Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor Day

When I was a child, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a fresh memory for the adults in my life, so it hardly needed special reminders that it was an important day. But today, 68 years later, one can sense that the event is fading into history, as all events do. Americans today have a new nationally traumatic shock foremost in the minds. Our world is a far different one than 1941. Japan is an ally, China a competitor, our biggest international threat a religiously based fanaticism, instead of the political fanatics of the 30s and 40s. So today it is appropriate to take a moment to specially mark this event, despite the amount of new history that's been added to the annals of America in the meantime.

Despite its importance, the Pearl Harbor attack hasn't been the subject of many games. Some strategic-level Pacific wargames do start off with the attack on Pearl Harbor (Victory in the Pacific) while others just assume it's results (Pacific Victory) or give you a choice of starting conditions (Asia Engulfed).

As far as depicting the actual attack goes, there are few. Zero! from the Down in Flames series, has a solitaire scenario about the attack (the map is shown above). The Avalanche Press game Midway also depicts the attack explicitly, and it may be the most comprehensive treatment of the battle in wargame form. It has a battle scenario (No. 1) showing the air raid itself where the Axis player controls two separate attacking waves of planes and the American player the defending ships. While not described as a solitaire scenario, it really plays like one. But the game also provides an operational scenario (No. 5) that gives the U.S. player a much more active role.

That operational scenario starts with the Japanese surprise air raid, but illustrates the risks the Japanese might have faced if they continued to hang around Hawaii making follow-on attacks. While having a powerful air arm in its four fleet carriers, the Japanese strike force doesn't have a strong escort, with just two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and 8 destroyers. Even after a successful air raid, the American Pacific Fleet is likely to have a mobile battleship or two as well as up to eight heavy and light cruisers and a couple of dozen destroyers to sortie for retaliation. Already at sea are two U.S.carrier task forces, each with a fleet carrier, three heavy cruisers and 5 or 9 destroyers. Two other American heavy cruisers with escorts are also at sea sea Hawaii. Sticking around could have been risky.

Of course, the biggest risk of an attack on Pearl Harbor seems to have been missed by Japanese planners -- that the Americans would be so enraged by the attack that they would not stop until they had achieved total victory. One really wonders if the Japanese might not have been better off awaiting the American fleet on their side of the Pacific, especially given their advantage in carrier doctrine.

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