Retrospective Review: Tora! Tora! Tora!

Retrospective Review: Tora! Tora! Tora!

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” –Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered an historic address to the United States Congress that began “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy”. It is one of the defining speeches of World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the course of the 20th century for the United States and the World. The United States went from an isolationist country at the beginning of the war to a superpower after the war. The attack completely angered and unified the country and motivated it to realize its potential as a nation. The country was so unified after the attack that only one member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin, voted against war. I am not sure the current Congress could even get a near unanimous vote on the Earth being round. Nevertheless, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a complete military disaster for the United States. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) is a movie that details the events leading up to December 7, 1941 culminating with a reenactment of the attack. There is no Hollywood embellishment or alteration of the events. There is no drama and no character development. The purpose of the movie is to be as historically accurate as possible. As such, it is probably more appropriate to classify it as a dramatization than a movie. The strength of the film is that it presents both the Japanese and American perspective of the events as it follows key figures from both sides through all the events. One of the unique aspects of Tora! Tora! Tora! is that it is made by two separate film crews, a Japanese team and an American team. They were filmed separately then combined into one movie. It is not a movie you watch to be entertained by an exciting thriller. However, I highly recommend Tora! Tora! Tora! if you want to learn about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is very thorough and detailed in presenting the events as historically accurate as possible. Moreover, the special effects during the battle scenes are state of the art for its time.

From the Japanese side, the movie portrays the events primarily from the perspective of the reknowned and respected Japanese admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto (So Yamamura). Faithful to the beliefs of the real life admiral, Yamamoto is strongly against a war with the United States as well as an alliance with Nazi Germany that will antagonize the Americans. His opposition views put him at odds with the Army that controls Japan. He went to school at Harvard and understands Americans more than his fellow countrymen. From his assessment, he can only guarantee that his fleet can wreak havoc for a year in the Pacific after a first strike against the America Pacific Fleet to he hopes will annihilate it. He knows America can be a formidable foe that the Japanese are underestimating. From his point of view, the Japanese military “can’t stop at Hawaii or San Francisco. We’ll have to march into Washington and dictate peace terms in the White House!” if they decide to pick a fight with the United States. Nevertheless, the United States placed an embargo of raw materials and oil on Japan unless it withdraws its invasion of China. Japan is an island nation without natural resources of its own. As such, it will need to import them from the United States or invade countries in the Pacific to obtain them. Of course, American military forces in Asia and its Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor are Japan’s biggest obstacles in terms of occupying other Asian nations for resources. Consequently, war between Japan and the United States is inevitable. Although Yamamoto hopelessly wishes war can be averted, he is ready to perform his duty for his country.

Yamamoto consults Commander Minoru Genda (Tatsuya Mihashi), who plans the attack on Pearl Harbor. Genda’s Naval Academy classmate, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura) is selected to lead the attack. The attack presents many challenges for the Japanese task force. The first is obviously the long distance that the Japanese needs to travel to arrive at Pearl Harbor. It needs to avoid detection to maintain its surprise attack, which is crucial to its success but difficult with the long distance. As such, refueling during the journey to Hawaii is not a feasible option as it risks the fleet being sighted. Accordingly, carrying enough fuel for the round trip is an obstacle. Another issue is that some in the military still believe in the myth that the naval war will be decided between battleships. As airpower is relatively new at the beginning of the war, its importance is only fully understood during the war. As such, it takes some convincing for the task force to be able to use six aircraft carriers instead of three. Of course, the task force is eventually allowed to use the six it asks for as it is critical to the attack. Another hurdle is the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. As it is only 40 feet deep and torpedoes need to drop 75 feet, the Americans believe that the harbor is torpedo proof. However, the Japanese develop torpedoes for the shallow water. The movie does an excellent job in showing how the Japanese address all these issues. Moreover, it shows how the Japanese pilots play games to memorize the American ships and make practice torpedo runs in order to practice for the assault. Due to all the challenges, it is deemed highly improbable or even impossible that the Japanese could launch a successful strike against Pearl Harbor. In reality, it is a huge risk and gamble for the task force as it risks being obliterated if caught during its journey by the enemy fleet. As such, the attack completely catches the American fleet by surprise. Of course, launching a strike Sunday morning during the day of rest for Americans is another important factor in why the Americans are unprepared. The Japanese plan is brilliant as they know exactly when and how to attack the Pacific Fleet.

While the Japanese detailed planning is a key to the attack’s success, the overwhelming military victory is aided by critical decisions made by the American leadership that turn out to be detrimental. While Admiral Husband E. Kimmel (Martin Balsam), Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short (Jason Robards), Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army Forces Hawaii, were initially scapegoats for the disaster; the film is sympathetic to them and justifies their decisions. The movie also shows how it is a collective failure of American leadership rather than just the fault of Kimmel and Short. First, the military leadership on the mainland made the decision to send destroyers and other ships to the Atlantic Ocean to aid the Allies against Germany. Moreover, it is assumed that any Japanese attack in the Pacific will be against Midway or the Wake Islands as they are much closer to Japan than Hawaii. As such, American fighter planes are transported from Pearl Harbor to those locations. In addition, Naval Intelligence fails Kimmel and Short. While its sends messages to them to be ready for a potential attack, it also sends contradictory information that a strike is not expected to be at Pearl Harbor. Accordingly, there are too many false alarms. Next, the American forces on Hawaii also installed radar stations on the island. Unfortunately, it is a new technology and it is difficult to tell if dots appearing on radar are enemy or friendly planes. In one of the scenes in the movie that makes you shake your head, the military is denied access to set up the radar stations at the best possible location, on top of a mountain, since it is controlled by the National Wildlife Preserve. As such, they have to set up elsewhere without access to a nearby telephone which makes it difficult to alert the fleet in the event of enemy threats. Another decision that backfires is when General Short gives an order to line up all the planes next to each other at the airfields. It proves to be very costly during the Japanese attack as they are lined up to be shot up and bombed by the Japanese airforce. In his defense, no one thought the Japanese fleet could attack Pearl Harbor. As such, the more likely threat is sabotage as Japanese agents could infiltrate a large Japanese population in Hawaii. Of course, all these decisions work against the Pacific Fleet during the attack.

The movie does a good job portraying the actual attack on screen. It is state of the art special effects for its time. However, there is no character development of any of the men involved in the fight. Accordingly, there is no emotional attachment to any of the men killed on screen. On the other hand, it does a diligent job portraying the battle as it actually happened. As the Japanese aircraft fly toward the harbor, they are actually picked up by American radar. However, they are dismissed as American B-17s that are flying from the mainland at the same time. When the Japanese planes enter the islands, there is a funny scene with a flight instructor teaching her student how to fly a plane. When she sees hundreds of enemy war planes surrounding them, she naturally takes control of the plane herself to fly away. At Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, the film captures the key moments of the battle. Of course, two of the most devastating blows for the Pacific fleet during the battle are when a bomb hits the ammunition magazines of the USS Arizona causing a massive explosion that instantly killed 1,177 and the capsizing of the USS Oklahoma. While Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) is grossly historically inaccurate, the most gut wrenching moment in the movie is the capsizing of the Oklahoma and the helpless seamen that try to escape. They are forever trapped and entombed in the ship as there is no way to drill through the thick steel of the ship. Although Tora! Tora! Tora! does not do as good of a job capturing the horror of the moment, it does include a similar scene. Another important part of the battle portrayed in the movie is the Japanese attempts to sink the USS Nevada as it moves to exit the harbor. The entrance to the harbor is very narrow. As such, sinking the Nevada at the entrance would block anything from entering or exiting indefinitely. Fortunately, the captain of the Nevada realizes this fact and beaches his ship before it can clog the harbor. In addition, the movie does an excellent job showing how the Japanese easily neutralize the American airpower as their bombers and fighters easily destroy the aircraft that are lined up perfectly for them at the airfields.

Although the battle is a complete disaster for the Americans, there are some real heroic moments that the film portrays. First, Doris Miller (Elven Havard) is an African American cook who stepped up during the chaos and bravely manned an anti-aircraft gun until he ran out of ammunition even though he had never fired one. He is subsequently awarded a Navy Cross for his courageous actions. Another good story is about two American fighter pilots, Second Lieutenants Ken Taylor and George Welch. They are able to take off from one of the smaller airfields not hit by the Japanese attack. Although they are completely outnumbered, they are able to shoot down enemy aircraft. The film does an excellent job portraying the heroics as Ken Taylor was consulted in the making of it. I also like how the movie points out a couple of lucky breaks the Pacific Fleet got despite the carnage and destruction. First, the aircraft carriers were not in the harbor during the attack. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that FDR knew about the attack and purposely allowed the fleet to be bombed in order to galvanize the American people into finally going to war. In my opinion, it is completely ridiculous. The importance of aircraft carriers is only fully realized during World War II. As shown in the movie, some high ranking military officers on the Japanese side believed that battleships would decide the naval war. Accordingly, it is farfetched that FDR had more foresight in realizing how crucial a role the carriers would play. In addition, I cannot grasp how FDR could have known that the Japanese would definitely attack on the morning of December 7. If Naval Intelligence and the Pacific Fleet had no idea, where would he have received the information? Most importantly, how does it make any strategic sense for your Pacific Fleet to be crippled right before your entry into the most massive war in history? I have never given any real validity to this theory due to those considerations. It is just a stroke of luck that the carriers are not present during the raid. Similarly, the Pacific Fleet is lucky the Japanese did not launch its third wave to look for the carriers and destroy the dry docks that will be later used to repair all the American ships. In hindsight, it is a foolish decision by fleet commander, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Eijiro Tono). However, the American carriers are not accounted for during the fighting. For all he knew, they could have been on their way to launch a counterattack against the Japanese task force. As he knows it will be a long war, he cannot risk getting his own carriers and fleet destroyed. As a result, he makes a sound decision in the fog of war.

Another interesting aspect of the events captured by the film is that American Naval Intelligence broke the Japanese “Purple Code”. As such, it is able to intercept and interpret all secret Japanese radio transmissions. The Naval Intelligence appropriately names the operation “Magic”. While the advantage does not prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor, it will be very important during the ensuing war. The most exciting part of the film is watching the Naval Intelligence trying to piece together the messages to alert the military in time to prevent a surprise attack even though you know it is futile. In the movie, it accurately portrays Naval Intelligence intercepting the messages and deciphering them faster than the Japanese embassy. While it is the Japanese’s intention to deliver a declaration of war to the United States, before the actual attack, to be in line with the Geneva conventions, its embassy in Washington D.C. has a difficult time translating the message and the typist is very slow as he types with one finger. Accordingly, the message is only delivered to the United States Embassy after the attack. Of course, Naval Intelligence had already deciphered it before it was formally delivered. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that it also shows the relationship between Japanese ambassador Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura (Shogo Shimada) and Secretary of State Cordell Hull (George Macready). Both men are respectable and professional men that hopelessly want to negotiate a peace between their respective countries destined for war. They are very cordial and friendly with each other. However, the mood drastically changes at the end of the film. When the ambassador is forced to deliver the declaration of war after the attack, Hull angrily but elegantly responds “In all my fifty years of public service, I have never seen a document so crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions, on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.” Although his reaction is calm and collected, it still reflects the outrage and fury of the American people when they learn about the sneak attack. As Admiral Yamamoto is notified of the news, he laments this fact as he understands nothing will enrage the American people more. In a famous quote attributed to the admiral but historically disputed, he ends the movie by saying “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

1 Comment

  1. Like!! I blog quite often and I genuinely thank you for your information. The article has truly peaked my interest.



  1. Retrospective Review: Pearl Harbor - Rookerville - […] anyway. If you want a movie that sticks to actual events as much as possible, I highly recommend Tora! …

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