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Texan warned FDR about Pearl Harbor attack

Admiral James Otto Richardson met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Jan. 5, 1941 and for the second time in three months tried to convince the President that the Pacific Fleet was a sitting duck at Pearl Harbor.

Joe Richardson was born in Paris in 1879, and that northeast Texas town was where he grew up and attended public school.  A brilliant student, he was singled out by his congressman for a hard-to-come-by appointment to the United States Naval Academy.

Shortly before his departure for Annapolis, his father, a former captain in the Confederate Army, told him, “Son, you can’t expect to compete with those Northern boys in the naval academy.  There’s something about this Texas sun that dries up your brain.”

Determined to prove his pappy wrong, Richardson kept his nose to the academic grindstone.  His dedication to his studies was rewarded in 1902, when he graduated fifth in his class of 85.

Fresh out of the academy, the junior officer took part in the Philippine campaign that constituted the final phase of the Spanish-American War in the Pacific.  After World War I duty on the battleship USS Nevada, the Texan “saw the world” with a series of far-flung assignments.  His steady rise in the ranks during the Depression caused those in the know to speculate that FDR was personally grooming him for bigger things.

Richardson reached the top in January 1940, when his temporary rank of admiral was made permanent with a promotion to Commander in Chief, United States Fleet.  No sooner had he taken charge than President Roosevelt ordered him to move the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor from its longtime base in San Diego.

But the people who would have benefitted the most from reading his paper never did.  As Richardson pointed out in his autobiography, finished in 1958 but withheld from publication until 1973, “In 1940, the policy-making branch of the Government in foreign affairs – the President and the Secretary of State – thought that stationing the Fleet in Hawaii would restrain the Japanese.  They did not ask their senior military advisors whether it would accomplish such an end.  They imposed their decision upon them.”

Early in October 1940, Admiral Richardson made the long trip from Honolulu to Washington, D.C. to present his viewpoint in person to the President.  Although visibly annoyed by the criticism, Roosevelt politely heard him out before making clear his own opinion that war with Japan would not happen anytime soon.

Richardson realized he was putting his career on the line by requesting a second face-to-face with Roosevelt five days into the New Year.  The plain-spoken Texan said, “Mr. President, I feel that I must tell you that the senior officers of the Navy do not have the trust and confidence in the civilian leadership of this country that is essential for the successful prosecution of a war in the Pacific.”

That was the last straw for FDR.  He immediately relieved Admiral Richardson of his command and offered it to Chester Nimitz, a fellow Texan three years behind him at the Naval Academy.  Nimitz wisely turned down the promotion without getting on Roosevelt’s bad side.

Richardson was demoted to the permanent rank of rear admiral and placed on desk duty until his official retirement in October 1942.  His four decades in the Navy ended five years later with his release from active duty.

Even though Richardson feared the Japanese might launch a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, he was just as shocked as everyone else that it came by aircraft carrier and the severity of the blow sustained by the Pacific Fleet.  Never in his worst nightmare had he imagined the sinking of four of eight battleships and the loss of 2,403 American lives. 

Richardson was still in uniform, when Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal “sent for me and told me he was not satisfied with the report of the Naval Court of Inquiry on Pearl Harbor” and “would have another investigation made.

“He then stated that he would like to have me undertake the investigation for him.  I said, ‘Mr. Secretary, I am sorry but I am not available for such (an) assignment because I am prejudiced and I believe that no prejudiced officer should undertake the inquiry.’”

Forrestal asked him what he meant.  Richardson responded, “I am prejudiced because I believe that any fair and complete investigation will result in placing a part of the blame for the success of the attack upon the President.”

Secretary Forrestal dropped the matter like a hot potato, and Joe Richardson had no role in any Pearl Harbor inquiry.  He spent his remaining years in quiet seclusion in the nation’s capital before dying in 1974 at the age of 94.

A longer version of this column about Admiral Richardson will appear in Bartee’s next book scheduled for publication in the spring of 2017.

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