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Sixty Years Ago: February-March 1941

When Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, summoned Rear Admiral Patrick N.L. Bellinger to his office on March 1, 1941, his purpose was to direct Bellinger to begin working on a plan for the cooperative action of American forces in Hawaii, should they be attacked. Bellinger, commander of the Navy’s Hawaii-based air defenses, was to work closely with Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Martin, his Army counterpart, to prepare the plan. Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, congressional investigators, historians and students of the Pacific War have marveled at the uncanny accuracy of what has come to be known as the Martin-Bellinger Report.

In a section titled “Possible Enemy Action,” the report stated that a declaration of war might actually be preceded by a surprise submarine attack on ships and installations at Pearl Harbor. “It appears that the most likely and dangerous form of attack on Oahu would be an air attack,” the report continued. “It is believed at present such an attack would most likely be launched from one or more carriers which would probably approach inside of 300 miles….Any single submarine attack might indicate the presence of a considerable undiscovered surface force probably composed of fast ships accompanied by a carrier.” In “Summary of the Situation,” General Martin and Admiral Bellinger warned, “A successful, sudden raid against our ships and Naval installations on Oahu might prevent effective offensive action by our forces in the Western Pacific for a long period….”

The two insightful officers advocated a 360-degree search at the limits of the range of available American aircraft. They also realized, however, that with the resources at hand it would be impossible to sustain such an intensive effort for an indefinite period. Therefore, it would be critical for some indication from intelligence sources that an attack was likely within a certain window of time. The necessary notification never came.

It is no wonder that author Gordon W. Prange wrote in his landmark book on the attack, At Dawn We Slept, “Martin and Bellinger could not have done a much better job of mind reading had they actually looked over the shoulders of [Isoroku] Yamamoto, [Takijiro] Onishi, [Genda] Minoru and others….The final document bore the date March 31, 1941, approximately the same time that Yamamoto put his Combined Fleet staff to work on his design.”

February 1941

7 The U.S. Naval Academy class of 1941 graduates four months early due to a state of national emergency.

11 The German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper sinks seven of 19 ships in the unescorted Atlantic convoy SLS-64 and damages two more–its only major success as a commerce raider.

14 The vanguard of the German Afrika Korps arrives in the port of Tripoli, Libya.

22 The British and Greek governments reach an agreement for British troops to defend Greece.

25 Mogadishu, the capital of Italian Somaliland, falls to the British.


March 1941

6 German U-boat ace Günther Prien dies when his U-47 is sunk in the Atlantic by the British destroyer Wolverine.

11 The Lend-Lease Act is passed by the U.S. Congress, authorizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide direct assistance to Great Britain and later the Soviet Union.

16 The British destroyer Vanoc rams and sinks the German submarine U-100 and its commander, ace Joachim Schepke, drowns. The top-scoring U-boat commander of all time, Otto Kretschmer, is taken prisoner when U-99 is sunk by the British destroyer Walker.

25 Yugoslavia signs the Tripartite Pact.

27 U.S. and British diplomats meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss strategy in the event of American entry into the war.

28 The Royal Navy gains predominance in the Mediterranean with its decisive victory over the Italians at the Battle of Cape Matapan.


Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II