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Sunday Battleship Blogging (65th Anniversary Pearl Harbor Edition): USS Arizona


Antidote to d’s America-loathing screed

USS Arizona, second ship of the Pennsylvania class and fourth “standard type” American battleship, commissioned in October 1916. Arizona carried 12 14″ guns in 4 triple turrets, displaced 31000 tons, and could make 21 knots. Like most oil-fired American battleships, Arizona’s participation in World War I was limited. Although larger, more heavily armed, and better protected than the most modern Royal Navy battleships, the lack of oil in the United Kingdom meant that only the older, coal-fired American ships would deploy with the Grand Fleet. Modernized between 1929 and 1931, she spent most of the 1930s with the Pacific Fleet.

In mid-1940, the Pacific Fleet was re-deployed from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in response to continuing Japanese expansion. The intention was to deter Japan from aggression against British, Dutch, and Australian assets in Southeast Asia. The American plan, known as War Plan Orange (Red was for war against the British Empire) was to send the US fleet across the Pacific to destroy the IJN before the latter could conquer the Philippines. The Philippines, of course, had been taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War, leading to a brutal insurgency conflict that lasted several years. Several other Pacific islands had also been seized from Spain, but the Hawaiian Islands themselves had come into US possession via a coup, instigated by American landowners, against the Hawaiian monarchy. By 1941 War Plan Orange was largely considered obsolete, given what was expected to be local Japanese superiority. Nevertheless, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy decided that Japan’s war plans would be best served by a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The destruction of the Pacific Fleet, he reasoned, would give Japan the opportunity to seize Southeast Asia and build a defensive cordon in the Pacific before the USN could respond effectively. The plan involved Japan’s six modern fleet carriers and was to concentrate on the nine battleships and three carriers of the Pacific Fleet.

The first Japanese aircraft reached Pearl at 7:53am (local) on December 7, 1941. At 8:06am, a “Kate” level bomber in a formation led by Tadashi Kusumi dropped an 800kg bomb (a modified 16″ shell) that penetrated the deck between Arizona’s forward two turrets. The bomb detonated Arizona’s forward magazine, blowing out Arizona’s bottom and quickly sinking the ship. 1177 of Arizona’s crew died in the blast and ensuing flooding. Three other battleships were sunk and four damaged (USS Colorado and the three carriers were away from Pearl) during the attack, and 2403 Americans died. Because of the great damage, no thought was given to salvaging Arizona. The main guns and the masts were cut from the wreck later in the war, the former being used in coast defense fortifications on Oahu. Tadashi Kusumi died at the Battle of Midway.

The attack was a tactical and operational success but a strategic failure, as it ensured that the United States would pursue the Pacific War with vigor. The success of the attack was in part dependent on a series of intelligence failures by the United States. In spite of access to Japanese codes, US intelligence ignored or misinterpreted several warning signs about the attack. In hindsight Japanese intentions seemed clear, which led to allegations that President Roosevelt had known about the attack and allowed it to go forward in order to embroil the United States in war. Several investigations during the war probed the reasons for the intelligence failure, coming to no particularly earth-shattering conclusions. That a) few Presidents seek to start a war by having their main naval assets destroyed, b) the damage to the Pacific Fleet could have been minimized with even an hour’s preparation before the attack, and c) the intelligence failures are entirely consistent with how we know intelligence and military organizations function leads me to deep, deep skepticism about the claims of the conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, outlets such as the History Channel still find time in their schedules to offer a stage to morons willing to assert that President Roosevelt and the highest elements of his administration knew the operational details of the attack and withheld such information from the Army and Navy.

After the war, USS Arizona’s wreck was designated a national shrine, complete with the construction of a memorial above the hulk. Today, USS Missouri is permanently berthed next to Arizona on Battleship Row. The intelligence failures associated with the Pearl Harbor attack helped lead to the reorganization of 1947 and the structure of the modern national security state.

Trivia: What is the family motto of First Sea Lord John Fisher?

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