It is the morning of 8 December 1941. Pearl Harbor is the scene of intense activity, as grim-faced Sailors and Marines come to grips with the fact that the United States is at war with Japan. The Japanese sneak attack had been devastating, with a large but unknown number of American casualties. Reports are bleak, as many US ships have been sunk or damaged, and most of the aircraft destroyed on the ground.

But the US military personnel in Hawaii can only imagine the horror. Here, there are no fires, no oil slicks, no capsized or shattered battleships, none sinking slowly into the mud. There is no wreckage of airplanes here that never left the tarmac, no dead and wounded, no clouds of black smoke. Just the US Pacific Fleet, swinging peacefully at anchor, and aircraft still lined up in neat rows.

Pearl Harbor, 8 December 1941, awaiting return of Carriers

Pearl Harbor, 8 December 1941, awaiting return of Carriers

AA .50 caliber at Wheeler Field awaiting an attack that never came

AA .50 caliber at Wheeler Field ready for an attack that never came

The Japanese have instead struck US installations in the Philippines beginning at 0230, 8 December, 1941. The wrecked aircraft litter Clark field and smaller outlying airstrips. The sunk, sinking, and burning ships are of the Asiatic Squadron, at anchorages of Olongapo, Cavite, and Mariveles. Hospitals in Manila and elsewhere are crowded with US and Fillipino wounded. Temporary morgues are filled with American dead.

Shore installations at Cavite burning after Japanese attack

Shore installations at Cavite burning after Japanese attack

USS Houston, sunk at Olongapo, 8 December 1941

USS Houston, sunk at Olongapo, 8 December 1941

Japanese photo showing wrecked USAAF P-35s at Clark Field

Japanese photo showing wrecked USAAF P-35s at Clark Field

US caskets at Palawan

US caskets at Palawan

Those of us who fancy ourselves students of history will often indulge in the examining of alternative outcomes to historical events. This is a common activity, and can allow for analysis of events in new and interesting ways. So it is especially with the Second World War. Many critical battles and campaigns were won or lost by the closest of margins, with the shaping of succeeding decades hanging in the balance. As Wellington said of Waterloo, “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life…”

CINCLAX made a comment here in another post that gets right to the point. (He must have some sort of mind-reading device set up near where I live. Ask SWMBO some time, that is a definite possibility…) To wit, what if the Japanese hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941?

Instead, what if that surprise blow had fallen first on General MacArthur and Admiral Hart in the Philippines?

What if the Combined Fleet had, instead of attacking Hawaii, lain waiting in ambush for the US Pacific Fleet and its precious carriers to sortie from Pearl Harbor?

How much would the obsolete and slow battleships (or any other assets lost at Pearl Harbor) have changed the balance of forces?

USS Arizona at sea in mid-December 1941

USS Arizona (BB-39) in mid-December 1941

Yorktown (CV-5) puts to sea after Japanese attack in Philippines

USS Yorktown (CV-5) puts to sea after Japanese attack in Philippines

Would the US have been able to relieve Wake? Guam?

What help might have been available to reinforce the Philippines?

Even Yamamoto admitted the strategic mistake of attacking Pearl Harbor. Was it also a tactical/operational error for Japan to strike the US Pacific Fleet?

I throw the matter open to this learned group of brigands, renegades, and Naval enthusiasts.




Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, Aviation, Foreign Policy, History, Maritime Security, Navy


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  • Michael

    You have an odd definition for mid-December, since the BB-39 was sunk on the 7th and this picture shows her out at sea.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Umm, the premise of the post is that the Japanese DIDN’T attack Pearl Harbor. The Pacific Battle Fleet was not hit. Arizona wasn’t sunk. Houston was. When the Asiatic Squadron was hit as the opening strike of the Pacific War.

  • Chuck Hill

    Ultimate outcome would have been the same. Massive US building program overwhelms the Japanese.

    On the other hand what if they had attacked only the British and Dutch, or perhaps only the Dutch holdings which were their true objective–the oil. Would the US have attacked?

  • Byron

    My money says no. There was still a a strong sentiment to keep us out of “Europes” war.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Could the Japanese have risked the threat to their flank in such a move toward Borneo and DEI?

  • Chuck Hill

    There was a strong pro-China lobby and evidence the US was attempting to provoke the Japanese to provide a rationale for the US to fight Japan, but there was also the strong desire to fight the Germans without the distraction of having to deal with the Japanese.

  • Don Amidon

    “What if the Combined Fleet had, instead of attacking Hawaii, lain waiting in ambush for the US Pacific Fleet and its precious carriers to sortie from Pearl Harbor?”

    Suppose the US lost 2-3 carriers while trying to relieve the Philippines?

    The IJN would do in the Philippines what it failed to accomplish at Pearl and Midway … destroy the US Pacific Fleet.

  • http://warthogswrants.blogspot.com warthog

    I’m not sure that would have worked either. Since Japan’s signing of the tri-partite pact, had we gone to war with Germany, they would have come after us anyway.

    There were 7 carriers total in the fleet with 3 in the Pacific. CINCPAC was Husband Kimmel, not Nimitz. Only 2 CVBG’s were in the Hawaiian area, Enterprise and Lexington, the Saratoga was in San Diego. Overall taskforce command probably would have gone to Halsey who was pretty aggressive.

    Had that fleet sortied to respond to a threat in the Philippines, and ad the Japanese Combined Fleet been waiting for them. I would almost have to say they would have been overwhelmed and defeated in detail. 2 available CV’s vs the 6 that would have been available to the Combined Fleet. The most senior Japanese pilots had air combat experience from China. Our pilots had no combat experience at all.

    By mid December, the Yorktown and Saratoga could have been available, but that would have 4 carriers, probably still under Halsey, but CINCPAC would probably still have been under Kimmel who, IIRC, was not an air power proponent and would have insisted on a BB fight.

    At that stage of the war, we had torpedo issues, the Combined Fleet did not. They had very good gunnery, we would not have had the radar advantage. I think it may have gone to the Japanese to be honest.

  • Chuck Hill

    The Tripartite Pact did not require the Japanese to go to war with Germany’s enemies any more than Germany was obligated to go to war with the US. The requirement only applied if another member was attacked. Fortunately Hitler declared war on the US. One of his many mistakes. Japan could have pursued more limited war aims and perhaps avoided war with the US. It seems likely they could have taken all of Dutch East Indies before the US could have made an decision to act.

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