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Pearl Harbor Pilot Dies At 96

By Wyatt Earp | February 27, 2010

Reader Al Baxter sent me this interesting story. World War II veteran and infamous Pearl Harbor figure Lt. Kermit Tyler passed away this week at the age of 96.

Who is Kermit Tyler, you ask? Well you may not remember Lt. (now Lt. Col.) Tyler’s name, but if you know a few things about the Pearl Harbor attack – or if you have seen Tora! Tora! Tora!you will certainly remember his story:

SAN DIEGO – Hawaii-based pilot Kermit Tyler thought the big blip on the radar screen on Dec. 7, 1941, was a fleet of U.S. B-17 bombers due in from the mainland, so he replied “don’t worry about it” when told of the approaching mass that turned out to be the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Tyler, who was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, has died at age 96, content he did all he could that morning. He was the Army Air Forces’ first lieutenant on temporary duty at Ft. Shafter’s radar information center in Hawaii when two privates reporting seeing an unusually sizable blip on their radar screen, indicating a large number of aircraft about 132 miles away and fast approaching.

The aircraft were the first wave of more than 180 Japanese fighters, torpedo bombers, dive bombers and horizontal bombers whose surprise attack on Pearl Harbor shortly before 8 a.m. plunged the United States into World War II.

In fairness, even if Tyler sounded the alarm there is a good chance that the fleet would have been severely damaged. The size of the Japanese force was just too large.

Many questioned his decision for years, and the 1970 movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” portrayed him in an unflattering light. Audiences watching a documentary at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center theater still groan when they hear Tyler’s response to the radar report.

But Daniel Martinez, Pearl Harbor historian for the National Park Service, said Tyler’s role was misunderstood and that congressional committees and military inquiries that looked into what happened at Pearl Harbor did not find him at fault. He said a flight of B-17s flying in from Hamilton Field north of San Francisco was indeed due to land at Hickam Field.

“Kermit Tyler took the brunt of the criticism, but that was practically his first night on the job, and he was told that if music was playing on the radio all night, it meant the B-17s were coming in,” Martinez said

The music played all night so the B-17 pilots could home in on the signal, and when he heard the music as he was driving to work, Tyler figured the aircraft would be coming in soon.

Cleared or not, I don’t know how I would be able to live with that stigma for the rest of my life. Godspeed, Lt. Col. Tyler.

Topics: The Troops | 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “Pearl Harbor Pilot Dies At 96”

  1. proof Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Another warrior laid to rest. RIP, Lt. Col. Tyler!

  2. Wyatt Earp Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Proof – Agreed.

  3. Rick Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    One less hero. May he Rest in Peace.

  4. Andrew Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Something else to note:

    I think many people have the impression that the Army Air Corps had a system to scramble fighters much like the RAF did during the Battle of Britain. In reality, they had no system in place for such an action. Even if they had wanted to do so, there was no communication system set up to allow for a rapid mobilization of fighter aircraft from Hawaii’s airfields.

    Not to mention, at the time, our pilots had virtually no combat experience, whereas Japanese pilots had been fighting since 1937. The Japenese flew superior aircraft, had the advantage of altitude, and numbers.

    Even if we had gotten our fighters into the air, I don’t believe the outcome would have been a whole lot different.

  5. Wyatt Earp Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Rick – Absolutely.

    Andrew – Neither do I. Those Mitsubishi A6 Zeroes were fantastic aircraft.

  6. Mrs. Crankipants Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    The NY Times said:
    Gordon W. Prange, a historian who spent nearly four decades researching the Pearl Harbor events, wrote that the Army private who phoned the radar report to Lieutenant Tyler had “made one big mistake” by not stating that the screen showed more than 50 approaching planes.

    So really, he wasn’t entirely responsible. Poor guy.

  7. Wyatt Earp Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Mrs. Crankipants – Yeah, it’s a damned shame he took most of the blame.

  8. richard mcenroe Says:
    March 1st, 2010 at 11:53 am

    It was probably lucky for the USN and the country that the battle took place the way it did.

    Had the Fleet had time to sortie, it would have been a battle of WWI vintage battleships with limited antiaircraft capability against a modern carrier battlegroup. We would likely have lost most or all of the BB’s.

    As it was, most of the capital ships at Pearl were salvaged, returned to service, and waiting to seal the doom of a large part of the last Japanese fleet at the Battle of Surigao Strait, the last battleship duel in history.

  9. Wyatt Earp Says:
    March 1st, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Richard – Probably wouldn’t have built the Iowa-Class battleships, either. Some of those battle wagons were from Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet.