War Stories
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War Stories

Photo by Sung Jin Cho on Unsplash

The Pearl Harbor Attack of 1932

The 1941 attack was rehearsed by the US Navy in 1932

The audacious attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 7, 1941 is one of the most studied and pivotal events in 20th century history. One little known and obscure fact is that the US Navy war-gamed the attack in 1932 almost 10 years before the actual event took place.


With the advent of the aircraft carrier warship after WWI, most modern navies and naval strategists subscribed to the belief that carriers were to serve as scouts for the fleet. Their sole purpose was to search and locate the enemy’s fleet to be engaged by US fleet battleships and destroyed. This despite the fact that General Billy Mitchell proved in 1921 that aircraft could sink a battleship by dropping 660 lb. bombs after sinking a destroyer and a light cruiser (albeit the ships were stationary).

In the 1930’s the US Navy was far from the two-ocean navy it would become in the early years of WWII. The Pacific Fleet, based in San Diego and San Francisco was to be in a position to protect US assets in the Hawaiian Islands as well as cover the western approach to the Panama Canal. Ships would anchor and provision in Pearl Harbor on their way to US bases in Guam and the Philippines. As part of its planning process, the Navy conducted large yearly exercises designed to exploit potential shortcomings in the defense of the Pearl Harbor anchorage.

Fleet Problem #13: February 1932

Fleet problem 13 (also known as the Army/Navy Grand joint exercise #4) was to be staged as mock attack by a “militaristic Asian island nation” on Pearl Harbor. It involved the army which was responsible for the defense of the fleet while in port as well as elements of the US Navy.

The mock attack was led by Admiral Henry Yarnell. Yarnell was an out of the box thinker and an experienced naval aviator/observer as well. He was thoroughly convinced of the offensive power of the aircraft carrier force and became the skipper of the USS Saratoga.

The attack

The expectation by the Pearl Harbor defenders was that Yarnell would attack using his battleships. Yarnell chose to leave his battleships and cruisers back in port in San Diego and made the trip to Hawaii with only his two carriers, Lexington and Saratoga. With a compliment of 152 planes it was at the time a sizable strike force (the Japanese in 1941 would use more than twice as many planes). He ordered all ships to observe radio silence so the defenders had no way to track where the ships were or where they might be approaching from. The defenders were expecting attacks from the East as that was the direction that fleets would approach from the mainland.

The result

Yarnell used a storm off to the North of Hawaii to further hide his position and ordered his planes aloft a dawn on Sunday February 7, 1932. Why Sunday morning? Because he suggested it was a time where the defenders would least expect an attack given the popularity of being out partying in Honolulu.

His planes first attacked the airfields at Hickam and other adjacent fields. They were able to arrive undetected and not a single fighter was able to be airborne to thwart the attack. Next they turned their attention to the ships lining battleship row just as the Japanese would in 1941. His planes substituted bags of flour for real bombs and proceeded to turn the battleships into bakery items!

Yarnell’s planes achieved complete surprise overwhelming and destroying the army fighters before they got into the air as well as all the navy ships along battleship row. All in a surprise attack early on a Sunday morning.

The aftermath

Yarnell was declared the clear winner in the war game exercise at least at first. There was considerable grumbling by the battleship leadership at Pearl Harbor as well as the Army. They protested that Yarnell chose a Sunday morning to attack (not sporting), he chose to approach from the North (again not sporting) and he maintained radio silence so he couldn’t be located. In consideration of the embarrassing results, the Navy chose to overturn the decision. Yarnell wasn’t happy and warned that if he could do it certainly the Japanese could as well.

Interestingly the incident was reported in the local papers as well as the NY Times. The local Japanese naval officers attached to the consulate (remember Japan was an ally during WWI) also reported the results to Tokyo. When Admiral Yamamoto was looking for a way to crush the US Fleet in one swift action he didn’t have to search far for a solution. Henry Yarnell had already provided that.



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Medical field, WWII History buff especially the Pacific Theater