SAN DIEGO – An American pilot who dismissed initial reports of what turned out to be the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has died at age 96.
Kermit Tyler was the Army Air Forces' first lieutenant on temporary duty at Ft. Shafter's radar information center in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, when two privates reporting seeing an unusually large blip on their radar screen, indicating a large number of aircraft about 132 miles away and fast approaching.
"Don't worry about it," Tyler famously replied, thinking it was a flight of U.S. B-17 bombers that was due in from the mainland.
The aircraft were the first wave of more than 180 Japanese fighters, torpedo bombers, dive bombers and horizontal bombers whose surprise attack on Pearl Harbor shortly before 8 a.m. plunged the United States into World War II.
Many questioned his decision for years, and the 1970 movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!" portrayed him in an unflattering light. Audiences watching a documentary at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center theater still groan when they hear Tyler's response to the radar report.
Daniel Martinez, Pearl Harbor historian for the National Park Service, said Tyler's role was misunderstood and that congressional committees and military inquiries that looked into what happened at Pearl Harbor did not find him at fault. He said a flight of B-17s flying in from Hamilton Field north of San Francisco was indeed due to land at Hickam Field.
"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," Martinez said
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, Tyler figured the aircraft would be coming in soon.
"I wake up at nights sometimes and think about it," Tyler said in a 2007 interview with the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. "But I don't feel guilty. I did all I could that morning."
Tyler, who suffered two strokes within the last two years, died Jan. 23 at his home in San Diego, said his daughter Julie Jones.
After Pearl Harbor, Tyler flew combat missions in the Pacific. He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1961, launched a career in real estate, and was a landlord.
Tyler is survived by three children. He was preceded in death by his wife, Marian, and a son.