Attack on Pearl Harbor by Alan D. Zimm

So much has been written about Pearl Harbor, its easily one of the most docummented events of the Second World War.  A couple years back Alan Zimm wrote this book to provide a statistical and analytical look at the attack, especially the Japanese plan and organization.

He offered “A startling new analysis of the conflagaration at Pearl Harbor, from the Japanese point of the view”.  After the jump, my brief look at his book and findings.

I’ve long been a voracious reader.  I finish a couple week.  I’ve occasionally recommended books on this site.  But this book I finished this week inspired me to post a review.  I expect I’ll do this on occasion, especially now that my posting schedule is threatening to catch up to my finished models in a few weeks.

The Pearl Harbor attack is an area of particular interest to me.  It ushered in a new sort of warfare, it brought the US into World War Two, and it starts a year of extremely intense and dramatic operations in the Pacific.  So I’ve read a lot about it. But this recent book offers some pretty thorough analysis of many details, far more detailed than I’ve seen before for some of it.

The first half looks at Japanese planning, training, execution and effectiveness. In a nutshell the major findings are interesting; the torpedo bombers were the real battleship killers of the attack but their attack runs were chaotic and could have been better coordinated.  The high level bombers (Kates with 800 kg AP bombs) scored the best accuracy, better than training and far better than at any other point in the war, but they were let down by faulty ordnance.  The dive bombers had the weakest showing both in terms of accuracy and poor target selection.  The fighters were devestating against grounded American air power but failed to provide any suppression of AAA or any meaningful escort at all.

The second half of the book looks at the American response, what the outcome could have been if a 40 minute warning had been acted on, and several other “what ifs” and myths associated with the attack.  This is the part that really kept my attention.  Some of Mr. Zimm’s conclusions are not what I would I would have expected, but they are interesting whether I agree or not.

Many writers over the years have postulated that a better American response could have actually been bad.  American ships sunk at sea would have been lost instead of mostly disabled like they were in harbor; and American aircraft shot out of the sky would have cost far more aircrew lives than obsolete planes shot to pieces on the ground.  Mr. Zimm dismisses all this with observations that prepared ships would have been at Condition Zed (full water tight integrity and AA fully involved) and that American AA was the best in the world, bar none.  Further, the eleven planes that actually got into the air actually faired better than predictive models would indicate (eight or nine kills, about twice the statistical average for the whole war) so perhaps 100+ American interceptors would have acquited themselves well.

I admit to being skeptical of this last claim.  American fighters in the Philippines, Java, Darwin and Port Moresby took heavy losses before pilots gained the experience to deal with Zeros and Oscars.  Mr. Zimm points out that fighter pilots in Hawaii were actually more experienced than pilots at those other locales, they had a working radar net (that happened to be shut down on that Sunday morning), and a couple months previous they had actually been briefed on the capabilities of the Japanese Zero by Claire Chennault.  This last was news to me, it concievably could have had a huge impact, at least if his briefing was believed it could have.  All in all he makes a convincing case that a prepared American defense could have given the Japanese a very bloody nose.

He also spends time on the possible effects of the Japanese targeting repair facilities and fuel tanks.  Considering this possibility has been commented on by everyone from Admiral Nimitz, to Samuel Eliot Morrison to Mitsuo Fuchida it is clearly one of the great “what ifs” of the whole war.  Yet Mr. Zimm makes a good case for why such fears may have been overstated.  Starting with how difficult to destroy industrial type targets actually proved to be during the war.  Next is that a shipyard, by its very nature, is a highly regenerative type target; that is, a facility designed to repair and restore heavy machinary on the largest ships would likely be highly capable of mending its own damage quite quickly (not to mention the shear size of the ship yard would make it difficult to identify the most significant targets).  Further, even fuel storage was often difficult to ignite (and tanks were designed with some ability to avoid catastrophe), the tanks are not terribly difficult to build or replace, and the US did start the war with adequate tanker tonnage to replace whatever might have been lost (specialized units for at sea replenishment were in shorter supply).

This later part of the book nicely builds on the details from the earlier chapters where the Japanese planners were considering what constituted targets worthy of hauling ordnance all the way from Japan.  A target the size of Pearl Harbor provides what we would now call a target rich environment and a huge part of operational planning would come back to that question of what was worthwhile.  My own conclusion from this would be that the Japanese mostly chose well, at least on a tactical level.  But on a strategic, or even political level the attack was grossly counter-productive.  And the author does address such issues; observing that the famous 14 part document was not even a proper declaration of war and no matter of changing its timing by 45 minutes would have likely made any difference at all. Also interesting is the observation at length that losses at Pearl Harbor pretty much forced the US to wait for the next generation of hardware to come available before fully switching to the offensive; that is, Japanese success at Pearl Harbor forced the US into the sort of “long war” that Japan could not possibly win.

Many other tidbits get treatments of different lengths; from the effectiveness of midget submarines and recent theories on the so-called “5th” or “missing” submarine; to Japanese spying operations to an assessment of many of the key players.

I do however have one fairly serious gripe about this book.  I dislike much of its tone.  The writer takes the many claims that the attack on Pearl Harbor was “brilliantly planned and executed” as his personel challenge.  Like he can disprove it with enough statistics.  He applies a level of analysis to the planning and the staff work that strikes me inappropriate and missing the point. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a revolution in warfare. There were only three navies in the world with carrier fleets and neither the US nor Britain operated the ships or their air groups together.  Carriers were used as fast raiding forces. There was much debate over what their ultimate potential was. But even with two years of war experience the British had launched no raids of more than a couple dozen aircraft.  The Japanese sent six carriers with over 300 airplanes against Pearl Harbor.  They had to teach themselves new ways of coordinating, new ways of underway replenishment, new modes of attacking a fortified harbor, with new radios that often didn’t work as advertised, all while keeping it secret or facing off with a sizable land based air force.  I think far too much is made of “conflicted approach paths” and deficient command and control procedures.

Further, there is pretty extensive criticism of previous historians and writers.  To be fair, I’ve seen this as a recent trend in many books I read.  Modern writers often seem eager to prove they have something new to say.  Which is understandable I suppose, but often inappropriate.  It does not reflect well on the author when he spends too much time criticizing writers like Gordon Prange or John Toland who have given us extremely well constructed narrative histories of these events.  That a writer with military experience can do better breaking down military minutia should not be considered a knock against those who made a complex story easy to understand for us ordinary schmucks.  I find it amusing that Mr. Zimm’s ultimate conclusion may be that the Pearl Harbor raid ensured a long war that the Japanese couldn’t win; which sounds a lot like what Samuel Eliot Morison said in the 1950s, “seldom has a successful military operation proven so disasterous to the victor”.

And I think that sums up most of what I thought.  This is a fascinating book that really tears into a lot of technical and specialized details.  If you’re a serious history nerd like me expect to get a lot out of this.  Just beware the writer seems to delight in being a little beligerent or iconoclastic.


About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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5 Responses to Attack on Pearl Harbor by Alan D. Zimm

  1. Theresa says:

    The attack on Pearl was a brave gambit, However in the immortal words of Admiral Yamamoto “All we succeeded in doing (referring to the attack) is wake a sleeping giant.”

    • atcDave says:

      And it’s ironic that it was Yamamoto’s own plan that did it. Other officers questioned its wisdom.

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  4. atcDave says:

    I’m currently reading A6M Zero-sen Aces by Nicholas Millman. He speaks directly on the topic of western intelligence on the A6M before the outbreak of the Pacific War. It is his assertion that American and British consulates in China, along with Claire Chennault had all forwarded reports about the Zero’s capabilities to their respective governments well ahead of the outbreak of war. But the RAF flatly believed the Buffalo was more than capable of facing it.
    In the US, only the Navy took any notice. Which led to Thach, Flately and others developing tactics to counter the Zero (mainly the Beam Defense Maneuver, better known as the “Thach Weave”).
    But NO mention of Air Force pilots in Hawaii being briefed beforehand. Of course that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But I remain HIGHLY SKEPTICAL of Mr Zimm’s claim that Air Force pilots in Hawaii could have had a significant impact on the Pearl Harbor attack if they had been on high alert.

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