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Pearl Harbor Lessons from History

pearl harbor lessons

What should we learn from Pearl Harbor lessons? Complacency and organizational dysfunction are the real enemies in time of crisis.

Most of us weren’t around in 1941. Our world was at war. Americans were stunned by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, 80 years ago today. So, what went right and what went wrong?

Among Pearl Harbor lessons is that pretty much everything went right for Japan. New torpedo tactics, new fleet strategy and amazing discipline. For the Americans, pretty much everything went wrong. Complacency and systems fragmentation leading the list.

As described in my series on Wireless Intelligence during World War II, our allied intelligence got really good at three things: direction finding, breaking codes and analyzing enemy radio traffic. But we find that all three of these failed the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. We find that Japan did denial and deception really well.

By enforcing strict radio silence, there was no direction finding possible, nor much traffic analysis available. Japan actually removed radio transmitters from its ships, or at least locked away Morse keys to prevent their unauthorized use. They set up phantom ships with some radio traffic to give false bearings and disingenuous traffic. Instead of point-to-point signals from ships in the fleet, communications were broadcast only from the homeland.

We find that experienced but recognizable Morse operators were transferred off the fleet so they could send misleading messages from Tokyo Bay. And all ships changed call signs and codes during the week before the attack.

Pearl Harbor Lessons from Failures

But I think the biggest failure was in decoding and intelligence management. Our American friends were really good at breaking Japanese diplomatic codes, and put most of their eggs in that basket. Trouble was, diplomatic traffic did not reveal the separate military intentions. The signals intelligence folks on the military side were grossly understaffed and organizationally fragmented.

No one was connecting the dots. Post-war review found that there were many failures in the Japanese radio silence, and lots of messages that should have provided clues. But the huge backlog of un-decoded messages and a lack of Japanese translators found these clues left on the shelf.

Fact is that right up to Sunday morning December 7th, 1941 the better minds had no idea that the Japanese fleet was anywhere near Hawaii.

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