Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of D-Day for France’s liberation, but another momentous World War II event, possibly more significant than the Normandy invasion, also falls in this timeframe.
The offensive the Imperial Japanese Navy sent against Midway was divided into many operations. The first was Operation Mo, the planned invasion of Port Moresby in May 1942 that was canceled after Shoho was sunk and Shokaku’s and Zuikaku’s air groups were mauled in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The following month a simultaneous strike at both the Aleutians and Midway were attempted. Termed Operation AL and Operation MI (guess the Japanese had run out of clever codenames), one might argue the IJN allowed themselves to become severely overextended.
However, though the IJN aerial attack against Dutch Harbor was less effective than Nagumo’s strikes against Midway Airfield, the Aleutians force had more success and landed troops on Kiska on 6 June 1942 and Attu on 7 June 1942 and then…nothing.
Limits to Advance
72 years ago today marks the high-water mark for the Japanese Empire. The liberation of Midway, Port Moresby, Alaska, Hawaii, and/or Australia proper never had to be contemplated after 7 June 1942 for the Imperial Japanese Navy never again attempt offensive amphibious landings—other than Imperial Japanese Army offensives on the Asian mainland, the Japanese settled into defensive (albeit extraordinarily brutal) warfare for the duration. For the next three years Japan would focus myopically on retaining its ill-gotten island empire, which begs the question…why?
There were three reasons chiefly. The first was the Japanese were wedded to refighting the 1905 Battle of Tsushima. The Japanese commander in 1905, Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō, annihilated the Russian Pacific Squadrons. In a classic case of “fighting the last war,” the IJN even codified a Tsushima doctrine, kantai kessen (decisive battle). The doctrine was purely defensive and intended to use attrition…against the Americans of the 1940s. To say kantai kessen’s assumptions were flawed is a massive understatement.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was considered a staunch opponent of kantai kessen, the resounding success of the carrier attacks at Pearl Harbor and the Indian Ocean Raid appearing to make him Japan’s chief proponent of naval air power. Historians don’t seem to consider that Yamamoto more likely desired to use all available weapons as effectively as possible, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet had mustered an immensely powerful surface fleet to support AL and MI which he immediately set loose after Soryu, Kaga, Akagi and Hiryu were scuttled on 4-5 June 1942. Unfortunately for the Combined Fleet, in the process of turning to surface warfare, Yamamoto completely discredited himself.
Yamamoto sent practically the entire Japanese fleet to attack the Aleutians and Midway: 11 battleships, 10 heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and 48 destroyers. Yamamoto himself flew his flag from Yamato, which along with her sisters Musashi and the-still-under-construction Shinano were (and remain to this day) far and away the largest, most heavily-armed and most-heavily armored battleships ever built. Yamamoto’s Yamato-centered main force joined with Nagumo’s carrier strike force (now sans-carriers but still sailing with a powerful assortment of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers) and pressed east hoping to encounter Task Force 16 (Enterprise, Hornet and escorts) and/or 17 (the stricken Yorktown’s group) after dusk, as IJN surface warfare strategy and training emphasized night engagements. Earlier engagements such as the battles in the Java Sea and Sunda Strait also showed Allied cruisers and destroyers were far outmatched by their IJN counterparts, so Yamamoto also ordered Admiral Takeo Kurita’s cruiser force consisting of Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma and Mogami (the latter two veterans of the Sunda Strait where they had sunk the light cruiser HMAS Perth and the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Houston) to detach and steam for and shell Midway.
Task Force 16’s commander, Admiral Raymond Spruance, easily countered Yamamoto’s attempt to engage. He turned Enterprise and Hornet and ran full speed to the east overnight. As the Yorktown-class carriers and their escorts were capable of almost 35 knots, the Japanese had no hope of closing the distance. Spruance knew his firepower laid exclusively in the SBDs (the TBD Devastator torpedo bombers had been, well, devastated in combat), and in 1942 American carrier aircraft were daylight-only. At dawn, TF 16 could begin raining bombs on the Japanese warships…which now had no fighter cover.
Yamamoto, perhaps finally realizing Spruance was neither suicidal nor an idiot, ordered the Combined Fleet to retire. However, Kurita’s flagship Kumano spotted the U.S. submarine Tambor and signaled the column of four Mogami-class heavy cruisers to execute an emergency turn in formation to avoid the sub’s torpedoes. Mikuma turned 90° instead of Kurita’s command to turn 45° starboard, leading Mogami to plow into her sister ship. The two damaged cruisers began limping towards Wake Island, and ran into the fangs of Midway’s air groups and eventually TF 16’s bloodthirsty Dauntlesses.
Both cruisers were hit repeatedly by the SBDs the morning of 6 June, killing 81 of Mogami’s crew including her captain and almost 700 of Mikuma’s crew when her torpedoes exploded. Mogami barely managed to avoid capsizing but Mikuma apparently was scuttled the following day, the first cruiser the IJN lost during World War II. In avenging the Perth and the Houston, TF 16’s SBDs also demonstrated the essential stupidity of kantai kessen—massed carrier aircraft strikes could sink anything (Musashi would be sunk by air attacks from TF 38’s aircraft carriers on 24 October 1944 and Yamato herself by air attacks from TF 58’s flattops on 7 April 1945), and due to the vessels’ 30+ knot speed fleet aircraft carriers could strike at surface ships at their leisure. But these glimpses of American superiority can really be only seen in hindsight—all in all, 1942 was a very bad year for the U.S. Navy.
Let’s Sink Four Irreplaceable Warships—what’s the worst that could happen?
Fourteen years ago, one of the characters in Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon stated “you don’t sink ships by making holes that let air in. You sink ships by making holes that let water in.” That assertion seemed tailored for 1942—both the IJN and USN lost four fleet carriers that year, and the common denominator is that all eight warships were struck by Type 91 (aerial), Type 93 (surface ships) and/or Type 95 (submarine) Long Lance torpedoes.
Lexington on 8 May 1942 was struck by two 91s dropped by “Kates” from Shokaku and/or Zuikaku in the Coral Sea. Afire from stem to stern hours later, the destroyer Phelps was ordered to scuttle the Lady Lex and pumped five Mark 15 torpedoes into her side. Yorktown took two 91s in the side from Hiryu’s “Kates” on 4 June 1942 and two 95s from I-168 two days later (and still took a full day to capsize). USS Wasp took three 95s in the side from the I-19 on 15 September 1942, the destroyer Lansdowne eventually ordered to scuttle Wasp, taking five 15s and hours to sink. USS Hornet took three 91s from Shokaku and/or Zuikaku’s “Kates” in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942, which led Admiral William Halsey to order Hornet scuttled. Struck by nine 15s and over 400 rounds of 5 inch shells from escorting USN destroyers, the Yorktown-class again proved stubbornly unwilling to sink until Makigumo (that murderous bastard Fujita again) and Akigumo put four 93s into her side.
Midway is often described as something it is not. It really wasn’t the turning point of the Pacific War. The cadre of highly-trained prewar pilots had not yet been wiped out. The Japanese fleet was far from beaten. From the perspective of November 1942, Yamamoto had accomplished his naval objective for Operation MI—Yorktown and Hornet were sunk, Enterprise was badly damaged, and Wasp had been sunk as well. The situation looked so bleak that the Royal Navy transferred HMS Victorious to sail with the only operative Pacific Fleet carrier, U.S.S. Saratoga, in May 1943. But the situation was worse for the Japanese.
Just as the IJN had mauled the U.S. carrier fleet during 1942, the Japanese aerial forces were withering on the vine. The poor state of air bases on land was eating Japanese aircrew alive…
Food at Japanese airfields was bad. Barracks were jungle slums. There were no laundry facilities, and men washed themselves in rivers, or under water-filled cans. Disease felled pilots and left serviceable aircraft grounded. Physical exhaustion lowered pilot performance, so that lesser-skilled opponents sometimes shot down veteran but feverish Japanese pilots.
…and ground crew…
Manpower became critical with no tractors, and ground crews wore themselves out pushing aircraft around fields. They worked at night to avoid Allied air attacks, only to fall victim to the malaria mosquito, which was most active at night. Men worked seven days a week in wretched weather at exhausting and mind-numbing tasks. Ground crews became nervous and irritable from lack of sleep. It took longer and longer to accomplish a given assignment. Minor as well as major accidents increased.
Raw human muscle wrestled bombs, cannon shells and machine gun rounds onto aircraft. Mechanics pulled maintenance on baking hot fields in direct tropical sunlight, for there were no hangars. When flooded airstrips dried after rains, dust billowed up in the wake of each aircraft, choking cockpit interiors and eroding engines.
“The maintenance crews are exhausted, but they drag their weary bodies about the field, heaving and tugging to move the planes back into the jungle,” a navy pilot at Buin wrote in July 1943. “They pray for tractors such as the Americans have in abundance, but they know their dream of such “luxuries’ will not be fulfilled.”
…not to mention literally killing thousands:
Japan lacked sufficient steel to turn out large quantities of steel planking while it concentrated on aircraft, warships and merchantmen, and it was short of shipping to transport it. This meant that Japan depended on manpower to construct airfields. The military used native laborers wherever it could, paid them poorly and fed them little or nothing. They worked more than 2,500 Javanese to death while building a field on Noemfoor Island.
Japan entered the war with the opinion that human lives are disposable. Strangely, that mentality extended to the aircraft as well:
When the Japanese navy flew its first nine fighters into the Philippine airport of Legaspi in December 1941, two of them were totally wrecked upon landing. The army flew two squadrons of Nakajima Ki-27s onto recently captured Singora Field in Malaya, and wrecked nine aircraft on the poor ground. When 27 Zeroes of the Tainan Kokutai (air group) flew into Tarakan Field — one of the worst in the East Indies — on Borneo in January 1942, two aircraft overshot the runway and were demolished. Slippery mud at that field made simple takeoffs and landings dangerous.
Half the aircraft of the 23rd Air Flotilla lost in the first three months of the war were casualties of crackups on bad runways — partially due to weak landing gear and poor brakes, but mainly from bad terrain. Another 30 percent of the flotilla’s aircraft wore out and had to be scrapped. Only 18 of the 88 aircraft it wrote off went down in combat.
Japanese naval aircraft flew into Lae on New Guinea in early April 1942. Zero ace Saburo Sakai described the strip, built by the Australians before the war to airlift supplies into, and gold out of, the Kokoda mine, as a “forsaken mudhole.” Although Japanese authorities considered it an improved airfield, it was so small that Japanese pilots compared it to landing on an aircraft carrier. Three decrepit trucks provided support there.
Japanese navy tables of organization and equipment specified that each air unit was to have extra aircraft in its organization equal to one-third the operational complement. Yet by early April 1942, naval air units had no extras and were below their authorized operating strength. The navy general staff refused urgent requests from the shore-based 11th Air Fleet for replacement aircraft because not even the higher-priority carriers were up to strength.
This was the condition of the Japanese air forces before the heavy fighting at Coral Sea, Midway, not to mention Guadalcanal and the Solomons. One might argue losing Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu significantly worsened this trend, but John Whitman’s study indicates the mentality of Japanese commanders doomed their nation from the outset of the war:
Commanders and planners lacked any understanding of the vast numbers of technicians required to support a modern army. Although there had always been shortages of trained mechanics, commanders showed little interest in sending their men to the ordnance school in Japan. The service schools themselves paid little attention to logistics and engineering support of combat forces. Nor did commanders establish schools or training programs at tactical units or in geographic army areas.
“Amateurs study tactics,” goes an old saying, “armchair generals study strategy, but professionals study logistics.” The Japanese failed across the board to establish, let alone protect, proper supply lines. Admiral William Halsey is famous for uttering “If I had to give credit to the instruments and machines that won us the war in the Pacific, I would rate them in this order: submarines first, radar second, planes third, bulldozers fourth.” The first three were instrumental in cutting Japan’s logistics, the fourth central to American logistics in the Pacific.
The war turned against the Japanese even before it began—historians often argue the chief reason Japan went to war was the American oil embargo instituted after Japan occupied Indochina in 1940. So, when did the war turn to the U.S.’s favor?
The Turning Point…
1943. The ship code for aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy is CV, the code for Langley being CV-1, Lexington CV-2, Yorktown CV-5, Wasp CV-7, and Hornet CV-8. All five of these carriers were sunk over the course of 1942, in the sequence these five ships were commissioned into the U.S. Navy. All five of those names were restored the following year—the Independence-class light carrier U.S.S. Langley CVL-27 was commissioned 31 August 1943, and four Essex-class fleet carriers: U.S.S. Lexington CV-16 on 17 February 1943, U.S.S. Yorktown CV-10 on 15 April 1943, U.S.S. Wasp CV-18 on 24 November 1943 and U.S.S. Hornet CV-12 on 29 November 1943.
While the previous subtitle concerning irreplaceable ships might seem at first to indicate I was referring to the original Lexington, Yorktown, Wasp, and Hornet, clearly I wasn’t—the U.S. Navy replaced all four in a year’s time. Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu were irreplaceable. So were the four Mogami-class cruisers—all sunk by the war’s end. Not to mention Yamato, Musashi, Shinano (torpedoed and sunk by U.S.S. Archerfish), Shokaku (torpedoed and sunk by U.S.S. Cavella) and Zuikaku (bombed, torpedoed and sunk by aircraft from U.S.S. Hornet CV-12).
…and Last Thoughts on Midway
From the lens of hindsight, the most momentous event between 4 June and 7 June 1942 did not occur at or near Midway. In the attack on Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians on 4 June, Tadayoshi Koga flew an A6M Zero from the light carrier Ryūjō and was killed when he crash-landed on Akutan Island. When the wrecked plane was sighted a month later, it was discovered that the fighter could be not only salvaged but flown again. Roy Grumman, designer of the front-line F4F Wildcat fighter, realized from flight test data conducted on the Akutan Zero he could design a fighter that had all of the F4F’s advantages while outperforming the A6M in every respect except for range. This design became the F6F Hellcat, which joined USN service with the Essex-class carriers.
I find it curious how willing the IJN was to scuttle its ships, even capital ships, rapidly. The U.S. Navy went to extraordinary lengths to save its stricken vessels. In 1945, the carrier U.S.S. Franklin suffered almost as many KIA as Kaga, but was towed to safety. At Midway TF 17 tried mightily to save Yorktown, and it took three days and torpedoing by I-168 to sink the carrier. Admiral Halsey ordered Hornet scuttled only when there was a real risk that the carrier would be captured (which nearly occurred as the Japanese destroyers were ordered to torpedo Hornet instead of boarding and taking her to Japan).
The Imperial Japanese Navy, on the other hand, seemed to toss away Akagi and Hiryu like yesterday’s garbage. Magikumo couldn’t be bothered to determine whether Hiryu was sinking or not after torpedoing the carrier, let alone rescue all of her survivors. This from a nation that intended to wage a war of attrition against the United States. Too bad 1940s Tokyo never could realize that the Americans fight only one way—annihilation.
Even the villains from the dark days of 1942 all were annihilated. Arashi at Vella Gulf. Makigumo by a mine off Savo Island. I-168 was torpedoed by U.S.S. Scamp. I-19 depth charged to death by U.S.S. Radford. USAAF P-38s are sent to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto, killing the Combined Fleet commander…all during the course of 1943, the year the tide turned against both Germany and Japan and damn near drowned both nations.
Final question: the Japanese revered the 13th century kamikazes that saved the island nation from Kublai Khan. What crimes did the Japanese commit in China during the 1930s to unleash the American hurricane?