World War II

ONE FALSE STEP

First Lieutenant Kermit A. Tyler was the next man up on the squadron duty roster, so he resigned himself to spending the coming Sunday morning, 4 to 8 a.m., at the Aircraft Information Center at Fort Shafter on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. At 3 a.m. on that day, December 7, 1941, the 28-year-old fighter pilot drove south from his house on Oahu’s North Shore to Fort Shafter, listening to Hawaiian music on his car radio.

The Information Center was the hub of a cutting-edge system designed to warn of air attacks aimed at Hawaii. A half-dozen radar stations were located throughout Oahu, the site of several military bases including the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The radar operators’ job was to detect approaching planes and report unusual contacts to the center. Center personnel would evaluate the information and determine if the aircraft might be hostile, in which case they would scramble pursuit planes to intercept them.

The idea was sound, but the system was not yet a smooth-running operation. Pilots were randomly sent to man the center, serving as little more than warm bodies. Tyler, for example, had no training in radar—and no idea what he was supposed to do at the center. A few days earlier, he had asked his superior, Major Kenneth P. Bergquist, about his role. Bergquist only suggested that if a plane crashed, Tyler could help with the rescue operation. Even the center’s location was makeshift: a room above a warehouse, pending construction of a permanent home.

The first three hours of Tyler’s Sunday shift were uneventful, even boring. Only a skeleton staff was on duty. The officer whose job it was to identify approaching aircraft wasn’t scheduled to be there that morning, but it didn’t seem to matter because there were. But at 7:20 a.m., fate intervened to ensure the young pilot an unwelcome and enduring place in history, branded as the man who had a chance to thwart the Pearl Harbor attack—but didn’t.

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