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From his flagship, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo watched with mingled fear and fury as the remnants of his aerial armada returned to the six carriers of Japan’s 1st Air Fleet. The fear stemmed from Commander Mitsuo Fuchida’s radioed report that the Pearl Harbor gamble had been a fiasco. The fury stemmed from the memory of how he and numerous others had advised Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto against this insane venture, only to have the commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy arrogantly overrule them.

At the debriefing of his pilots, Nagumo learned the full extent of the disaster. An American combat air patrol had spotted the first wave of 183 planes as they neared the northern coast of Oahu. By the time the attackers had reached Pearl Harbor, swarms of P-40s had risen to challenge them, while the sky above the objective roiled with antiaircraft fire from American warships and shore batteries. Forced to dodge this storm of shrapnel, Fuchida’s dive bombers and level bombers had scored few hits, none of them severe, while the torpedo planes, condemned to an unswerving course as they neared their targets, were nearly wiped out. The 170 aircraft of the second wave, trailing an hour behind the first, had suffered even greater losses. All in all, the Americans had destroyed or damaged nearly a third of Nagumo’s attacking force.

The above scenario could easily have occurred. Twelve weeks before the actual Pearl Harbor attack, a Japanese war exercise had demonstrated that even on short notice, American fighters and antiaircraft fire could decimate Japan’s air flotilla and prevent serious damage to the American fleet. And indeed, historically, the second wave, hampered by massive antiaircraft fire, accounted for only 10 percent of the total damage.

The American defenders could have received the warning in any of several ways: by better analysis of signals intelligence; by greater vigilance on the part of Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, commander of the defense of Oahu; or by a more precise report from radar operatives, who spotted the incoming attack formation but failed to indicate its size, leading the watch commander to assume it must be a flight of B-17 bombers due from the mainland. Murphy’s Law—“If anything can go wrong, it will”—could well have operated against the Japanese instead of the Americans.

What would have been the sequel to a failed attack? Three scenarios are possible. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel might have sent his battleships in hot pursuit of Nagumo’s task force. But with two of his three flattops detached to ferry aircraft to Wake and Midway Islands (the third was at San Diego, over 2,500 miles to the northeast), and just four oilers immediately available out of the 25 required to refuel the fleet at sea, this course of action seems unlikely. He might have kept the fleet in harbor and confined the fast carriers to brief hit-and-run strikes on Japanese outposts, as occurred historically. But Kimmel was an offense-minded admiral and the spirit of War Plan Orange—the Navy’s long-standing blueprint for a conflict with Japan—was also offensive. Thus he might well have chosen a third course, and steamed west in search of an early, decisive confrontation with Japanese naval forces in the Central Pacific.

Nowhere in the official documents do specific directives for such an operation exist. But in War Plan Orange, a magisterial study of naval planning done in preparation for a war in the Pacific, historian Edward S. Miller notes that the instructions that American submarine and carrier forces were supposed to execute in the event of war with Japan make sense only in the context of an early battle in the Central Pacific. Recollections of those involved and of other historians support that idea. Kimmel’s operations officer maintained that the Pacific fleet was “virtually mobilized” and ready to sortie en masse within one to four days of the outbreak of war. His battle force commander recalled that a 1941 war game included a full-scale battleship strike as well as carrier and submarine raids. And Gordon W. Prange, a historian who concentrated on the Pearl Harbor attack, believed that in the event of war, “Kimmel proposed to sail forth to engage Yamamoto and waste no time about it.”

Miller believes Kimmel would have pursued the following plan: American submarines would immediately sail west to reconnoiter and torpedo any enemy vessels they encountered. By 16J—the 16th day after the outbreak of war—the U.S. fleet would have sailed to Point Tare, a rendezvous point near Wake Island. Preliminary raids by American carrier aircraft would have functioned as bait to lure the Japanese Navy in that direction. With part of the Japanese Navy committed elsewhere, Kimmel anticipated an even match in terms of capital ships. In this he was correct. Yamamoto sent two of his ten battleships to support operations in southeast Asia. Thus, both sides would have had eight battleships available for the fight. The Japanese would have had an edge in aircraft carriers, but this would have been partially offset by the availability of American land-based aircraft on Wake Island—and the massive depletion of Japanese carrier-based aircraft that resulted from the failed Pearl Harbor attack.

The outcome of a major 1941 battle in the Central Pacific is impossible to predict. A decisive Japanese defeat would have been at least as crippling to the Japanese Navy as Yamamoto’s historical defeat at Midway in June 1942. A decisive American defeat would have been far worse than the historical Pearl Harbor attack. Most of the vessels damaged or sunk were subsequently repaired and returned to action, whereas any warships lost in the Central Pacific would have disappeared beneath thousands of feet of water.

But no American victory would have been great enough to prevent the Japanese seizure of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. And no Japanese triumph would have been enough to prevent America’s industrial might from sending forth hundreds of new warships to renew the fight. All that is certain is that Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the scapegoat of Pearl Harbor, might instead have gained the hero’s reputation that a bitter U.S. Congressman accused him of coveting: that of an “American Nelson.”