A Tale of Two Memos

Morgan Fox was a summer intern in the Archives 1 Processing Section in Washington, DC.

During my internship in the Archives 1 Processing Section, I had the opportunity to work on various projects to help make records more accessible to researchers.  One of the first projects involved the creating of a folder list for a series entitled, Commander Scouting Force, Sundry Subject Files, 1937-1942 (NAID 18521273), which is part of Record Group 313 (Records of Naval Operating Forces).  As I poured through the boxes of this series, the contents of one file labeled “Letters and Memos from the Flag Office” caught my eye.  Inside were two formerly confidential memoranda, both issued from the same naval station, Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, but on different dates.  What I found interesting about these two documents was the timeline: the first memorandum was dated just over one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, on October 30, 1941; while the second was written almost one month afterwards on January 8, 1942.

The first memorandum was written by H.E. Kimmel, a four-star admiral of the U.S. Navy and the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, and forwarded to notable staff and commanders such as Vice Admiral William Pye, Vice Admiral William Halsey, Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, Rear Admiral Walter Anderson, Rear Admiral Milo Draemel, and Rear Admiral Herbert Leary.  The memorandum was issued from the USS Pennsylvania, a super-dreadnought battleship established as the lead ship of the Pennsylvania class in the Navy.  As many know, the USS Pennsylvania was one of the first ships to open fire on the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This formerly confidential memo highlights seven specific points made at a conference between Kimmel and the above-listed commanders on October 29, 1941.  It begins by mentioning the commanders’ suggestion to amend the current sortie plan “should it become necessary to sortie at night.” (Note: A “sortie” is an attack made by troops coming out from a position of defense or strongpoint.)  Also discussed was the need to reduce the lights during a sortie, specifically buoy lights that must be “shaded from overhead,” as well as improve the markings in the harbor in order to increase visibility on incoming boats.

Adm. Kimmel makes note of other items discussed during the conference: a “blackout on the land in order to protect our patrol craft operating near land from being silhouetted and thereby presenting excellent targets to submarines”; the “necessity for getting ahead” with night gunnery practices; the modification of security measures in operating areas; and an increase in the readiness of all ships in the event of an emergency.

However, what made this memo so significant to me were the words and phrases sprinkled throughout, like “as soon as after war is declared as may be practicable”; “if and when the situation worsens”; and “the disabling of a major unit might cause internal repercussions.”  Even though I knew what was to happen in one month’s time, I still felt a sense of foreboding when reading the memo.

The second memorandum (also formerly confidential) was written by Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, the same who was copied on the first memo. He was also copied onto the Night Order Book, which is a set of guidelines added to the standing orders of the Master of the ship who is in charge of everything on board.  The memorandum was issued from the USS Lexington (CV-2), one of the Navy’s first aircraft carriers that remained part of the United States Pacific Fleet for her entire career; the fleet headquarters is even located in Pearl Harbor Naval Station. The USS Lexington served as a flagship for Task Force 11 out of Pearl Harbor under Vice Admiral Brown.

Due to the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Brown issued this memorandum to outline correct actions for Staff Duty Officers and others to take in the event of emergencies.  He emphasized that Staff Duty Officers should not hesitate to take “prompt and immediate action” during an emergency, as long as they reported their actions later.  These reports, however, needed to be “so phrased as to give the Officer receiving the report a clear understanding of the situation and all of its implications.”  For example, Officers were instructed not to use the simple phrase, “Submarine bearing __”, which is vague and calls into question whether or not a submarine has been sighted by planes, ships, or vessels; has sound contact; or has neared the ship or sea.  The phrase also provides no detail about the actions the Staff Duty Officer has taken or believes should be taken upon detecting a submarine. Instead, Officers should create complete, detailed reports in order to have a clear picture and specific understanding of the situation at large, whether it be a Japanese ship about to attack or otherwise. The second memorandum thus functions as an extreme word of caution to expect the unexpected, even if it comes in the form of a surprise attack from the enemy.

While I don’t claim to be a naval or World War II historian, I do find it fascinating that these seemingly innocuous documents are sitting in files in boxes, written before and after an event that was one of the defining moments in U.S. history.  It goes to show that you never know what you may find when exploring records at the National Archives.

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4 Responses to A Tale of Two Memos

  1. Terry Miller says:

    I find it fascinating that in today’s digital environment such important documents can still be found only “in boxes.” Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Robert F, Rufo says:

    Your definition of “sortie” is only partially correct. A sortie is the departure from a defensive position such as base of operations. The purpose sortie of a sortie does not have to be for an attack on the enemy. It comes from the french word meaning “exit.”

    STGCS(SW) Robert F. Rufo, USN(ret.)

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