On January 23, 2010, a retired Air Force officer died in San Diego, California, age 96. His name was Kermit A. Tyler. For most of his life, he was one of the least understood players in the Pearl Harbor tragedy. On December 7, 1941, Tyler was the officer who told radar operators plotting a large inbound bogey, “Don’t worry about it.” Those four words, spoken in a total information vacuum, led to decades of criticism.
On that day of infamy, Tyler was a 28-year-old first lieutenant. He had grown up in California and enlisted as an aviation cadet in 1936. By late 1941, he had four years’ experience.
At the time, Tyler was a pilot in the 78th Pursuit Squadron at Wheeler Field, north of Pearl Harbor. Wheeler was Oahu’s fighter base, home to eight squadrons. The 78th owned 16 P-40Bs and three P-26As—not unknown in that transitional period.
At 4:00 that Sunday morning, Tyler reported to Fort Shafter to begin learning collateral duties at the interception control center, east of Pearl Harbor. That trip, however, was merely the second time Tyler had seen the facility. His previous visit had been a familiarization briefing that Wednesday.
Tyler was to go off duty at 8:00 a.m. and, thereby, was caught in an historic time warp, as the bombs began falling at 7:55. But the incident for which he became known occurred nearly an hour previously. The radar station at Opana Point, on Oahu’s north coast, reported a large blip. Tyler was the only officer present; the others were at breakfast or still en route. Knowing little more than zero and unable to consult anyone, he was the one who had to make the decision because senior officers didn’t begin arriving until 20 minutes after the attack began. Consequently, in response to the Opana report, he uttered the apparently damning words, “Well, don’t worry about it.”
Contrary to many accounts, Tyler suspected but did not know of a flight of B-17s approaching from the mainland. The fact that a Honolulu radio station was transmitting before 4:00 a.m. was as much indication as he received. He subsequently testified that he believed the radar plot referred to friendlies: “I thought they were off course and that they were maybe working out some problem, and it confused me.” Due to interservice secrecy, he had no information on U.S. Navy or Marine Corps flights, although a scouting mission was inbound from the carrier USS Enterprise.
Tyler’s most telling testimony came months later: “I did not know what my duties were. I just was told to be there and told to maintain that work.”
In short, Kermit Tyler inherited an untenable situation. Lacking training and supervision, he was wholly on his own.
By Barrett Tillman
Read the article from the December 2016 issue of Flight Journal