By the nightfall on 5 June 1942, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu were gone. Four aircraft carriers, two-thirds of the fleet carriers possessed by the Imperial Japanese Navy at the outbreak of World War II were sunk at Midway, representing a turning point in the Pacific akin to Stalingrad—so the story goes. Lost in discussions over the “importance” of battles is how precious one asset is that cannot be replaced: human lives.
Four to One
Tellingly, the British television series Battlefield includes the Battle of the Coral Sea as part of its episode about Midway. The Battle of Midway was part of a larger Japanese offensive (codenamed Operation MI and MO) launched to both expand Japan’s security perimeter and lure out and destroy the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers after the April 1942 Doolittle Raid launched from U.S.S. Hornet. The first move involved the IJN attempting to transit the Coral Sea in May 1942 on the way to capture Port Moresby on Papua New Guinea.
On 8 May 1942, U.S.S. Lexington, the largest aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet at the time, sank eight hours after having been struck by the air groups from the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. Shokaku had been badly hit by strikes from Lexington’s and Yorktown’s SBD Dauntless dive bomber squadrons; and with the loss of over 90 aircraft and the light carrier Shoho, neither Japanese fleet carrier would be available for the Midway operations the following month. 216 of Lexington’s sailors lost their lives, but 2,735 were evacuated to the carrier’s attending escorts. Altogether, 656 American pilots and sailors lost their lives in the battle.
During the Battle of Midway, American fatalities were even fewer. Yorktown suffered 141 dead out of a crew of 2,200 before being sunk by the I-168; the destroyer Hammann had been alongside the carrier leading the salvage effort and was broken in half by one of the Japanese submarine’s other torpedoes, killing 80 of her crew. Altogether, 963 Americans perished during the ill-fated Japanese offensive (307 died at Midway).
The Japanese suffered far more KIAs. 966 were killed in the Coral Sea. The bulk of the dead were aircraft carrier crewmen. 631 (excluding aircrew) of Shoho’s complement of 834 perished when the light aircraft carrier exploded and sank under the onslaught of Lexington’s and Yorktown’s air groups on 7 May 1942. The following day, the USN Dauntlesses took the lives of 108 Shokaku men. At Midway, the tally was much worse.
267 sailors perished aboard Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s (the IJN commander in the attack at Pearl Harbor and at Midway) flagship, the Akagi. The casualty rate only escalated from there—Hiryu took 389 men to the bottom inside her enflamed hull, a further 711 dying aboard Soryu and 811 cooked, choked and blown apart inside Kaga. 2,178 of the 3,057 Imperial Japanese Navy personnel that died during the Battle of Midway were crewmen aboard the four aircraft carriers blasted and set ablaze by American dive bombers. 4,023 Japanese airmen and sailors (four times the American fatalities) had their lives snuffed out in the last major offensive undertaken by the Japanese Navy in 1942, breaking a string of success that had infected the Japanese military with “Victory Fever.”
After the Battle of Midway, the SBD Dauntless was heralded as the true victor. The dive bomber was the only American weapon to bloody the Japanese naval vessels (setting afire the four aircraft carriers previously mentioned and the heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami)—the TBD Devastator did not live up at all to its name, scoring precisely zero hits with their (in June 1942) defective Mark 13 torpedoes. Why don’t I ever state “sunk by the Dauntlesses?” Simple—like the Bismarck a year previously, Allied forces failed to sink any of the vessels struck at Midway.
Chained to Suicide
The Imperial Japanese Navy scuttled all four IJN aircraft carriers that were struck at Midway. This begs a question: why?
Prior to the American occupation of Japan, a cancer had taken hold throughout Japanese society—elevating the act of ending oneself to preserving honor and contributing to the greater glory of the Japanese Empire. The Japanese military government before and especially during World War II grafted the ancient samurai code of Bushido onto the Imperial warrior spirit. This led to an odd desire in senior Japanese military commanders to perish unnecessarily.
Soryu’s demise came first, her escorting destroyers Hamakaze and Isokaze rescuing the 35% of the Japanese carrier’s crew not killed by Yorktown’s attacking Dauntlesses before Isokaze’s torpedoes sent the 20,000-ton carrier to the bottom. (Note—kaze is the Japanese word for wind, not suicide. Yet) Well, not all of the dead were due to Allied attacks—Soryu’s captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto chose to go down with his ship, similar to how Bismarck’s survivors reporting they saw Captain Ernst Lindemann salute from the keel of the battleship he commanded as the German warship capsized and sank.
Next the 40,000 ton behemoths went down. Kaga’s command crew was wiped out almost the same way Admiral Gunter Lutjens and his staff was on Bismarck—one heavy hit to the bridge killed most of the capital ship’s senior officers. The other bomb hits from Enterprise’s SBDs set the massive ex-Tosa-class-battleship-turned-aircraft-carrier ablaze, which was torpedoed and sunk by Hagikaze after she and her sister destroyer Maikaze rescued the Kaga’s survivors.
The largest Japanese aircraft carrier of them all, Admiral Nagumo’s flagship Akagi, suffered two near-misses (naval parlance for bombs or shells that land in the water near the targeted vessel but still cause damage and casualties) before she took a single direct hit, probably from Lt. Commander Richard Best’s SBD, which set the flattop ablaze. The admiral and most of the crew were evacuated from the ex-Amagi-class-battlecruiser-turned-aircraft-carrier, Nagumo transferring his flag to the light cruiser Nagara as Akagi’s CO Captain Taijiro Aoki led damage control teams throughout the night to try to save the carrier. The teams failed, and Aoki attempted to follow Lindemann’s and Yanagimoto’s lead:
Aoki refused to abandon ship with the damage control teams at 22:00 and had himself tied to the anchor capstan. Two hours later, the carrier’s senior staff, accompanied by Captain Kosaku Ariga, commander of Destroyer Division 4, reboarded the carrier. Ariga, who was senior to Aoki, ordered him to abandon ship.
That’s a nice way of putting it. It’s more likely Ariga ordered the damage control teams to forcibly remove Aoki from the capstan and drag him off the stricken carrier. Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, aboard the battleship Yamato with the First Fleet Main Force just west of the mauled carrier group, ordered Akagi sunk at 0450 on 5 June 1942. The destroyers Arashi (fresh off of murdering Ensign Wesley Osmus), Hagikaze (fresh off of torpedoing Kaga), Maikaze and Nowaki torpedoed the massive Japanese carrier which sank at 0500.
Hiryu suffered only half the number of fatalities inflicted by the fires aboard her sister ship Soryu, but in other ways the last Japanese flattop’s death was the worst. Her air groups were absolutely devastated—the commanding officers of the fighter, dive bomber and torpedo bomber units along with Joichi Tomonaga, Hiryu’s overall air group commander, were all killed; there were practically no serviceable aircraft available after the carrier sent two waves that disabled Yorktown. But after Enterprise’s Dautlesses set the last remaining Japanese aircraft carrier ablaze (the third carrier the Big E’s SBDs plastered in a single day), the agony of Hiryu’s crew was just beginning.
The Folly of Dying For the Emperor
Hiryu and Soryu were in a different carrier division than Akagi and Kaga—the latter two directly under the command of the overall carrier commander, Admiral Nagumo. Hiryu was the flagship of Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, often considered to be the IJN’s finest carrier admiral. Naturally, he and Hiryu’s captain, Tomeo Kaku, committed suicide:
“Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi”
Yamaguchi had argued vehemently against Nagumo’s decision to rearm the IJN carriers’ B5N “Kate” horizontal/torpedo bombers with Type 91 torpedoes—the “Kates” had bombs slung under their wings for striking the Midway airbase when a scout sighted Yorktown (Osmus’s torturous interrogation on Arashi wasn’t much use as it didn’t tell Nagumo or Yamaguchi where the three Yorktown-class aircraft carriers actually were). The decision to rearm left the carrier hanger decks crowded with aircraft, bombs and torpedoes stacked about—leaving the flattops far more vulnerable to explosions and fire, or so historians speculate.
Yamaguchi ordered Hiryu’s D3A “Val” dive bombers and “Kates” immediately sortied when his flagship wasn’t struck by the USN Dauntlesses the first time. As I previously mentioned, knocking out Yorktown didn’t prevent Task Force 17’s withering anti-aircraft fire and F4F Wildcat CAP (Combat Air Patrol) from practically vaporizing the attacking “Vals,” “Kates,” and Zeroes. Logic would dictate Hiryu wouldn’t have been as vulnerable as Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were in the first SBD strike, but nevertheless Enterprise’s Dauntlesses set Hiryu ablaze from stem to stern during the second strike.
While this was occurring, another Japanese destroyer was committing yet more war crimes:
O’Flaherty and Gaido listened to the sounds of battle and aircraft engines retreating into the distance, until they were alone in the expanse of ocean. Rescue, when it came, would prove their demise. The Japanese destroyer Magikumo hove to and the two airmen were hauled aboard to a hostile reception. By now, both sides knew that the Japanese were reeling from a crushing defeat and the sailors were in an ugly mood. Stripped of their equipment, the two Americans were interrogated savagely by the vengeful Japanese.
What came next begs the question why the Japanese even fished the American aviators out of the ocean:
O’Flaherty and Gaido were both bound with stout ropes, to which fuel cans were tied. Not even having the decency to grant their opponents a quick death by shooting them, the Japanese captain ordered the Americans, so tied, to be dumped overboard by the crew. Amid shouts for mercy and pleading for their lives, O’Flaherty and Gaido were thrown from the destroyer’s stern, and immediately disappeared beneath the waves to suffer a horrible death by drowning.
The destroyer’s murderous crew, along with Magikumo’s captain, Commander Isamu Fujita, should have been lined up and shot, right there on the fantail on 5 June 1942. Not necessarily for murdering Americans, for failing to rescue the Hiryu’s crew:
On 9 June 1942, the U.S. submarine Trout, patrolling well to the west of Midway, ran through an area fouled by oil and debris, picking up two men. They were the last survivors of the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma, sunk three days earlier by U.S. carrier planes. Trout took them to Pearl Harbor, adding to the very small population of Japanese prisoners of war held by the United States at that time.
The Mikuma survivors soon had company. On 14 June, a PBY spotted a small boat hundreds of miles away from Midway. It was seen again on the 19th, and the seaplane tender Ballard was directed to the area. There she found thirty-five Japanese navymen, members of carrier Hiryu‘s engineering force who were left for dead when she was abandoned before dawn on 5 June. They had made their way topsides, found a boat as their ship sank and had been sailing for two weeks trying to reach friendly territory.
Left unmentioned is that four of the survivors had died during the two weeks they were adrift, and another succumbed to exposure even after being rescued by Ballard…and yes, this reflects very poorly on Commander Fujita and the Magikumo:
The order to abandon ship was given at 03:15, and the survivors were taken off by the destroyers Kazagumo and Makigumo. Yamaguchi and Kaku decided to remain on board as Hiryū was torpedoed at 05:10 by Makigumo as the ship could not be salvaged. One torpedo missed and the other struck near the bow without the typical plume of water, although the detonation was quite visible. Around 07:00, one of Hōshō‘s aircraft discovered Hiryū still afloat and not in any visible danger of sinking. The aviators could also see crewmen aboard the carrier, men who had not received word to abandon ship.
Though the carrier Hōshō and Admiral Yamamoto (Hōshō was sailing with Yamato) also should be held accountable:
They finally launched some of the carrier’s boats and abandoned ship themselves around 09:00. Thirty-nine men made it into the ship’s cutter only moments before Hiryū sank around 09:12, taking the bodies of 389 men with her. The cutter drifted for 14 days before being discovered by a Catalina and rescued by the seaplane tender USS Ballard. Four men died of their wounds or exposure before being picked up and a fifth died that night.
Legend has it that Admiral Yamaguchi and Captain Kaku admired the moon as they went down with Hiryu. The legend is very clearly bullshit—the flattop took four hours to sink, and neither officer made any attempt to help the engineering crew which shoved off as the carrier sank. Perhaps Kaku and Yamaguchi were overcome by smoke and fire or killed by Magikumo’s torpedo, but given the monumental failure Midway represented, I would wager both committed seppuku.
Murder, Murder Everywhere…
Before Lexington sank in the Coral Sea, the very first U.S. aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Langley met her demise. No longer a fleet carrier (Langley was converted to a seaplane tender and recommissioned on 26 February 1937), she nevertheless retained a flat flight deck and was transporting P-40 fighters from Australia to Java when the flattop was badly hit by land-based “Vals” and G4M “Betty” bombers on 27 February 1942. The destroyers Whipple and Edsall rescued her survivors and scuttled Langley with nine 4 inch shells and two 15s.
Most of her crew was transferred to the oiler U.S.S. Pecos, which after sending a distress call was sunk by “Vals” from Kaga and Soryu two days later. Distress might have been an understatement—the Japanese dive bombers proceeded to strafe the Pecos’s survivors in the water. Edsall responded to Pecos’ distress call, lured right into the midst of Admiral Nagumo’s Kido Butai (Japanese for fast carrier strike force) during its rampaging Indian Ocean Raid. What came next was just senseless:
On this date in 1946 the first of seven mass graves were opened near the airfield at Kendari II, Celebes. Among some sixty bodies recovered were men from the merchant vessel MODJOKERTO, sunk 1 March, 1942 south of Java by units of the Imperial Navy’s “Kido Butai”—The men were rescued by a destroyer of Destroyer Squadron One, screening this force, & returned to the main body of “Kido Butai” around dark, just after the chase and sinking of the American destroyer USS EDSALL (DD-219).
The American captives were picked up by Japanese cruisers.
After the IJN ships returned to Staring Bay at Kendari, these men were all disembarked into the charge of the Tokubetsu Rikusentai (SNLF) forces there, and held in the town itself until March 24. On that day they were brought in two trucks out to an area close to kampong Amoito, nearby the field, and sequestered under a tent for several hours. Some were blindfolded and bound. In the late afternoon these men (“about 35”) were taken to a more remote location (near the water reservoir) and all executed by decapitation.
The bodies of the men of MODJOKERTO and those of EDSALL were found together, beginning on Sept. 21, 1946, in two mass-graves containing some 34 bodies.
They murdered when they were victorious, they murdered when they were defeated. All in all, I have to say the Imperial Japanese military had no honor, no soul, no humanity or morality. The root of this psychotic bloodshed must predate the Pacific War, as these wanton crimes became commonplace far too early to be the result of the exorbitant American advance across the Pacific. But I think I can say one thing: Admiral Nagumo’s force of Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku had it coming, and the divine wind (kamikaze) came for the first four off Midway.
I will return to this topic later, as I feel compelled to analyze how the Japanese forces during World War II became so despicably evil.