How we almost knew about the Pearl Harbor attack before it happened.
If U.S. planes hadn’t been coming in the same morning… If they would have had more practice using radar technology… If they had known about the Japanese submarine that had been spotted… Could Pearl Harbor have been saved? How often we look back and think, “If only.” In the case of the Opana Radar Station and the attack on Pearl Harbor, there are so many “if only” scenarios that make you wonder what might have been.
If you look today nestled in the hills of the north shore of O’ahu about 30 miles from Pearl Harbor, you will find three large white domes standing in stark contrast to the lush green woods covering much of the rugged shoreline hills. Those domes are part of a Navy telecommunications station, but at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Opana Hill had recently become the home of relatively new technology – radar.
Throughout the 1930s the U.S. as well as other countries, including Great Britain and Germany, were working hard to develop their radar technology. By 1941 the U.S. development had begun to place radar stations in strategic areas. Six mobile radar sites were created on O’ahu, one of which was moved onto Opana Hill on Thanksgiving Day, less than two weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The state-of-the-art SCR-270 radar unit consisted of a “mobile unit mounted on two van-type trucks and a stake body truck that carried disassembled parts of a 45 foot antenna while towing the antenna’s main body” according to George E. Elliott, Jr., one of the operators on that fateful morning.
The day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 6, Privates George Elliott and Joseph Lockard went on shift to guard the radar station for twenty-four hours, from noon on Saturday until noon on Sunday. For twenty-one of those hours they were merely to guard the equipment, but from 04:00 to 07:00 they had the opportunity to operate the radar equipment. Elliott had less experience with radar so his duties were to plot and keep the log while Lockard manned the oscilloscope, the device which displays the “blips” on the radar.
As 07:00 approached, Lockard wanted to shut down the radar equipment, but Elliott asked to keep it on as he was still in the process of learning to operate the oscilloscope. At 07:02, Elliott was operating the equipment and taking instructions from Lockard when an unexpectedly huge blip came across the oscilloscope. After a long discussions about whether the blip was a malfunction or warranted being called in, Elliott reported the finding.
Unfortunately the only person Elliott could reach was the switchboard officer who had to inform him that all of the plotters were gone; they had just left for breakfast. Around 07:20 Lieutenant Kermit Tyler returned Elliott’s call and listened to his explanation. Tyler knew that a group of B-17s were expected that morning around 08:00 and assumed that explained the blip Elliott and Lockard observed. Tyler infamously responded to the warning with, “Don’t worry about it.”
Shortly after the phone call with Tyler, Elliott and Lockard’s replacements arrived and the men headed out to get some breakfast. At breakfast they learned about the attack and rushed back to the radar station where they remained for the rest of the attack.
Could the radar station have prevented, or at least lessened, the attack on Pearl Harbor? If a few key pieces of information had been known or if the timing had been a little bit different, who knows?
We can’t know for sure, so we will always wonder.
The Opana Radar Station site is a National Historic Landmark, and there is a commemorative plaque located at the base of the Opana Hill. If you already have your tickets to Pearl Harbor site, you might consider making the trek to the north end of O’ahu to see this the site.