History: Discover RAF Hornchurch’s strange link to Pearl Harbor on anniversary of atrocity

USS Tautog (SS 199) left, and USS Narwhal (SS 53) right, at Pearl Harbor sub-base.

USS Tautog (SS 199) left, and USS Narwhal (SS 53) right, at Pearl Harbor sub-base. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

RAF Hornchurch

RAF Hornchurch - Credit: Archant

A TV diet of Pearl Harbor movies will recall the event which President Franklin D Roosevelt said “will live in infamy”.

Prof Ged Martin

Prof Ged Martin - Credit: Archant

The Japanese planned to declare war on America 30 minutes before the bombers struck, but their Washington embassy failed to decode the secret message in time.

Pearl Harbor was a turning point in the Second World War.

America abandoned its neutrality. Foolishly, Hitler also declared war on the USA.

Oddly, Hornchurch played its part in Pearl Harbor. RAF Hornchurch had opened in 1928, succeeding the famous First World War Suttons Farm fighter station.

Training flights were familiar in Havering skies. Locals ignored planes buzzing overhead. But one April day in 1930, a plane caught fire, crashed and exploded. The pilot had bailed out at just 500ft. Somehow his parachute opened.

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Maybe he survived the low jump because he was a small man – a Japanese officer seconded to the RAF for training.

Japanese people adopted Western-style surnames as part of the country’s 19th century modernisation policy. Most chose some reference to where they lived.

So Kobayashi (little forest) is the country’s ninth commonest name – like Wood in England – and it’s not easy to sort them out. But we can be reasonably sure this was Lt Yoshita Kobayashi.

Japan had been Britain’s ally in the 1914-18 war, so his presence in Hornchurch was no surprise. But when Japan invaded China in 1931, relations cooled.

China was in chaos. The Japanese hoped to grab control. Japan was a military dictatorship. The only politics was rivalry between the army and navy.

The China war put the army on top. But intrepid airman Minoru Genda saw the navy as Japan’s attack weapon, using massed bomber attacks from aircraft carriers.

In 1932 he teamed up with Hornchurch veteran Lt Kobashayi to form Genda’s Flying Circus. They toured Japan with stunt-flying events. The skills Kobayashi had gained at RAF Hornchurch now campaigned for military aviation.

The war in China bogged down. Japanese commanders desperately needed oil and rubber to keep fighting.

Alarmed by its savagery, Roosevelt banned US oil exports to Japan in July 1941. There was oil in Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies. Britain’s colony of Malaya supplied rubber.

In distant Europe, the Nazis had conquered Holland and Britain faced Hitler alone.

Seizing South East Asia looked easy to the Japanese. But to stop the Americans intervening, they had to destroy the US Pacific Fleet. And so 300 Japanese bombers flew from a secret task-force of six carriers to attack Pearl Harbor. Although 2,300 Americans were killed and 18 ships were sunk, the Genda-Kobayashi plan failed.

America’s own aircraft carriers were not in port. They survived to halt the Japanese at the Battle of Midway six months later.

If Yoshita Kobayashi’s parachute had failed to open in the Hornchurch sky, would Pearl Harbor have happened?