The approaching 70th. Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

A piece by James Bowen about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The approaching 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Japanese carrier-launched attack on the US Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, it may be useful for me to mention some readily available historical resources for those who may be interested in the attack that brought the United States into the Pacific War as Australia's powerful ally. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred while Japan and the United States were still at peace and was deliberately timed for early on a Sunday morning to take advantage of the lowered state of readiness associated with the Christian Sunday. Of the eight American battleships in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their infamous "sneak attack": Arizona was completely destroyed; Oklahoma capsized and was sold for scrap; California and West Virginia were sunk upright, and were returned to service in 1943 and 1944 respectively; Nevada was returned to service in 1942; Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee were lightly damaged, and able to be returned to service before the end of 1941. The broken hull of Arizona now rests on the bed of Pearl Harbor and is the site of a national war memorial. In addition to the battleships, two light cruisers were damaged, and three destroyers were badly damaged. About 200 Navy and Army aircraft were destroyed. Including civilian victims, 2,403 Americans died in the two Japanese attacks on that day and 1,178 were wounded. The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft.

The treacherous attack swept strong isolationist attitudes away and fired Americans with a fierce determination to avenge the loss of so many American lives, ships, and aircraft. On the following day, the United States declared war on the Empire of Japan, and Australia would not have to fight Japanese military power with only the support of Dutch forces and merchant ships that escaped the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies.
In print form, perhaps the most readable account of the Pearl Harbor attack is "Day of Infamy" by the highly regarded author Walter Lord. For the serious reader of history, I recommend Professor Gordon W. Prange's "At Dawn we Slept". I believe that the best and most accurate cinematic account of the Pearl Harbor attack is to be found in the 20th Century Fox film "Tora! Tora! Tora" which can usually be purchased as a single disk for $15 or less.

Perhaps being conscious of the approaching 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, 20th Century Fox has released a Blu-Ray English language version of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" which was originally intended only for Japanese audiences. The international theatrical release runs for 138 minutes. The Japanese theatrical release runs for 148 minutes. The extra ten minutes in the Japanese release is mostly devoted to exculpating Emperor Hirohito from any responsibility for the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor. I strongly recommend avoiding the 148 minute version initially intended only for Japanese audiences.
Before turning to the historical content of "Tora! Tora! Tora!", I should mention that the Blu-Ray is noticeably darker and the grain heavier in scenes such as the Japanese aircraft launch from the flagship Akagi in the pre-dawn of December 7. Those watching this scene closely will note that producers have erred in placing Akagi's flight deck island on the starboard side rather than the port side. Akagi and Hiryu were the only Japanese aircraft carriers with islands located on the port side of the flight deck.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" is a gripping and mostly accurate account of Japan's treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and the events that preceded it. Fox intended that the film would be both historically accurate and balanced. To achieve that balance, Fox arranged for American and Japanese producers and directors to film their accounts of the Japanese attack independently and then blended both accounts into one story. For greater realism, Fox wisely chose to exclude top film stars, such as Charlton Heston or John Wayne, and selected a cast of fine character actors for the American and Japanese roles in the film. The American account appears to have been largely drawn from Professor Gordon W. Prange's authoritative history "At Dawn we slept" and does not shy away from depicting the succession of blunders that should have alerted the American armed forces in Hawaii to the approaching danger.

The logistical problems facing the producers were very challenging. When the film was being made in 1970, computer generated images (CGI) had not been invented. No Japanese aircraft dating from 1941 were available except in museums. So Fox converted American Vultee BT-13 and North American AT-6 Texan basic trainers to look like Zeros, Aichi "Val" dive-bombers, and Nakajima Navy Type 97 "Kate" level and torpedo bombers. The effect was so realistic that one WW II Japanese Zero pilot thought the Zeros used in the film were genuine. The Japanese built complete full-scale replicas of Admiral Yamamoto's flagship Nagato and the carrier Akagi on the beach at Ashiya airforce base. Fox built a full scale replica of the battleship USS Arizona mounted on barges. The Fox miniature department built 29 American and Japanese warship models - some as long as 40 feet. The pilots who flew the Japanese aircraft replicas over Hawaii in this film were American. Japanese actors only featured in aircraft close ups.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" is divided by an intermission into events leading up to Pearl Harbor and the actual attack on Hawaii which has been brilliantly filmed, and unfortunately, resulted in the death of one pilot. I agree completely with the views of noted film reviewer Leonard Maltin who described the film in these words: "Well-documented screenplay shows major and minor blundering on both sides, then recreates attack with frightening realism. Well-made film creates incredible tension. Oscar-winning special effects." (2008)

The historical context of the film is probably well settled. Tensions between the United States and Japan had been rising since the Japanese attacked China in 1937, and were not helped by the sinking and machine gunning of survivors of the American gunboat USS Panay in the Yangtze River by the Japanese in December 1937. The American government had responded to Japan's brutal and unprovoked aggression against China and occupation of French Indochina by a steadily rising program of economic sanctions including embargoes on oil and other military-related trade. The military-dominated Japanese government had already decided by mid-October 1941 to retaliate by attacking the United States unless the United States submitted to all Japanese demands - removal of all embargoes and a free hand to seize resource-rich countries across East and South-East Asia. The Japanese government knew that the Americans were highly unlikely to submit to Japan's demands. To distract the American government while it secretly positioned a powerful aircraft carrier strike force for a surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at its Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii, the Japanese government ordered its envoys in Washington to engage the Americans in intensive diplomatic discussions related to American concerns about Japan s aggression against China and occupation of French Indo China.

When it comes to historical accuracy, I have a serious problem with the Japanese contribution to the film. The Japanese account contains two major falsifications of history that appear to be intended to mislead viewers by minimising Japan's and Hirohito's war guilt in relation to Pearl Harbor. With the apparent intention of disguising the treacherous nature of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbour in peacetime and at 8.00 am on a Sunday morning (Hawaii Time), the Japanese producers suggest that Japan intended to submit a 14-part document containing a formal declaration of war to the American Secretary of State, Mr Cordell Hull, at 1.00 pm on December 7 (Washington Time). At 1.00 pm in Washington it would be 7.30 am in Hawaii and half an hour before the Japanese planes were scheduled to strike Pearl Harbor. The film suggests that tendering of this formal "declaration of war" at 1.00 pm was frustrated by decoding and clerical delays in the Japanese embassy in Washington. Such delays may have occurred, but the Japanese document eventually submitted to Secretary of State Hull at 2.20 pm on December 7 (eighty minutes after the first Japanese bomb fell on Hawaii) was not a formal declaration of war. It was not even an ultimatum. It was merely a summary of Japanese grievances and demands, coupled with a blunt announcement that Japan was terminating the lengthy diplomatic negotiations between Ambassador Nomura and Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. On two occasions in the film, Admiral Yamamoto and his staff officers refer to the 14-part document as a "declaration of war" which it clearly was not. Japan formally declared war on the United States several hours after the last Japanese aircraft had returned to its carrier from the smoking ruins of the American battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese contribution to "Tora! Tora! Tora!" also falsely represents Emperor Hirohito as a benign figurehead commander of Japan's military who approved the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor because he was powerless to stop it. In a conversation prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor between Prime Minister Konoye and Admiral Yamamoto, Konoye is heard to say: "His Majesty's signature is a mere formality. The Cabinet is responsible for all matters of national policy." Both statements are untrue. Under the Meiji Constitution of 1889, Hirohito could have overridden his cabinet on any issue and refused to authorise the attack on Pearl Harbor had he wanted to do so.

The 148 minute version of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" that was intended initially only for Japanese audiences takes the "white washing" of Hirohito's war guilt even further. The only significant aspect of the added ten minutes for Japanese audiences is a conversation between Admiral Yamamoto and a senior palace official in the Imperial Palace. The palace official falsely represents Hirohito as having been opposed to war with the United States but powerless to stop it. A study of Japanese history, and especially the Meiji Constitution, will reveal that the Meiji Constitution vested full control of the Japanese armed forces in the emperor, and the chiefs of Japan's military reported directly to the emperor and not to the civilian government. The fact that Hirohito was a "hands on" commander in chief with his military attaches active on every Pacific War front and briefing him daily is confirmed by Japan's official history of the Pacific War "Senshi Sosho" and by historian Professor Herbert P. Bix in his authoritative Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" (2000), especially at pages 327, 329-331, 359, and 387-391.

I hope these historical falsifications contrived by the Japanese producers will not spoil anyone's enjoyment of a film that I still regard as a masterful account of an appalling act of treachery. I recommend avoiding the 148 minute Japanese release now available on Blu-Ray (for those fortunate to possess BluRay DVD players) and watching instead the 138 minute version released originally for international audiences.

My own account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the historical events that led to it, can be found at: 

James Bowen. 17/11/2011.


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