Kermit Tyler: Officer got warning of Pearl Harbor raid, didn’t act
Kermit Tyler was a young fighter pilot stationed at Wheeler Field in Hawaii in 1941 when fate thrust him into a glaring spotlight. He happened to be the officer on duty at the aircraft tracking center on Oahu when the island was attacked by the Japanese on the morning of Dec. 7.
He wasn’t supposed to work that day, and he had been at the information center only once before. His assignment was vague; he just knew he was supposed to report for duty. The island’s radar system was in the experimental stages. When two privates at the island’s north end spotted a large blip on their scope, the call came to him on that early Sunday morning.
Mr. Tyler knew the equipment was new, and he believed a flight of American B-17s was coming in. He told the two privates, “Don’t worry about it.”
Many questioned his decision for years, and a movie portrayed him in an unflattering light, but he was vindicated when circumstances became known, and it was clear that top Army and Navy commanders shouldered much of the blame for the military’s lack of readiness for such an attack.
Mr. Tyler died of pneumonia Jan. 23 at his San Diego home. He was 86.
Daniel Martinez, Pearl Harbor historian for the National Park Service, said Mr. Tyler’s role at Pearl Harbor was misunderstood.
“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.”
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, Mr. Tyler figured the aircraft would be coming in soon. Though the decision he made haunted him, he believed it was the right one at the time.
In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2000, Mr. Tyler said he and a switchboard operator were the only ones at the aircraft information center at Fort Shafter when the call came in from Pvts. Joseph Lockard and George Elliott shortly after 7 a.m. There was no one around with any training in interpreting radar plots or ordering planes into the air.
“I knew the equipment was pretty new. The people were brand-new,” Mr. Tyler said in the interview. “In fact, the guy who was on the (radar) scope, who first detected the planes, it was the first time he’d ever sat at the scope. So I figured they were pretty green and had not had any opportunity to view a flight of B-17s coming in. That added to everything else. Common sense said, well, these are the B-17s.”
Mr. Tyler and others said that if he had taken action, it would have been to notify his superior officer and that it probably wouldn’t have materially affected the outcome.
Martinez said he worked hard to persuade Mr. Tyler to speak at the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. “It was difficult to get close to him because he had been ridiculed (over his role), especially in the movie ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ There are many who didn’t know the history.”
Friend Pat Thompson of El Cajon said Mr. Tyler was never bitter about the past. “He was a kind man and had a great sense of humor despite everything.”
Kermit Arthur Tyler was born April 21, 1913, in Oelwein, Iowa. He grew up in Long Beach and attended Long Beach Junior College. He briefly attended the University of California Berkeley before being accepted for military flight training. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force in 1961. He and his family settled in San Diego, and he earned a degree from what was then San Diego State College. He had a career in real estate and enjoyed surfing and tennis.
Mr. Tyler is survived by three children, Carol Daniels of Morro Bay, Julie Jones of La Mesa and Terry Tyler of Temecula; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. He was predeceased by his wife, Marian, and a son, Michael. Services have been held.
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