Countdown to Pearl Harbor by Steve Twomey

The attack on Pearl Harbor is already coming to be one of my most visited topics!  But I had to share a few words about this excellent book.

This book was recommended to me by Doug, a visitor to this site.  I have previously recommended an anecdotal history and a more military/detail oriented work about Pearl Harbor attack.  Countdown to Pearl Harbor is a narrative history.  That means it describes the event as a story.  For most of us, that’s the easiest way to understand an event, at least on a basic level.

This book is subtitled “The Twelve Days to the Attack”, which describes the format.  The chapters take one day at a time for almost two weeks, ending December 7.  They do include some details going further back when appropriate.  It is written on a very personal level while introducing us to key players, both military and civilian, American and Japanese.  I found it did an excellent job of bringing out the human element of this story.

As an introductory type history I don’t want to go into too many details, except to mention I so often find Admiral Husband Kimmel to be a sympathetic and tragic figure.  He was good at his job and a proud military man.  I’ve always suspected that in different circumstances he would have been known as one the great wartime commanders.  But he did screw up badly.  Pearl Harbor was the ONLY American Pacific command not on high alert December 7.  That alone is damning.  And by many accounts he was shattered by those events.  Steve Twomey does a wonderful job capturing his character, his great strengths, and his fatal error.

One other observation, this is the first history I’ve read where the writer plainly states we are out of the era of being able to interview participants.  This has sort of been true for a while, certainly the “big men”, the key players, planners and decision makers have been gone for many years.  But until just recently, the majority of what’s written about World War II has drawn on interviews with eye witnesses.  Given the shear bulk of written material out there its not like there will be a sudden shortage of material to read.  But apparently writers who have questions, possibly new questions, can no longer arrange an interview or write a letter to anyone who might be in the know. The Greatest Generation is passing quickly.  We can no longer pick their minds when we want to know…
When I was a kid they were the generation in charge of everything.  In the last year I’ve buried both my parents.  It all leaves me feeling very sad and aware of time marching on.

~ Dave 

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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23 Responses to Countdown to Pearl Harbor by Steve Twomey

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Even when I spoke with veterans their memory played tricks when they were recalling events or details.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah I’ve often been aware of that. Eyewitness testimony is often just opinion gathering. And I’ve heard many tall tales. I KNOW some of the guys I’ve talked to were yanking my chain. Or they didn’t know something but weren’t about to admit that me (!).

      But regardless, it’s all leaving me a little blue right now.

  2. jfwknifton says:

    An excellent review. The memory of veterans can be quite patchy. My Dad seemed to have forgotten a lot of the routine things but he certainly remembered the bad ones…too much so in fact, and he would have been better if he’d told somebody…anybody…..about them.

    • atcDave says:

      Thanks John.
      That’s interesting about your dad. It makes me wonder if some of the “tall tale” tellers I’ve encountered were just coping in a different way.

  3. Great review. Personal tales certainly add to any historical reference but as you say this is getting harder and harder to find. My dad’s own memory is so jaded now that getting him to talk about his life rarely reveals anything new or probably truly accurate. Condolences on the loss of your parents, it’s never easy.

    • atcDave says:

      Thanks AT. I think my dad’s anecdotes are a big part of my current love of history. Even though, sort of like you say about your dad, I was always suspicious of their accuracy!

  4. Ernie Davis says:

    Sorry I haven’t stopped by in a while, but having recently visited Pearl Harbor for the first time it has been on my mind lately. I talked at length about it with my mother, who was 16 at the time of the attack. It was an incredible shock to the public, and incredibly galvanizing. My father finished High School and then enlisted. Many who were of age didn’t wait. He and his brother both served in the Pacific. My dad in the Aleutians and my uncle as a See Bee in the islands campaigns. We knew a lot of others of that generation, but they rarely talked about it to anyone other than each other.

    But back to Pearl Harbor. One thing that really shocked me was that in the movie they show beforehand was footage of the Arizona exploding I’d never seen before. The suddenness and violence of it were shocking. I can’t imagine it wasn’t a traumatic experience for all those who lived through it.

    • atcDave says:

      Hey it’s always great to have an old friend drop by!

      Most of my experience with non-special effects explosions comes from Mythbusters, which I suppose only barely counts. But just seeing such an event, including shock wave, is always very dramatic.
      Just imagining the Arizona, with thousands of times more force than any of those…
      And of course most witnesses were experiencing combat for the first time.
      I have no doubt it was shattering and unforgettable. Especially for those who knew anyone on board. Or nearby.
      And it came early in the attack!
      I *think* I’ve seen the footage you mention. Even silent it is breathtaking.
      There is also a famous still from the attack showing a large fireball, that is the Shaw’s magazine going up (huh, interesting name, I’m surprised it didn’t just burn like wood). But the Shaw was just a destroyer, with what, 5% of the explosive power of a battleship. 1/2 the fatalities of the whole attack occurred in that moment when the Arizona went up.

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    Didn’t know where to put this, but I thought it would be of interest to those who read this blog and its creator.

    • atcDave says:

      A very good list!
      Although I think I would have listed a Flying Fortress instead of the Bone. But I guess that means I’m more of a nerd than sexy…

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I might have passed on the Corsair, and don’t think you need the Hustler in there, especially when the Starfighter captures a lot of that same aesthetic. I’d be tempted to add in the Me 262 on aesthetic grounds, but it was so underwhelming in its execution as a fighter that I can pass with a clean conscience. I might be tempted to add the B2, or even the A-10 for it’s “inner beauty”. But any list that doesn’t have both the Mustang and the Spitfire is just kidding itself.

      • atcDave says:

        I would have said the Hustler and Bone were more redundant!
        The 262 is a good choice for a near miss. And you know I love the Zero… and Dauntless… and Lancaster….. it’s hopeless, I’d just list them all.

        Except the Sturmovik…

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I admire your principles. The Sturm is ugly in a way only Russians seem to be able to master.

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