Oliver Wiswell and the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor
Oliver Wiswell is a novel by Kenneth Roberts. Roberts (1885-1957), who had served as an intelligence officer during World War I, rising to captain (which earned him a plot in Arlington), was for many years a staffer on the Saturday Evening Post and the author of a number of very popular historical novels. Published in 1940, Oliver Wiswell tells of the adventures of a Yale student who sides with the British during the American Revolution. It's full of battles on land and sea, daring escapes, slaughter, romance, and skullduggery, as Wiswell serves as an undercover agent for the British, in England and France as well as America, and puts himin contact with such figures as Sir William Howe and Benedict Arnold, the latter a perennial Roberts hero. The seventh best selling novel of 1940,* like all of Roberts' works set during the Revolution, Oliver Wiswell is staunchly Tory, part of a "debunking" trend in American historical fiction that prevailed during the 1920s and 1930s.
So, you ask, what does a novel about a Tory during the American Revolution have to do with the greatest American military disaster of the twentieth century?
Well, that’s an interesting story.
In early 1941 the Commanding General of the Hawaiian Department was Major General Charles D. Herron (1877-1977). Having been in the post since October of 1937, Herron was scheduled to be relieved by Maj. Gen. Walter Short on February 7, 1941. But let’s let Maj. Gen. Herron explain what happened, in a deposition he made as part of the Pearl Harbor investigation.
When arrangements had been made for General Short to relieve me as Commanding General, Hawaiian Department . . . I desired to acquaint him as fully as I could with my experience and knowledge of affairs pertaining thereto. Since he was to arrive and I was to depart on the same ship, there was only a limited time in which to do this by personal conferences, namely, two and one-half days. Accordingly, in order that he might be prepared for his conferences with me, I sent to San Francisco for delivery to him there certain papers and material relating to the command, for his preliminary review on the ship's journey of five days. These papers and material comprised in effect an agenda and exhibits. Upon my meeting General Short when he arrived at Hawaii, I asked him whether he had received the data at San Francisco and whether he had read the papers and material. He replied that they had been received by him at San Francisco but that he had not given them much time while en route.
When Herron inquired as to what had prevented Short from reading the “papers and materials” – actually several hundred pages of intelligence reports, planning documents, and position papers – that had sent for his perusal, Short replied that he had instead read Oliver Wiswell.
* It was a good year for fiction. Among the works ahead of Oliver Wiswell on the best seller list were How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Nazarene.
Benjamin Franklin, Airborne Pioneer?
In Paris on November 21, 1783, Benjamin Franklin witnessed the first experiment in manned free flight ballooning. On that day, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier,* a young physicist, who had just a few weeks earlier, in October, been the first man to ascend in a balloon, and the Marquis d’Alandes, a major in the French Army, flew across country for a goodly number of miles before descending in a tree.
Not long afterwards, Franklin wrote,
“Five thousand balloons, capable of raising two men each, could not cost more than five ships of the line, and where is there a prince who could afford to cover his country with troops for its defense as that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not in many places do an infinite amount of damage before a force could be brought together to repel them.”
The idea that massive armies might someday descend from the sky seems to have inspired others as well as Franklin. During the Revolution, the French Army actually deployed “aerostat” units for reconnaissance. And although they were disbanded by Napoleon early in his reign, several years later, in 1808, veteran aeronaut Maj. Nicolas L’Homand proposed that the Emperor revive the balloon corps. He urged Napoleon to procure 100 balloons, each of 100 meters diameter, which he believed would be able to lift 100,000 troops, 200 cannon, and 2,500 horses, with supplies and ammunition to last ten days, as the first wave of an invasion of Britain. It was a recommendation that Napoleon ignored.
* Not long after his record making flight, Pilatre de Rozier added to his list of “firsts” by becoming the first man to die in a flying accident.