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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

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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.

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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.

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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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Awarding the Heroes of Pearl Harbor

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On the morning of December 7th 1941 aircraft from the Japanese First Air Fleet attacked the United States Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor at Pearl Harbor.

The attack inflicted great damage and casualties on the Pacific Fleet as well as the Army Air Forces based on Oahu. On that fateful Sunday the US Navy had 19 ships sunk or damaged. The Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Corps lost 188 aircraft destroyed and another 159 damaged. 2402 American Sailors, Marines and Soldiers, including members of the Army Air Corps lost their lives and another 1247 were wounded.

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It was a day where men, suddenly shaken from their peacetime routine by bombs, bullets and torpedoes conducted themselves in in an extraordinary manner. When the last Japanese aircraft turned away the previously placid waters of Pearl Harbor were littered with wrecked and sunken ships, blazing fires and the bodies of sailors and Marines. Desperate rescue efforts were already underway even as undamaged ships sortied to attempt to find and engage the Japanese fleet.

The next day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked the Congress for a Declaration of War.His speech, immortalized in its opening words galvanized the nation.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan….” 

It was also a day where heroism was acknowledged. In the days and months following many Sailors, Soldiers and Marines ware awarded for their heroism, posthumously. 16 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded, 15 at Pearl Harbor and one at Midway Island which was attacked the same day. Of those 10 were to men killed in action.  There were 51 awards of the Navy Cross, four Silver Stars and three wards of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. One of the Navy Cross awards was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

The ranks of the awardees ranged from the Commander of Battleship Division One Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd to killed on the bridge of his flagship the USS Arizona to Seaman First Class James Ward who died on the USS Oklahoma. Kidd’s body was never found, his Naval Academy ring was found fused to a bulkhead on the destroyed bridge of the Arizona.

Ward was a gunner in one of Oklahoma’s main gun turrets. His citation reads:

“For conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and complete disregard of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. When it was seen that the U.S.S.Oklahoma was going to capsize and the order was given to abandon ship, Ward remained in a turret holding a flashlight so the remainder of the turret crew could see to escape, thereby sacrificing his own life.”

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One of the Navy Crosses was awarded to Mess Attendant First Class Doris “Dorie” Miller. Miller was the only African American to win such an award that day. Miller who was assigned to the USS West Virginia received the award from Admiral Chester Nimitz for his efforts to assist his mortally wounded Commanding Officer, Captain Mervyn Bennion and manning a .50 caliber machine gun on his ship, possibly shooting down a Japanese aircraft.

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Nimitz remarked at the ceremony “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.” Miller died less than two years later along with 645 other sailors when his ship the USS Liscombe Bay was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine near Tarawa. Miller’s Navy Cross citation reads:

“For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.”

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Others who survived the Pearl Harbor attack including Captain Cassin Young of the USS Vestal were later killed in action, Young while in command of the Heavy Cruiser USS San Francisco at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 13th 1942. Captain Young’s Medal of Honor citation reads:

For distinguished conduct in action, outstanding heroism and utter disregard of his own safety, above and beyond the call of duty, as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Vestal, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by enemy Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. Comdr. Young proceeded to the bridge and later took personal command of the 3-inch antiaircraft gun. When blown overboard by the blast of the forward magazine explosion of the U.S.S. Arizona, to which the U.S.S. Vestal was moored, he swam back to his ship. The entire forward part of the U.S.S. Arizona was a blazing inferno with oil afire on the water between the 2 ships; as a result of several bomb hits, the U.S.S. Vestal was afire in several places, was settling and taking on a list. Despite severe enemy bombing and strafing at the time, and his shocking experience of having been blown overboard, Comdr. Young, with extreme coolness and calmness, moved his ship to an anchorage distant from the U.S.S. Arizona, and subsequently beached the U.S.S. Vestal upon determining that such action was required to save his ship.

The Fletcher Class destroyer named after Captain Young, the USS Cassin Young DD-793 is now a museum ship in Boston Massachusetts.

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The individual bravery of these men was remarkable and many more did equally heroic things but for whatever reason were not recognized.

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The citation of Lieutenant Jackson Pharris at the time of the attack a Gunners Mate on the USS California is typical of the actions of so many men on that desperate day. He was first awarded the Navy Cross but the award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. That citation follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attached to the U.S.S. California during the surprise enemy Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, 7 December 1941. In charge of the ordnance repair party on the third deck when the first Japanese torpedo struck almost directly under his station, Lt. (then Gunner) Pharris was stunned and severely injured by the concussion which hurled him to the overhead and back to the deck. Quickly recovering, he acted on his own initiative to set up a hand-supply ammunition train for the antiaircraft guns. With water and oil rushing in where the port bulkhead had been torn up from the deck, with many of the remaining crewmembers overcome by oil fumes, and the ship without power and listing heavily to port as a result of a second torpedo hit, Lt. Pharris ordered the shipfitters to counterflood. Twice rendered unconscious by the nauseous fumes and handicapped by his painful injuries, he persisted in his desperate efforts to speed up the supply of ammunition and at the same time repeatedly risked his life to enter flooding compartments and drag to safety unconscious shipmates who were gradually being submerged in oil. By his inspiring leadership, his valiant efforts and his extreme loyalty to his ship and her crew, he saved many of his shipmates from death and was largely responsible for keeping the California in action during the attack. His heroic conduct throughout this first eventful engagement of World War 11 reflects the highest credit upon Lt. Pharris and enhances the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

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Those awarded the Medal of Honor are listed here:

Bennion, Mervyn, Capt., USN, CO of USS West Virginia, casualty of USS West Virginia 

Cannon, George H., First Lt., USMC, casualty of Midway Island NAS

Finn, John W., Lt.(jg), USN, NAS Kaneohe Bay, from Los Angeles, CA (20 shrapnel wounds from firing at Japanese planes)

Flaherty, Francis C., Ens., USNR, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Fuqua, Samuel G. (Glenn), Capt., USN, USS Arizona, from Missouri

Hill, Edwin J. (Joseph), Boatswain CWO, USN, casualty of USS Nevada

Jones, Herbert C., Ens., USN, casualty of USS California

Kidd, Isaac C., R. Adm., USN, from Ohio, casualty of USS Arizona

Pharris, Jackson C., Gunner, USN, USS California, from Columbus, GA

Reeves, Thomas J., Chief Radioman WO(RAD), USN, casualty of USS California

Ross, Donald K., Lt.Cmdr, USN, USS Nevada

Scott, Robert R., Machinist’s Mate first class MM1c, USN, casualty of USS California

Tomich, Peter, Chief Watertender, USN, casualty of USS Utah

Van Valkenburgh, Franklin, Capt(CO), USN, CO USS Arizona, casualty of USS Arizona

Ward, James Richard, Seaman first class, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Young, Cassin, Capt., USN, Washington DC, USS Vestal

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Those awarded the Navy Cross are listed here: 

Austin, John A., Chief Carpenter, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Baker, Lionel H., Pharmacist’s Mate second class, USN

Bolser, Gordon E. Lt.(jg), USN

Bothne, Adoloph M., Boatswain, USN

Burford, William P., Lt. Comdr., USN

Christopher, Harald J., Ens., USNR, casualty of USS Nevada

Curtis, Ned B., Pharmacist’s Mate second class, USN

Daly, Edward Carlyle, Coxwain, USN, casualty of USS Downes

Darling, Willard D., Cpl., USMC

Davis, Frederick C., Ens., USNR, casualty of USS Nevada

Dickinson, Clarence E. Jr., Lt., USN

Douglas, C. E., Gunnery Sgt., USMC

Driskel, Joseph R., Corporal, USMC

Dunlap, Ernest H. Jr., Ens., USN

Edwards, John Perry, Ens., USNR

Etchell, George D., Shipfitter, USN

Fleming, W.D., Boatswain’s Mate first class, USN

Gombasy, L.G., Seaman second class, USN

Graham, Donald A., Aviation Machinist’s Mate first class, USN

Hailey, Thomas E., Sgt., USMC

Hansen, Alfred L., Chief Machinist’s Mate, USN

Huttenberg, Allen J., Ens., USNR

Isquith, Solomon S., Lt. Cmdr. USN

Jewel, Jesse D., Comdr.(MC), USN

Kauffman, Draper L., Lt., USNR

Larson, Nils R., Ens., USN

Ley, F. C. Jr., Fireman second class, USNR

McMurtry, Paul J., Boatswain’s Mate first class, USN

Mead, Harry R., Radioman second class, USN

Miller, Doris, Mess Attendant first class, USN 

Miller, Jim D., Lt.(jg), USN

Moore, Fred K., Seaman first class, USN, casualty of USS Arizona

Outerbridge, William W., Lt. Comdr., USN

Parker, William W., Seaman first class, USN

Peterson, Robert J., Radioman second class, USN

Pharris, Jackson C., Gunner, USN (upgraded to Medal of Honor)

Phillips, John S., Comdr. USN

Riggs, Cecil D., Lt. Comdr. (MC), USN

Robb, James W. Jr., Lt.(jg), USN

Roberts, William R., Radioman second class, USN

Ruth, Wesley H., Ens., USN

Singleton, Arnold, Ens., USN

Smith, Harold F., Boatswain’s Mate second class, USN

Snyder, J. L., Yeoman first class USN

Taussig, Joseph K. Jr., Ens., USN

Taylor, Thomas H., Ens., USN

Teaff, Perry L, Ens., USN

Thatcher, Albert C., Aviation Machinists Mate second class, USN

Thomas, Francis J., Lt. Comdr., USN

Thomas, Robert E. Jr., Ens., USN

Vaseen, John B., Fireman second class, USNR

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The Silver Star was awarded to:

Kiefer, Edwin H., Lt.(jg), USNR

Marshall, Theodore W., Lt., USNR

Owen, George T., Comdr., USN

Shapley, Alan, Maj., USMC

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The Navy and Marine Corps Medal was awarded posthumously to: 

Day, Francis D., Chief Watertender, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Schmitt, Aloysius H., Shipfitter first class, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Wright, Paul R., Chief Watertender, USNR, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Note: The Awards listed are also complied at the website http://pearlharbor.org That site also has one of the most extensive searchable casualty listings available on the web. 

As we remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, or for that matter any battle we cannot reduce them to the number of ships, aircraft, tanks or equipment lost. Likewise when we talk the raw numbers of casualties the temptation is to treat them as impersonal statistics. However behind each of those numbers is a name, a man or woman with a life, family and friends who died in the service of their country.

The same is true today of men and women who will be unknown to most Americans.

Please do not forget them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Battle of Cape Engano

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“TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS.” Admiral Nimitz to Admiral Halsey

After Admiral William “Bull” Halsey felt that he had heavily damaged the Japanese Center Force during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea he withdrew the Fast Battleships of Task Force 34 from the San Bernardino Strait in order to use them in a surface engagement against Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern Force. Halsey assumed that Ozawa’s carriers were the main threat to the American invasion forces. However he did not know that Ozawa’s carriers had very few aircraft embarked and that the Northern force was in fact a decoy, designed to draw him away from Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center and the two task forces of the Southern force.

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The Zuikaku uder attack at Cape Engano

When Halsey’s aircraft reported the Center force withdrawing he believed that the threat had been removed. He wrote in his memoirs “I believed that the Center Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet.” Thus he moved with haste to intercept, engage and destroy the Northern force and its carriers and battleships.  Halsey believed that his engagement against the Northern force would culminate when his fast battleships destroyed whatever Japanese surface forces remained.

It was not a bad assumption. Ever since the early days of the Pacific war the truly decisive engagements had been decided by carriers. Unfortunately for the American sailors of Taffy-3, the group of Escort Carriers, destroyers and destroyer escorts which encountered Kurita’s Center force which had doubled back overnight and passed through the San Bernardino Strait surprising Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s task group of “Jeep” Carriers.

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The Battle off Samar

The unequal battle that ensued off Samar was a near run thing for the Americans. Had Kurita not been confused about what forces he was facing and pressed his attacks he may have inflicted painful damage on the actual invasion forces. However after a morning of battle, in which Taffy-3’s destroyers, destroyer escorts, aircraft and even the Jeep carriers themselves inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese force Kurita withdrew.

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Admiral William “Bull” Halsey

However as Taffy-3 battled for its life against Kurita’s battleships, cruisers and destroyers Halsey’s carrier air groups were pounding Ozawa’s hapless carriers and their escorts. About 0800 on the 25th Kinkaid’s desperate messages began to reach Nimitz and Halsey. However since Halsey did not believe just how serious the situation was he continued to pursue Ozawa’s force. When he received Nimitz’s message he was incensed. The message “TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS was composed of three parts. The preface “Turkey trots to water” was padding, as was the last part “the world wonders.”

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Light Carrier Zuiho under attack

However the communications officer on Halsey’s flagship only removed the first section leaving “Where is Third Fleet, the world wonders.” Halsey was flabbergasted and though the battleships of Task Force 34 were almost in range of the Japanese force he sent them south to relieve Kinkaid’s beleaguered force. However by the time Vice Admiral Willis Lee’s battle line arrived Kurita had withdrawn, losing 3 heavy cruisers sunk, three heavy cruisers and one destroyer heavily damaged.

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Zuikaku being abandoned

All the Japanese carriers were sunk along with a light cruiser and a number of destroyers, but Kurita’s heavy forces escaped. Among the Japanese losses was the carrier Zuikaku the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack. Naval historian Samuel Elliott Morrison wrote:

“If TF 34 had been detached a few hours earlier, after Kinkaid’s first urgent request for help, and had left the destroyers behind, since their fueling caused a delay of over two and a half hours, a powerful battle line of six modern battleships under the command of Admiral Lee, the most experienced battle squadron commander in the Navy, would have arrived off the San Bernardino Strait in time to have clashed with Kurita’s Center Force… Apart from the accidents common in naval warfare, there is every reason to suppose that Lee would have “crossed the T” and completed the destruction of Center Force.” 

The Battle of Cape Engano closed the epic extended battle of Leyte Gulf. The victory of the US Navy was decisive even without the final destruction of Kurita’s forces. The remnants of the Japanese forces would never mount a serious offensive threat again. The survivors would be hunted down over the next 9 months, some sunk by submarines, other in surface engagements, still more to air attacks at Okinawa and in Japanese ports.

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Halsey received much criticism for his decision to withdraw TF 34 from San Bernardino Strait. However in his defense the action exposed one of the key problems in any kind of warfare, the problem of seams. Kinkaid’s escort carriers belonged to 7th Fleet which came under the operational control of Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Region while Halsey commanded 3rd Fleet fell under Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific region. This created a situation where two fleets belonging to two regions under two separate commanders were attempting to fight a single battle. The principle of unity of command and unity of effort was violated with nearly disastrous results.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Leyte Gulf: The Greatest Naval Battle in the History of the World

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USS Gambier Bay being attacked by Japanese Surface Forces battle 

I will break into Leyte Gulf and fight to the last man…would it not be shameful to have the fleet remaining intact while our nation perishes?” Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita – 1944

”In case opportunity for destruction of a major portion of the enemy fleet is offered, or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.”

Admiral Chester Nimitz – In his order to Halsey, prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf – October 1944

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The Old Battleships of the 7th Fleet

Sixty-nine years ago the largest and most geographically expansive naval battle ever fought began. A few days before the forces of General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command and Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Central Pacific command joined to invade and liberate the Philippines from the Japanese. It was less than three years since Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and two and a half years after MacArthur had left the Philippines vowing “I shall return.” 

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The Japanese knew that the battle for the Philippines was a must win. An American victory would ensure that Japan would be cut off from the vital natural resources of Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies and Borneo, particularly oil, without which it could not remain in the war.

The Imperial Navy was tasked to work with land based air forces to thwart the invasion by drawing off the American Fast Carrier task forces and allowing heavy surface forces to seek out and destroy potentially vulnerable troop transports and supply ships in Leyte Gulf.

It was a complicated plan, but one which had a chance of disrupting the American invasion, and came perilously close to doing so.

Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern force of four aircraft carriers without viable air groups was a decoy. Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura and Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima commanded separate task forces both committed to breaking into Leyte Gulf through Surigo Strait. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita who commanded the main effort, the powerful Center Force which was to break into Leyte Gulf through San Bernardino Strait. Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi commanded the Philippines based 1st Air Fleet which turned to the use of Kamikazes as a means to destroy American warships.

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Kamikaze attack

The US forces included the American Third Fleet commanded by Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was the primary naval force composed of the Fast Carrier Task Forces and fast battleships. Adusmiral Thomas Kinkaid commanded the 7th Fleet which was the invasion force and its escorts, including a number of carrier task forces built around the Escort Carriers and the old battleships of Jesse Oldendorf’s Task Group. The latter included a number of the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack including the USS West Virginia, USS California, USS Tennessee, USS Maryland and USS Pennsylvania. Oldendorf’s flagship, the USS Mississippi was not at Pearl Harbor but likewise one of the “old ladies” of the fleet.

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The battle was unique because of how long it went and how many separate engagements were included.  Not counting patrol craft, submarines and auxiliaries close to 300 warships and nearly 2000 aircraft were engaged in 5 separate engagements waged by surface ships, naval air forces and submarines.

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USS St Lo blows up after being hit by Kamikaze 

The battles included an engagement in which American Submarines took on the Center Force, naval aircraft engaged the Center and Southern Forces, the old battleships fought the last battleship against battleship engagement in history, heavy surface forces engaged and were repulsed by light forces and a decoy force which would suffer terribly would keep the bulk of the best American forces out of the main battle. It would also see the first coordinated use of Kamikaze suicide attack aircraft by Japan.

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USS West Virginia 

Tonight I am linking a number of articles that I have written previously about this amazing battle. In the next few days I will add a couple new articles to the collection.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Introduction and the Battle of Palawan Passage

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Sinking the Musashi 

Slaughter at Surigao: The Old Ladies get their Revenge

For those unfamiliar with the battle that would like a deeper treatment than I provide in these links I recommend The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23-26 October 1944 by Thomas C Cutler, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James Hornfisher, Battle Of Leyte Gulf by Edwin P Hoyt, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945 (History of United States Naval Operations in World War II) by Samuel Elliott Morrison and Battle of Surigao Strait by Anthony P Tully. Hoyt and Morrison’s books were the first that I ever read on the subject back when I was in Junior High School but for an overview I think Cutler’s work is better. The other two works present interesting and informative views of two of the decisive engagements of the battle.

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As I said in the next few days I plan on adding more articles on this fascinating battle. If things work out I should have something on the Battle off Samar, the Battle of Cape Engano and the Kamikaze debut.

Have a nice night and never forget the sacrifice of all of the brave sailors.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Duty, Calling and Vocation

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“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ Luke 17:10 

Today was one of those weird days. As I thought about the government shutdown and the political crisis that has enveloped our political system, as well as the very real domestic and foreign policy consequences of this asinine situation I was confronted with the scriptures for today from the lectionary.

I find it fascinating to find who timely the readings for the lectionary are, even though they have been set for years.

Today the Old Testament lesson was from Habakuk when in the first chapter the prophet cries to God about how bad things are and asks why God doesn’t do anything about it. The New Testament reading from Timothy was an encouragement from Paul to Timothy to remember his calling and vocation. The Gospel reading from Luke began with Jesus talking about faith but then discussing the duty and responsibility of the servants.

In light of the current asinine situation regarding our government which when you look at it logically makes no sense whatsoever the readings were pretty spot on. Habakuk complained to God about what a mess Israel was and was told by the Lord to hang in there and the the Lord had a plan. Paul wrote to Timothy in what obviously was a time of crisis in Timothy’s pastoral life and reminded Timothy about his calling. Likewise in the Gospel the real crux of the matter when well beyond the “faith” of the disciples but to the simple understanding that they were servants and the responsibility of servants was to do their duty.

Duty is something ingrained in me after 32 plus years of service in the military and over 22 years of ministry as a Army and Navy Chaplain. It is somewhat tied in with my sense of calling which was one of the few things that helped me hold in during the depths of my post-Iraq PTSD crash when I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic praying that God existed. I am glad for the deep rooted sense of duty, calling and vocation because otherwise I probably would be here today.

I have always liked the prayer of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits:

Teach us, good Lord,
To serve you as you deserve;
To give and not count the cost;
To fight and not heed the wounds;
To toil and not to seek for rest;
To labor and not to ask for any reward,
Except that of knowing that we do your will;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Duty can be a hard thing, precisely because to do ones duty sometimes means that the situation will not be comfortable nor will the reward be great. Likewise there are times when doing one’s duty involves great sacrifice to do what is right. Now I am willing to fight for what I think is right, even if the costs are great.

Admiral Chester Nimitz wrote:

“God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless.” 

That is a prayer that I can only respond to with a hearty “amen.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering USS Indianapolis CA-35: Disaster, Dishonor and Redemption

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“Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.” Mochitsura Hashimoto, Captain of the I-58 to Senator John Warner

On July 30th 1945 the USS Indianapolis CA-35 was speeding from the island of Guam where she had made some personnel transfers to Leyte to join other American forces for the final campaign against Japan.

Indianapolis under the command of Captain Charles B McVay III had completed one of the most important secret missions of the war. She had delivered the component parts and enriched Uranium for the the first Atomic Bomb, Little Boy which in less than a week would be detonated over the Japanese City of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945.

Indianapolis was the second ship of the Portland Class heavy cruisers built under the terms of the Washington Naval Conference. Displacing 9800 tons and mounting a main battery of 9 8” guns she typical of the American cruisers of the era. During the 1930s she hosted President Franklin D. Roosevelt three times. When Pearl Harbor was attacked she was on gunnery exercises and from that point played an active role in combat operations in the South Pacific, the Aleutians later served as flagship to Admiral Raymond Spruance, Commander 5th Fleet. After being damaged a Kamikaze off Okinawa on March 31st 1945. She then returned to Mare Island for repairs and a rendezvous with destiny.

With the components for Little Boy aboard Indianapolis sailed unescorted to Pearl Harbor in complete secrecy and then to Tinian where she delivered her deadly cargo. After her brief port call in Guam she made haste to join Vice Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s Task Force 95 at off Leyte. Her Captain used discretion in his use of a zig-zag course and was not employing it on the night of July 30th.

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What Captain McVay and his crew did not know was that the Japanese Imperial Navy submarine I-58 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto was stalking Indianapolis. At 2300 on the 29th while surfaced the Japanese noted a ship approaching and submerged. At 0014 after he gained firing position Hashimoto launched a spread of 6 Type 95 torpedoes, one of the most powerful type of torpedoes used during the war. Two stuck Indianapolis on her starboard side. The powerful charges caused catastrophic damage and 12 minutes later the cruiser rolled over and sank taking about 300 of her nearly 1200 man crew down with her.

She sank so quickly that few lifeboats or rafts were launched and no distress call issued. It took the Navy nearly three days to even know that she was missing. Finally on August 2d the survivors, now decimated by exposure, dehydration and shark attacks were spotted by a patrol plane. The aircraft sent a message out and other aircraft and the USS Cecil J. Doyle DE-368 as well as a number of other ships which responded to the call. Only 321 crewmen out of the estimated 880 survivors of the sinking lived.

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The tale of the sinking and the stories of the survivors would be recorded in Fatal Voyage by Daniel Kurzman and All the Drowned Sailors by Raymond Lech. It was also mentioned in the movie Jaws by Robert Shaw’s character, the fishing boat Captain “Quint” who was supposed to be an Indianapolis survivor. The made for television film Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis staring Stacy Keach as Captain McVay brought a renewed interest in the sinking and the story of the survivors.

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Captain McVay would be tried at court-martial and convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zig-zag.” The sentence was controversial as McVay was the only commander of a U.S. Navy ship lost during the war to be tried by court-martial. The true fact of the matter was that McVay was a scapegoat for the failure of several systems of reporting and communication that he did not control.

Admiral Nimitz commuted the sentence and restored McVay to active duty. He retired in 1949 after being promote to Rear Admiral. Despite the fact that many of the crew felt that he was innocent many families of those lost at sea took their revenge on McVay. He received much hate mail and was frequently threatened in writing and by phone. On November 6th 1968 McVay, despondent over the death of his wife and the continued harassment committed suicide using his Navy issued revolver in his back yard. In one hand he grasped a toy sailor doll given to him by his father when he was a child.

In the years following many survivors banded together with Captain McVay’s family and others including the commander of I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto to clear his name. The president of the USS Indianapolis Survivor’s Association testified “Capt. McVay’s court-martial was simply to divert attention from the terrible loss of life caused by procedural mistakes which never alerted anyone that we were missing.” 

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Hashimoto, who spent much of his time after the war as a Shinto priest sought the forgiveness of survivors. He returned to a survivor reunion in 1991 and said: “I came here to pray with you for your shipmates whose deaths I caused.”   

Hashimoto wrote Senator John Warner on behalf of the late Captain McVay in 1999 when he learned of the efforts being made to clear McVay’s name. The letter is touching in its honesty and speaks of the deep respect that warriors who once fought against each other can maintain for one another. It also speaks to the deep sense of honor of Hashimoto:

“I hear that your legislature is considering resolutions which would clear the name of the late Charles Butler McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis which was sunk on July 30, 1945, by torpedoes fired from the submarine which was under my command.

“I do not understand why Captain McVay was court-martialed. I do not understand why he was convicted on the charge of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag because I would have been able to launch a successful torpedo attack against his ship whether it had been zigzagging or not.

“I have met may of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain’s name.

“Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.”

Finally in October 2000 Congress passed a resolution stating of Captain McVay that “he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.” President Clinton signed the resolution and in July 2001 Secretary of the Navy Gordon England order Captain McVay’s record cleared of wrong doing. Hashimoto would die on 25th 2000 at the age of 91.

This year, on the 68th anniversary of the sinking 17 survivors gathered to mark the occasion and pay tribute to their shipmates. The Facebook page of the association has this memorial:

Goodnight and sleep well, crew of the USS Indianapolis. On this night, sixty-eight years ago, you had no way of knowing that a Japanese torpedo would hit your ship in just a few short hours. Your floating home away from home would sink within twelve minutes. Unable to get topside in time, three hundred of you would go to the bottom of the ocean with your ship. Nine hundred of you would find yourselves in the water, about to experience a terrifying existence amid sharks, dehydration, hallucinations, and the elements. 

You were so young, Indy sailors. 

Tonight, like that night, let your minds be free from nightmares and flashbacks. Tonight, like that night, know that your families and friends miss and love you. Tonight, like that night, just be “The Crew of the USS Indianapolis” instead of “Survivors” or “Lost at Sea.”

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I cannot say more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Province of Chance: The Battle of Midway, 5 Minutes that Changed the Course of a War

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“War is the province of chance. In no other sphere of human activity must such a margin be left for this intruder. It increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events.” Carl Von Clausewitz 

“Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit – a magic blend of skill, faith, and valor – that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory.”  Walter Lord

Six months after Pearl Harbor the United States Navy met the Imperial Japanese Navy in battle on the seas and in the airspace around Midway Island. It was a battle between a fleet that had known nothing but victory in the months after Pearl Harbor and one with the exception of a few minor tactical successes was reeling.

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The Japanese had swept across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and decimated every Allied Naval forces that stood in their way. After Pearl Harbor they had sunk the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse off of Singapore.  Next in a series of engagements destroyed the bulk of the US Asiatic Fleet in the waters around the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies culminating in the Battle of the Java Sea where the bulk of the American, British, Dutch and Australian (ABDA) naval forces engaged were annihilated attempting to fight superior Japanese forces.

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HMS Hermes sinking after Japanese Carrier air attack

In the Indian Ocean Admiral Nagumo’s carriers dispatched a force of Royal Navy cruisers and the Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes. In only one place had a Japanese Naval task force been prevented from achieving its goal. At the Battle of the Coral Sea where Task Force 11 and Task Force 17 centered on the Carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown prevented a Japanese invasion force from taking Port Moresby sinking the light carrier Shoho, damaging the modern carrier Shokaku and decimating the air groups of the Japanese task force.

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In May US Navy code breakers under the direction of Commander Joe Rochefort at Pearl Harbor discovered the next move of the Imperial Navy an attack on Midway Island and the Aleutian islands. Since the occupation of Midway by Japanese forces would give them an operational base less than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor Admiral Chester Nimitz committed the bulk of his naval power, the carriers USS Enterprise CV-6, USS Yorktown CV-5 and USS Hornet CV-8 and their 8 escorting cruisers and 15 destroyers, a total of 26 ships with 233 aircraft embarked to defend Midway. Nimitz also sent a force of 5 cruisers and 4 destroyers to cover the Aleutians.

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Land based air assets on Midway were composed of a mixed Marine, Navy and Army air group of 115 aircraft, many of which were obsolete. Aboard Midway there were 32 US Navy PBY Catalina Flying Boats, 83 fighters, dive bombers, torpedo planes and Army Air Force bombers piloted by a host of inexperienced pilots.

Nimitz’s instructions to his Task Force Commanders was simple “You will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting … greater damage on the enemy.”

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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto commanded the Combined Fleet. The victor of Pearl Harbor and the triumph’s in the first six months of the Pacific War was determined to end the war with a decisive battle at Midway. His plans were opposed by many in the Imperial General Staff, especially those in the Army but when the US raid on Tokyo, the Doolittle Raid, all opposition to the attack was dropped.

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The Japanese sent a force of 7 battleships and 7 carriers against Midway. These included the elite First Carrier Striking Group composed of the Pearl Harbor attackers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu and their highly trained and combat experienced air groups. Among the surface ships was Yamamoto’s flagship, the mighty Battleship Yamato, at 72,000 tons and armed with 9 18” guns, the most powerful and largest battleship ever to see combat.

The strike force included 273 aircraft and was escorted by 14 cruisers and 39 destroyers. They were to take Midway and then destroy the US Navy when it came out to fight. Yamamoto sent a force force of 4 battleships, 12 destroyers assigned screen to the Aleutian invasion force which was accompanied by 2 carriers 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers. The other carriers embarked a further 114 aircraft.

Despite this great preponderance in numbers Yamamoto’s plan was complex and his forces too far apart from each other to offer support should and get into trouble. The powerful Japanese Task forces were scattered over thousands of square miles of the Northern Pacific Ocean where they could not rapidly come to the assistance of any other group.

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With the foreknowledge provided by the code breakers the US forces hurried to an intercept position northeast of Midway eluding the Japanese submarine scout line which the Japanese Commander Admiral Yamamoto presumed would find them when they sailed to respond to the Japanese attack on Midway.  Task Force 16 with the Enterprise and Hornet sailed first under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A Spruance and Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher with the Yorktown which had been miraculously brought into fighting condition after suffering heavy damage at Coral Sea. Fletcher assumed overall command by virtue of seniority and Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders to apply the principle of calculated risk when engaging the Japanese as the loss of the US carriers would place the entire Pacific at the mercy of the Japanese Navy.

On June 3rd a PBY Catalina discovered the Japanese invasion force and US long range bombers launched attacks against it causing no damage. The morning of the 4th the Americans adjusted their search patterns in and the Japanese came into range of Midway and commenced their first strike against the island.

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In response land based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese carrier force taking heavy casualties and failing to damage the Japanese task force. The American Carrier task forces launched their strike groups at the Japanese fleet leaving enough aircraft behind of the Combat Air Patrol and Anti-submarine patrol.  As the Americans winged toward the Japanese fleet the Japanese were in a state of confusion. The confusion was caused when a scout plane from the Heavy Cruiser Tone that had been delayed at launch discovered US ships but did not identify a carrier among them until later into the patrol. The carrier  was the Yorktown and TF 17, but for Nagumo who first expected no American naval forces, then received a report of surface ships without a carrier followed by the report of a carrier the reports were unsettling.

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Orders and counter-orders were issued as the Japanese attempted to recover their strike aircraft and prepare for a second strike on the island and then on discovery of the Yorktown task force, orders changed and air crews unloaded ground attack ordnance in favor of aerial torpedoes and armor piercing bombs. The hard working Japanese aircrew did not have time to stow the ordnance removed from the aircraft but by 1020 they had the Japanese strike group ready to launch against the US carriers.

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As the Japanese crews worked the Japanese carriers were engaged in fending off attacks by the US torpedo bomber squadrons, VT-6 from Enterprise, VT-8 from Hornet and VT-3 from Yorktown. 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.

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LCDR Lance Massey CO of VT-3

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LCDR John Waldron CO of VT-8

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LCDR Eugene Lindsey CO of VT-6

Torpedo 6 from 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 3 from Yorktown under the command of LCDR Lem Massey from the Yorktown. 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.

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There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers. Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 from Hornet did not find the carriers and had to return for lack of fuel while losing a number of bombers and their fighter escort having to ditch inn the ocean and wait for rescue. The Enterprise group composed of Bombing-6 and Scouting 6 under CDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when the wake of a Japanese destroyer was spotted.  McClusky followed it to the Japanese Task Force. The Yorktown’s group under LCDR Max Leslie arrived about the same time.

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When the American dive bombers arrived over the Japanese Carrier Strike Force they found the skies empty of Japanese aircraft. Below, aboard the Japanese ships there was a sense of exhilaration as each succeeding group of attackers was brought down and with their own aircraft ready to launch and deal a fatal blow to the American carrier wondered how big their victory would be. The war would soon be decided.

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At 1020 the first Zero of the Japanese attack group began rolling down the flight deck of the flagship Akagi, aboard Kaga aircraft were warming up as they were on the Soryu.  The unsuspecting Japanese were finally alerted when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” Wade McClusky’s aircraft lined up over the Akagi and Kaga pushing into their dives at 1022. There was a bit of confusion when the bulk of Scouting 6 joined the attack of Bombing 6 on the Kaga. That unprepared ship was struck by four 1000 pound bombs which exploded on her flight deck and hangar deck igniting the fully fueled and armed aircraft of her strike group and the ordnance littered about the hangar deck.  Massive fires and explosions wracked the ship and in minutes the proud ship was reduced to an infernal hell with fires burning uncontrollably. She was abandoned and would sink at 1925 taking 800 of her crew with her.

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LT Dick Best of Scouting 6 peeled off from the attack on Kaga and shifted to the Japanese flagship Akagi. On board Akagi were two of Japan’s legendary pilots CDR Mitsuo Fuchida leader of and CDR Minoru Genda the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent string of Japanese victories. Both officers were on the sick list and had come up from sick bay to watch as the fleet was attacked. Seeing Kaga burst into flames they stood mesmerized until Akagi’s lookouts screamed out the warning “helldivers” at 1026.  Best’s few aircraft hit with deadly precision landing two of their bombs on Akagi’s flight deck creating havoc among the loaded aircraft and starting fires and igniting secondary explosions which turned the ship into a witch’s cauldron.  By 1046 Admiral Nagumo and his staff were forced to transfer the flag to the cruiser Nagara as Akagi’s crew tried to bring the flames under control. They would do so into the night until nothing more could be done and abandoned ship at 2000.  Admiral Yamamoto ordered her scuttled and at 0500 on June 5th the pride of the Japanese carrier force was scuttled.

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VB-3 under LCDR Max Leslie from the Yorktown stuck the Soryu with 17 aircraft, however only 13 of the aircraft had bombs due to an electronic arming device malfunction on 4 of the aircraft, including that of Commander Leslie.  Despite this Leslie led the squadron as it dove on the Soryu at 1025 hitting that ship with 3 and maybe as many as 5 bombs. Soryu like her companions burst into flames as the ready aircraft and ordnance exploded about her deck. She was ordered abandoned at 1055 and would sink at 1915 taking 718 of her crew with her.

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The remaining Japanese flattop the Hiryu attained the same fate later in the day after engaging in an epic duel with the Yorktown which her aircraft heavily damaged. Yorktown would be sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168 while being towed to safety.

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USS Yorktown under attack from Kate Torpedo Bombers from Hiryu on June 4th 1942

In five pivotal minutes the course of the war in the Pacific was changed. Authors have entitled books about Midway Incredible Victory by Walter Lord and Miracle at Midway by Gordon Prange and those titles reflect the essence of the battle.

At Midway a distinctly smaller force defeated a vastly superior fleet in terms of experience, training and equipment. At the very moment that it appeared to the Japanese that they would advance to victory their vision disappeared. In a span of less than 5 minutes what looked like the certain defeat of the US Navy became one of the most incredible and even miraculous victories in the history of Naval warfare. In those 5 minutes history was changed in a breathtaking way. While the war would drag on and the Japanese still inflict painful losses and defeats on the US Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal the tide had turned and the Japanese lost the initiative in the Pacific never to regain it.

The Japanese government hid the defeat from the Japanese people instead proclaiming a great victory. The American government could not fully publicize the victory for fear of revealing the intelligence that led to the ability of the US Navy to be at the right place at the right time and defeat the Imperial Navy.

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The American victory at Midway changed the course of the war in the Pacific. The Battle of Midway established the aircraft carrier and the fast carrier task force as the dominant force in naval warfare which some would argue it still remains. Finally those five minutes ushered in an era of US Navy dominance of the high seas which at least as of yet has not ended as the successors to the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown ply the oceans of the world and the descendants of those valiant carrier air groups ensure air superiority over battlefields around the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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