Dec. 7, 1941 – The Date An American Destroyer Attacked The Japanese at Pearl Harbor

For nearly 80 years we’ve heard: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Welllllll…….that’s not quite true.

More than an hour and a half before the first wave of Japanese bomber and torpedo planes appeared above Pearl Harbor, the USS Ward (DD-139), a Wickes class destroyer commissioned in 1918, suddenly and deliberately attacked a Japanese midget submarine outside of Pearl Harbor. With its second shot from one of its midships deck guns, the Ward sank the two-man submarine, killing its crew. In other words, an American destroyer kicked off the United States’ involvement in World War II BEFORE the Japanese aircraft arrived. We attacked them before they attacked us.

The radioed report of the Ward’s sighting and sinking of the Japanese submarine was not acted upon by all of the superior officers who saw the written transcript. The report went all the way to Admiral Husband Kimmel who read the report and decided he would await further developments.

Kimmel was lulled into thinking the Ward had probably seen nothing since none of the other reports of submarine activity over the previous days had proven true. The Ward’s captain, Lt. William Outerbridge, also inadvertently softened his own warning when he proceeded to investigate a nearby sampan after sinking the submarine. The naval officers on Pearl reasoned that if Outerbridge was concerned about submarines, he would not have left his station to investigate a small fishing boat.

The Ward’s sinking of the Japanese submarine would not have changed anything about the Japanese air attack. By this time the Japanese Kates (torpedo bombers) and Zeroes (fighters) were already launching. But, what could have –and should have – happened if the Ward’s report had been believed is that the American fleet would have been on alert when the first wave of aircraft flew over Pearl Harbor.

Because they were not on alert, the crews of the ships in the harbor were so unprepared for an air attack that many of them had to break out ammunition cans and belt machine bullets before they could even shoot at the incoming Japanese aircraft. Some sailors resorted to firing at the attacking planes using rifles and Browning Automatic Rifles.

IF Outerbridge’s report had been believed, the Americans would have had at least an hour to prepare – for something. Not long after Outerbridge’s report reached Kimmel, radar contact was made with a large group of aircraft approaching Pearl. The privates operating the radar station were not taken seriously either when they reported a large flight of unidentified aircraft to their superiors. Radar was still new and many officers did not understand how it worked, and the early warnings it provided.

If Outerbridge’s report had been believed and the radar contact had been believed, the Pacific Fleet would have had time to prepare its anti-aircraft guns on board its ships. Only 29 of the 363 Japanese aircraft were shot down on December 7 during two waves of attack. It seems likely that the Japanese would have paid a much higher price if all of the ships’ crews had been called to general quarters in anticipation of an attack.

The Ward would be converted to Fast Attack Transport (changing its designation from DD-139 to APD-16.  She would be attacked in 1944 by a kamikaze off Leyte. The Ward was so damaged that U.S. Navy superiors ordered her sunk by American gunfire so she would not become an obstacle to other American ships. The ship ordered to sink the Ward was the USS O’Brien (DD-725), a new Allen M. Sumner class. The O’Brien’s captain was Commander William Outerbridge, the same man who commanded the Ward on The Date That Will Live In Infamy. The day the Ward was sunk by Outerbridge was December 7, 1944, three years to the day that the Ward opened World War II.

USS Ward (DD-139)’s #3 gun crew sank a midget submarine 1.5 hours before the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor

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