Leadership: The Day After the Day (Of Infamy)

December 8, 1941

Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee.

Battleship USS West Virginia

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December was a rude wake-up call for Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, the Navy and Army commanding officers there.

Both had been individually and repeatedly warned of the imminent danger of war.

Yet, they did little to prepare and seldom met to discuss the island’s defense, in fact, each thought the other was responsible for key defensive actions.

Surprising Kimmel and Short was very easy to do.



Thousands of miles away in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur was roused from sleep at about 3:30 AM on December 8, Manila time and told about the attack by his Chief of Staff Brigadier General Richard Sutherland.

According to W.H. Bartsch, at 5:30 AM, MacArthur was also handed a radio message from George Marshall, Army Chief of staff stating, “hostilities between Japan and the United States … have commenced…. Carry out tasks assigned in Rainbow Five….”

Michael Gough writes that Rainbow 5 was the war plan containing the following, “In the event of hostilities, the defending air forces were to carry out “air raids against Japanese forces and installations within tactical operating radius of available bases.”

Japan Strikes at Manila

General Lewis Brereton was the commander of the Far East Air Force and it was his job to implement the air raids referenced in Rainbow 5.

Brereton arrived at MacArthur’s headquarters by 5:00 AM in order to see the general face-to-face and gain permission to launch the raids.

General Sutherland prevented him from doing so and repeatedly rebuffed his attempts in the coming hours to engage with MacArthur.

At 12:35 PM, some nine hours after the Pearl Harbor attack and at least eight hours after being notified of it, Clark air base was devastated by a Japanese air attack which destroyed “half the B-17s and one-third of the P-40s”,  all but eliminating an effective war strategy in the Philippines.

On Loyal Lieutenants

It’s widely agreed that MacArthur suffered a mild nervous breakdown that morning which impaired his ability to act.

Stanley Weintraub on MacArthur, “One must return to the image of a stunned, pajama-clad figure, more proconsul than general, sitting on his bed in the predawn darkness and reaching for his Bible rather than rushing to action. A paralysis of will, in part concealed by loyal lieutenants.”

On December 8th, that loyal lieutenant was General Sutherland who seemingly took as his first responsibility to guard MacArthur rather than defend Manila.

General Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, criticized MacArthur’s tendency to surround himself with sycophants, once telling him that rather like a king, he had a court rather than a staff to give him true feedback.

Marshall was right.

During the Korean War, MacArthur chose as his chief of staff Ned Almond who was scorned by field generals for his ignorance and lack of reality.

A System of Command



The real lesson of December 8th is the failure to have a true system of command where appropriate and predicated action occurs regardless of a partial failure in the system.

For all practical purposes, MacArthur was as incapacitated as if he had been shot.

If Sutherland was really confident in covering for his chief he should have implemented Rainbow 5 as effectively ordered by General Marshall.

Sutherland wasn’t truly confidant because his boss also suffered from narcissistic personality disorder.

MacArthur as narcissist would keep true power centered within his grasp all but guaranteeing a catastrophic failure if he was incapacitated for any reason.

With MacArthur mentally debilitated that morning, Sutherland concentrated on covering up for the boss rather than covering for him, a huge difference in approach and action.

The Battle of Bataan which followed, resulted in Allied casualties of 10,000 killed, 20,000 wounded, and 75,000 imprisoned, one of the worst defeats in American history.











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