What if The Final Countdown Had Ended Differently?

The Final Countdown is a 1980 science fiction film starring Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen. It's set on board the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, then steaming out of Pearl Harbor. An unusual storm propels the ship back in time to December 6, 1941 -- one day before the Japanese raid on the US fleet there. After some debate with other characters, Captain Yelland decides to change the course of history by actively defending Hawaii from the Japanese. But before the Nimitz can do so, the storm returns and Yelland decides that it would be better to return to his own time.

It's a fun film, if a bit unsatisfying because it presents viewers with a tantalizing scenario that it never fully explores: what if the Nimitz had stayed behind? What would be different about World War II? Robert Farley offers some speculation on the subject:

Integrating Nimitz into the fleet would have taken a while ("We're here from the future!") and it's not obvious what the most efficient way to use Nimitz would have been. One option would be to have Nimitz spearhead a task force to turn back and defeat the IJN invasions of the Dutch East Indies. With history driven intel, the obvious technological superiority of Nimitz, and the rest of the USN carrier fleet, the IJN would have been hard press to carry out operations with any degree of success. Nimitz would have been nearly invulnerable to Japanese air attack, assuming that A-7s and F-14s could be kept in the air for CAP. A successful attack would require waves of aircraft and suicidal tactics (press forward until Nimitz and her CAP ran out of missiles), and even then might not disable the carrier. A Japanese submarine could certainly give Nimitz a very bad day, but against sufficient escort and modern ASW, getting into firing position would be difficult.

An alternative use of Nimitz would involve trying to end the war right away by sustained air attacks on Tokyo. Nimitz would have carried a dozen or so A-6s, which in a sustained operation could have dropped a lot of bombs on Tokyo. The rest of the USN would either support Nimitz or concentrate on the DEI invasions. I'm no fan of strategic bombing, but on the heels of the sudden destruction of the IJN carrier fleet, the likely impending defeat of the IJN in SE Asia, and an essentially unstoppable bombing campaign over the capital, it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see the Japanese sue for peace. Of course, even the Nimitz couldn't stay on station indefinitely; eventually ordnance and jet fuel would run short, forcing Nimitz to retire (potentially for an extended period of time). [...]

The other big question (which Final Countdown does not touch upon) would be the availability of nuclear weapons onboard Nimitz. I simply don't know enough about nuclear weapons policy on USN carriers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it wouldn't be terribly surprising to find that Nimitz carried nukes. This would pose very interesting challenges; with sufficient weapons, Nimitz very likely could end both the Pacific and European wars before the end of 1942. Explaining the power of nuclear weapons to Roosevelt would be a challenge, as would convincing him not to use them, if Yelland and co. were even interested in going that direction.


Link -via Ace of Spades HQ | Image: United Artists

P.S. If you enjoy this type of speculative fiction, then you may be interested in some similar works:
  • A few months ago, a redditor asked if a Marine infantry battalion could conquer the Roman Empire. That question led to a movie deal on the subject.

  • In the 1990s, William R. Forstchen wrote a great series of novels that described the adventures of an American infantry regiment from 1865 that was thrown onto an alien world with largely medieval technology.

  • John Birmingham's Axis of Time triology deposited an entire carrier battle group from the 2020s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1942. It was an international fleet, including Japanese and Indonesian vessels, leading to, shall we say, diplomatic complications.

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    Possibly the best course of action would be to dismantle the ship and copy the technology. It has advanced nuclear reactors, jet engines, computer technology, radar, communications, and other aircraft technologies. Those would have been a great leap forward in technology that would not only end the war faster, but also possibly preempt the cold war (with some warning) by putting the United States another decade ahead of the USSR in 1945. If it changed the Manhattan Project or even avoided the need for it, Klaus Fuchs may never have been informed of the design of a nuclear weapon. That would have prevented him from transmitting that information to the USSR further harming their weapons program. It is possible that the Nimitz in 1942 would have prevented the cold war that it was designed to fight!
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    A similar concept can be found in the Destroyermen series of novels written by Taylor Anderson. In the series, during the first early days of the War in the Pacific, both Japanese and American forces are transported to an alternate and slightly more primitive world.
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    A CAP would not really have been required, the radar system on the Nimitz would have easily been able to spot the recon aircraft used to find the carrier making an air assault nearly impossible.

    Bombing Tokyo did nothing to bring the Japaneses any closer to suing for peace. Operation Meetinghouse (firebombing of Tokyo) destroyed 25% of the buildings in the city and killed an estimated 100,000, so a bunch of A-6s would have been pointless.

    Since carriers carry lots of replacement parts and the specs for the ship dismantling it would have been a waste, same goes for the aircraft. Plus even then they carried a library of technical information, plus highly trained mechanics.

    Its most effective use would have been if it would go solo (making even more difficult to find as it wouldn't have all those smoke stacks around) taking out everything that moved between Japan and any of the islands (assisted by the subs that did a great job at this too). This would have left the islands with far less supplied troops, in theory, making them easier to capture.

    Of course I am not sure what kind of effect a dozen F-14s buzzing the Imperial Palace would have. Or capturing a few high ranking navy personal and giving them a tour, then dropping them off on main land Japan via a Sea King would have.
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    This movie always stuck with me. A colorful but lightweight movie because obviously it didn't happen. The same reason Gene Roddenberry kept getting overruled when he wanted the Enterprise and go back and savce JFK from assassination: it cannot succeed - in this timeline. TFC was a fun speculation, but lightweight because nothing really happened, or coule be allowed to happen. The speculation on the ultimate use of the ship is excellenbt. Question: what would've been the political response to the Nimitz saving Pearl Harbor from the Japanese air attack? Would the isolationist movement have hampered the response since the attack didn't come which united the Americans into a crusade agains the Axis? Would Hitler have declared war a few days later against the US after realizing there was no chance the Japanese would survive the situation now presented, much less be in position attack Russia, considered his motive foir declaring war? What kind of peace would've been sought from Japan which was still laying waste to the Chiniese (whose relations with Japan remain cool today; they don't have MTV-conditioned memories of the war like we do and they lost millions of people).
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    The timing of the Nimitz arrival would be all wrong to help with WWII against Japan.
    Robert Farley's speculation would only pan out if the Nimitz had arrived _after_ the attack on Pearl Harbour.
    Destroying the IJN before it could attack would have removed the most pressing reason for the USA to declare war on Japan in 1941.
    There may never have beed a declaration of war against Japan.
    Arriving after the attack on Pearl would mean that (I imagine) after convincing the US navy who they were and what sort of capabilities that this one single aircraft carrier has, it would have been extremely hard to convince Roosevelt to not nuke Tokyo as soon as possible.
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