The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came out of the blue, right?
Well, not exactly. There was abundant evidence 50 years ago of an imminent assault. Relations with the country were quickly souring. Intercepted Japanese communications hinted strongly -- even giving the time -- of a raid. And an imperial submarine was sunk near Pearl Harbor only hours before the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
But of all the unheeded warnings, perhaps the most frustrating was that received by Joseph Lockard, then a 19-year-old Army private. He spent that fateful Sunday morning perched on a mountain top in Hawaii, manning a newfangled contraption built in Baltimore and dubbed Radio Detection and Ranging or "radar."
It was the first U.S. military use of radar during wartime, and, despite the success of the Japanese attack, it proved the feasibility of a revolutionary technology now taken for granted. It also helped establish its manufacturer, Westinghouse Electric Corp., as a leader in a business that still employs thousands of Marylanders.
"At first I thought there might be something wrong with the equipment," recalled Lockard, now retired and living near Harrisburg, Pa.
He and another soldier had camped the night before the attack on a point known as Opana, 530 feet above Kaweta Bay and 15 miles north of the Pearl Harbor base on Oahu island. Their mobile unit -- a bulky collection of electronics hauled in four trucks -- was one of a network of five recently installed to protect Oahu.
By 7 a.m., the sun was up and Lockard and his partner, Pvt. George Elliott, were completing a practice exercise that had begun at 4 a.m. The other units in the network had shut down, but the truck that was supposed to take Lockard and Elliott back to base for breakfast had not arrived. Elliott, who had recently transferred to the Signal Corps unit, was getting extra practice.
"Almost immediately we picked up this unusual display. The pulse went all the way to the top of the screen. It was the biggest thing I had ever seen on the thing," said Lockard, now 69.
The round, 5-inch black and white screen was showing the first wave of bombers 136 miles away. Lockard and Elliott plotted their course. The graph showed the planes moving closer every minute.
When in operation, the radar units around the island were connected by telephone to an information center where reports of sightings could be compared against known air and sea traffic in the area. But the center had closed at 7 a.m., two minutes before Lockard and Elliott first detected the attack.
"We didn't know what it was," Lockard said. Although Washington was full of rumors and U.S. intelligence was fast coming to the conclusion an attack was imminent, none of this had filtered down to the men on the island who believed they had more to fear from sunburn than a military strike, Lockard said.
At Elliott's insistence, they phoned the information center and persuaded the switchboard operator to find someone in authority. Soon Lockard was talking with Lt. Kermit A. Tyler of the Army Air Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force.
The brief but fateful conversation -- recalled many times before investigators and a congressional panel -- represented one of the last opportunities to avert the bloodbath at Pearl Harbor, which left 2,403 Americans dead and 1,178 wounded.
"I told him what we saw on this equipment and how unusual it was and that it was coming from an unusual direction," Lockard said. "I talked to him about as forcefully as I could as a private."
The now-famous reply was short and simple: "He said, 'Don't worry about it.' "
Tyler, now retired and living in San Diego, didn't say so at the time, but he believed the radar was picking up a squadron of American B-17s that were due from the U.S. mainland. In fact that squadron was in flight, and encountered the Japanese planes during their attack.
"It was just a case of mistaken identity," said Tyler.
"The [radar] was pretty primitive. It would only tell you something was there," he said. The equipment could not differentiate between friend and foe.
Had the information center been fully staffed and trained, it might have been able to track the B-17s and detect the attack, TC Tyler said. As it was, the only thing he could have done was call his supervisor, who he was not sure was authorized to call an alert. Tyler did not try.
"Why should I call him? We were in no state of alert. It was a complete surprise," he said.
The first bombs landed at 7:57 a.m. and continued raining for two hours, leaving 21 ships and 328 aircraft damaged or destroyed.
Lockard said he had no inkling of enemy attack, even as he and Elliott closed up the unit at 7:40 a.m. and headed back to base. On their way, they passed a speeding truck of frantically waving colleagues, but didn't understand until they saw black smoke rising from the harbor.