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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. Di Virgilio. Naval Institute Press, 2018, 288 pp.

This Is No Drill is a historical narrative of the events leading up to, during, and immediately following the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Naval Air Station (NAS) Pearl Harbor. The book details the critical and likewise impossible job that naval aviation was tasked with in defense of Hawaii before official American involvement in World War II.

The second book in the Pearl Harbor Tactical Studies Series seeks to “promote a deeper understanding of the events of 7 December 1941 and convey the chaos and magnitude of the disaster on Oahu as experienced by individuals.” The first of this series, No One Avoided Danger: NAS Kaneohe Bay and the Japanese Attack of 7 December 1941, by the same authors, focuses on NAS Kaneohe Bay, the second, but no less important, naval air station on the island of Oahu. Wenger, Cressman, and Di Virgilio are all successful military and naval historians with several awards, books, and articles to their names, including several about Pearl Harbor and the US Navy (USN).

The authors’ premise is to quantify how NAS Pearl Harbor was “at the center of the greatest disaster the USN has ever suffered” and to show how its men played “prominent roles in the fierce defense of their base and the harbor outside Ford Island’s shores.” He details how the base’s aircraft were the first airborne in search of the Japanese fleet and how futile, but daring, this response really was. The book is brimming with more than 350 pictures, from American and Japanese records with many seeing print for the first time. Additionally, the book is bursting with quotes and first-hand experiences from individuals who lived through this tragic ordeal, including a touching patriotic narrative from the shores of the NAS where the battleship Nevada was attempting to escape the melee, with its ensign “engulfed by a thick black smoke,” its source comparing the moment to that of the British attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 when Francis Scott Key was inspired to create his infamous anthem.

This book does a successful job of arguing two main points. First, naval (and army) aviation forces were absolutely neither willing nor equipped to conduct long-range reconnaissance in defense of Pearl Harbor. As Wenger states, “For better or worse, and despite shortages of material and men, the security of Hawaii and of the Pacific Fleet itself hinged on how effectively the navy employed diminishing tools at its disposal.” In the fall of 1941, NAS leadership estimated that naval long-range reconnaissance from Hawaii could “sustain a full 360-degree search for only two days without a precipitous drop in available aircraft and crews.” On paper, naval forces stationed on Oahu had 78 aircraft. By 23 November, that number was down to 42 after reinforcements sent to Midway and Wake Islands, upgrades to newer aircraft, and aircraft maintenance. Admiral Kimmel viewed the remaining squadrons as “a reserve that the fleet could not afford to diminish by guarding against aerial threats that (he) and his staff judged improbable and unlikely.” Hence, the purpose of December flights was for training, so search distances were reduced to preserve airplanes and crews.

Additionally, communication between the Navy and Army proved virtually nonexistent and “had proved to be a little more than a figment of prewar imagination.” There was essentially zero coordination in long-range reconnaissance between the two services pre and postattack. Similar to the Navy, the Army was not ready to perform its part in the protection of Pearl Harbor. This was exhibited in their “reluctance to hold air raid drills prior to 7 December, citing interference with critical training.”

The second point that Wenger successfully argues is that the majority of NAS Pearl Harbor personnel performed heroically in response to the attack. Their heroism was in spite of shortages of people, parts, and planes; poor training habits; and a lack of contingency planning. Aircrew and ground personnel scrambled to preflight, save from destruction, and fly limited aircraft. Sailors and Marines with no flight experience or equipment hopped into airplanes to man machine guns. Ingenious leaders used partially destroyed aircraft with intact radios to communicate to other stations. Sailors left families in shelters, rushing to base assisting where needed. When the Arizona sunk, it crushed the main water line from the mainland, effectively ceasing all firefighting. Men scrambled around the island to find limited wells to regain control from the flames. In actions similar to what could easily be imagined today, when a single-deep position Airman/Sailor is absent, “no one could find the person who had the keys to the shed where extra ammunition was stored.” Additionally, as “old peacetime practices and habits die hard,” when ordered by island leadership to draw weapons to defend the NAS, a storekeeper refused to arm men because they did not have the required form.

As described in the series title, this book is written for the tactical level. It’s limited in its strategic value, in that it does not do an adequate job of detailing where NAS Pearl Harbor fits into the bigger picture of the Pacific theater, nor its strategic impact. Additionally, while the book goes into great detail of the status planes, parts, and people, its only explanation for the lack of these things was that “no spare parts were in the offering because the Atlantic theater still had priority.” Next, the author never mentions island-based radar and how that affected the Army’s long-range defense plan, nor was there any mention of incoming aircraft originally detected and identified as Army bombers from the mainland. Finally, naval ship destruction is limited to what was directly seen from NAS or identified by planes based from there. These items appear to be deliberately withheld to narrow the focus of the work and preserve information for later titles.

This book is not for someone who wants to understand the strategic view of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “why” in which Pearl Harbor was the target of Japanese fury, or a written totality of intelligence, political, or command failures. There are many other published titles for that purpose. However, if the reader wishes to learn about the individual Sailors and the tactical decisions made at this singular NAS during the attack, this book holds absolute value. The time and attention to detail that the authors took in analyzing photographs and combing through interviews and diaries is undeniably apparent. If you want to learn about NAS Pearl Harbor’s history, its role in the buildup to World War II, and view exquisite pictures of bombs falling from Japanese aircraft, this book is for you.

Maj Rudy L. Novak, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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