On the 70th anniversary I have been recapping some critical events of World War II. For some background you can refer to my previous summaries of the Doolittle Raid and and the Battle of the Coral Sea.
The deal was that the Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack (no declaration of war had been delivered) on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, catching our navy completely off guard and scoring a very lopsided victory. Japan had decided that a confrontation with the United States was inevitable, given that the Japanese Empire had decided to expand into the Asian region then colonized by Western European countries, and America and other countries were blocking this move by denying trade goods the Japanese needed for this effort. Japan had hoped to knock the United States out of the war with the Pearl Harbor raid coupled with simultaneous attacks on American forces in the Philippines plus Dutch, French and British colonies in Asia.
Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had lived and studied in the United States, and he was sure he understood the American temperament better than his superiors, and he advised against such a move before he took it upon himself to develop the plan of attack. Yamamoto proved to be correct in his assessment. While the Americans were stunned by the enormous losses from the attack, their resolve quickly crystallized around a determination to pay the Japanese back ten times over and to crush their leadership and their military.
The Japanese had at this time developed an approach to war that had benefited themselves in internal and local conflicts, but which proved to be ill-advised in a protracted conflict with a substantial industrial and military opponent. My summary of their approach is this: They employed tactics to win with a single, fatal stroke. Again my own interpretation: There is no follow-up plan.
What followed the Pearl Harbor attack was the worst military defeat ever suffered by American forces. Our military response was, after some consideration, cold and calculating. We played the long game. American and Philippine forces on the islands were instructed to fight a delaying war and were then abandoned. Attempts made to hold off further advances by the Japanese in the region met with disaster after disaster. See again Turning The Point for a brief count of the events.
As told previously, the United States did allow itself a bit of uncalculated fury. A side effect was the Doolittle Raid was highly instrumental in setting the Japanese military up for their downfall, coming just 179 days after the Pearl Harbor attack. Following the events of 4 June 1942 the Japanese effort was effectively doomed. It would be more than three years and millions of Japanese deaths before this fact dawned on the Japanese leaders. It came about this way:
The Doolittle Raid humiliated and infuriated Japan’s leadership, and they shortly embarked on some endeavors inspired more by pride than by calculation. One of these operations was the attack on Midway Island in June.
A major problem with the Japanese plan was that 1) the Americans were expecting some kind of move like this, and 2) the Americans were reading the Japanese naval codes and learned of the attack schedule in advance. The American Navy prepared to meet the Japanese force.
Here is where pragmatism ruled over humanity. It was critical that the Japanese not know their communications had been compromised. If they learned we had broken their code, then the Japanese would take steps, and the the flow of vital intelligence would be shut off. There was still a lot of war ahead. While our military force on Midway was advised to be on the lookout for a Japanese force, complete details of the attack were withheld. If the Japanese succeeded in overrunning Midway they would possibly obtain copies of previous communications to the island.
American bombers from Midway probed the surrounding area and launched initial attacks on the Japanese fleet on 3 June, but with no effect. On the morning of 4 June Admiral Nagumo began his air attack on the island, still unaware of a large American naval fleet in the vicinity. The initial results were likely heartwarming for Nagumo. The Midway force sent up a flight that comprised F4F Wildcats and outmoded Brewster Buffalo fighters. Most of the defending fighters were downed by the attacking Japanese within a few minutes of the initial clash. Only two serviceable fighters survived.
Not by chance, movie producer John Ford was on Midway Island getting some combat footage. Here is part of his account of the attack:
By this time the attack had started in earnest. There was some dive bombing at objectives like water towers, [they] got the hangar right away. I was close to the hangar and I was lined up on it with my camera, figuring it would be one of the first things they got. It wasn’t any of the dive bombers [that got it]. A Zero flew about 50 feet over it and dropped a bomb and hit it, the whole thing went up. I was knocked unconscious. Just knocked me goofy for a bit, and I pulled myself out of it. I did manage to get the picture. You may have seen it in [the movie] “The Battle of Midway.” It’s where the plane flies over the hangar and everything goes up in smoke and debris, you can see one big chunk coming for the camera.
The battle was not one-sided. Unlike at Pearl Harbor the American gunners were ready. Ford reported that these young marines and sailors, who had never been in combat, were calm and directed. They waited until they had a good target, then opened up with good effect. Like the Japanese, they did not know of the American fleet about to pounce on the Japanese force.
Our fleet had taken a drubbing a month previous at the Battle of the Coral Sea. The carrier Lexington was lost, and the carrier Yorktown was so badly damaged it had to quickly head back to Pearl Harbor for repairs before turning around to join the fleet at Midway. It was the Yorktown’s last voyage.
Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanded a force that included the carriers Hornet and Enterprise, and Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s force included the Yorktown. On the same morning Japanese aircraft attacked the Midway base, the American navy went looking for the Japanese fleet. They found them.
American attackers included a mix of torpedo planes and dive bombers with fighters for escort duty. Unfortunately the fighters were not present when the American torpedo men found the Japanese fleet. Navy aircraft squadron designations start with the letter V. Various foreign words for flight (e.g., vol in French) start with v, and I am guessing that’s the background on this. The second letter in the squadron designation indicates the squadron’s mission, such as VF-704 for fighter squadron 704. VT designates a torpedo squadron.
VT-8 from Hornet found the Japanese first and attacked. All were lost with no damage inflicted on the enemy. Each torpedo plane carried a pilot and a gunner, and Ensign George Gay was the lone survivor. His story is telling.
None of VT-8 had seen combat before this day, but all drove relentlessly at the enemy ships before being shot down by defending fighters and ship’s gunfire. Ensign Gay later recounted his on experience. He was flying low and level, as was required for a torpedo attack, and had his sights on a Japanese carrier. He saw that a gunner on the carrier seemed to have his range, so this novice warrior aimed straight at the enemy gunner with his own guns blazing in an attempt to drive the gun crew to cover. Gay dropped his torpedo and skimmed over the top of the carrier. At some point in all this his gunner, sitting behind him, was killed, and a bullet lodged in his arm. He dug the bullet out with a finger and stored it in his mouth for safe keeping. He escaped his sinking plane and watched the remainder of the battle while floating among the carnage. A PBY aircraft rescued him after 30 hours in the water, and he was awarded the Navy Cross among other honors and rose to the rank of Lt. Commander. Originally from Waco, Texas, he later was a commercial airline pilot and a consultant for the movie Midway. He died in 1994.
The torpedo attack had no direct impact on the Japanese fleet, but they had the ultimate effect of deciding the Japanese defeat. Japanese fighters had dropped down to take on the torpedo planes, and they were not in position when the American dive bomber squadrons arrived a few minutes later. Worse for the Japanese, they had obtained variously conflicting reports of the presence of the American fleet and were in the midst of a badly-planned re-arming. There hanger decks were crammed with planes being armed and dismounted munitions stacked about.
Within five minutes it was all but over for Nagumo’s fleet. The dive bombers quickly scored direct and lethal hits on three of Nagumo’s carriers, putting them out of action and sinking. The fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, was separated from the other three at the time and escaped detection. This proved fatal to the Yorktown, as Hiryu’s planes soon located the Yorktown and disabled it. Admiral Fletcher abandoned the Yorktown, and the following day a Japanese submarine sank it and an accompanying destroyer. In the mean time the Hiryu went the way of the other three Japanese carriers as American aircraft located it in the afternoon of the 4 June.
Historians do not consider the Battle of Midway to be the absolute death knell of the Japanese Empire, but I would characterize is this way. You are in a knife fight with an enemy, and you have just cut off his right hand. The fight is now yours to lose. The Hornet, which launched Doolittle’s raiders, was sunk later that same year, as was the carrier Wasp. However, the Japanese could not keep up with the United States in the production of ships and replacement aircrews.
In the time it took Japan to build three carriers, the U.S. Navy commissioned more than two dozen fleet and light fleet carriers, and numerous escort carriers
For what it is worth, the Americans also had the satisfaction of knowing that of the five Japanese aircraft carriers that took part in the Pearl Harbor attack, four now lay on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean less than six months later.
I was a mere infant at the time of this battle, and my only connection with it was that 19 years later I saw Admiral Spruance. I did not speak with the admiral, and I did not meet him. I only saw him from a distance. The Navy was commissioning the carrier Kittyhawk, and I was standing at the back of a huge audience assembled on the carrier’s hanger deck. Admiral Spruance was there to lend some history and some encouragement to the new ship. It had been my job earlier in the day to help set up all those folding chairs for the ceremony, so I felt essential to the entire effort. I have attached some memorabilia from that great event:
The Kittyhawk commissioning program book
My plank owner's certificate
Nearly 48 years later I was back on the Kittyhawk in Bremerton, Washington, for its decommissioning. At the time it was the oldest ship still in service in the U.S. Navy. You can imagine how old that made me feel.
The program book for the Kittyhawk decommissioning ceremony.
My last view of the Kittyhawk, Bremerton, Washington