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Yates County’s Admiral and Pearl Harbor

Yates Past - November/December 2010

The Japanese attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor and military facilities on the island of Oahu in Hawaii on December 7, 1941 resulted in American entrance into the Second World War. There were several who had predicted such an attack (some in hindsight), but Yates County native Frank Schofield was one of the few who actually took steps to avoid it from happening at all. Schofield was the son of a Yates County tenant farmer and graduate of Penn Yan Academy, who in 1930 was named Commander-in-Chief of the entire American fleet.

In the early Sunday afternoon of December 7, 1941 Penn Yan’s retired Rear Admiral Frank H. Schofield lay in a bed in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington DC. He had been in the hospital since May with a diagnosis first of asthma and then paralysis agitans (Parkinson’s Disease). For most of those seven months he was very weak and at times unresponsive or incoherent, but in mid-November he rallied and his doctors reported that his appetite was better, he was sleeping better, and was “less confused.” I have to date found no record of what transpired in his hospital room that Sunday afternoon in December but someone had to come in and tell him about the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. I also have no record of what his reaction was but based on the last fifteen years of his career in the Navy, it had to be something like “I tried to tell them.” He must have shook his head in disgust.

In 1919, then Captain Frank Schofield was one of thirteen military advisors on the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference which followed the first World War. That was where he and his fellow officers became suspicious of Japanese intentions in the Pacific. Japan pushed hard for the Shantung Peninsula, which had been controlled by Germany before the war. China considered the peninsula “a dagger aimed at the heart of China” and wanted it returned to them. In the end, the diplomats of the Allied nations gave it to Japan in exchange for Japan’s approval of the Treaty of Versailles and joining the League of Nations. The US military advisors in Paris could see that further expansion of Japanese influence into China would have to be stopped as it would threaten our Open Door Policy of equal trading rights for all countries involved there. It followed that if Japan were prevented from expanding further into China they would likely turn to expansion in the Pacific. That would be a clear threat to US interests in the Philippines, Guam, and even the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1921 Captain Schofield was assigned to the General Board of the Navy and chosen to be a technical advisor to the American delegation to the Washington Naval Conference. All powers actively involved in the Pacific sent a delegation to Washington but the important decisions involved the US, Great Britain, and Japan. They agreed to limit the tonnage of battleships on a 5-5-3 ratio (with Japan having the inferior amount), the nine powers reaffirmed the US Open Door Policy of equal trading rights in China, and they also agreed to build no new fortifications in the western Pacific. The agreements were popular with the various peace groups that had formed just after the Great War. They were politically popular for President Harding and the Republicans in Congress. Many naval officers, however, saw a future threat to American interests in the Pacific. The Open Door Policy was left with only us to enforce it and the general knowledge that the American people would not tolerate a war over China. They also believed that the ban on new fortifications left the Philippines and Guam vulnerable to attack. Frank Schofield was among the most vocal critics of the Washington treaties and expressed his opposition in speeches and articles.

In 1926 Schofield (by then a Rear Admiral) was assigned back to the General Board of the Navy after two and a half years as Commander of the Destroyer Squadron. He was put in charge of the War Plans Division and for two years greatly updated what was called War Plan Orange. Each potential enemy in the Pacific was assigned a color by naval war planners; Orange was Japan. The plan was based on the assumption that the US would fight Japan alone. The US fleet would mobilize along our Pacific coast, defending that coast and the Panama Canal. Then the fleet would proceed across the Pacific to defend Guam and the Philippines then blockade and attack the Japanese home islands.

In the Spring of 1931, after a year as Commander of the Battleship Fleet, Frank Schofield was elevated to Commander-in-Chief of the entire fleet. By then he was a full Admiral and had the authority to prepare the Navy for War Plan Orange. The next year he helped to design Grand Joint Exercise Four with was a war game to test the defenses of the military installations on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. A part of that exercise included having the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga rendezvous 100 miles north of Oahu and launch 150 fighters and bombers to carry out an “attack” on Army and Navy facilities on Oahu. The planes were launched just before daybreak on a Sunday morning. Fighters carried out a mock attack on planes lined up at Wheeler Field while our bombers went after the battleships moored near Ford Island. While Schofield watched from the deck of his flagship, the USS Pennsylvania, bags of flour dropped from the bombers burst on the decks of ships that were caught entirely off guard. Based partly on the results of that exercise Schofield predicted that the next war would begin with a surprise carrier-based air attack against the American Pacific fleet wherever it was based at the time. In 1932, the fleet was still headquartered along the west coast. Schofield conducted other war games, or fleet problems as they are called by the Navy, to test the defenses of the Panama Canal against the same type of attack. Another tested the defenses of the naval bases at San Diego and Long Beach in California.

Admiral Schofield retired from the Navy early in 1933. Sick for much of his adult life with asthma and anemia, he was described as “a tremendous brain housed in a fragile body”. He was considered by his fellow officers to be the most brilliant strategist in the Navy at that time. After he retired, at a time when Japan was stepping up its aggression in China, his successors let slide much of what he had done to prepare us for war against Japan. War Plan Orange was shelved for five years and the defenses of the Hawaiian Islands were not seriously upgraded. Two months after he was told of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 his condition worsened and he slipped into a final coma. Frank Schofield died on February 20, 1942 at the age of 73, and was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

by Rich MacAlpine


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