Category Archives: world war two in the pacific

Wars Without Mercy: The New Old Way of War

MacArthur Shigemitsu

Today is significant for it marks the end of the World War Two in the Pacific. Sixty-nine years ago a delegation from the Imperial Japanese government signed surrender documents with the Americans and their Allies aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender marked the end of one of the most brutal wars ever fought, a war between two sides where in many cases no quarter was given. Violations of the Geneva and Hague conventions ran rampant on both sides as the respective governments and the media of each nation dehumanized and demonized their opponents, making it that much easier to excuse wanton barbarism and cruelty. 

Today another American reporter, Steven Sotloff, was beheaded by the ISIS/ISIL Islamic Caliphate, and as it does so often it released the video of the execution. The Caliphate, which developed out of Al Qaeda fighting the United States in Iraq has become a formidable fighting organization, with deep financial resource is gaining radicalized adherents around the world, and its brutality toward all enemies, even other Moslems is unmatched. The propaganda of the Caliphate against its enemies is similar to what was used by both sides in the Second World War and with each massacre of civilians, each execution of innocent reporters, humanitarian workers and others they ensure that they will reap the whirlwind.

What ISIS forgets is that beneath the civilized veneer of the West, that part of us that likes to abide by treaties and focus on human rights, is that when enraged Americans, Britons, Australians, Germans, Russians and even the French can be just as brutal and also fight wars without mercy. Our histories are full of such examples. The problem is that since we haven’t had to fight such a total war since the Second World War, the leaders of groups such as ISIS assume we are weak and decadent, easy targets. They forget the manner in which all sides, even the Allies waged the Second World War, especially in the Pacific, where the war was fought without mercy. 

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By waging war in the manner it is doing, ISIS will ensure that its leaders and members will receive no mercy. The post 9-11 response of the United States to Al Qaeda will look like a game compared to what is coming. And unfortunately, we will all lose a bit of our humanity, maybe even a lot of it the longer this war goes on. As far as propaganda, many U.S. politicians , corporate interests and our corporate media are great at promoting war and demonizing opponents. This will be brutal my friends and I for one wish it had never come about. I want peace, I went to Iraq believing that the Iraqis I served alongside and those who had me in their homes would eventually know peace. I grieve for them, as I grieve for all that will suffer in this new war without mercy. 

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I have reposted a book review of John Dower’s book “War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986. I highly recommend the book to anyone who thinks that the conflict with ISIS will be anything but uncivilized and barbarous. It has all the elements to make it so: race, religion, ideology and power, it will mark a return to barbarism that many of us thought would never happen again. 

Here is that review.

The study of war cannot simply be confined to the study of battles, weapons and leaders. While all of these are important one must as Clausewitz understood examine the human element of policy, ideology and the motivations of nations as they wage war. Clausewitz understood that war could not be reduced to formulas and templates but involved what he called the “remarkable trinity” which he described in on war as (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; (2) the play of chance and probability; and (3) war’s element of subordination to rational policy. Clausewitz connects this with the people being connected to the primordial forces of war, the military with the non-rational elements of friction, chance and probability and the government.

The Clausewitzian understanding of war is rooted in the Enlightenment and classic German Liberalism, born out of his experience in the Napoleonic Wars, which forever changed the face of warfare. From the defeat of Prussia and its liberation from Napoleonic rule under Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Clausewitz developed the understanding that war was more than simply tactics and weapons. Thus when we examine war today we deprive ourselves of properly understanding the dynamic of war if we fail to appreciate the human factor which is frequently not rational. Such is especially the case when one fights an enemy who wages war on religious, racial or ideological grounds as is the case in the current war against Al Qaida and other extremist Moslem groups. Such groups would like to turn this war into such a conflict as do certain figures in the American political milieu who repeatedly label all of Islam as the enemy. In such a climate it is imperative to look at history to show us the results of such primal passions.

It is in such conflict as we are engaged in today it is good to look at previous wars from the human experiential component and not simply military operations. If one wants to look at how inflamed passion driven by racial prejudice and hatred took war to a level of barbarity and totality that defy our comprehension we only need to look back to the Pacific war between Japan and the United States. In another post I dealt with the how racial ideology influenced Nazi Germany’s conduct of the war against Poland and the Soviet Union. http://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/the-ideological-war-how-hitlers-racial-theories-influenced-german-operations-in-poland-and-russia/

To do this I will look at John Dower’s “War Without Mercy.” In this book Dower examines World War Two in the Pacific from the cultural and ideological viewpoints of the opposing sides. He looks at the war as a race war, which he says “remains one of the great neglected subjects of World War Two.”[i] Dower examines race hated and its influence on both the Japanese and the Allies, particularly in the way that each side viewed one another and conducted the war. He examines the nature of racial prejudice and hate in each society, including its religious, psychological, ideological, scientific and mythological components. He also examines the use of media and propaganda, and how racial attitudes not only influenced national and individual attitudes, but also the military and intelligence operations of both sides. This book is not about military campaigns, thus it is much more like “In the Name of War” by Jill Lepore[ii] than any history of the Pacific war.

Dower uses sources such as songs, movies, cartoons and various writings of the times to demonstrate the totality of the war. Dower admits many of these are difficult to handle and “not respectable sources in some academic sources.”[iii] Despite this he puts together a work that is sometimes chilling, especially when one looks at the current war that our country is engaged in. He also endeavors to explain how after a war where “extraordinarily fierce and Manichean”[iv] race hate predominated, it could “have dissipated so easily”[v] after the war was over.

Dower divides his work into three major sections. The first which examines how the aspect of race effected the fighting of the war, the second, the war through Western eyes and the third the war through Japanese eyes. The first section begins with how racial attitudes in Western and Japanese societies helped fuel the war and compares similar attitudes and concepts in Western and Japanese thought, including how “prejudice and racial stereotypes frequently distorted both Japanese and Allied evaluations of the enemy’s intentions and capabilities.”[vi] He looks at the language of the conflict; at how war words and race words came together “in a manner which did not reflect the savagery of the war, but truly contributed to it….”[vii] the result being “an obsession with extermination on both sides.”[viii] He comes back to this theme throughout the book comparing the two sides and occasionally contrasting these attitudes with corresponding attitudes of the Allies to their German and Italian foes in Europe.[ix]

In the first chapter Dower examines the role played by the propaganda used by both sides. In particular he expalins how the “Know Your Enemy: Japan” movies commissioned by the War Department and directed by Frank Capra, and the Japanese works “Read this and the War is Won” and “The Way of the Subject” helped shape the view of each side. Propaganda developed the idea of the war in terms of good versus evil and the mortal threat posed to their respective cultures by the enemy.

From this he looks at the visceral emotions that the war engendered and how those emotions spilled over into the conduct of the war especially in regard to its ferocity and the war crimes that were spawned by the unbridled hatred of both sides. He notes the targeted terror bombings of civilians by both sides and how those actions were portrayed as “barbaric” by the other side when they were the victim.[x] He notes the viciousness of the war and how for the Americans the war brought forth “emotions forgotten since our most savage Indian wars.”[xi] He contrasts this with European war in particular how the Japanese and their actions were portrayed in Western media, and how similar actions by the Germans, such as the Holocaust, were ignored by Western media until the war was over.[xii] He traces some of this to the understanding of the psychological effects of the defeats and humiliations of the Allies at the hands of the Japanese, and the corresponding brutality toward Allied prisoners by the Japanese as compared to that of the Germans.[xiii] He uses this section to also examine the prevailing attitudes of the Japanese toward the Allies as being weak and “psychologically incapable of recovery” from blows such as the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Allied view of the Japanese as “treacherous.”[xiv]

Dower’s second major section describes the attitudes and actions of the Americans and British toward their Japanese enemy. He looks at the view that the Japanese were less than human and often portrayed as apes or other primates such as monkeys. To do this he examines cartoons and illustrations in popular magazines and military publications, and includes those cartoons in the book. The sheer vulgarity of these cartoons is easily contrasted with those promoted and published by Nazis such as Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer, something often overlooked or ignored in other histories.[xv] The early Western views of Japan as sub-human continued throughout the war, while at the same time, especially after the rapid series of Allied defeats and Japanese victories they were viewed as almost “super-human.” Paradoxically some allied leaders turned the Japanese from “the one time “little man” into a Goliath.”[xvi] They were now “tough, disciplined and well equipped.”[xvii] Ambassador Joseph Grew, reported on his return from Japan, that the Japanese were; “”sturdy,” “Spartan,” “clever and dangerous,” and that “his will to conquer was “utterly ruthless, utterly cruel and utterly blind to the values that make up our civilization….””[xviii] The juxtaposition of such conflicting attitudes is curious, although understandable, especially in light of other Western wars against Asians or Arabs.[xix]

Dower then examines how some Americans and British explained the Japanese “National Character,” their approach to war, and actions during the war from Freudian psychiatry as well as Anthropology and other social and behavioral sciences. Beginning with the widespread Allied understanding that the Japanese were “dressed-up primitives-or “savages” in modern garb…”[xx] he notes that these interpretations of the Japanese national character stemmed from “child-rearing practices and early childhood experiences,”[xxi] including toilet training and Freudian interpretations that saw an arrested psychic development at the “infantile (anal or genital) stage of development.”[xxii] Dower deduces that it was not hard to see how “Japanese overseas aggression became explicable in terms of penis envy or a castration complex….”[xxiii] The views were widespread and emphasized that the “Japanese were collectively unstable.”[xxiv] Dower notes that the “very notion of “national character”-was the application to whole nations and cultures of an analytical language that had been developed through personal case studies…”[xxv] which he is rightly critical in suggesting that this premise “was itself questionable.”[xxvi] In addition to this was the understanding of Margaret Mead and others of the Japanese as “adolescents” and “bullies,”[xxvii] and notes that from “the diagnosis of the Japanese as problem children and juvenile delinquents, it was but a small step to see them as emotionally maladjusted adolescents and, finally as a deranged race in general.”[xxviii] Dower cites numerous other “experts” of the time and their interpretations of the Japanese national character, but the overwhelming message is that the application of these theories, regardless of their validity had a major impact on the Allied war against Japan.

He follows this chapter with one with much importance in explaining the similarities in how Americans and Westerners in general viewed the Japanese in relationship to other races that they had dealt with including Blacks, Chinese, Filipinos, and American Indians. Common themes include the views of each as primitives, children and madmen and the view of the Japanese as part of the “Yellow Peril.” Of particular note is his analysis of the work of Homer Lea’s 1909 book The Valor of Ignorance and the vision of Japanese supermen which enjoyed a revival after Pearl Harbor.[xxix] Dower examines depictions of Asians in general in the Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan series of films and other racial aspects hearkening back to the “specter of Genghis Khan and the prospect that the white races “may be liquidated.”[xxx] He notes how Japanese propagandists attempted to use Allied prejudice to influence the Chinese and other Asians against the Allies[xxxi] and American blacks against whites,[xxxii] while attempting to maintain their own racial superiority which is the subject of the next section.

The chapters dealing with the Japanese view of themselves and their opponents tie together neatly. These deal with the Japanese view of themselves as the leading race in Asia and the world. Dower talks about symbols and the understanding of racial purity that motivated the Japanese from the 1800s to the rejection of Japan’s request for a declaration of “racial equity” at the League of Nations.[xxxiii] He notes the “propagation of an elaborate mythohistory in Japan and the time spent “wrestling with the question of what it really meant to be “Japanese” and how the “Yamato race” was unique among races….”[xxxiv] He notes the relationship of Shinto with whiteness and purity and connotations of how the Japanese indulged in “Caucasianization” of themselves vis-à-vis other Asians during World War Two,”[xxxv] and their emphasis on a Japanese racial worldview.[xxxvi] He also tackles the way in which the Japanese wrestled with evolution and its relationship to other racial theories contrasting books such as A History of Changing Theories about the Japanese Race and Evolution of Life with Cardinal Principles of the National Polity published by the Thought Bureau of the Ministry of Education in1937. These declared that the Japanese were “intrinsically different from the so-called citizens of Occidental countries.”[xxxvii] He also deals with the Kyoto school and the Taiwa concept.[xxxviii] In Chapter Nine Dower looks at how the Japanese viewed themselves and outsiders, in particular the characterization of Westerners as nanbanjin or barbarians and how this eventually train of thought carried through the war led to the “Anglo-American foe emerged full blown as the demonic other.”[xxxix] Dowers final chapter deals with how quickly the race hatred dissipated and genuine goodwill that developed between the Japanese and Americans after the war.[xl]

This book holds a unique place in the literature of the Pacific war. It is not a comfortable book, it is challenging. No other deals with these matters in any systemic way. If there is a weakness in Dower is that he does not, like Lepore in “In the Name of War” deal with the attitudes of soldiers and those who actually fought the war. His examples are good and go a long way in explaining the savagery with which the war was conducted, but could have been enhanced with reflections and accounts of those who fought the war and survived as well as the writings of those who did not, and the way those attitudes were reflected in different services, times and theaters during the war, including adjustments that commanders made during the war.[xli] His description of how Japanese “reluctance to surrender had meshed horrifically with Allied disinterest …in contemplating anything short of Japan’s “thoroughgoing defeat.”[xlii]

The lessons of the book are also contemporary in light of the cultural and religious differences between the West and its Moslem opponents in the current war. Possibly even more so than the war between the United States and Japan which was fought by nation states that still were signatories to international conventions, not nation states against terrorists unbound by any Western code or law or indigenous forces engaged in revolutionary war against the west such as the Taliban.[xliii] The temptation is for both sides to demonize one’s opponent while exalting one’s own way of life through official propaganda and popular media, with a result of increased viciousness and inhumanity in pursuit of ultimate victory. In today’s world with the exponential rise in the radicalization of whole people groups and the availability of weapons of mass destruction, it is possibility that the war could develop into one that is a racial as well as religious and ideological war that would make the War in the Pacific look like a schoolyard brawl.

As William Tecumseh Sherman said: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it…”

Bibliography

Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, Published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1995

Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986.

Leckie, Robert. Okinawa. Penguin Books USA, New York NY, 1996

Lepore, Jill The Name of War Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1998

Tregaskis, Richard Guadalcanal Diary Random House, New York NY 1943, Modern Library Edition, 2000.

[i] Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986. p.4
[ii] Lepore, Jill The Name of War Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1998. Lepore’s book deals with King Phillip’s War and how that war shaped the future of American war and how it shaped the views of Indians and the English Colonists and their later American descendants both in the language used to describe it, the histories written of it and the viciousness of the war.

[iii] Ibid. p.x

[iv] Ibid. p.ix

[v] Ibid. p.x

[vi] Ibid. p.11

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid. Also see Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, Published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1995 Alexander notes an incident that shows a practical application of the Japanese views and the ruthlessness inflicted on their enemies, in this case prisoners in response to an American bombing raid. In 1942 the commander of the Japanese Garrison of Makin Island ordered 22 prisoners beheaded after one cheered following a bombing raid. (p.32)

[ix] An interesting point which Dower does not mention but is interesting for this study is how the Germans referred to the British and Americans as “Die gegener” (opponents) and the Soviets as “Die Feinde” (the enemy), the implication being that one die gegener was a common foe, much like an opposing team in a sport, and the other a mortal enemy, the implication of Feinde being evil, or demonic.

[x] In particular he makes note of the Japanese actions during the “Rape of Nanking,” and the 1945 sack of Manila, as well as the fire bombing of Japanese cities by the US Army Air Corps in 1945.

[xi] Ibid. Dower. p.33

[xii] Ibid. p.35

[xiii] Ibid. This is important in the fact that the Allies tended not to make much of German brutality to the Jews, Russians and other Eastern Europeans.

[xiv] Ibid. p.36.

[xv] Dower does not make this implicit comparison, but having seen both and studied the Nazi propaganda directed toward the Jews, Russians and other Slavic peoples considered to be Untermenschen (sub-humans) by the Nazis the similarities are striking.

[xvi] Ibid. pp.112-113.

[xvii] Ibid. p.113

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] In the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Israeli soldiers who previously showed no respect to any Arab fighter described their Hezbollah opponents as “soldiers and warriors.” Similar attitudes were voiced by American soldiers in Vietnam when they fought NVA regulars.

[xx] Ibid. p.123

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid. p.124

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid. p.129

[xxviii] Ibid. p.143

[xxix] Ibid. P.157. Lea is interesting because he predicts a decline in the stature of the British Empire and softness of both the Americans and British as peoples. Also see John Costello in The Pacific War 1941-1945 Quill Books, New York, NY 1982 pp.31-32 notes Lea’s concerns and how they drove the American Pacific strategy until the outbreak of World War Two.

[xxx] Ibid. p.161

[xxxi] Ibid. p.169

[xxxii] Ibid. pp.174-180. This is an interesting section. One of the most interesting topics being the reaction of the NAACP’s Walter White’s book A Rising Wind published which “suggested a sense of kinship with other colored-and also oppressed-peoples of the world….he senses that the struggle of the Negro in the United States is part and parcel of the struggle against imperialism and exploitation in India, China, Burma….” (p.177-178)

[xxxiii] Ibid. p.204

[xxxiv] Ibid. p.205

[xxxv] Ibid. p.209 This is interesting when one compares the Japanese emphasis on “Pan-Asianism” and the inherent contradiction between the two.

[xxxvi] Ibid. p.211 Dower notes that the article Establishing a Japanese Racial Worldview in the monthly Bungei Shunju “clarified the Japanese character, whose basic traits were brightness, strength and uprightness. These qualities made the Japanese “the most superior race in the world.”

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.221

[xxxviii] Ibid. p.227 This was the theory of Zen Buddhism’s Suzuki Daisetsu (D.T. Suzuki) in his teaching of the struggle for the Great Harmony “Taiwa” which attempted to identify “an intuitive sense of harmony and oneness that he declared to be characteristic of Oriental thought.”

[xxxix] Ibid. p.247. Descriptions of the Allies as Barbarians, Gangsters and Demons permeated Japanese propaganda.

[xl] Ibid. Dower makes a number of observations relating to how the Japanese were able to use their own self concept to adapt to their defeat. He also notes that the Japanese were able to transfer their self concept to a peaceful orientation.

[xli] See Leckie, Robert. Okinawa. Penguin Books USA, New York NY, 1996 p.35. Leckie quotes General Ushijima “You cannot regard the enemy as on par with you,” he told his men. “You must realize that material power usually overcomes spiritual power in the present war. The enemy is clearly our superior in machines. Do not depend on your spirits overcoming this enemy. Devise combat method [sic] based on mathematical precision-then think about displaying your spiritual power.” Leckie comments: “Ushijima’s order was perhaps the most honest issued by a Japanese commander during the war. It was Bushido revised, turned upside down and inside out-but the revision had been made too late.”

[xlii] Ibid. Dower. p.37

[xliii] See Tregaskis, Richard Guadalcanal Diary Random House, New York NY 1943, Modern Library Edition, 2000. p.95. Tregaskis notes when commenting on Japanese POWs on Guadalcanal “We stared at them and they stared back at us. There was no doubt what we or they would have liked to do at that moment-if we had not remembered our code of civilization or if they had not been unarmed.”

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The Valiant Sacrifice of the Torpedo Bombers: VT3, VT-6 and VT-8 at Midway

tbd-devastator1

 

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: The Charge of the Light Brigade

They were not six hundred and they were not mounted on horses but the Naval Aviators of Torpedo Squadrons 3, 6 and 8 and their aerial steeds 42 Douglas TBD Devastators and 6 TBF Avengers wrote a chapter of courage and sacrifice seldom equaled in the history of Naval Aviation. Commanded by veteran Naval Aviators, LCDR Lance “Lem” Massey, LCDR Eugene Lindsey and LCDR John Waldron the squadrons embarked aboard the carriers flew the obsolete TBD Devastators and the young pilots of the Midway based Torpedo 8 detachment under the command of LT Langdon Fieberling flew in the new TBF Avengers.

 

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The TBD which first flew in 1935 entered service in 1937 and was possibly the most modern naval aircraft in the world when it entered service.  It was a revolutionary aircraft. It was the first monoplane widely used on carriers and was first all-metal naval aircraft.  It was the first naval aircraft with a totally enclosed cockpit, the first with hydraulic powered folding wings.  The TBD had crew of three and had a maximum speed of 206 miles an hour and carried a torpedo or up to 1500 pounds of bombs (3 x 500) or a 1000 pound bomb.

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LCDR Lem Massey C.O. of Torpedo 3

129 TBDs were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet with a limited number embarked aboard Wasp.  The Devastator saw extensive service prior to the war which pushed many airframes to the end of their useful service life and by 1940 only about 100 were operational by the beginning of the war, and now were for all purposes obsolete antiques.

 

They were still in service in 1942 as their replacement the TBF Avenger was not available for service in large enough numbers to replace them before Midway.  The TBDs performed adequately against minor opposition at Coral Sea and in strikes against the Marshalls but the squadrons embarked on Yorktown (VT3), Enterprise (VT-6) and Hornet (VT-8) were annihilated at Midway with only 6 of 41 aircraft surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force.  They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament.

enterprise-tbd-landing1

 

The Torpedo squadrons attacked independently of each other between 0920 and 1030 on June 4th 1942.  Lacking coordination and with inadequate escort, the lumbering aircraft were easy prey for the modern Japanese A6M Zeroes.

The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron to be picked up later by a PBY Catalina patrol plane.

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LCDR John Waldron C.O

Torpedo Six from the Enterprise under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo Three from the Yorktown under the command of LCDR Lem Massey losing 11 of 13 aircraft with Massey a casualty last being seen standing on the wing of his burning aircraft as it went down.

VT-6

These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.  The six aircraft of the Torpedo Eight detachment from Midway under the command of LT Fieberling lost 5 of their 6 aircraft while pressing their attacks.  Only Ensign Bert Earnest and his aircraft survived the battle landing in a badly damaged state on Midway.  Four U.S. Army B-26 Marauder Medium Bombers were pressed into service as torpedo bombers of which 2 were lost.  No torpedo bomber scored a hit on the Japanese Task force even those torpedoes launched at close range failed to score and it is believe that this was in large part due to the poor performance of the Mark 13 aircraft torpedoes.

yorktown-devastators1

 

Despite the enormous losses of the torpedo squadrons their sacrifice was not in vain. Their attacks served to confuse the Japanese command and delay the rearmament of aircraft following the Japanese strikes on Midway. They also took the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to sea level and opened the way for American Dive Bombers to strike the Japanese with impunity fatally damaging the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu in the space of 5 minutes.

After Midway the remaining TBDs were withdrawn from active service and no example survives today. The TBF became the most effective torpedo bomber of the war.

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As we remember the brave men that fought at Midway it is imperative that we remember the brave aircrews of the torpedo squadrons that like the Light Brigade rode into the Valley of the Shadow of Death against the First Carrier Strike Force and Midway.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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The Thin Gray Line: The USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, the Carriers that Held the Japanese at Bay in 1942

yorktown-drydock1USS Yorktown CV-5

Seldom in the annals of war is recorded that three ships changed the course of a war and altered history.  Winston Churchill once said about Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” however I would place the epic war waged by the three carriers of the Yorktown class against the Combined Fleet and First Carrier Strike Group, the Kido Butai of the Imperial Japanese Navy between December 1941 and November 1942 alongside the epic fight of the Royal Air Force against Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

The Carriers of the Yorktown Class hold a spot in United States Naval History nearly unequaled by any other class of ships, especially a class that numbered only three ships.  Designed and built in the mid 1930s they were the final class of pre-war carriers commissioned by the navy.  The ships were built incorporating the lessons learned with Langley, Lexington, Saratoga and Ranger and had features that would become standard in the design of US Aircraft Carriers. As such they were the template for future classes of ships beginning with the Essex Class until the advent of the super carriers of the Forrestal Class.

hornet-as-completed1USS Hornet CV-8

The ships heritage was evident in their names. Yorktown, the lead ship of the class named after the victory of Washington and Rochambeau over Cornwallis at Yorktown, Enterprise named after the sloop of war commanded by Stephen Decatur in the war against the Barbary Pirates, and Hornet after another famous Brig of War commanded by James Lawrence which defeated the British ship Peacock in the War of 1812.

They displaced 19.800 tons with a 25,000 full load displacement. Capable of 32.5 knots they were the Navy’s first truly successful class of carriers built from the keel up.  The ships could embark over aircraft and could steam long distances without refueling.  Protection was good for their era and the ships proved to be extraordinarily tough when tested in actual combat. In speed and air group capacity the only carriers of their era to equal them were the Japanese Hiryu and Soryu and the larger Shokaku and Zuikaku. British carriers of the period were about the same size but were slower and carried a smaller and far less capable air group though their protection which included armored flight decks was superior to both the American and Japanese ships.

enterprise-pre-war-with-ac-on-deck1USS Enterprise CV-6

Next week we will remember the epic battle of Midway, where these three gallant ships inflicted a devastating defeat on the Japanese First Carrier Strike Group. I believe that it is appropriate to go into that week remembering those ships and the brave sailors and aviators who made their triumph at Midway possible. the The links below are to articles about these three gallant ships.

They Held the Line: The USS Yorktown CV-5, USS Enterprise CV-6 and USS Hornet CV-8, Part One

They Held the Line: The USS Yorktown CV-5, USS Enterprise CV-6 and USS Hornet CV-8, Part Two the Hornet

They Held the Line: The USS Yorktown CV-5, USS Enterprise CV-6 and USS Hornet CV-8, Part Two the Hornet

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Death of the Yamato

Yamato_sea_trials_2

As dawn broke on April 7th 1945 the great Super-Battleship Yamato, the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy and nine escorts steamed toward Okinawa on a suicide mission. It was literally the end of empire and the end of a navy. What had begun on December 7th 1941 was now winding down as the Imperial Navy launched its last offensive operation against the United States Navy.

The Imperial Navy was already at the end of its tether. Following the disasters at the Battle of the Philippine Sea which decimated the carrier air arm of the Imperial Navy; the subsequent losses in the defense of Formosa which used up the majority of any remaining carrier aircraft and crews; and the Battle of Leyte Gulf which decimated the surface forces of the navy what remained was a pitiful remnant of a once dominant fleet.

The great battleship Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were the largest warships ever built until the advent of the USS Enterprise CVN-65. Displacing over 72,000 tons 863 feet long and 127 feet in beam these ships mounted the largest artillery battery ever placed on a warship. Their nine 18.1” guns mounted in three triple turrets each weighing over 2500 tons weighed as much or more than the largest destroyers of the time. They could fire their massive shells 26 miles and had the capability of firing a special anti-aircraft shell known as the Sanshiki or beehive round.

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Musashi was sunk during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea at Leyte Gulf on October 24th 1944 after being hit by 19 ariel torpedoes and 17 bombs. Yamato engaged the American Escort Carriers and destroyers of Taffy-3 at the Battle off Samar the following day but was prevented by the audacity of the inferior American destroyers and timidity of the Japanese commander Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita from achieving any notable success.

The remains of the Imperial Navy were hampered by a lack of fuel, air power and training time. When the United States attacked Iwo Jima in February 1945, barely 700 miles from the home islands of Japan not a single Japanese surface ship sortied to challenge the American Navy.

However when the American attacked Okinawa on April 1st the Navy launched Operation Ten-Go. In spite of overwhelming American superiority in both naval air and surface forces the tiny task force was to fight its way to Okinawa, beach their ships and once the ships were destroyed the crews were to join Japanese Army forces on the island.

The doomed sortie was in part due to the insistence of the Imperial Army which derided the Imperial Navy for its failures at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf and pressure from Emperor Hirohito who asked “But what about the Navy? What are they doing to assist in defending Okinawa? Have we no more ships?” In response the Naval High command devised what amounted to a suicide mission for Yamato and her escorts. The plan was opposed by many in the Navy and leaders of the task force who saw it as a futile mission. Only the insistence of Admiral Kusaka who told the reticent commanders that the Emperor expected the Navy to make its best effort to defend Okinawa persuaded the Captains of the doomed force to accept the mission.

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At about 1600 on April 6th the ships of the task force weighed anchor and departed their anchorage at Tokuyama hoping to take advantage of approaching darkness to mask their departure. They were detected and shadowed by American submarines which provided real time information on the course and speed of the Japanese ships to the American leadership.

The next morning the task force was spotted by patrol planes and its position relayed to the American fleet commander, Admiral Raymond Spruance, the victor of Midway. Spruance ordered the six fast battleships battleships, accompanied by two battlecruisers, seven cruisers and 21 destroyers engaged in shore bombardment to intercept the Japanese force. However, Admiral Marc Mitscher of Task Force 58, the fast carriers launched a massive air strike of over 400 aircraft against the Japanese.

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At 1232 the first wave of American aircraft began their attacks on the doomed Japanese force. As the succeeding waves of American aircraft attacked Yamato was hit by 15 bombs and at least 8 torpedoes, almost all of which struck her port side created an imminent risk of capsizing. The damage control teams counter flooded the starboard engine and boiler rooms which kept the ship from turning turtle, but which also further reduced her speed.

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By 1405 the great ship was dead in the water and just minutes before her commander had ordered the crew to abandon ship. At 1420 she capsized and began to sink and at 1423 she blew apart in a massive explosion that was reportedly heard and seen 120 miles away and created a mushroom cloud that reached 20,000 feet.

Captain Tameichi Hara of the light cruiser Yahagi which had already sank described the demise of the great ship in his book Japanese Destroyer Captain:

“We looked and saw Yamato, still moving. What a beautiful sight. Suddenly smoke belched from her waterline. We both groaned as white smoke billowed out until it covered the great battleship, giving her the appearance of a snow-capped Mount Fuji. Next came black smoke mingled with the white, forming to a huge cloud which climbed to 2000 meters. As it drifted away we looked to the surface of the sea again and there was nothing. Yamato had vanished. Tremendous detonations at 1423 of that seventh day of April signaled the end of this “unsinkable” symbol of the Imperial Navy.”

Only 280 men of the estimated 3000 crew members were rescued by the surviving escorts. Of her escorts, the Yahagi and four destroyers were also sunk. The Americans lost a total of ten aircraft and 12 men. Never again would the surface forces of the Imperial Navy threaten U.S. forces or take any meaningful part in the war.

The sacrifice of Yamato and her escorts was a futile was of lives and though many in Japan revere their sacrifice as noble it served no purpose. The loss of Yamato, named after the ancient Yamato province in a sense was symbolic of the demise of the Japanese Empire.

I cannot help but think of gallantry of the doomed crews of these ships, sacrificed for the “honor” of leaders that did not really value their sacrifice.

It is a commentary that is timeless.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Christmas at the Front 2013: A Look at Christmas Now and in Military History

German Bundeswehr army soldiers decorate a fir tree imported from Germany for Christmas eve in the army camp in Kunduz

German Bundeswehr Soldiers decorating for Christmas in Afghanistan 

Today as on so many Christmas Days in days gone by military personnel serve on the front lines in wars far away from home. Today American and NATO troops engage a resourceful and determined enemy in Afghanistan. American Marines are working to safeguard the lives of Americans in South Sudan while French troops are intervening in Mali and the Central African Republic to attempt to prevent genocide. In many corners of the globe others stand watch on land, at sea and in the air. Unfortunately on this Christmas wars continue and most likely will until the end of time as we know it.

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It is easy to understand the verse penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day after the death of his wife and wounding of his son in the US Civil War:

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I have done my time in Iraq at Christmas on the Syrian-Iraqi Border in 2007 with our Marine advisors and their Iraqis.  That was the most memorable Christmas and the most important Christmas Masses that I ever celebrated. Since returning home have thought often of those that remain in harm’s way as well as those soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, American and from other nations that have spent Christmas on the front lines. Some of these events are absolutely serious while others display some of the “light” moments that occur even in the most terrible of manmade tragedies.

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Christmas 1776 at Trenton

In American history we can look back to 1776, of course we could go back further but 1776 just sounds better. On Christmas of 1776 George Washington took his Continental Army across the Delaware to attack the British garrison at Trenton. Actually it was a bunch of hung over Hessians who after Christmas dinner on the 24th failed to post a guard which enabled them to be surprised,  but it was an American victory.

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In 1777 Washington and his Army had a rather miserable Christmas at Valley Forge where they spent the winter freezing their asses off and getting drilled into a proper military force by Baron Von Steuben.

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The Eggnog Riot

While not a battle in the true sense of the word the Cadets at West Point wrote their own Christmas legend in the Eggnog Riot of 1826 when the Cadets in a bit of holiday revelry had a bit too much Eggnog and a fair amount of Whiskey and behaved in a manner frowned upon by the Academy administration. Needless to say that many of the Cadets spent the Christmas chapel services in a hung over state with a fair number eventually being tossed from the Academy for their trouble.

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The Battle of Lake Okeechobee

In 1837 the U.S. Army was defeated at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee by the Seminole Nation, not a Merry Christmas at all.  In 1862 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other across the Rappahannock River after the Battle of Fredericksburg while to the south in Hilton Head South Carolina 40,000 people watched Union troops play baseball some uttering the cry of many later baseball fans “Damn Yankees.”

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Blue and Grey Christmas Baseball

In 1864 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other again in the miserable trenches of Petersburg while General William Tecumseh Sherman enjoyed Christmas in Savannah Georgia after cutting a swath of destruction from Atlanta to the sea. He presented the city to Lincoln who simply said “nice, but I really wanted Richmond.”

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Napoleon had something to celebrate on December 25th 1801 after surviving an assassination attempt on Christmas Eve and 1809 he was celebrating his divorce from Empress Josephine which had occurred on the 21st of December.

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The Christmas Truce 

In 1914 “Christmas Truce” began between British and German troops and threatened to undo all the hard work of those that made the First World War possible.  Thereafter the High Commands of both sides ensured that such frivolity never happened again. The movie Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) does a wonderful job in bringing home the miraculous truce.

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General and Montgomery and his Staff, winter 1942

World War II brought much suffering. In 1941 after Pearl Harbor the Japanese forced the surrender of Hong Kong and its British garrison while two days later the Soviets launched their counterattack at Moscow against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. In Libya the British were retaking Benghazi from the Afrika Corps after a brutal series of tank battles in Operation Crusader.  A year later the Americans were clearing Guadalcanal of the Japanese. General Montgomery’s 8th Army was pursuing Rommel’s Afrika Korps into Tunisia as American and British forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower were slogging their way into Tunisia against tough German resistant.  In Russia the Red Army was engaged in a climactic battle against the encircled German 6th Army at Stalingrad. At Stalingrad a German Physician named Kurt Reuber painted the famed Madonna of Stalingrad.

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Kurt Reuber’s Madona of Stalingrad

The drawing which was taken out of Stalingrad by one of the last German officers to be evacuated now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Reuber drew another in 1943 while in a Soviet POW campbefore his death from Typhus in early 1944. Reuber wrote to his wife of painting in Stalingrad:

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St.John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

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Christmas Concert at Guadalcanal 

In 1943 the Marines were battling the Japanese at New Britain while the Red Army was involved in another major winter offensive against the Wehrmacht. In 1944 Christmas found the Russians advancing in Hungary.

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Bastogne Christmas 

In December 1944 the Americans were engaged in a desperate battle with the Germans in the Ardennes now known as The Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas day the leading German unit, the 2nd Panzer Division ran out of gas 4 miles from the Meuse River and was destroyed by the American 2nd Armored Division.

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As that was occurring the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne was relieved by General George Patton’s 3rd Army. Patton had his Chaplain pen this Christmas prayer:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.”

In the Philippines Douglas MacArthur’s forces were fighting hard to liberate Leyte, Samar and Luzon from the Japanese. At sea US and Allied naval forces fought off determined attacks by Kamikazes.

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USO Christmas Show in WWII

During the war the USO sponsored many entertainers who went to combat zones to perform Christmas shows, among them was Bob Hope.

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Bob Hope Christmas Show on USS Ticonderoga CVA-14 off Vietnam 

In the years following the Second World War Christmas was celebrated while armies continued to engage in combat to the death. Christmas of 1950 was celebrated in Korea as the last American forces were withdrawn from the North following the Chinese intervention which the 1st Marine Division chewed up numerous Red Chinese divisions while fighting its way out of the Chosin Reservoir.

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Bob Hope with 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam

In 1953 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu celebrated Christmas in primitive fashion unaware that Vietnamese General Giap was already marshaling his forces to cut them off and then destroy them shortly after Easter of 1954.   In 1964 the U.S. committed itself to the war in Vietnam and for the next 9 years American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen battled the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong with Marines fighting the North at Khe Sanh during Christmas of 1967. A hallmark of that war would be Bob Hope whose televised Christmas specials from that country helped bring the emotion of Christmas at the front back to those at home.

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In the years after Vietnam American troops would spend Christmas in the Desert of Saudi Arabia preparing for Operation Desert Storm in 1990, in Somalia the following year and in the Balkans. After September 11th 2001 U.S. Forces spent their first of at least 12 Christmas’s in Afghanistan. From 2003 thru 2011 US and coalition partner troops spent 8 years in Iraq, that was my war.

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Christmas with Bedouin on Christmas Eve (above) and Christmas games at COP North Al Anbar Province Iraq 2007 (Below)

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Christmas Services at COP South Al Anbar Province, Iraq 2007

Today Americans and our Allies serve around the world far away from home fighting the war against Al Qaeda and its confederates and some may die on this most Holy of Days while for others it will be their last Christmas.

Please keep them and all who serve now as well as those that served in the past, those that remain and those that have died in your prayers.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Salvaging the Fleet: Salvage Efforts after the Attack on Pearl Harbor

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One of the more interesting aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack were the efforts of the US Navy to salvage and return to duty the ships sunk or so heavily damaged that they were thought to be irreparable after the attack. 21 ships were sunk or damaged during the attack, roughly 20% of the fleet present.

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Of these were battleships, the USS Arizona sunk by a cataclysmic explosion, her broken hulk with her collapsed foremast the iconic symbol of the attack. USS Oklahoma was capsized on Battleship Row.  USS Nevada was grounded and sunk off Hospital Point after an abortive attempt to sortie during the attack. USS California and USS West Virginia lay upright on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, their superstructure, distinctive cage masts and gun turrets visible above the oily water.

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The former battleship USS Utah lay capsized on the far side of Ford Island while the light cruiser USS Raleigh was fighting for her life barely afloat near Utah.  The ancient Minelayer USS Oglala was laying on her side next to the light cruiser USS Helena at the 1010 Dock. She was not hit by a bomb or torpedo but was said to have “died of fright” when Helena was hit by a torpedo, the blast which opened the seams of her hull. The destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes were wrecks in the main dry dock. USS Shaw was minus her bow in the floating dry dock after exploding in what was one of the more iconic images of the attack. Other ships received varying amounts of damage.

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As the engineers, damage control and salvage experts looked at the damage they realized that every ship would be needed for the long term fight. The building program of the US Navy was just beginning to pick up steam and it would be some time before new construction could not only make up for the losses but also be ready to fight a Two Ocean War. The decision was made to salvage and return to duty any ship deemed salvageable.

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Even the seemingly less important ships needed to be rapidly salvaged. Some which initially appeared to be unsalvageable needed at the minimum to be cleared from dry docks and docks needed by operational or less damaged ships. Likewise equipment, machinery and armaments from these ships needed to be salvaged for use in other ships.

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Even by modern standards the efforts of the Navy divers and salvage experts and the civilians who worked alongside them were amazing. In the end only three of the 19 ships never returned to service. The work began quickly and on December 14th Commander James Steele began to direct the salvage operations on the sunken hulks. Captain Wallin relieved Steele on January 9th 1942. Wallin formed a salvage organization of Navy officers and civilian contractors.The civilian contractors were instrumental in the operation. Many had experience in salvage operations that exceeded the military personnel.

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Wallin prioritized the tasks of his organization working to recover items that could be of immediate use to the fleet such as anti-aircraft guns and to salvage less damaged ships in order to return them to service. They worked at the task through 1944. The divers faced extraordinary dangers, poisonous gas, unexploded ordnance, treacherous tides and the uncertainty of the destruction of the ships below the surface that could not be ascertained apart from diving on the wrecks.

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The divers recovered bodies whenever possible, salvaged equipment, removed weapons and ammunition, made temporary repairs and help rig the ships for righting or re-floating. In each case the salvage experts, divers and engineers faced different challenges.

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Arizona was never raised. Her superstructure was cut down, main battery and some anti-aircraft guns removed. The main batter guns were delivered to the Army Coastal Artillery for use as shore batteries but none reached an operational status before the end of the war. The dives aboard were so dangerous that eventually the attempts to recover bodies ceased as several divers lost their lives in the wreck.  Over the years the National Parks Service has continued to dive on the wreck to assess it as a war grave and memorial.

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Utah too was not raised. She was righted in 1942 but efforts to do more were halted because the elderly wreck had no remaining military value. Her wreck along with that of Arizona are war graves, many of their crew members, including over 1000 of Arizona’s men forever remain entombed in their ships. When I visited Pearl Harbor in 1978 as a Navy Junior ROTC Cadet and visited both memorials I was humbled at what  saw. They are haunting reminders of the cost paid by sailors during wartime.

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The salvage of the Oklahoma was one of the more challenging endeavors faced by Wallin’s men. Hit by at least five torpedoes during the attack the great ship capsized, her tripod masts digging deep into the mud of the harbor as she settled. Over 400 over her crew lay dead inside the ship. Since it was apparent that the ship was a total loss the salvage operations did not commence until the middle of 1942. The primary goal of the operation was to clear needed space for berthing large ships along Battleship Row. The operation involved making the ship as watertight as possible, solidifying the bottom of the harbor around her to enable her to roll and emplacing a massive system of righting frames, anchor chains and shore mounted winches and cables. The process involved cutting away wrecked superstructure, removing ammunition, weapons and the bodies of those entombed in their former home. She was completely righted in July 1943, and floated again in November. Moved to a dry dock in December she was made watertight and moored in another part of the harbor. Following the war she was being towed to a scrap yard but sank in a storm in May 1947.

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Nevada was the first major ship salvaged. She was re-floated in February 1942 and after temporary repairs sailed to the West Coast on her own power. After repairs and a significant modernization of her anti-aircraft systems was complete she returned to action in 1943 in the invasion of Attu Alaska. She participated in many amphibious operations including Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jim and Okinawa. She survived the Atomic Bomb tests in 1946 but wrecked and radioactive she was sunk as a target off Hawaii in 1948.

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California was raised in March and after temporary repairs sailed under her own power to the West Coast. Her repairs and modernization were a major undertaking. Fully reconditioned and modernized to standards of most modern battleships she returned to service in January 1944. She served in retaking Saipan, Guam, Tinian as well as Leyte Gulf were she had a significant part in the Battle of Surigao Strait. Hit by a Kamikaze she was repaired and returned to action at Okinawa and support the occupation operations of the Japanese Home Islands. She was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrapping in 1959.

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West Virginia suffered the most severe damage of the battleships returned to duty. She was raised in July 1942 and after repairs sailed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Like California she was completely rebuilt and returned to action in October 1944 in time to take the lead role in destroying the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro. She served throughout the remainder of the war in the Pacific at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the occupation of Japan.

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The Mahan Class destroyers Cassin and Downes were so badly damaged sitting in the Dry Dock Number One with Pennsylvania that initially they were believed beyond salvage. However after closer inspection it was determined that the hull fittings, main weapons systems and propulsion machinery on both ships were worth salvaging. These items were removed, shipped to Mare Island Naval Shipyard and installed on new hulls being constructed. The hulks of the old ships were scrapped at Pearl Harbor. Those ships were commissioned as the Cassin and Downes and served throughout the war.

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Both were decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1947. Their sister ship Shaw which had blown up in the floating dry dock was wrecked from her bridge forward. However the rest of the ship including her engineering spaces were intact. A temporary bow was fashioned and the ship sailed to Mare Island under her own power. Completely overhauled she was back in service by July 1942. She was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1946.

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The ancient minelayer Oglala was raised in July and sent back to the West Coast where she was repaired and recommissioned as an internal combustion engine repair ship. She survived the war was decommissioned and transferred to Maritime Commission custody. She was a depot ship at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet until 1965 when she was sold for scrap.

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The salvage feat to return these ships to duty was one of the most remarkable operations of its type ever conducted. Not only were most of the ships salvaged but most returned to duty. While none survive today many played key roles during the war. Artifacts of some of the ships are on display at various Naval Bases, Museums and State Capitals. They, their brave crews and the Navy Divers and civilian diving and salvage experts who conducted this task exhibited the finest traditions of the US Navy. The successors of the Navy divers at Mobile Diving Salvage Units One and Two still carry on that tradition today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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In Harm’s Way: The Ships that Got Underway at Pearl Harbor

They were an odd collection of ships. A battleship, two modern light cruisers, an elderly light cruiser and a collection of destroyers, destroyer minesweepers and destroyer minelayers. Yet in the midst of the din and bloody chaos of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor these ships, sometimes with only the most junior of officers in charge got underway and took to sea in order to seek out and engage the Japanese.

Their sortie is dramatized in the Otto Preminger film In Harm’s Way. 

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For the first forty minutes of the attack only two ships were underway. The USS Ward which had sunk the Japanese midget submarine outside the harbor entrance an hour before the attack began. The USS Helm was in the main channel as the attack began. They were joined over the next two hours by other ships.

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The USS Nevada was the only battleship to get underway that morning and though she did not get to sea her example served to inspire those on the battered ships in the harbor and ashore. Her commanding officer and executive officer were ashore, along with many other senior officers. However her Damage Control Officer, Lieutenant Commander Francis Thomas, a reservist took command and as the senior officer present on the the ship got her underway. Then as she was battered by the second wave of Japanese attackers he skillfully grounded her off Hospital Point to keep her from being sunk in the narrow main channel.

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The USS St. Louis was moored outboard of her sister ship USS Honolulu at the Naval Station. Her sortie was enabled by members of her crew who chopped down the gangplank and cut water lines to the shore. Under command of Captain George Rood she got underway at 0931 and was the first cruiser to get underway.

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USS Phoenix sortie at Pearl Harbor

She was joined by her sister ship USS Phoenix and the elderly light cruiser USS Detroit which was moored on the far side of Ford Island.  Phoenix survived the war only to be sunk in the 1982 Falklands war as the Argentine ship General Belgrano.

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The destroyer USS Blue got underway under the command of Ensign Nathan Asher, who had just three other ensigns with him as that ship got underway. She was joined by Monaghan, Dale, Henley, Phelps, Farragut, MacDonough, Worden, Patterson, Jarvis and Aylwin also under command of an junior officer, Ensign Stanley Caplan. Henley left without her commander under the command of Lieutenant Francis Fleck Jr.

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Others too got underway, The USS Mugford was the duty destroyer and got underway quickly, as did Cummings. The Ralph Talbot was underway by 0900. Conyngham got underway in the early afternoon. Perhaps the most interesting story was the USS Selfridge which got underway manned by a composite crew of 7 different ships.

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The cruisers and destroyers were joined by a number of elderly former destroyers which had been converted to Destroyer Minesweepers or Minelayers. The Ramsay, Breese, Trever and Perry all got underway, Trever also minus her commanding officer.

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Some of the ships formed in a vain search for the Japanese strike force while others conducted defensive anti-submarine operations in the waters off Pearl Harbor.

The fact that all of these ships were able to get underway and navigate through the chaos of the attack, often under the command of junior officers and without key crew members was a testament to the courage and initiative of US Navy Officers and Sailors. It is a courage and initiative still in evidence today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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