Audiobook Review: Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack

More information on the book here.

So much of what presages war is built upon assumptions and as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Twomey, author of 2016’s book, Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve to the Attack, noted, “assumption is the father of defeat.”

Such is the end of the beginning of the United States’ entry into the second global war within two decades directly after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Navy of Japan on Dec. 7, 1941.

Admittedly, prior to listening to the audiobook performed beautifully by Holter Graham, I didn’t know much about the attack upon Pearl Harbor and I’m still not going to pretend to be some expert. Before this book, I knew the date because of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “a date which will live in infamy” line. I knew that roughly 2,000-some Americans perished in the attack (overall, 2,355 were killed). And I knew that the usual framing of the attack is that it was a “surprise” attack, with (I thought) the Japanese using kamikazes.

In fact, I’m not sure we can call it a “surprise” attack in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s arguable, and the Japanese wouldn’t use kamikaze, or suicide dive bombers as an aerial strategy in the war, until three years later.

As Twomey lays out in the 12 days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a lot of ineptness to go around in America between civilian leadership in Washington D.C. and military leadership both in Washington D.C. and at Honolulu where virtually the entire Pacific Fleet of the United States was stationed at Pearl Harbor:

  • Racist assumptions about the Japanese, primarily that they were incapable of being good pilots and they certainly weren’t capable of being better pilots than Americans.
  • Outdated assumptions that battleships were still king in the blossoming age of the airplane and the ability to launch fighter jets from carrier ships. That there was no way logistically for a tiny airplane and its tiny torpedoes to sink a battleship.
  • Arrogant assumptions that the Japanese would not be willing to slap the mighty United States in the face by starting a war with it through an attack on its Pacific Fleet, and fitting in with the racist assumptions, just a general under-appreciation and underestimating of the would-be enemy.

These issues made it so that not only did American leaders not expect or believe that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor (or really, any American positions in the Pacific), but that even if Japan was daring enough to do so, Americans had the capability to detect it and thwart it immediately.

The latter was the thing, too: Throughout the lead-up to the United States entry into WWII and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government and its military were banging its war drum and pumping its chest out about all kinds of capabilities when the reality was, the military was caught flat-footed because of assumptions baked onto assumptions.

Because it also wasn’t just that the United States underestimated Japan and assumed various things about what Japan would do and be able to do, but also, that within the United States military and government apparatus itself, there was so much bureaucracy at play and “cooks in the kitchen” not knowing what the other cooks were doing, that external assumptions (that Japan wouldn’t and couldn’t attack Pearl Harbor) were sitting upon a false throne of internal assumptions, such as the United States being able to thwart any incoming raid and that it was prepared for war on a two-ocean front (the Atlantic and Pacific) when in fact, it still wasn’t. Sure, American industry and might were ramping up for war before declared war, but it still wasn’t ready in any traditional sense.

The military also wasn’t as ready for this attack as they portrayed. The Army and the Navy were territorial over who would defend Pearl Harbor and who was the better military outfit in America. And there was no one commander overseeing Pearl Harbor. Instead, there were assumptions, which again astounds me that you would assume things about matters of war, about what others were taking care of and not taking care of. For instance, the Army would take care of defense and the Navy would do whatever it does “out there,” meaning, out there in the ocean. But the Navy wasn’t actually out there patrolling in that kind of way.

Nonetheless, from the Japanese side of things and on the American side of things, there was one assumption that was a prescient one: Even if Japan did decide to slap the United States (and there were a few lone voices within the American apparatus who believed they would attempt it and could pull it off, having noticed gaps in American defenses), eventually, the might of American industry and ingenuity was such that the United States would ultimately overwhelm and defeat Japan, which obviously panned out.

Twomey does a Herculean job laying out everything I said in great, painstaking detail and part of that includes getting the perspective from Japan. That perspective includes that of Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief for the Imperial Japanese Navy and the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto wanted to take out of the Pacific Fleet to kill American morale. Because at that time, our battleships were still considered a prized possession of sorts. And Americans believed their government’s military telling them that any attack on America was virtually impossible.

Striking at the battleships off the coast of the American mainland would be a shock to such notions.

You just get the sense listening to Twomey’s book that politicians, and not only American ones, have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to war. Which makes the fact that we engage in wars as humans absolute madness to me. All of it is based on often faulty assumptions, with no real knowledge, experience and empirical data in which to back it up.

An item that I learned, and which surprised me in listening to the book, is the number of Japanese, American-born, who were living in Hawaii at the time, more than any other ethnicity, including native Hawaiians. Not surprisingly given many of the racist assumptions at the time, the United States government viewed them as potential-saboteurs should war break out.

Communication is also big facet of this book, whether it’s the fascinating details behind genius American attempts (often successful, mind you!) to break Japanese communication codes, or the diplomatic communications between the two countries to broker a peace — FDR literally sent Emperor Hirohito an olive branch of sorts seeking peace the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor — , or the fact of how communication of the attack itself moved so dang slowly, to where despite one ship’s captain’s quick response to a Japanese submarine on Dec. 7, 1941, the response from higher-ups in the military took too long for it to mean anything, and that those who did hear about the attack thought it a hoax, simply incredulous that it could be true, and that the news took so long to travel at all, with the American ambassador to Japan not hearing about it until hours later. (That’s what makes 9/11, among other reasons, such a different attack, too.)

In fact, that tidbit itself about the submarine is a new tidbit to me: the American destroyer, Ward, which discovered and fired upon what was called a “midget submarine” of Japan’s was technically the first shot fired in the Pacific Theater. Granted, it was fired in self-defense, but I didn’t know that!

For eight discs and however many hours I listened to the brilliant performance of Holter Graham reading Twomey’s words (it really is a performance because he does multiple voices and inflections of his voice depending on the scenario), by the time it got to the attack itself, it felt like I was listening to an action movie. I could feel my adrenaline kicking in because Graham’s reading and Twomey’s words brought this attack in 1941 to 2021; they made it come alive, or as one blurb on the book said, “they made this old tragedy feel new again.”

And something I never lose sight of is thinking about how young those in the military are and were in the case of Pearl Harbor. Despite being attacked from a blob of Japanese planes, boys (yes, boys in my view) of 17, 18, 19 years of age and with barely even a year of Navy experience, were not running away in fear or what have you. No, they manned their guns and fired back in the face of a lopsided onslaught. That’s remarkable and courageous.

You feel the weight of this attack after the 12 days of build-up to it from Twomey. When FDR comes into the cabinet meeting on that “day of infamy,” he tells the assembled men something like, “This is the most important cabinet meeting since 1961,” which I would think is true. Civil War matters aside, it was unprecedented to have that sort of attack happen against the United States.

I do think Husband Kimmel, the four-star Admiral and commander of the Pacific Fleet, and Walter Short, the lieutenant general and major general of the Army in charge of defending Hawaii, were culpable for their ineptness in defending against an attack by Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor, but I also feel like FDR and the Commission he created through them under the bus and made them scapegoats for general government ineptness. That is, they used the excuse of the ongoing war to not do a full-fledged investigation. It is do bleak, and you almost feel sorry for him, when Twomey lays out Kimmel’s reaction in real-time to the Pearl Harbor attack. Because the attack represented a devastating blow to all of his assumptions about the Japanese, and also of course, knowing that as the commander, he was watching his men surely die for his assumptions, at least in part.

There are of course conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor, like any major incident in American history. The main thrust of the most prevailing theory is that FDR knew about the attack beforehand and let it happen, so as to galvanize the American populace to join the global war effort. I don’t believe that.

Again, conspiracy theorists ascribe nefariousness and malice to historical events when ineptness and arrogance will do. Such is the case with Pearl Harbor.

And Twomey has laid out in great, horrific detail the countdown to one of the worst attacks on America in its history and all of the very human mistakes that led up to it. I came away feeling like I learned a lot about an event in our history I didn’t know much about.

I highly recommend the audiobook version so you can enjoy Graham’s reading of it, as I did. He somehow managed to elevate what was already a captivating and compelling story.

History rules, even when covering tragedy.

Incidentally, I began reading this book not realizing that we were on the cusp (at the time) of the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. This turned out to be a fitting exercise then and one I would highly recommend anyone else to partake in.

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