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After Pearl Harbor

Converted for the Web from "Battle Of Wits: The Complete Story Of Codebreaking In World War II" by Stephen Budiansky

In the chaos following the Japanese attack, mail service from the Pacific was thrown into disarray. On December 4, the Japanese had again changed the additive book for AN-1; it was back to square one yet again, and Washington fretted away a month waiting for enough current intercepts to arrive in the mail to renew the attack. But in the meanwhile the decision was made to allow "the field" to begin work without delay. On December 10, Rochefort's Station Hypo, which had been shunted off to work on a dead-end problem before Pearl Harbor, was given the go-ahead by Safford to tackle AN-1 on its own.

The atmosphere throughout Hawaii in the days following the Japanese attack was one of stunned demoralization. During the attack a spent bullet actually ricocheted off the chest of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, who would shortly become the scapegoat for the worst military disaster in American history. "Too bad it didn't kill me," Kimmel muttered. Two thousand four hundred and three Americans were dead. Two hundred aircraft were destroyed on the ground: Dutifully heeding warnings to be on the alert, the Army commanders had crowded their planes together wingtip to wingtip in midfield, well away from the perimeter fence and the Japanese saboteurs everyone imagined were lurking about the island. The Japanese torpedo planes and bombers caught all but one of the nine American battleships of the Pacific Fleet in port that morning, and all were left damaged or immobilized by the attack. Arizona, blown in two when her magazine went up, took eleven hundred of her crew with her to oblivion. Oklahoma lay capsized in the mud, never to see action again. The others sank at their moorings, had gaping holes ripped in their sides, or had run aground or were wedged between other crippled ships. Japan's force of ten battleships now had a seemingly insuperable command in the Pacific.

If Pearl Harbor had been asleep, the American forces in the Philippines under General Douglas MacArthur had been comatose. The Philippines had been everyone's bet for where the Japanese blow would fall. When Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was delivered the news of Pearl Harbor he exclaimed, "My God, this can't be true, this must mean the Philippines!" The Japanese would oblige soon enough. MacArthur received word of the Pearl Harbor attack just as it was ending, at 3:00 A.M. on December 8, Manila time. In the preceding weeks MacArthur had confidently assured Washington that with enough air power he could drive the Japanese back into the sea if they dared to come ashore. On that assurance he had been shipped dozens of top-of-the-line B-17 long-range bombers. When the decisive moment came, MacArthur, apparently frozen in indecision, barricaded himself in his penthouse suite in a downtown Manila hotel and did nothing. Nine hours later Japanese bombers and Zeros appeared over Clark Field; instead of meeting the swarm of enemy fighters they fully expected, the Japanese pilots looked down and rubbed their eyes in disbelief at the sixty neatly parked planes on the field below. That evening, Roosevelt kept a long-scheduled appointment with newsman Edward R. Murrow. FDR pounded his fist on the table in frustration: The American planes had been destroyed "on the ground, by God, on the ground!" he exclaimed.

Three days later, the pride of Britain's Singapore-based Asiatic Fleet, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse, were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers flying from Saigon. Not a single Allied battleship or cruiser was left west of Hawaii. Japan, for the moment, was the unchallenged master of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

At Pearl Harbor, the thoroughly shaken American commanders were certain that the Japanese were going to hit them again. Crews were hastily set to work tearing down fences, welding them together, and dangling them into the water around the docked ships as crude antitorpedo barriers. "Of course we had no knowledge whether that kind of net would be any good at all," admitted Rear Admiral Claude Bloch, commander of the Fourteenth Naval District, "but it was the best we had." A hypercautious mentality set in, bordering on paralysis. A carrier task force sent to relieve Wake Island was recalled at the last minute by Vice Admiral William S. Pye, who had been given temporary command of the fleet after Kimmel's ouster; the ships were actually in sight of the besieged atoll when the recall order came, setting off a near mutiny aboard the carrier Saratoga. When FDR received the news he said it was a worse blow than Pearl Harbor.

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Budiansky. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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