Nov 1

One Flare, or Two?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016 3:54 PM

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Frank Och's watercolor depicts the wrecked ARIZONA resting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Frank Och’s watercolor depicts the wrecked ARIZONA resting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

As the first attack wave of Japanese bombers and fighters passed over northern Oahu, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida faced a critical decision. Should he fire one signal flare, indicating his aircraft would use the “surprise” attack plan, or two, signaling the “no surprise” plan? To armchair admirals, the answer is obvious; however, the first-wave commander fired two flares.

Why he did so and the consequences of his actions are the subject of the lead article in Naval History magazine’s 75th anniversary commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attack. The author of “Commander Fuchida’s Decision,” retired Navy Commander Alan Zimm, won the U.S. Naval Institute’s 1999 Arleigh Burke Essay Contest for his piece “Human Centric Warfare” and is a member of the Strike Systems Analysis Group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

While working on a presentation years ago, he sought to compare the accuracy of precision weapons with bomber hit rates at Pearl Harbor. Despite the mountain of books written about the attack, the figures were elusive. Zimm went back to the original sources, computed the numbers, and, as he told me, found they were “much less than one would expect from the accolades given to the attack by historians.” Further research and analysis resulted in his book Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions and his article in this issue.

Over the past dozen years, Mitsuo Fuchida has become one of the most controversial figures in Pacific war historiography. His accounts of his actions and key events at Pearl Harbor and Midway were gospel, repeated in highly respected books—such as Gordon Prange’s At Dawn We Slept—and on the big screen in Tora! Tora! Tora! and Midway. Zimm’s article as well as its sidebar, “A Pattern of Behavior,” focus on some of Fuchida’s questionable claims.

The former naval aviator told his war tales in numerous interviews; in his 1955 Naval Institute book Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan; and in articles—including the lead piece in the September 1952 issue of Proceedings. How did Fuchida explain firing two flares in the Proceedings article? With some added details and without the graphic language, his explanation is the same as in Zimm’s article. Fuchida concludes with a controversial post-attack scene on board the carrier Akagi, which Zimm touches on in his sidebar.

Naval History‘s other Pearl Harbor coverage includes John Wukovits’ account of Battle off Samar hero Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague’s gallant defense of his seaplane tender during the strike, and Christopher O’Connor’s inquiry into how the U.S. Navy failed to connect the Royal Navy’s 1940 torpedo-bomber attack on Italian battleships in Taranto Harbor and the Pacific Fleet’s vulnerability at Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, in “Looking Back,” Paul Stillwell recounts attack memories of former child residents of Ford Island, and “As I Recall” features the recollections of a USS Arizona (BB-39) crewman who survived his ship’s destruction.

Half a world away on 7 December 1941, Baltimore socialite Virginia Hall was in Vichy France working as a spy for the British Special Operations Executive. Two years later, Hall was a U.S. Office of Strategic Studies agent preparing to return to France, where she would lead Allied reconnaissance teams. She is one of several women who served on battlefields or behind enemy lines who Navy Reserve Lieutenant Andrea Goldstein features in “Forgotten Pioneers.” The article earned her first prize in the 2016 Naval History Essay Contest.