At the Secrets of Radar Museum, we often get asked about the Attack on Pearl Harbor, which occured early in the morning on December 7, 1941. “Didn’t they have radar?” people want to know. The answer? Yes, they did.
The problem is, the USA, from their place of relative security and neutrality, were slow to embrace this newfangled technology. In fact, the attack was spotted on radar. The young Army private, Joseph Lockard, was sitting up on top of a hill operating a mobile contraption that few understood, which had been built by Westinghouse in Baltimore, dubbed ‘Radio Detection and Ranging’, or RADAR. The radar units were recently installed and not yet in continual operation.
By 7 a.m., the sun was up and Lockard and his partner, Pvt. George Elliott, were completing a practice exercise that had begun at 4 a.m. The other units in the network had shut down, but the truck that was supposed to take Lockard and Elliott back to base for breakfast had not arrived. Elliott, who had recently transferred to the Signal Corps unit, was getting extra practice.
Almost immediately, they picked up something highly unusual. “The pulse went all the way to the top of the screen. It was the biggest thing I had ever seen on the thing,“ said Lockard in a 1991 interview with the Baltimore Sun.
"What’s this?” I asked him. Lockard thought the unit had either malfunctioned or was giving us a false reading. He quickly tested the equipment and determined everything to be working perfectly.
Lockard and Elliott plotted the course on the 5-inch display and could see the mass of planes was heading their way. When in operation, the radar units around the island were connected by telephone to an information centre where reports of sightings could be compared against known air and sea traffic in the area. But the center had closed at 7 a.m., two minutes before Lockard and Elliott first detected the attack.
Not knowing what it was, but feeling some concern, Elliott insisted they call the information centre and persuaded the switchboard operator to find someone in authority.
There were two direct telephone lines connecting our radar station to Fort Shafter: a tactical line that linked us directly with the plotters at the Information Center and an administrative line. I tried the tactical line, but no one answered. I then used the administrative phone and was answered by the switchboard operator, Private Joseph McDonald. He informed me that the five plotters and historical information plotter at the Information Center had already left for breakfast. I nervously explained what we’d seen and asked him to get someone in charge to call us back as soon as possible. (George E. Elliott Jr)
Soon Lockard was talking with Lt. Kermit A. Tyler of the Army Air Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force.
“I told him what we saw on this equipment and how unusual it was and that it was coming from an unusual direction,” Lockard said. “I talked to him about as forcefully as I could as a private.”
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ”
Tyler believed what they saw was a squadron of incoming American B-17s due shortly from the mainland. That squadron was, in fact, in flight and encountered the Japanese planes doing the attack. That’s what he told Lockard.
At the time of the attack, Hawai’i’s radar infrastructure was rudimentary at best. While the USA did have technology to track their bombers, that was not the radar being used. It could not identify whose aircraft were en route, it could only tell its operators that something was there.
Had the information center been fully staffed and trained, it might have been able to track the B-17s and detect the attack, Tyler said. The only thing he could have done was call his supervisor, who he was not sure was authorized to call an alert. At any rate, Tyler did not try.
Because of the limitations of the technology, a lack of personnel, and a case of mistaken identity, 2,403 Americans would end up dead and 1,178 wounded.
The rest is, of course, history.