Japan Could Have Made the Pearl Harbor Attack Much Deadlier—Did Playing it Safe Cost It the War?

Sebastien Roblin

At 7:45 AM on the morning of December 7, 1941 Commander Mitsuo Fuchida gazed exultantly from the rear seat of his B5N bomber at the serene vision of Pearl Harbor below him, it’s defenses unprepared for the onslaught about to befall them. He then rolled back his bomber’s canopy and fired off a dark blue “black dragon” flare, signaling for the 182 combat aircraft behind him to press the attack.  Minutes later he exuberantly radioed the message “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

Over the next two hours, Mitsuo circled overhead the devastated naval base as the first wave was followed by a second wave of 171 aircraft. He witnessed the strike’s unprecedented success: sinking four battleships and destroying over 100 warplanes on the ground.

Upon returning safely to the deck of the carrier Akagi, he and classmate Commander Minoru Genda—the raid’s mastermind—then urged Admiral Chuichi Nagumo to authorize a third wave to finish off the already crippled defenses. Genda had originally planned for such a third attack.

Fuchida described the moment his article “I Led the Air Attack on Pearl Harbor” published in Proceedings in 1952:

“Discussion next centered upon the extent of damage inflicted at airfields and air bases, and I expressed my views saying, "All things considered we have achieved a great amount of destruction, but it would be unwise to assume that we have destroyed everything. There are still many targets remaining which should be hit. Therefore I recommend that another attack be launched."

But Nagumo insisted on sticking to plan, and Pearl Harbor was spared even greater destruction.

There’s a little problem with Fuchida’s account, though. Genda denied such a debate ever occurred—and Fuchida himself has a track record of tall-tales or apparent dishonesty.  However, it does seem that several of the Japanese carrier commanders did have contingency plans ready for a third strike if it was ordered—even though a third wave was never in the original plan.

Regardless of the accuracy of Genda’s account, it raises an unavoidable historical “why’ and “what-if” question? Why didn’t Nagumo press his advantage with a third strike? Would such a strike have changed the course of the Pacific War?

Read the original article.