Conclusion of Fred Goerner on Pearl Harbor

Today we present the conclusion of Fred Goerner’s examination of the Pearl Harbor disaster, which appeared in the Dec. 1, 1991 “This World” Sunday supplement of the San Francisco Chronicle.  Not only was Dec. 7, 1941 a day that lived in infamy, it remains an enigma that defies clear answers to the troubling questions that still surround it.

The photo of William F. Friedman, the Japanese pilot’s view, Frederick Joseph Rutland and the Navy map of the ships at Pearl Harbor just prior to the attack have been added to the original content.  (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)

Questions on Codes

The same year, 1967, I began a friendship with Colonel William Friedman, the legendary cryptologist who headed the U.S. Army team that penetrated Japan’s diplomatic code in 1940.  A small, trim man given to wearing bow ties, he was both brilliant and delightfully egocentric.  There was scarcely a subject about which he did not have a determined opinion.

Though Friedman was restricted by security regulations from discussing codes, including those that had preceded Pearl Harbor, he stated without equivocation that he did not subscribe to the Roosevelt conspiracy theory and believed that Kimmel unfortunately would always wear a mantle of ignominy.  Friedman told me of a lengthy classified Pearl Harbor report he had prepared for the National Security Agency some years before, and he suggested that if I could someday engineer its release, the answers would be there.

Friedman died in 1969, but his secret report, written in 1957, has only recently been declassified.  His conclusions about Pearl Harbor in many respects parallel those of Admiral Nimitz, though the two had never spoken about the matter.  

Friedman believed it was fortunate Kimmel had not been warned before the attack and had not attempted to meet the Japanese force at sea.  “Not only would that have been a greater loss of American lives,” he wrote, “but none of our battleships could have been raised and repaired.”  Friedman also thought the Japanese had made a massive strategic mistake by failing to attack the American submarine base, fuel depots, dry docks, machine shops and other repair facilities.

With respect to the Japanese diplomatic code, known as Purple, Friedman confirms that the code was first cracked in September 1940, and that American military intelligence continued reading Japanese diplomatic traffic through the end of the war.  He also declares without reservation that at no point in any of the intercepted messages was there mention that the initial Japanese target would be Pearl Harbor, nor was there mention of the date or time hostilities were scheduled to begin.

Friedman reveals that two of the ultra-secret Purple code machines — intricate electrically driven rotor devices that were used for decoding Japanese diplomatic messages — had been given to England in January 1941, but none had been sent to Pearl Harbor.  While Kimmel believed this to be part of a great conspiracy, Friedman stated that the product of the Purple code would not have provided any insight to Kimmel that had escaped those who were studying the intercepts in Washington, D.C.; thus simple wartime priorities, and no cabal, accounted for the fact that Pearl Harbor did not have the Purple code machines.

Friedman, however, was as puzzled as most Americans as to why the commanders at Pearl Harbor had not been better prepared for an air attack, secret sources notwithstanding.

U.S. war plans, he wrote in his secret report, took into account the possibility that the Japanese might begin a war without a preceding declaration, that is by surprise attack, and although this possibility was placed first on the list of contingencies, with Pearl Harbor as the focal point of the attack, and although the war plans even envisioned that such an attack could come from aircraft flown from carriers, it is an almost inexplicable fact that all of this was forgotten by the end of the same year (1941).

Inexplicable indeed.  Yet neither Friedman nor Nimitz would accept any charges that Roosevelt betrayed his country. 

“If Roosevelt was so clever a politician and so Machiavellian in his strategy as to think up a way of maneuvering the Japanese into firing the first shot,” Friedman continued in his report, “should one doubt he lacked the intelligence to have gone one step further?”

If Roosevelt had had such advance knowledge, Friedman reasoned, he could have alerted Pearl Harbor commanders to Japanese intentions and set a powerful trap for the Japanese carrier force.  Every available American plane and warship would have descended upon the Japanese and destroyed the entire force before the Japanese carriers could launch their planes.  The fact that a Japanese carrier strike force had been caught red-handed within a few hundred miles of Pearl Harbor would have convinced the American public of Japan’s intended surprise attack, and it would not have mattered who fired the first shot.  With the heart of the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyed as the war began, the capture of Wake Island and the Philippines might have been averted and ultimate victory achieved in a much shorter time with far smaller loss of lives.

William F. Friedman, The Dean of American Cryptology, with this wife Elizabeth in 1956.  Friedman was a United States Army cryptographer, codebreaker, cipher machine developer and case officer.  In the 1930s he worked for the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service (SIS), and in 1949 he became head of the cryptographic division of the newly established Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA).  In 1952, when the AFSA was succeeded by the National Security Agency (NSA), he became chief cryptologist of the NSA.

Yet Friedman felt there was enough blame for everyone.

I think Kimmel and Short were not as culpable as I first thought there were back in 1941-1942,he wrote in his secret 1957 report.  The Washington authorities were culpable, too — maybe a lot more culpable that were these two officers.  I think the intelligence services came off rather easily — too easily in the fixing of responsibility and pointing out derelictions.  I think the intelligence staff might have used more imagination but this was not because they were staffed with obtuse officers or persons of low-grade intelligence.  As a matter of cold fact, they were badly understaffed because in both the Army and Navy intelligence didn’t count.  This raised the question: Does it count for more today in the Armed Services?”

Friedman’s 1957 question is still unanswered in 1991, as Congress attempts to chart the future for the Central Intelligence Agency and the dozen other military and civilian intelligence operations charged with providing early warning to American forces.

Secrets Unearthed

Almost every month new additions are made to the Pearl Harbor historical record.  After three trips to Japan, I finally found the Japanese records that confirmed what had long been rumored.  The Japanese violated their own security 16 hours and 10 minutes before the first bombs exploded at Pearl Harbor — by shooting down a British flying boar that had been shadowing the Japanese invasion fleet headed for the Malay Peninsula and Singapore.  Thus the first shots of the Pacific War were fired by one Ensign Eiichi Ogata, who first sighted the British plane about 20 miles from the southern tip of Indochina.

Earlier this fall, James Rusbridger, a retired British MI6 secret agent, and Captain Eric Nave, who was a major figure in Britain’s code-breaking efforts against the Imperial Japanese Navy before the Pacific War, published “Betrayal at Pearl Harbor,” in which they allege, with considerable evidence, that the British cryptographers had full command of a top-secret Japanese naval code known as JN-25 at the time of Pearl Harbor, and that Churchill knew the Japanese carrier fleet had sailed toward Hawaii.  Churchill, they maintain, did not share that intelligence with Roosevelt.  This revelation recalls Nimitz’s admonition, “Particular attention should be paid to what the British knew.”

It may be some time before the world knows what Churchill actually did with his secret intelligence.  His records for November and December 1941 carry a 75-year classification, and the records of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters Japanese naval code intercepts prior to Pearl Harbor remain secure behind Britain’s Official Secrets Act.

Photo by a Japanese pilot coming in behind a fellow bomber during the Pearl Harbor attack.  Just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Mitsuo Fuchida, leader of the Japanese strike force in the attack on Pearl Harbor, radioed his force: “To-ra! To-ra! To-ra!”  It was the signal that they had achieved complete surprise.  During the next two hours, during two waves of attacks, he circled above as his fliers killed more than 2,400 Americans, sank four battleships and ignited war between the two nations.

Rusbridger and Nave believe evidence regarding the British and JN-25 may lie in still-classified American record, but it may be some time before these are released.  In 1980, I discovered a huge cache of top-secret records at the U.S. Navy Storage Depot at Crane, Indiana.  Many of them deal with the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor.

After seven years of frustrating struggle to gain access to the records, I enlisted the aid of an old friend, Caspar Weinberger, who was then U.S. secretary of defense.  Even he could not free then.  He wrote to me that there are 14,000 reels of microfilm containing U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps cryptology records in the Crane storage depot, and that each reel holds thousands of documents that will have to be examined page by page.  It will be at least 1997 before the Naval Security Group determines whether any of these documents can be declassified. 

[Editor’s note: Nothing of substance relative to the Earhart disappearance or Pearl Harbor has ever been found or released from the alleged files at Crane, to my knowledge.  I think it’s clear that Goerner was led down the garden path by Vice Adm. Joseph Wenger, who in fact had no intention of helping him during his investigation, and only pretended otherwise.  See Truth at Last pages 173, 174, 265-268 for much more on Wenger.]

And then there is the matter of Frederick Rutland, a double agent who spied for Britain’s MI6 against Japan.  Recruited by the Japanese in 1937, Rutland moved to Los Angeles and ostensibly became a stockbroker.  Actually, he gathered intelligence for Japan about developments in America’s aircraft industry and other military-related businesses and organizations.

Ten days before the Pearl Harbor attack, Rutland suddenly left Los Angeles and made his way to Canada, where he was flown to England aboard a British military aircraft.  Upon arrival, he reported to the admiralty.  He was held in protective custody during the remainder of the war, and he never returned to America.  There are many in England who believe Rutland brought word of Japanese intentions in the Pacific, but his information only buttressed what was already known from Japan’s JN-25 secret code.

Frederick Joseph Rutland, a decorated pilot in the First World War, earned the nickname “Rutland of Jutland” for his exploits at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.  He later worked for the Japanese and was interned by the British authorities during the Second World War as a result of his associations with the Japanese.  His case became famous in the UK when some of his old Royal Navy colleagues demanded his release, saying there was no proof of his doing anything illegal.  FBI files released in 2017 contain numerous references to his espionage work for the Japanese Navy.  However, as a British national working for the Japanese navy in the United States before the war, it is arguable that his actions were not against British law. Rutland died by suicide in 1949.  (Illustration by Barbara Gibson; plane by The Print Collector; Rutland photo courtesy of the Fleet and Air Arm Museum.)

Japan Revises

Japan, too, is still greatly concerned with the historical record of its 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese government and military seem bent on convincing the uninitiated that Japan intended to officially declare war upon the United States before dropping the bombs.

Lieutenant General Masatake Okumiya, Japan Defense Force (retired), was a 1930 graduate of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy and one of the first dive-bomber pilots for the Japanese navy.  He participated in the sinking of the U.S.S. Panay in 1937 and served in the diversionary force for the attack on Midway.  Okumiya has just published an article, “The Japanese Perspective,” in the Pearl Harbor 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History, in which he alleges that the Imperial General Headquarters decided in a December 4, 1941, meeting that Japan must adhere to the international treaty it had signed at The Hague in 1907, and submit a declaration of war to America before attacking Hawaii.

According to Okumiya, it was originally decided to give America one hour’s notice.  This was then reduced to 30 minutes.  Japan’s ambassadors Kichisaburo Nomura and Saburo Kurusu in Washington, D.C., were ordered to deliver the declaration at a specific time, but because of decoding difficulty at the Japanese Embassy, Nomura and Kurusu were late with the message.  Thus, says Okumiya, Japan should not be blamed for a “sneak attack.”

The problem with Okumiya’s rationalization is that the message delivered by Nomura and Kurusu was not a clear declaration of war — late delivery or no.  The final lines read more like an ultimatum.

 A Navy map of the ships at Pearl Harbor just prior to the attack. (Associated Press. Prints and Photographs Division.)

The Japanese Government regrets to have to notify hereby the American Government that in view of the attitude of the American Government it cannot but consider that it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiation.

Even if the Japanese leaders considered that a proper declaration of war, they must have known that a declaration delivered as your planes are within minutes of their target in not within the spirit of the treaty.

Okumiya also states, without citing any evidence, that “President Franklin Roosevelt had set a trap for Japan: If it were to strike the first blow against the United States, he could use this as a pretext to enter World War II.”

The truth is, for more than a decade Japan had plans for an attack upon Pearl Harbor and a subsequent invasion of the Hawaiian Islands.  The Japanese trained for the Pearl Harbor operation for almost a year, and they rejoiced as a nation that America had been caught by surprise.

The Imperial Japanese Navy accomplished what it had set out to do.  It temporarily immobilized the American Pacific Fleet.  But just as surely, it plunged a dagger into its own and its nation’s heart.

As Admiral Nimitz told me, “In those falling bombs at Pearl Harbor, Japan was hearing the sound of its own defeat.  Perhaps nothing could have brought Americans together so completely.”

8 responses

  1. An interesting article. Here is some more information about Frederick Joseph Rutland:


  2. Great stuff Mike-thanks!! I think what was known about the attack will always be debated unless, like in the case of Earhart and Noonan, all the classified files are available through the Freedom of Information Act.


  3. There is a documentary based on the Rusbridger and Nave book first shown in the U.S. on the A&E Network in December, 1991 with the same title as the book. It is available on YouTube but, it seems to me, in an abridged form. It is, of course, the British view and subsequent revelations are that the U.S. Navy had much greater facility with “JN-25” than Nave was led to believe and that the U S. knew more from signals intelligence than the Brits at the time.


    1. The title of the documentary is _Sacrifice at Pearl Harbor_ . Ralph Briggs is one of those interviewed.


  4. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All;

    Rutland wasn’t alone. Before him was Forbes-Sempill.

    All best,



  5. Mike– I’m glad you covered this topic that I brought up in my comment on your latest blog post this month. Most Americans had no idea in 1941 that these Japanese codes had been broken. For those who say you can’t keep secrets–they are wrong.


  6. Friedman looks so aged in the later photo. Must have been a hard life for him doing that codebreaking.


  7. It is available on YouTube but, it seems to be, in an abridged form. It is, of course, the British view and subsequent revelations that the U.S. Navy had a much greater facility with “JN-25” than Nave was led to believe and that the U S. knew more from signals intelligence than the Brits at the time.


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