portrayed Tyler as asleep at the switch that fateful morning, and for the rest of his life he received occasional angry letters at his home from people second-guessing his performance at Pearl Harbor. When he died in 2010, newspapers across the country ran his obituary, calling him the man who had ignored the approaching Japanese planes.

Why had fate singled him out? Tyler had often wondered. He agonized over whether he should have done more, but in his heart of hearts, he knew the answer: “I could have done the same thing a hundred times, and I would have arrived at the same conclusion, given the state of alert, or lack of alert, that we were in,” he reflected in 1991. In the end, Tyler accepted that he was simply the unlucky man thrust into an impossible situation at what had unexpectedly become a pivotal moment in history, and he made his peace with it. ✯

Along with General Short, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel (above) was assigned most of the blame for the debacle, while Private Lockard (with his family, below) was hailed as a hero. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

(John Phillips/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

This article was published in the December 2020 issue of World War II.

Yes, WW2 Could Have Been Avoided.

If the Treaty of Versailles had not put such harsh punishments on Germany, then the nation would not have been perfect to be taken over by a dictator. If the League of Nations had not abandoned Germany after they lost a war, let's say they were put under an Allied army occupation until they could pick themselves up from WW1, then Hitler would not have been necessary and since there wouldn't have been anything for him to do, like make the impression that he was really helping to rebuild Germany when in reality he was aiming for world domination, not many, if any, would have followed his beliefs. This could have prevented WW2.