The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 has been studied at length by military minds and academics for decades. The naval officer in charge of the Pacific Fleet in the months before the attack was a Texas native, Admiral James Otto Richardson. As the United States began preparing for war in 1940, Richardson pointed to weak defenses at Pearl Harbor that he feared would lead to disaster.
Richardson was born in Paris in September 1878. After he graduated from high school, he did not immediately attend college. In 1898, he instead received a congressional appointment to attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He excelled in his studies, graduating fifth in his class in 1902.
His first assignment was with the Asiatic Squadron helping with naval support of American attempts to suppress a rebellion in the Philippines. He came to command two small torpedo boats from 1907 to 1909, the USS Tingay and the USS Stockton. Afterward, he was tapped to enter the Naval Academy’s special graduate engineering school, part of the first group of officers selected for this special training program. Richardson had an honorable record and steadily moved up the ranks. He served as executive officer of the battleship USS Nevada during World War I. He commanded a number of ships after World War I. While serving as Budget Officer with the Navy Department, he was promoted to rear admiral in 1934.
As Assistant Chief of Naval Operations in 1937, he was at the forefront to the navy’s response to two riveting events. When aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared in the Central Pacific, Richardson helped coordinate search operations. He also helped formulate the response to Japan’s sinking of an American gunboat, the USS Panay, in China’s Yangtze River. Japan’s invasion of China and steady expansion in East Asia became a grave concern to the United States.
In January 1940, Richardson became commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet, one of the senior-most positions in the navy, which also put him in command of the Pacific Fleet. In June 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to move its headquarters to Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt believed that the nation must begin preparing for a possible war. He also believed that the presence of the fleet in the Central Pacific sent a strong message of disapproval to Japan and might dissuade Japan from further incursions in the Far East. In the meantime, the United States continued to negotiate with Japan for it to cease its military actions, negotiations that continued until December 1941.
Richardson was respected as an expert on Japanese military tactics. He expressed grave fears over headquartering the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, especially since Japan had a history of engaging in sneak attacks. He looked at the situation from a careful tactical standpoint. Pearl Harbor was a good natural harbor that had been under American control for decades. But Hawaii was more than two thousand miles away from mainland naval bases at San Francisco and San Diego, far from any emergency support, and unprepared for an attack. While he did not believe an attack was imminent, he brought his pointed criticisms of the situation to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Twice he went to Washington to explain his position in person, to no avail.
He pushed for increased air patrols and for bolstering the defenses of the facility. He coordinated with his army counterparts on war game scenarios to practice for a possible invasion, a practice begun by previous Pearl Harbor commanders. He was discouraged when army forces on the island were never able to repel a naval invasion.
Years after World War II, Richardson said that he never believed that a carrier-based attack on the base would happen. He had anticipated a more traditional naval invasion with battleships, destroyers, and landing troops. In 1940, however, the United States still had very few military resources to spare. In February 1941, Richardson was relieved of command in favor of Adm. Husband E. Kimmel.
Richardson was assigned to the Navy General Board, an advisory body within the Navy Department in Washington. Like the rest of the nation, he was shocked and horrified by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After October 1942, he spent the remainder of the war working with the Navy Relief Society, a navy charity designed to help sailors and Marines and their families. He also worked as senior member of a special committee to reorganize America’s defenses.
After his formal retirement from active duty in 1947, he lived the rest of his life quietly in Washington, D.C., occasionally writing on his naval experiences. In 1973, he released his memoirs, On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor. He died at his home in 1974 at the age of 95.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.