Dec. 7 Conditions on the Sea, in Air Ideal for Japanese

SURPRISE ATTACK IN HAWAII

December 07, 1991|By Doug Struck

Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida awakes aboard ship at 5 a.m. and dresses in red underwear. He has bought the colored underclothes especially for this day, picked them with the macabre anticipation that he might be shot and would not want the blood to show.

Such meticulous attention to detail has put the 39-year-old flier at the head of a daring attack to bring war to the United States on this day, Dec. 7, 1941.

An admirer of Adolf Hitler, he has a fuehrer-like toothbrush mustache. As the young officer sits for a special breakfast of snapper, rice and red beans, he learns good news. Honolulu radio station KGBM still plays soft music, a sign that the Japanese fleet has not been detected.

Outside, the winter seas have grown impatient. The Pacific heaves as the six huge aircraft carriers turn in unity to face the wind. Shortly before 6 a.m., Fuchida pauses at the cockpit of his bomber to tie a battle headband to his forehead.

From the pitching decks, 351 planes seek the safety of air and then wheel in precision toward Pearl Harbor.

*

THEIR DESTINATION is a far outpost of a nation self-absorbed and smug in its sense of security. Both will be shattered in two hours. The first bombs to be dropped will fuse the nation and begin four years of unimagined violence that remakes the world, with the target of the attack emerging as its mightiest authority and the old order of all nations changed.

TO THE SOUTH 220 miles, a lazy Sunday is beginning on Oahu. Most of the crews of the 96 ships parked at Pearl Harbor have liberty and are slow to shake the sleep from their eyes.

Those who get to their Sunday paper early read of Soviecounterattacks on German lines, of more Japanese movements in Indochina, of Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal cable to Emperor Hirohito.

But not everyone is off duty. The old destroyer Ward patrols thimorning. At 6:30 a.m., the warship spots the conning tower of a submarine following a supply ship. The Ward shoots the vessel, then hits it with a full pattern of depth charges.

More than one hour before bombers arrived over Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy has fired the first shot and drawn Japanese blood.

At 7 a.m. on the northern tip of Oahu, Pvt. Joe Lockard is just finishing his duty on a mobile radar station. Radar is new, imprecise and bulky. One man has to turn a big antenna by hand, while the other takes a reading.

It has proved its value in the Battle of Britain. But on Hawaii, the radar sets are manned sporadically. Private Lockard is about to turn it off when the 5 1/2 -inch, black-and-white oscilloscope lights up.

"A large echo appeared. It was huge. I had never seen such a large target," he said. "At first I thought there was something wrong with the equipment."

The training exercise is over, but Private Lockard reaches a junior officer about to leave.

The officer recalls that a flight of U.S. B-17s was due, and "he told me, 'Don't worry about it.' "

*

THE MAN WHO PLANNED the attack thinks it is an immense mistake. Isoroku Yamamoto had been to the United States and had studied at Harvard. He is a shrewd poker player, and he knows that the vast resources of the United States leave Japan with a losing hand in the long run of war.

He recognizes the irony, in a letter to a friend. "What a strange position I find myself in -- having to pursue with full determination a course of action which is diametrically opposed to my best judgment and firmest conviction. That, perhaps, is fate."

But his fliers show no reservations.

The pilots agree they will not radio for help if they have engine problems -- better to die in silence than jeopardize the surprise. If the U.S. ships are protected by torpedo nets, the pilots vow to crash into the water to break them. If their plane is shot, they will crash into a ship.

It is needless bravado. The Americans are unprepared. Even the weather seems to be confirmation of divine blessing. The clouds give perfect cover for the incoming airplanes and part just as they approach Oahu's northern coast.

At 7:53 a.m., as the first wave of planes swings around Barber's Point, Commander Fuchida fires two blue flares and shouts out: "Tora! Tora! Tora!" -- a code telling the Japanese navy that the attack has caught the Pacific Fleet asleep.

Five minutes later, an Army radioman sends out the message:

"AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NOT A DRILL!"

*

THEY STRIKE FAST and hard. The men below are frozen in surprise, disbelieving of the red balls on the wings of the planes.

"Hell, I didn't even know they were sore at us," one seaman complained of the Japanese.

Frank Silberholz, a cook at Wheeler Field, pauses at the kitchen door of the barracks. "I saw all these planes. My God, there seemed to be hundreds of them. I thought it was maneuvers. One of the planes peels off and drops a bomb, and on his way up he strafes our quadrangle. I thought, 'Maneuvers, hell! This is war!' "

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