[July 28, 2020] Date: the early morning hours of December 7, 1941. This day was beautiful by any standard. Most wars start with a surprise attack. When the Japanese attacked ships in Pearl Harbor and planes on the airfields of Hawaii, things happened elsewhere too. You have probably never heard of the Battle of Schofield Barracks. Maj. Gen. Aubrey “Red” Newman, U.S. Army, was there and related what he saw and some lessons learned.1
That historic Sunday morning, Gen. Newman was sitting in a bed located in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
At about five minutes before 0800 hours, there was an explosion, with the feel of a real concussion. Another explosion. Then a sharp staccato sound, unlike any other in the world. This snarl of sound – unmistakable to the profession ear – was a burst of machine-gun fire as the plane which dropped the first bomb strafed the off-post town of Wahiawa.
Gen. Newman discusses the initial one-sided combat as the Japanese naval planes attacked the military installations around the island. His recall is clear; he was there to witness the attack with a ringside seat.
One of the first bombs hit the oil storage at Wheeler, and a mushrooming cloud of black smoke boiled upward… On each wing of the airplane, sharp and clear in the morning sunlight, was a red disk – the Rising Sun of Japan.
There were irrational reactions to the attack. Such a reaction occurs when the surprise is sudden and accompanied by large-scale devastation.
Such war stories abound and are often retold as a lesson for less experienced military personnel.
Like the supply sergeant who wanted receipts before he would issue arms and ammunition. Or the young lieutenant who shouted to soldiers setting up a machine gun in the barracks quadrangle, ‘Don’t shoot or they’ll shoot back.’
Incoming reports were coming into the headquarters were often inaccurate.
There were reports of troops landing by parachutes and gliders. This was a “confirmed” report. One artillery OP reported a submarine offshore and called in fire. He reported “on target” and next that the target had fired back. Later it was determined that the OP had spotted the back of a large porpoise.
Anyone who has been in combat knows that once an attack begins, information is often wrong or exaggerated.
By 2200 hours that night I didn’t believe what nobody said ‘bout nuthin’ – when the blacked-out door to headquarters was yanked open by the middle-aged chief of a technical service staff section. He was fat, white-faced, out of breath, and gasped, “Gas! Gas!” as he staggered across the room and into his gas mask. It was also a false warning.
Now, as to lessons learned:
First, the mental and emotional shock resulting from a sudden and unexpected attack is often far more devastating in effect than the physical damage justifies. Thus, one of the principles of war is Surprise.
Second, you can’t depend upon human vigilance alone. There must also be passive protection, as well. The Navy’s ships and Army Air Corps planes on the ground were tightly packed together. Dispersing the ships and aircraft would have sufficed to reduce the level of destruction.