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80 Years Later: Deception Key to Successful Japanese Attack

As the Japanese fleet lurked 230 miles to the northwest of the island of Oahu on December 7th, 1941, the people of the United States were ill prepared for the ferocious war that would change her destiny forever.

As I began researching for my new book, The Secret Eye three years ago, I was amazed by the audacious plan carried out by the Japanese 1st Air Fleet, or the Kido Butai against our airbase on the island of Oahu at Pearl Harbor.

Yamamoto, the planner

Eighty years ago, Isoroku Yamamoto presented a bold plan to his war council, one that ran contrary to long-standing Japanese strategic doctrine. His plan called for a decisive surprise attack against an island 3,837 miles away from his homeland.

Yamamoto spent nine months convincing his military leaders that his plan would catch the American military by surprise and decimate the US fleet, causing a complete surrender before the mighty US Navy could fire its first shot.

Often described as “unadulterated luck”, the Yamamoto plan was a “beautifully planned and executed military maneuver,” according to Admiral E. Husband, Pacific Fleet Commander.

But did you know of the deception Japan deployed to make us “believe” they were in their home waters while they secretly steamed toward the unsuspecting Hawaiian Islands. From The Secret Eye:


“While completing the final preparations for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto knew that total operations security (OPSEC) was imperative, and that he would need to leverage the Post, Telegraph, and Telephone (PT&T) Ministry, radio intelligence using RDF, and human intelligence assets in Hawaii to sow the seeds of deception in the West. The most difficult tactical problem to solve was avoiding the detection of his fleet by enemies of the Imperial Japanese Navy when they leave Japanese territorial waters. The American and British radar systems kept track of the movements of the Japanese Navy by intercepting and decoding radio transmissions from ships, official diplomatic communications, and through newly deployed radar installations around the South Pacific.”

Through carefully disseminated communications, the Japanese promulgated a story that her fleet would be training in home waters for the next three months.


Ambassador Namoura continued to negotiate with the US to remove an oil embargo imposed upon Japan in response to their aggressive actions in Indochina.

Executing the Deception

Tankan Bay is part of the Kiril Islands to the north of Japan, sparsely populated and the perfect place to complete final training and preparations for the upcoming attack. The Kido Butai assembled, and the command staff assembled to receive their orders.

But they needed to make the American’s believe they were still in their home waters while the fleet steamed toward a day that would live in infamy. From The Secret Eye:


“Sir, I have been monitoring chatter by the Japanese fleet all morning, but I intercepted a coded transmission and thought you might need to see it,” said the radio operator.

“Have this decoded immediately,” ordered the lieutenant.

Minutes later, the decoded message appeared.


“Let me see a map,” ordered the American lieutenant. “This shows their contact is in Japanese territorial waters. They must be in a war game exercise.”

It was not a war game, and they were far away from their territorial waters. In fact, the Kido Butai was nearly one-third of the way to its target: Pearl Harbor.

The lieutenant went back to catching up on the sports section of his paper and did not report the Japanese communication to his commander


Takeo Yoshikawa would ensure the Japanese fleet knew the exact location of each ship moored at Pearl Harbor. Watching from his perch on the Aiea Heights overlooking Pearl Harbor, the spy would observe and report the movements of the Pacific Fleet and provide regular weather forecasts in preparation for the attack.

The Attack

From The Secret Eye:


7:02 a.m. Honolulu Time

As the sun crested the horizon to the west of Opana Point on the northern end of the island of Oahu, two privates were preparing to shut down their SCR-270 radar set after a three-hour duty.

“Contact, uh, I mean a bunch, uh—holy sh** that is a huge pattern on the screen!” exclaimed one of them. “Hey, can you look at this?”

The second private looked at the oscilloscope. “Damn, that is huge,” he said. “That must be fifty airplanes! We need to call this in.”

Just north of Honolulu is Fort Shafter, the hub of the radar network. Twenty minutes later, a new lieutenant to the island finally picked up the phone.

“We have a sighting of fifty airplanes heading toward the island,” reported the private. “This is the biggest sighting I have ever seen!”

“Really,” said the lieutenant with not much enthusiasm. “You realize that we have a squadron of B17s headed to Hickam,” said the lieutenant. “I am sure it is just them. Do not worry about it.”

“Roger that, sir,” responded the private, and he disconnected the line.

“Guess it is time to get some grub,” said the other private. “I cannot wait for some of that fresh pineapple.”

The privates left their post, got into their jeep, and sped off to commune with their long-awaited breakfast.


The radar operators left their post and Japan prepared to attack.

At 7:53 am, the commander of the attack sent word to the Japanese fleet, Tora, Tora, Tora. Minutes later, Pearl Harbor lay in ruin including the USS Arizona. From The Secret Eye:


Gunner’s Mate Henry Simms awoke from a heavy sleep to the sound of an alarm and the message “General quarters, general quarters. All hands, man your battle stations. This is not a drill” sounding from the hailer aboard the USS Arizona. Even though his crew berthing compartment was deep within the ship and next to the second turret, there was still an expectation for him to be at his battle station in less than three minutes. Having practiced many times before, he had proven to be the most proficient crewman in his section. He could drop from his third level bunk and pull his pants on within thirty seconds, have his shoes on in another fifteen seconds, and be out the door on his way to his station while he pulled on his shirt. He was right on time when he heard and felt a loud explosion forward of his compartment. The explosion caused him to slip a rung on the ladder, and he almost fell fifteen feet below. Just as he regained his footing and began his ascent, he heard another loud metal ping hit the wall to his right. That was the last sound he would ever hear. The second bomb went down the second turret, and the ammunition magazine exploded causing the Arizona to break into two pieces, sinking her to the bottom of the harbor. The ship went down with her 1,177 sailors.


Ninety minutes after the attack began, the US Fleet surveyed their losses: 2,335 men were dead and 1,178 wounded, 8 ships sank, and 160 planes were destroyed.

Admiral Yamamoto returned to Japan a hero; his deception lauded for its brilliance.

America would rise from the ashes and her great industrial might would raise three of her battleships within three months.

By wars end, the United States would lose 407,316 brave soldiers, airmen, marines, and navy men. As we remember Pearl Harbor, let us honor those we lost but not forget the deception that brought us into war.


Brad Hanson is the author of The Secret Eye and is an IT technology leader.

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