Twice in the past two years I have reflected on the carnage wrought in the final battle between the German battleship Bismarck and the British Home Fleet on 27 May 1941. In 2013 the 72nd anniversary of the Bismarck’s sinking and the deaths of 2,000 of her crew coincided with Memorial Day. Today marks the 72nd anniversary of a far more momentous naval engagement, the Battle of Midway.
In some ways, Midway has shaped my life. Though the clash occurred decades before my own birth, the saga of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s SBD Dauntless dive bomber squadrons pulverizing the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Kaga while U.S.S. Yorktown’s Dauntlesses set Soryu afire from stem to stern on 4 June 1942 sparked my life-long fascination with aviation and military history. But like Bismarck, the ghosts of the dead scream from the past.
Treason Justifies War Crimes?
The list of Japanese killed in action at or near Midway in 1942 number just shy of ten times the fatalities the U.S. Navy suffered in the empty expanse of the North Pacific. While Japanese carrier losses were four times greater than those suffered by the Americans (Hiryu’s air group badly damaged the Yorktown before the Japanese submarine I-168 torpedoed the American aircraft carrier on 6 June 1942, which sank the following day), the far greater number of Japanese dead shows a marked disregard on the part of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The IJN’s front-line fighter 72 years ago, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, was famed both for the speed and maneuverability that made it a deadly weapon in the hands of a skilled pilot and for the likelihood the plane would become an airborne coffin due to a total lack of armor or other protections afforded to the Japanese pilots’ USN counterparts flying F4F Wildcats. This disregard for pilots’ lives (culminating in the introduction of whole squadrons of kamikazes two years later, which perhaps unsurprisingly gravitated towards using Zeroes for the suicide attacks) is especially telling when one dredges up how callous and vindictive the IJN was toward opponents they “rescued” during Midway:
Commander Yasumasa Watanabe threatened Osmus with his sword, demanding intelligence on the location, names and numbers of American ships, and promising dire consequences if the pilot refused to talk. Faced with continual slaps and the threat of beheading, Osmus told the Japanese were up against the carriers Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet. This information was immediately sent by Morse lamp to the carrier Hiryu. Osmus, believing that his cooperation under extreme duress had probably bought him his life did not realize that as far a Watanabe was concerned the terrified young man was surplus to requirements, and even though he should have been taken prisoner and treated decently, Watanabe later ordered his execution.
I find this all the more chilling given the current parallel of recently-released POW Bowe Bergdahl, as rising anger amongst the self-righteous leads to branding the five-year Taliban captive as a traitor only worthy of immediate execution, as if he were a modern-day Eddie Slovik. I suppose Bergdahl should have been killed (murdered) like this, you arrogant blowhards?
Chief Warrant Officer Sato was instructed to carry out this order, and gathering some of his men, they dragged the confused and frightened American towards the destroyer’s stern, one of them ominously carrying a fire axe. Roughly ordered to face astern, a Japanese sailor swung the axe at Osmus’s neck, but failed to decapitate him with the blow. The axe cut knocked Osmus partly over the ship’s rail, but, although in agony he managed to catch hold of the chain railing and clung on desperately, swinging about above the churning propellers as the Arashi made way. The axe-wielding Japanese struck Osmus again with the blade, and dead or critically injured, the American fell into the destroyer’s wake and disappeared.
Yes, I mean to be provocative with using this incident from 72 years ago. Ensign Osmus of the U.S.S. Yorktown gave intelligence that was transmitted to Hiryu, whose air groups proceeded to knock out the American captive’s home aircraft carrier. Does that make Osmus a traitor, who deserved to be summarily executed by the crew of the Arashi? The Naval Institute Press strongly disagrees:
This war crime remained unpunished, and not a single member of the crew of the Arashi was ever brought before a military court for the murder of Ensign Osmus.
There’s a reason for that. What goes around comes around, and Arashi and her crew got what was coming to them. The Japanese destroyer, operating on the “Tokyo Express” resupply route to New Georgia was torpedoed and sunk by the American destroyers Craven, Dunlap and Maury on 7 August 1943. The American destroyers also sank Hagikaze and Kawakaze during the Battle of Vella Gulf, resulting in the deaths of over 1,200 Japanese sailors and soldiers, many refusing rescue when offered by the American warships. Commander Watanabe also received his just deserts—he drowned when the U.S. submarine Grayback torpedoed and sank his flagship, the destroyer Numakaze, on 18 December 1943. No word whether Watanabe’s body was torn apart by the sinking destroyer’s churning screws.
What about Ensign Wesley Osmus? Was his name forever blackened by his last act before being killed on the Arashi? Not really—he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the U.S. Navy destroyer escort Osmus bore his name. This murder casts a pall in only one direction: at the Imperial Japanese Navy. Perhaps it was because so many Japanese pilots lost their lives on this day 72 years ago? Some naval historians make this understandable, but mistaken assertion:
Some historians argue that the manpower lost during this war surmounts to a decisive loss for Japan, although in truth the Japanese Navy lost 110 pilots during Midway out of the 2,000 pilots at her disposal at the start of the war; the loss was significant, but hardly decisive.
Losing 110 pilots certainly didn’t help, but was a drop in the bucket compared to the deaths of 10,000 pilots Japan suffered by the end of 1943. The meat grinders that clearly were chewing up Japan’s pilots, sailors and soldiers by the time the Guadalcanal and in the Solomon Islands campaigns concluded were not yet apparent…or were they?