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JACK SMITH

What If? : A Post-Pearl Harbor Attack on Oahu? A WWII Tale More Terrible Than Fact

December 04, 1988|JACK SMITH

DEC. 7 (not Sept. 7, as you may have heard during the Bush campaign) is the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, one of the most fateful battles of history. Any of us over 50 must remember exactly where we were when we heard the news of the Japanese attack on the U. S. Fleet in Hawaii.

The dramatic story has been told and retold; but as one who was there, I never tire of reading new accounts, new revelations. I have been reading "Pearl Harbor: Japan's Fatal Blunder: The True Story behind Japan's Attack on December 7, 1941," by Harry Albright.

Albright and I had stood in the road beside his car, watching the war start. We had just left an all-night party. He had been in the front of the car with his woman friend and another couple. I had been in back with my wife, my head in her lap. Looking up through the window I saw airplanes streaking over the shoreline. I mentioned it. We drove on. Then I noticed that black puffs were exploding below the planes. I mentioned it.

Albright braked the car and we got out. I will never forget the picture of Albright standing in the road in his riding boots, hands on hips, looking angrily up into the lovely pink and blue Hawaiian sky. He was a major in Army intelligence and was on his way to Ft. Shafter for a morning ride--which was just what Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, had been doing that very morning in Washington.

"Damn those guys!" Albright cursed. "I've told them and told them not to do things like this without letting me know."

That has always seemed to me to summarize the military reaction to Pearl Harbor.

We did what everyone else on the island did. We went to our jobs--I to the Honolulu Advertiser, my wife to Radio Communications of America, aghast that only the night before she had taken a long, coded message to Tokyo from the Japanese consulate.

We know now, of course, that the consulate harbored spies, that the messages reported the positions of every ship in the harbor, and that U.S. Navy communications had broken the code, but that the information was ignored or never passed along in time.

Who better than Albright, I thought, to tell the story: a man who had served in Army intelligence and who had 43 years to research the facts.

I read through his graphic description of the battle itself, ending with the fleet destroyed, the island air force shattered and, incredibly, the Japanese failure to exploit their victory by launching another attack to blow up the Navy's oil reserves and repair shops and sink the two big carriers that were nearby at sea. That would have immobilized the U.S. Navy for years.

It was Japan's fatal blunder. Japan had lost the war.

I skipped to a chapter called "The Battle of Oahu." That piqued my interest. I hadn't known there was a battle of Oahu. I read on with growing amazement.

Albright told how Admiral Yamamoto, frustrated by his task force commander's failure to exploit Pearl Harbor, organized a second assault in March to invade and seize Oahu itself. I couldn't remember having heard of such an attack.

He described graphically the landings, the resistance. The Japanese had even marched up Fort Street through downtown Honolulu, sacking and burning. Houses had been torched at Waikiki.

I realized that military censorship had kept some things from us, but surely nothing that visible. My wife had worked downtown. We had lived at San Souci near Waikiki.

I called out to her: "Do you remember any Japanese invasion of Oahu?"

"Of course not," she said. "Who says that?"

"Harry Albright," I said.

"He's crazy," she said."

I read the front of the jacket again, and the inside leaf. No clue that I was reading fiction. Then on the back I found the book described as "a novel based on the events of history."

I'd had a bit of a scare. It's unnerving to think you could have been so close to something and had no idea it was happening.

But what if it had happened?

What if it hadn't rained at Waterloo?

What if the atom bomb hadn't worked?

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