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Home News 100 Years Ago/History Sunday Morning Sneak Attack: A Pacific Incident

Sunday Morning Sneak Attack: A Pacific Incident

By Phillip R. Devlin.

(Dec. 7, 2020) — “The unsuspecting navy ships lay peaceably in their Pacific harbor that winter morning. A world away, the drowsy sailors’ commander in chief had been negotiating with Japanese diplomats. But then, with no advance warning, Japan launched the infamous sneak attack. Deadly torpedoes and bombs came out of nowhere, and soon the harbor was a flaming mess of sunken ships. Screaming sailors swam for their lives through fiery, oil-blackened waters. President Roosevelt admired the sneak attack. ‘I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory,’ the President wrote his son.”

Now, while you were reading this, I bet you thought this was a description of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

You’d be wrong.

The Roosevelt referenced is Teddy not FDR.

The incident described is the Japanese sneak attack upon the Russians at Port Arthur on February 8, 1904. This incident triggered the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, a war in which a much smaller nation defeated a much larger nation—the Japanese defeated the Russians. This war featured the largest land battles—involving hundreds of thousands of men—the world had ever seen. These battles dwarfed Gettysburg. At the Battle of Mukden in February and March of 1905, the largest land battle in modern warfare, the Japanese killed 97,000 Russians. At the naval Battle of Tsushima, the Japanese lost 600 while killing 6,000 Russians in, you guessed it, the largest naval battle in modern warfare. Teddy Roosevelt gushed about Tsushima: “Neither Trafalgar nor the Spanish Armada was as complete and overwhelming.” Yet who studies the Russo-Japanese War??

The Treaty of Portsmouth (i.e., New Hampshire) of August 23, 1905, mediated by the friend of the Japanese—one Theodore Roosevelt—marked the end of the war. Like canny poker players, the Japanese folded their hand at the right time and got the victory. Wisely, the Japanese signed a peace treaty before the Russians were able to bring to bear their overwhelming logistical advantage in men and material. Over the long haul the Russians would have won. Just as they did against the Germans in World War II.

The Russo-Japanese War changed Japanese history. Intense national pride over the victory swept the country. Monuments to the war sprung up everywhere. It was the desire to repeat this kind of victory that drove the decision to attack Pearl Harbor 37 years later. Pearl Harbor was the second coming of the attack on Port Arthur in 1904.

The architect of the Japanese victory over the Russians was Admiral Heihachiro Togo—the “Admiral Nelson” of Japanese history. One of his junior offices at Port Arthur was Isoroku Yamamoto, who devised Plan Z—the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor 37 years later.

I read a lot of military history but had never before realized the connection between the Russo-Japanese War and Pearl Harbor. I found the introductory quotation for this essay in Chapter 3 of Flyboys (2003) written by James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers. Good book. Makes you wonder if anyone had studied that war and the Japanese tactics, if Pearl could have been averted. The parallels between the two incidents are incredible.

I’ll close with this quotation from Billy Mitchell’s book Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power: “The Japanese never declare war before attacking.” He said that in 1932. Who was listening?

Wall of the Dead in the USS Arizona

Below is a list of the 17 men from Connecticut who were killed at Pearl Harbor. Note that 10 were aboard the USS Arizona:

Henry Carlson, Norwich, Navy, USS Arizona

Vincent M. Horan, Stamford, Army, Wheeler Army Airfield

Edward W. Gosselin, Hamden, Ensign Naval Reserve, USS Arizona

John Luntta, Canton, Navy, USS Nevada

Henry Lanquette, Wallingford, Navy, USS Arizona

W.T. O’Neill Jr., Stamford, Navy, USS Arizona

Stanislaus Orzech, Meriden, Navy, USS Arizona

Richard Patterson, Berlin, Navy, USS Arizona

George Povesco, Bridgeport, Navy, USS Arizona

Mike Quarto, Norwich, Navy, USS Arizona

*Thomas Reeves, Thomaston, Navy, USS California

William Seeley, New London, Navy, USS Arizona

Gordon H. Sterling Jr., West Hartford, Army Air Forces

Felix Wegrzyn, Bridgeport, Army Air Forces, Hickam Field

Ulmont Whitehead, Hartford, Navy, USS Arizona

Eric Allen, Darien, Navy, Hickam Field

George J. Smith, New Haven, Army Air Forces, Hickam Field

*received Congressional Medal of Honor

Photo by Philip Devlin.


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