‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ (1970) – History recreated.

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Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) was a joint enterprise between production film units from Japan and the United States. The picture was a genuine attempt to present the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941 from an unbiased historical viewpoint. The picture was a commercial flop in America but a major success in Japan. The title of the movie has often been misinterpreted. Tora! Tora! Tora! Does not mean – ‘Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Nor does it mean ‘Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!’ The word ‘Tora’ is taken from the first two syllables of ‘Totsugeki’ which means ‘attack’ and ‘Raigeki’ which means ‘torpedo attack’. However, it has the same sound as Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!

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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

Whenever Japanese characters in the movie refer to the day of the attack as December 8, they are technically correct because Japan is a day ahead of the USA. Great pains were taken to make this movie as historically accurate as possible, but the odd piece of ‘creativity’ for dramatic effect still snuck through. For instance, Admiral Yamamoto almost certainly never uttered his oft-quoted comment about his country having ‘roused a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve’. That line seems to have been concocted well after the event, although it was probably inspired by the admiral’s feelings expressed in personal letters.

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USS Phoenix                                                                                                      ARA General Belgrano sinking May, 1982

The American cruiser USS Phoenix was present at Pearl when the attack was launched. She survived the day and operated in the Pacific for the remainder of the conflict. After the war she was sold to Argentina and renamed the General Belgrano. A British submarine sank her in May 1982 during the Falklands War with great loss of life.

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Cornelia Fort

The scene in which a civilian flight instructor finds herself surrounded by Japanese aircraft heading across the islands en route to Pearl really happened. Cornelia Fort was actually pursued by two fighters and shot at, but managed to land unharmed. Sadly, her luck was not to last. Later, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFS) and would become its first casualty. A plane she was ferrying was struck by another and she died in the mid-air explosion.

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Special effects going awry

A hair-raising scene in which a P-40 (pilotless) was supposed to taxi down a runway, start to lift off, and then career into a row of parked aircraft and explode, went completely awry with almost disastrous results. The P-40 was about to crash into a group of stationery aircraft designated for another sequence, so it was detonated prematurely in the hope this might blast it away from the stationery machines. Stunt men suddenly found themselves confronted by an exploding aircraft out of control. It is quite clear that some of these men were literally running for their lives. Fortunately, none were hurt and the footage was impressive enough to make it into the final print.

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The wounded sailor we see at Kaneohe Naval Air Station shooting back at strafing Japanese fighters of the second attack wave is based on a real life hero, Chief Ordinance Man John Finn. He mounted a 50-calibre machine-gun and continued firing at the attacking planes while being wounded several times in the process. He managed to hit several aircraft, one of which he brought down. It was piloted by combat unit leader Lt. Fusata Iida. Finn was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty. He would live a long life, breathing his last in Chula Vista, California in May 2010. He was 100 years old!

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Seaman First Class Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller

Similarly, the actions of an African-American mess attendant aboard the USS West Virginia, Seaman First Class Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller, were also exemplary. He had never been trained in the use of the weapon, yet he fired an unattended machine-gun at the Japanese planes and did so until he ran out of ammunition. He then helped several wounded sailors through the oil and water to the quarter-deck, ‘unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.’  Dorie became the first African-American to be awarded his nation’s second highest medal for valor – the Navy Cross. Assigned to the Escort Carrier Liscome Bay in June 1943, he was still aboard that vessel when it was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in November. There were just 272 survivors of the 900 crew and Dorie was not among them. He was 24. December 7, 1941 produced two exceptional heroes. One was dead within two years and the other lived until well into the 21st century.

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Kenneth Taylor & George Welch

There were at least two more real life heroes on the American side that day. Kenneth Taylor and George Welch were young pilots who managed to get their P-40 aircraft off the ground during the attack. With extraordinary courage they took on the strike force consisting of hundreds of aircraft and shot down eight of them (four apiece). Nominated for the Medal of Honor, Taylor and Welch had to settle for DFC’s after nit-picking senior officers argued that they ‘had taken off without proper authorization.’

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Rear Admiral Husband E Kimmel 1939         General Walter C. Short

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was the Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet in 1941. As with all catastrophes those primarily responsible cast about for a scapegoat to deflect the heat from themselves. Kimmel became the fall guy and he fell heavily. For almost 40 years he had served the US Navy and his country with competence and distinction, but in the end all that was forgotten in the rush to blame someone for Pearl Harbor. It was also forgotten that early in 1941 he had written that he felt a surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii was a distinct possibility. Just 10 days after the attack he was relieved of his command and, in January 1942, the Roberts Commission found him (and Lt. General Walter Short, the military commander in Hawaii) guilty of poor judgment and dereliction of duty. The fact that intercepted Japanese cables suggesting an attack was imminent were not forwarded to Kimmel or Short was conveniently swept under the carpet. Conspiracy theorists argue that a warning to Hawaii might well have seen the American fleet exit Pearl and result in the Japanese Navy calling off the attack at a time when Roosevelt and others desperately needed America to enter the war against Hitler.

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Admiral Chester Nimitz

Interestingly, in a 1964 interview Admiral Chester Nimitz stated that, in his opinion, it was a blessing that Kimmel was not warned of the attack, for he would surely have taken the fleet out of port to intercept the Japanese fleet. Nimitz was convinced that the Japanese carrier-borne aircraft would have destroyed the US fleet in deep water and cost another 10,000 American lives. At Pearl six of the battleships were refloated and later returned to action. In 1999 the US Senate passed a non-binding resolution exonerating both Kimmel and Short and calling for their former ranks to be posthumously restored.

Many Americans would understandably disagree, but today the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not be classed as a war crime. Declarations of War have been rendered obsolete by the United Nations Charter. Indeed, the USA itself has not declared war on anyone since 1942, yet it has been continually at war with one country or another since then. Evidently, the Japanese Government sent America a message that fateful morning, stating that negotiations had ended, but there was a delay in its translation. The intention had been for the declaration to be handed to the Americans 30 minutes prior to the attack, but the Japanese Embassy in Washington took too long to decode the 5,000 word document. The problem was then compounded when the attack inexplicably began 42 minutes earlier than planned. Needless to say, the American government made full propaganda use of the mix-up. For the record the following attacks were not preceded by a formal declaration of war either:

1904 – Japan attacks the Russians at Port Arthur.

1939 – The Soviet Union invades Poland.

1940 – Britain invades Iceland.

1941 – Anglo-Soviet forces invade Iran.

And there are many more instances.


It should also be noted that the Japanese attack was not in response to the US economic embargo on Japan. The embargo took effect in August 1941, yet the Japanese began planning the attack four months earlier (in May). However, the US decision to send forces to China (such as the Flying Tigers) early in 1941 did indeed start the ball rolling towards war. War between the USA and the Empire of Japan was never really a surprise, but most Americans thought it would come in the Philippines, not Hawaii. In December 2011, a declassified memorandum from the Office of Naval Intelligence showed that President Roosevelt had received a warning three days before December 7, 1941, advising him that Japan was eyeing up Hawaii with a view to ‘open conflict’. His personal desire for America to enter the war on the side of Great Britain is well-documented, but did he deliberately allow the attack to go ahead so that the American public would readily accept American involvement? That is something that is still debated today.

My personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that Roosevelt was extremely concerned that Britain would be bombed and starved into submission by the Nazis and might give up her massive navy to Hitler as a final bargaining chip. Hitler in possession of the 5,000 ships (military and cargo) scattered around the world would make him nigh unbeatable. Admittedly, Churchill was not likely to surrender no matter what, but there were other factions in Britain who were already entertaining the possibility. Roosevelt worried that the British leader might be overthrown, especially if the Battle of the Atlantic continued as it was. Sacrificing a few thousand lives in exchange for the attainment of a far greater goal has never stopped leaders in the past. Why should Roosevelt be any different? Indeed, Churchill himself did it repeatedly during the war rather than make Hitler aware that Britain had compromised the German Enigma coding device. Desperate times have often led to desperate measures.


  1. i have a book\folder of tota tora tora prints with the directors signed initials and remarks on how he wants scene changes in the film.would you be intrested in looking at them.i accquired them during demolition of one of the studios at pinewood.

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