How The US Army Chief Learned Of The Attack On Pearl Harbor

December 7th, 1941 may have begun just like every other day, but 80 years later, we know it did not end that way. The Pearl Harbor attack forever changed the course of history and pulled the United States into World War II.

Chief of Staff

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall thought his day would be like all the others before it, a day of prepping for war. However, a scribbled note with 14 words on it changed the course of the day, and ultimately the war.

Marshall had been in the Army for 37 years before he was chosen to become chief of staff. His extensive experience spanned three decades and included conflicts like the Philippine-American War and France during World War I.

He was the chief of staff to chief of staff Gen. John J. Pershing. Marshall became the chief of staff on September 1, 1939, which happened to be the day that Germany invaded Poland.

Redistributing Military Assets

Marshall was in charge of sending military equipment to where it was needed the most. He thought that Oahu was a secure island that could not be touched. Lt. Gen. Walter Short, who was in charge of Pearl Harbor, was promised weaponry and reinforcements.

The heavy bombers residing in the Phillippines were taken back. Even though Marshall was a high-ranking official, he was not privy to the information about Japan shooting down the U.S. proposal to leave China and Indochina on December 6, a clear precursor to trouble between the two countries.

In fact, he did not find out until 11:25 a.m. after his horse ride. Once he found out, he ordered the information to be sent to the commanders in the field.

Vital Information

Other military leaders had known for hours, including the president, and none of them had thought to pass the information of possible war along to those who it would actually affect.

Sending the information to the commanders took over 8 hours. Short received the vital information 7 hours after Japan had already attacked Pearl Harbor.

While Marshall hoped he would be able to move resources around some more, he was out of time. He was handed the sloppy message saying, "To all ships Hawaiian area. Air raid on PH. This is no drill. Urgent."

It would take a few weeks to report all the losses back to Marshall. The most devastating loss, of course, was the 2,300 Americans who were killed in the brutal attack.

Despite heavy losses at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered the war and annihilated Japan and its allies.

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3 comments on “How The US Army Chief Learned Of The Attack On Pearl Harbor”

    1. Chain of Command is only partially at fault. Communications were not very efficient at that time. Overseas telephone lines were irregular and usually had static. Western Union sent telegrams in the order they were received; so if 2500 other people sent a telegram then messages to Hawaii would have to wait their turn to be transmitted. Military messages took top priority ONLY if marked URGENT. The message to Pearl Harbor was, mistakenly, not marked urgent, thus it had to wait.

      1. communications!! in Vietnam cables to the Pentagon pointed out that their ships in the Gulf of Tonkin were being attacked after five of these cables (even though no debris ever found, ships or bodies) LBJ attacked north Vietnam...the last cable said the sounds were being made by a faulty sonar aboard a ship. lots of destruction by the galactically stupid. Ho Chi Minh had asked for help from Truman to get the French out of Vietnam, they left in 1953, when we should have left also.

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