MIGHTY HISTORY

Nope, 'God & The 3 Mistakes' is not what happened after Pearl Harbor

I'm known among my friends as a bit of a heartless cynic (#NotPopularAtParties #PleaseStopInvitingMe #HowManyOfTheseDoIHaveToRuinToBeLeftAlone). Maybe that's why We Are The Mighty's president and CMO, U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Harper, sent me this heartwarming story about Admiral Nimitz arriving at Pearl Harbor after the attack.

But then, I ruined it.


Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, a bold and brave man too busy being optimistic for your "history facts" or his own notes.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The story is entitled God and the 3 Mistakes, and it makes the rounds on the internet every once in a while. Here's a version of it from armchairgeneral.com:

Tour boats ferry people out to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii every thirty minutes. We just missed a ferry and had to wait thirty minutes. I went into a small gift shop to kill time. In the gift shop, I purchased a small book entitled, "Reflections on Pearl Harbor" by Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Sunday, December 7th, 1941 -- Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat--you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters every where you looked.

As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, "Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?" Admiral Nimitz's reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice. Admiral Nimitz said, "The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?"

Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked, "What do mean by saying the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?" Nimitz explained:

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk--we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

Mistake number two: when the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.

Mistake number three: every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That's why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make or God was taking care of America.

I've never forgotten what I read in that little book. It is still an inspiration as I reflect upon it. In jest, I might suggest that because Admiral Nimitz was a Texan, born and raised in Fredricksburg, Texas --he was a born optimist. But anyway you look at it--Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.

President Roosevelt had chosen the right man for the right job. We desperately needed a leader that could see silver linings in the midst of the clouds of dejection, despair and defeat.

There is a reason that our national motto is, IN GOD WE TRUST.

Stop here to remain happy. No? Alrighty, then.

Look, an optimistic photo of a re-floated battleship. Let's all go get coffee and not read the rest of this.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Was that heartwarming and satisfying for you? Good. Stop reading. Go away. Be happy. Don't let my factual poison into your soul. Ignore the holes and historical discrepancies and return to the world as a satisfied human being.

Or, let's go through this together and destroy joy.

(Author's note: For some of the debunking done here, we're turning directly to Adm. Nimitz' notes from December, 1941, compiled in his "gray book," which the Navy put on the internet in 2014. Citations to that document will be made with a parenthetical hyperlink that will give the PDF page, not the printed page number. So, "(p. 71)" refers to his December 17 "Running Summary of Situation" that is page 71 of the PDF, but has the page numbers 9 and 67 printed on the bottom.)

That phone call on December 7 didn't happen

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

First: "Sunday, December 7th, 1941 -- Admiral Chester Nimitz was ... told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet."

Nope. At the time, no one knew exactly what had happened or who to blame, and Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was still very much in charge. How screwed up would it have been if Roosevelt's first action, while the fuel dumps were still burning and sailors were still choking to death on oil, was to fire the guy in command on the ground rather than shifting supplies and men to the problem or, you know, investigating what happened?

The bulk of the losses at Pearl weren't even announced until December 15 (p. 51) because no one, even at Pearl, could be sure of the extent of the damage while the attack was ongoing.

In reality, Nimitz wasn't ordered to Hawaii until December 17, the same day that Kimmel was told he would be relieved (p. 71).

No, it wouldn't have been worse if the Japanese had lured the ships to sea

National ensign flies from the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack.

(U.S. Navy)

The single most non-sensical claim in this story is that Nimitz was glad Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack.

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk--we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

What? Nimitz thought he would've lost more men if the Japanese had lured them into a fight near the island? Does anyone believe that he had that little belief in the skills of his men?

If the Japanese had tried to lure the American ships to sea, we would've only sent the ones ready to fight, with full ammo loads and readied guns with crews. We would've tried to recall the carriers conducting exercises at sea. Yes, losing 38,000 sailors is worse than 3,800, but we've never lost 3,800 in a fair fight.

At the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the U.S. took combined losses of about 1,000 killed while inflicting losses against Japan of about 4,000. At the Battle of Savo Island, "the worst defeat ever inflicted on the United States Navy in a fair fight," according to Samuel Morison, the U.S. lost 1,100 sailors.

Meanwhile, at Pearl, the U.S. lost over 2,000 killed while inflicting less than 100 enemy deaths. Who the hell would be glad it was a surprise attack?

In his notes on Samoa dated December 17, Nimitz specifically cites Japan's use of surprise as to why it had been so successful (p. 64).

Yes, Japan did ravage America's fuel dumps and hit drydocks

The largest fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor did survive the attack, but they weren't enough.

(U.S. Navy)

Nimitz, when he got the actual call on December 17, quickly tied up his duties in Washington, D.C., and reported to Pearl Harbor. (He arrived Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve.)

There, he found an island still burning and heavily damaged. The Japanese planes absolutely did hit fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor. They hit drydocks as well, heavily damaging three destroyers that were in the docks at the time.

Luckily, Pearl Harbor didn't have "every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war" in December 1941 as the story says, but the other dumps were under attack as Nimitz was supposedly giving this pep talk. Fuel dumps on the Philippines and Wake Island were destroyed or isolated by the Japanese attack in the days and weeks following December 7.

(Seriously, how would you even run a Pacific fleet if your only gas station was in Hawaii? That would mean ships patrolling around the Philippines and Australia would need to travel 10,000 miles and over three weeks out of their way every time they needed to refuel.)

It is true, though, that Japan failed to hit the largest and most important fuel tank farms on Pearl and didn't destroy the doors to the drydocks. That was a major strategic error on the part of the Japanese.

But, what damage was done to these facilities was important, changing the strategic calculation for America at every turn.

On December 17, Nimitz wrote a plan to reinforce Samoa that specifically cited the lack of appropriate fuel dumps being ready or filled at Pearl or Samoa (p. 63 and 70). It even mentioned how bad it was to shift a single oiler from replenishing Pearl to getting ships to Samoa. The fuel situation was dire, and Nimitz knew it.

The ship repair situation was worse

Two heavily damaged U.S. destroyers sit in a flooded drydock. Both destroyers were scrapped and the drydock was damaged, but it did return to service by February 1942.

(U.S. Navy)

If the fuel situation was bad, the repair situation was worse. Drydocks were attacked during the battle. Two ships were destroyed in Drydock number one, and Floating Drydock number 2 was sunk after sustaining damage. Both were back in operation by February 1942.

Other drydocks were safe or only lightly damaged and were up and running by the time Nimitz arrived at Pearl. Yes, that's a big deal logistically. But that still left too few drydocks for the sheer number of ships heavily damaged in the attack.

But the number of drydocks wasn't the biggest factor in whether a ship could be repaired at Pearl, because there weren't nearly enough supplies and skilled laborers in and around the harbor, anyways. Capt. Homer N. Wallin, the head of the salvage effort from January 1942 onward, lamented shortages of firefighting equipment, lumber, fastenings, welders, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, and pumps for the duration of salvage.

That's why three battleships left Pearl Harbor for repairs on the West Coast on December 20, and ships were heading back to the continent for repairs as late as the end of 1942, nearly a year after the attack, because drydocks had insufficient space or supplies to repair them on site.

In fact, in his history written in 1968, Wallin specifically remembers Nimitz touring the wrecks on Dec. 31, 1941, and being pessimistic about repairs, especially the viability of the USS Nevada. The Nevada was back in combat less than a year later, despite Nimitz' pessimism.

But the worst problem facing Pearl Harbor was invasion

But the most naive claim of this entire story is that Nimitz was optimistic as to the situation in December 1941. His actual notes from the period paint a much grimmer picture of his mind.

In the wee hours of December 17, hours before Nimitz was ordered to replace Kimmel, Nimitz sent Kimmel a message on behalf of himself and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Kimmel was ordered to "reconsider" his beliefs that Pearl Harbor was safe from further attack (p. 74).

Knox and Nimitz wanted Kimmel to keep ships out of the harbor as much as possible, to reinforce defensive positions. Most importantly:

Every possible means should be devised and executed which will contribute to security against aircraft or torpedo or gun attack of ships, aircraft and shore facilities [on Hawaii];

Given that Nimitz was actively cautioning about how vulnerable Pearl Harbor was on December 17, it would be odd for him to feel cocky and optimistic on December 25 (the earliest he could have actually taken this supposed boat tour).

But he was still a great leader

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.

(Library of Congress)

The fact is, Nimitz was not some famed optimist. He was a realist. And he was in command of a fleet crippled by a sneak attack but backed by the most industrialized nation in the world in the 1940s. American industrial might was so strong that, by the end of the war, the U.S. was producing half of all industrial goods and weapons in the world. And the Japanese had failed to hit the submarines, something that did give Nimitz hope.

While it took most of 1942 and 1943 to fully ramp up America's wartime production, the seeds were all in place in 1941 thanks to Roosevelt's Cash-and-Carry and Lend-Lease policies. Nimitz was no fool. He knew he could win, even though the challenge facing him on Christmas 1941 was still daunting.

We can honor him, the sailors lost at Pearl Harbor, and the stunning achievements of the greatest generation without sharing suspect anecdotes about a Christmas Eve boat ride.

(As an added side note: The book this story supposedly came from wasn't actually by Nimitz, it's an "oral history" by William H. Ewing. And it was published five years after Nimitz died. Maybe it is a faithful account of Nimitz' words at some point, but it doesn't match his notes or the tactical situation in 1941.)