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Sneak Attack in the Pacific . . . A Remembrance

by Philip R. Devlin.

“The unsuspecting navy ships lay peaceably in their Pacific harbor that winter morning. A world away, the drowsy sailors’ commander-in-chief had been negotiating with Japanese diplomats. But then, with no advance warning, Japan launched the infamous sneak attack. Deadly torpedoes and bombs came out of nowhere, and soon the harbor was a flaming mess of sunken ships. Screaming sailors swam for their lives through fiery, oil-blackened waters. President Roosevelt admired the sneak attack. “I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory,” the President wrote his son.”

Now, while you were reading this, I bet you thought this was a description of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
You’d be wrong.
The Roosevelt referenced is Teddy–not FDR.

The incident described is the Japanese sneak attack upon the Russians at Port Arthur on February 8, 1904. This incident triggered the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, a war in which a much smaller nation defeated a much larger nation—the Japanese defeated the Russians. This war featured the largest land battles—involving hundreds of thousands of men—the world had ever seen up until that time in history. These battles dwarfed Gettysburg. At the Battle of Mukden in February and March of 1905, the largest land battle in modern warfare up to that point in history, the Japanese killed 97,000 Russians. At the naval Battle of Tsushima, the Japanese lost 600 while killing 6,000 Russians in–you guessed it–the largest naval battle in modern warfare. Teddy Roosevelt gushed about Tsushima: “Neither Trafalgar nor the Spanish Armada was as complete and overwhelming.” Yet who studies the Russo-Japanese War??

The Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire) of August 23, 1905, mediated by the friend of the Japanese—one Theodore Roosevelt—marked the end of the war. Like canny poker players, the Japanese folded their hand at the right time and got the victory. Wisely, the Japanese signed a peace treaty before the Russians were able to bring to bear their overwhelming logistical advantage in men and material. Over the long haul the Russians probably would have won. Just as they eventually did against the Germans in WWII. (Roosevelt, incidentally, won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1906 for orchestrating the Treaty of Portsmouth, becoming the first American ever to win a Nobel Prize.)

The Russo-Japanese War changed Japanese history. Intense national pride over the victory swept the country. Monuments to the war sprung up everywhere. It was the desire to repeat this kind of victory that drove the decision to attack Pearl Harbor 37 years later. Pearl Harbor was the second coming of the attack on Port Arthur in 1904.
I read a lot of military history but had never before realized the connection between the Russo-Japanese War and Pearl Harbor. I found the lead quotation for this article in Chapter 3 of Flyboys (2003) written by James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers. Good book. Makes you wonder if anyone had studied that war and the Japanese tactics, if Pearl could have been averted. The parallels between the two incidents are incredible.
I’ll close with this quotation from a book about General Billy Mitchell: Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power: “The Japanese never declare war before attacking.” He said that in 1932. Who was listening?
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