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Military Historian Larry Suid on how "Pearl Harbor" compares against history

The USS Utah was one of several ships sunk by the Japanese 60 years ago  

Larry Suid is a military historian. He is a writer for "Naval History Magazine" and is the author of "Sailing on the Silver Screen: Hollywood and the U.S. Navy."

CNN Moderator: Give us a perspective on the numbers of Pearl Harbor. How many planes did the Japanese attack with? How many soldiers and sailors were lost? How much of the U.S. fleet was lost?

Larry Suid: There were about 300 Japanese airplanes, and they lost 29 during the mission, and about 65 flyers or sailors were lost. They lost their miniature submarines, and with two to a submarine, that's ten. There were eight battleships, and two could never be restored. Six sailed again.

Question from chat room: Does the movie "Pearl Harbor" explain the reasons that Japan attacked the United States?

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Larry Suid: In very general terms. It refers to the fact that we had embargoed their oil and that they only had an 18-month supply left. By attacking the United States, they could break the embargo. That's the explanation given in the movie.

Question from chat room: What actually prompted the Japanese to strike at the U.S. as we were not actively involved in Pacific war at the time?

Larry Suid: The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931, and we had protested. They started to be successful in China, and negotiations did not stop the advance. Ultimately, President Roosevelt embargoed the oil and iron. That left the Japanese feeling very threatened. They figured that by attacking, we would not have the backbone to respond and would instead negotiate and remove the embargo.

Question from chat room: Was the movie historically accurate enough that World War II buffs will be able to enjoy it without saying "That's not right" every other minute?

Larry Suid: I don't think so. The filmmakers said they captured the essence of Pearl Harbor. I suppose that with enough bombs and explosions, it will capture it. The time line was wrong, and many people without a lot of World War II knowledge would catch the mistakes.

One thing is that Pearl Harbor happened on December 7, and the burial, if you know anything at all, even just counting days, would not have been for three weeks or so. That's absurd. Hawaii is warm, and the bodies would not have survived.

The most glaring mistake is showing the heroine listening to the attack by radio. That couldn't be. The planes didn't have long-range radios. The long-range radios existing would not have been able to transmit that far. She would have no way of knowing about the raid, because the people wouldn't have known where they were going until they were on the plane.

They didn't even get the geography right. There's an opening sequence on Long Island, and there are hills in the background. There's a scene in Florida with mountains in the background. Even without a good knowledge of history, people will pick up these flaws.

Question from chat room: Larry: Is there any mention in the movie of the belief of some that the President knew about the attack ahead of time and did nothing?

Larry Suid: They avoid historical controversies. They show Roosevelt in some strange building, not the White House. A military aide comes in and tells him, and he drops all his papers, like he's so surprised. There's no implication of a conspiracy or anything. They avoid that kind of controversy.

CNN Moderator: Was Pearl Harbor Roosevelt's excuse to send the U.S. to war? Is there any evidence that he knew that a strike was coming beforehand?

Larry Suid: There is no evidence, and there is a new book out that claimed that Roosevelt knew. There's a reality that he did not need the fleet to be destroyed to get us into the war. He just needed evidence that there was an attack underway. If he did this just to get us into the war, he wouldn't have needed the fleet destroyed. There's just no evidence that Roosevelt manipulated the Japanese.

Question from chat room: How would you say how this movie will be perceived overseas?

Larry Suid: I visited the Japanese embassy, because they were concerned about that. I told them that I thought that most people would only remember the bombs exploding, and the love story, and would really not associate today's Japan with the attack of Pearl Harbor. I didn't think it would have a negative impact on our relationship with Japan, or American's perception of Japan.

CNN Moderator: Prior to World War II, what was the USís relationship with Japan? How long did it take to restore?

Larry Suid: Admiral Perry had opened Japan to trade, and President Roosevelt negotiated a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. I think Americans didn't think much of Japan at all, and when they did, it was perceived that they were inferior. There wasn't much contact, just a few missionaries. Japan was suspicious of the West and racist in their perceptions as well. There wasn't much of a relationship.

After the war, under General MacArthur, Japan became a democracy in a few years, and industry exploded with trade to the West, with cars sold here, etc. You could argue that Japan could have gotten what it wanted without war. You didn't need the war to get the trade.

Question from chat room: Pearl Harbor has always been referred to as a "sneak attack." Is that fairly accurate?

Larry Suid: Oh yes. This is one of the things that the film captured well. There was no frame of reference to expect a sneak attack. The Japanese had done this to the Russians in their war. We thought we were secure. We were 4,000 miles from Japan. When the planes came in, there was immediate confusion and chaos. Fortunately, they were trained, and able to respond a bit. But we were caught completely by surprise. In that sense, it was certainly a sneak attack.

Question from chat room: What do you believe would have been the most likely scenario for U.S. entry into World War II without Pearl Harbor and how much softening of the support for the war effort would have occurred in your opinion?

Larry Suid: It's very hard to create a scenario that we would have joined the war without either Hitler or Japan declaring war on us. An interesting case could be made that if Japan had simply attacked the Philippines, we might not have gone to war. It was so far away, they were not Caucasians and it was not defendable. At some point, Hitler may have declared war, because we were escorting convoys and we were sinking German submarines. That is probably the only way we would have gotten in -- if someone had declared war on us, or attacked us.

Question from chat room: Is there any truth to the story that the Japanese failure to target the fuel farm in Pearl Harbor allowed the U.S. to respond much more quickly to full scale war in the Pacific?

Larry Suid: Absolutely. If you go to Pearl Harbor, the tanks are still there. If they'd dropped even two or three bombs and started it burning, there would have been no fuel for the aircraft carriers at sea. Without the oil in those tanks, the surviving fleet would have been immobilized. We would have had to bring fuel from the West Coast, and those would have been susceptible to submarine attack.

Question from chat room: Larry, I haven't seen the movie but I heard that they portrayed the Doolittle attack on Tokyo inaccurately four months later. Is that true?

Larry Suid: It is almost completely true that the attack is misrepresented, starting with the fact that the four heroes were fighter pilots who somehow joined the mission. The actual crews were bomber crews, you didn't bring in outsiders. Doolittle said that if his plane was damaged over Japan, he would dive it into a target rather than be captured. But at some early point when he announces their mission, one of the flyers asked if this had ever been done before, and Doolittle said no, and that was untrue.

Beyond that, once the planes take off from the carrier, they fly separately. They didn't wait and fly in formation. So, the movie misrepresents the attack, showing them flying in together, when actually they were 50 or so miles apart. Also in the movie, you have two planes crash-landing together, and bursting into flames. In fact, there was no fuel left, and no bombs. They also showed bodies being brought back, and that didn't happen. Ashes were brought back after the war. Also, three of the flyers were captured and executed by the Japanese, and the movie eliminated that from the script, so that the movie could be popular in Japan, too. They didn't want to remind anyone that Japan committed a war crime.

Question from chat room: Larry, other than being inaccurate, how would you rate the movie?

Larry Suid: In a sense I would prefer to not answer that. I'm discussing the film as a portrayal of history, not as a film. The acting went well, and it was entertaining. I'm not a film critic, though.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Larry Suid: I think the film does serve the purpose of reminding people about Pearl Harbor. It shows the value of air power, and the Air Force is happy about that. It just happens that most of the successful air power in the movie was by the enemy. It reminds people that Americans were brave under fire. But the question is whether the ends justify the means. It's so highly inaccurate that I think it goes well beyond dramatic license.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Larry Suid: Goodbye!

Larry Suid joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, DC and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday at 12 p.m. EDT.

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