Pearl: December 7, 1941

  • Published

Pearl: December 7, 1941 by Daniel Allen Butler. Casemate Publishers, 2020, 354 pp. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor, a familiar story, can be clouded with myths and generalizations. Pearl: December 7, 1941, by Daniel Allen Butler, seeks to cut through these problems of history and ask “What happened at Pearl Harbor? What really happened?” Butler, the author of several published books on maritime history, engagingly tells the story and details the buildup to the infamous day the Empire of Japan attacked the United States, pulling the latter into World War II.

The story arc focuses on the great power struggle between Japan and the United States in the Pacific Ocean. The attack on Pearl Harbor is at the apex of this conflict. The author utilizes historical and strategic perspectives, with some limited tactical aspects, to dispel myths of the US-Japanese competition in the Pacific and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He also highlights little-known narratives and accounts of the buildup to December 1941, the attack itself, and the months that immediately followed. Butler provides a comprehensive overview of the historical setting with an exploration of centuries worth of Japanese and US history, briskly walking through the impactful events to set the foundation for a confrontation between Japan and the United States.

Pearl also explores the rise of militarism in Japan before World War II. The author contextualizes Japan’s domestic and international policies through events where the Japanese felt cheated by Western nations. Butler also showcases how the Japanese experienced international alienation, both perceived and real, which influenced their cultural myth of invincibility and drove them to seek vengeance on Western powers. Through rapid industrialization and a drive to match Western military capabilities, the Japanese sought to achieve decisive victories against their adversaries. This dynamic was in the same vein as their remarkable feat at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

In Pearl, interservice rivalry and bureaucratic wrangling within the military and national leadership of the Japanese and the United States were fomenters of action in this era. For Japan, the rise of a militaristic culture and the political dynamic were underpinned by partisan fealty to a military service and political party. According to Butler, the divisions within Japanese leadership drove aggressive foreign policy and championed domestic and foreign deception. The author also highlighted political machinations within US leadership circles. The derivative bureaucratic competition and interservice feuding all factored into US preparedness and response to the Japanese and impacted military readiness.

The author calls the larger Japanese military offensive in the Pacific during December 1941, the most audacious military campaign in history. While Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the author noted the multipronged Japanese attack across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean sought to secure territory, resources, and prestige for Japan. Butler juxtaposed this strategic picture with first-person accounts to accentuate the dynamics of the era. The author relied heavily on a personnel account of one of the architects of Japanese naval strategy and the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The use of Admiral Yamamoto’s story in the book helped to highlight the opportunities and issues Japan encountered through its rise as a power and decision to confront the United States.

The Pearl Harbor attack itself is at the core of this book. The author built the intensity and suspense of the attack, despite the reader’s knowledge of the events to unfold. Through the use of detailed paragraphs about the attack plans, the context behind individual choices and strategic decisions was profound. The reader could feel the anxiousness of the Japanese crewmen through the author’s dramatic conveyance of the story. Vivid descriptions and minutiae of the attack itself, such as a US Naval Academy class ring found embedded in the bulkhead of one struck ship, truly emphasized a deeper more intense connection to the book.

Another topic the author highlighted to complete the narrative was the recovery of US service member remains. This aspect brought the heroics and horrors to the forefront through graphic descriptions of service members fighting to survive in near darkness in overturned ships and swimming through flaming oil slicks during the chaos of the attack. Some of the personal accounts were from the survivors themselves. In other cases, only the remains recovered in the following weeks and months could provide some semblance of understanding their story.

Throughout the book, the author also infused unique tales to tell a more complete story. The development of unique US and Japanese intelligence collection techniques, the planned use of Japanese midget submarines, and the nuances of diplomatic communications, all contributed toward a richer comprehension of what happened at Pearl Harbor. Pearl is an engrossing read on a well-tread but important subject. Pearl will interest readers new to this history and satiate military historians.

Captain Robert Marshall, USAFR

"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."