This is No Drill: The History of NAS Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941

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This is No Drill: The History of NAS Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941. By J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman and John F. Virgilio. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018.

Reviewed by David Hobbs

THIS books describes the development of Pearl Harbor naval air station, situated on Ford Island, and the Japanese attack on it carried out on 7 December 1941.  It is the second in a series, the earlier ‘No One Avoided Danger’ by the same authors having described the concurrent attack on Oahu’s other naval air station at Kaneohe Bay.  

As before, the authors have researched deeply into what happened on that fateful day including the analysis of a documents that have only recently been released into the public domain.  One of its strengths is the inclusion of a large number of photographs and diagrams, many of which have not, previously, been published.  

My first impression, after reading ‘This is no Drill’, was that it was slightly disappointing because it did not quite measure up to the standard set in the first book as some events were not fully explained.  On reflection, however, I concluded that such criticism would be unfair.  The attack on NAS Kaneohe Bay had not been part of a wider attack on ships and installations in its close proximity; there was no need, therefore, to explain anything else that was happening at the same time.  In this book, the authors’ focus is exclusively on Ford Island and not on the events that took place in close proximity to it.  This means that while the actions of Japanese aircraft that attacked the island itself are described in considerable detail, those that attacked other parts of the Pearl Harbor base complex, including the ships on ‘battleship row’ are not described.  The sinking battleship USS ARIZONA,for instance, is mentioned principally for crushing the fresh water pipeline to Ford Island as it settled onto the sea bed and other battleships are mentioned only in so far as they were observed or affected the actions of men on the air station. The rescue of sailors from the water by boats from Ford island are described, the defensive actions by warships themselves are not.  Concentration on the naval air station can be considered as a strength, however, in that it adds depth to the wider historiography that covers the events that took place on 7 December 1941.  A book with such a specific focus might, however, not be ideal for potential readers who want a single volume description of the whole Japanese attack and the defensive reactions to it.

The authors set the scene prior to the attack well, with descriptions of the political developments that led up to it and the construction and history of the airfield on Ford Island.  Accounts of individual reactions to the attack are unsurpassed and create a vivid impression of confusion contrasted with a burning desire to do something to get back at the enemy.  The attempts by Admiral Bellinger and his staff to get aircraft airborne to search for the Japanese aircraft carriers, even while the first wave of attackers was still over Oahu, and the heroism of the aircrew who would have stood little chance against enemy combat air patrols if they had found them are well described. Darker incidents are also described, including the shooting down of  six USN fighters of VF-6 Squadron causing the death of some of their pilots, by friendly fire that evening as they tried to land at Ford Island from the carrier USS ENTERPRISE.  Traumatised by the events of the day, USN gunners fired at any aircraft they saw despite specific instructions to the contrary.  The authors certainly make the point that the Japanese attack was completely unexpected and the men on the ground at every level had no very clear how best to counter it no matter how much they wanted to.  The failure of the Army Air Corps to measure up to its joint responsibilities and the widespread inability to command and control defences adequately led to some tragic incidents which added to the American death toll.

In summary this is a book that focuses on a very specific subject and does it well.  Readers with an interest in the Pacific War who already know something of the Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet and the bases that supported it in Oahu will find that this book adds a fascinating dimension to the wider picture.  However, those who lack an overall knowledge of what happened might benefit from studying a brief description of how the Japanese attacked all their designated targets before reading it.  Notwithstanding that rider, I  recommend it. 

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