Alan Zimm on Pearl Harbor

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.  In the aftermath of this attack, 21 ships were destroyed, over 2,000 lives were lost, and the United States was changed forever.

USS Arizona Memorial

We got in contact with Alan Zimm, author of Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions, to hear about his popular new book and his view on why the Pearl Harbor attack still impacts the American people today.

Why do you think that Pearl Harbor still resonates with the American public as the painful “day of infamy” it was christened as seventy years ago?

Pearl Harbor will remain prominent in American history as the event that brought us into the war against the Axis.  Remember, the reaction of many Americans to our participation (and casualties) in World War I was a determination to avoid participation in “foreign wars.”  There was a significant isolationist – pacifist movement in the 1930’s, and Roosevelt had run and was re-elected on a platform of keeping American out of direct participation in the war in Europe.  Pearl Harbor, what was perceived as a heinous sneak attack that killed thousands of Americans and sank elements of the battle fleet of which Americans were so proud, changed that.  Like the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11, most Americans of the time remember where they were when they first learned of the event.

Militarily, Pearl Harbor remains a watershed event.  It represented a significant victory by a nation that was not really respected as a military power, using an instrument that was not really expected – at least, by the public – of having the capability to sink battleships.  Then, the controversies kept the battle front and center in the American consciousness to this day – the errors made by the Americans, publicly exposed in a lengthy Congressional investigation; the chain of unlikely circumstances that magnified the Japanese success;  the surfacing of various ‘conspiracy theories” involving alleged foreknowledge of the attack, or alleged American and British manipulation to get America into the war;  the dramatic military events, such as the magazine explosion on the Arizona, Oklahoma capsizing, and the penetration of the harbor by one or more Japanese midget submarines.  The destruction of American air power on the ground allowed the Japanese ships to escape without damage, in spite of expectations that up to half of the Japanese carriers might be lost to counterattacks.

In all, there is much to be discussed and learned from the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

How has your research changed our perception of the Pearl Harbor attack?

Let me begin by offering an extract from a review written by Dr. Eric Grove, a prominent naval historian based in the United Kingdom:  “It is not often that one can say that an outstanding and important book transforms our knowledge of a well-known event, but this can be said of … Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions.”  Our original understanding of much of the attack from the Japanese viewpoint was formed by a limited number of surviving Japanese veterans, almost all interviewed by the eminent Pearl Harbor historian, Gordon Prange.  Much of Prange’s assessments came from the Strike Commander, Fuchida, who has proven to be less than a reliable witness: he misled Prange on a number of issues, mostly involving his participation and role in the preparation, planning, and execution of the attack.  Fuchida is a complex personality, largely rejected in Japan, but he found his validation in telling tall tales to Prange, which Prange accepted uncritically.  Because of the monumental nature of Prange’s best-selling histories, including At Dawn We Slept, and the difficulties of obtaining first-hand information due to the language barrier and the destruction of Japanese records at the end of the war, most historians following Prange accepted and repeated his value judgments.

Attack on Pearl Harbor represents a bottom-up re-evaluation of the attack.  It mines existing data and information from the viewpoint of a professional naval officer and operations research analyst, applying analytic tools not usually available to conventional historians and the viewpoint of a naval officer with over fourteen years’ experience at sea.  The re-evaluation has startling results.  First was the realization that the attack achieved only about one-fifth of its potential.  This led to an analysis of why, and the identification of many factors first seen in this attack which would inhibit the Japanese throughout the war.  Second was the discovery that many – most! – of the statements Fuchida made to Prange, such as his tale of the famous argument on the bridge of the flagship after the attack where Fuchida supposedly recommended a third wave attack against Pearl Harbor’s fuel tanks and naval shipyard, were simply not true.  The re-evaluation does indeed transform our knowledge and understanding of the attack, and changes our evaluations of such pivotal leaders such as Yamamoto, Nagumo, and Kimmel; it places the early-war capabilities of the Japanese striking force in better perspective.


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