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Improbable and Unlikely: Victory at Midway

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As I mentioned earlier in the week I am publishing a number of articles on Greatest Generation as we remember the anniversaries of the Battle of Midway in 1942 and the D-Day landings in 1944.

This article is a compilation of a number of articles that I have done in the past with a bit of edition. It deals with the battle of Midway. I hope to do some really serious writing on the topic someday, but most of my writing and research time has been devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War. Too bad I am not like LCDR Data in Star Trek the Next Generation. Image the productivity, but I digress…

I grew up in a Navy family when it was not popular for people to “support the troops” back during the Vietnam War and in the post-Vietnam era. That being said I developed a love for all things Navy and buried myself in the library, reading and checking out books. My friends probably remember he hauling armloads of books too and from class and too and from school  on the buses that we rode. One of those books was Walter Lord’s classic Incredible Victory about the Battle of Midway. Through it and other books I felt as if I had come to know the men who fought that battle, the men of both sides, gaining an appreciation for their bravery and humanity. As I have mentioned time and time again on this site, people matter the most in history, especially in war. In the intervening years I have spent over 34 years in the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy serving at sea and ashore in combat operations. As such I have a connection to these men, I can imagine what they were going through.

As we get further away from these events we have fewer people who even know about them, and that is really sad because they are so important, and the sacrifices of the men who fought those battles helped secure an opportunity freedom for so many. I know that after the war that the United States has not always lived up to the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, nor how our founders believed that we should pursue relations with other countries. In fact, they would not recognize what we have become. Even so, it is important for us to reexamine these events, to remember the men and women who served, and to remember their sacrifice, even as we acknowledge the tragedy of war and all that it brings.

I hope that you enjoy this and trust that you will have a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Doolittle Raid

Prelude to Battle

The Imperial Japanese Navy under the command of Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto had been humiliated. On April 18th 1942 16 B-25 bombers under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle were launched from the deck of the USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo.  Though the physical damage was insignificant the psychological impact was massive on the Japanese military establishment. In response to the threat, Yamamoto was directed to bring the aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy to battle and to destroy them.

Prior to the Doolittle Raid, Yamamoto and his deputy Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki had explored the possibility of attacking Midway. However, the Japanese armed forces were competing with each other to determine an overall strategy for the war effort. The Army was insistent on a China strategy while the Navy preferred expansion in the Western, South and Central Pacific.  Yamamoto’s idea envisioned seizing Midway and using it as a forward base from which an invasion of Hawaii could be mounted as well as the bait to draw the carrier task forces of the U.S. Navy into battle and destroy them. Until the Doolittle Raid shocked the Japanese leadership he was unable to do this.

“I Shall Run Wild for the First Six Months”

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Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

Yamamoto was one of the few Japanese military or political leaders who opposed war with the United States. He had lived in the United States, gotten to know Americans and recognized the how the massive economic and industrial power of the United States would lead to the defeat of Japan. He told Premier Konoye in 1941 “I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third years of the fighting.”

It is hard to imagine now, but in June of 1942 it seemed a good possibility that the Americans and British could be on the losing side of the Second World War.

True to Yamamoto’s words in 1942 the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific appeared nearly unstoppable. The Imperial Navy stormed across the Pacific and Indian Oceans in the months after Pearl Harbor decimating Allied Naval forces that stood in their way.  The British Battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by land based aircraft off of Singapore. A force of Royal Navy cruisers and the Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes were sunk by the same carriers that struck Pearl Harbor in the Indian Ocean.  Darwin Australia was struck with a devastating blow on February 19th and on February 27th the Japanese annihilated the bulk of the American, British, Dutch and Australian naval forces opposing them at the Battle of the Java Sea. American forces in the Philippines surrendered on May 8th 1942 while the British in Singapore surrendered on February 15th.

In only one place had a Japanese Naval task force been prevented from its goal and that was at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Between 4-8 May the US Navy’s 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. Their aircraft sank the light carrier Shoho, damaged the modern carrier Shokaku and decimated the air groups of the Japanese task force. But it was the unexpected raid by US Army Air Corps B-25 Bombers launched from the USS Hornet under command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle on April 18th 1942 which embarrassed Yamamoto so badly that he ordered the attack to take Midway and destroy the remaining US Naval power in the Pacific.

Cracking the Code

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Admiral Chester Nimitz

United States Navy codebreakers had broken the Japanese diplomatic and naval codes in 1941, and in May the Navy code breakers at Pearl Harbor discovered Yamamoto’s plan to have the Imperial Navy attack Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands.  Knowing the Japanese were coming, and that the occupation of Midway by Japanese forces would give them an operational base less than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet 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 to defend Midway.  This force of 26 ships with 233 aircraft embarked to defend Midway while a force of smaller force 5 cruisers and 4 destroyers was dispatched to cover the Aleutians.  The forces on the ground at Midway had a mixed Marine, Navy and Army air group of 115 aircraft which included many obsolete aircraft, 32 PBY Catalina Flying Boats and 83 fighters, dive bombers, torpedo planes and Army Air Force bombers piloted by a host of inexperienced but resolute airmen with which to defend itself. It also had a ground force of U.S. Marines, should the Japanese actually land on the island.

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The Japanese Fleet and was built around the elite First Carrier Striking Group, the Kido Butai composed of the Pearl Harbor attackers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu. Led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo its highly trained and combat experienced air groups composed of 273 aircraft. This force was escorted by 2 Battleships, 3 Cruisers 12 Destroyers. Yamamoto commanded a force of 2 light carriers, 5 Battleships, 11 cruisers and 27 destroyers.  Meanwhile a 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.  The Japanese plan was ambitious but it was so ambitious that the Japanese Task forces were scattered over thousands of square miles of the Northern Pacific Ocean from which they could not rapidly come to the support of each other.

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With the foreknowledge provided by the code breakers the US forces hurried to an intercept position northeast of Midway. They eluded 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 in place of the ailing William “Bull” Halsey. Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher was built around 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.

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On June 3rd a PBY Catalina from Midway discovered the Japanese invasion force transport group.  US long-range B-17 bombers launched attacks against these ships but inflicted no damage.

“Our hearts burn with the conviction of sure victory.”

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On the night of June 3rd 1942 Nagumo’s First Carrier Strike Force sailed east toward the tiny Midway Atoll. Nagumo had seen many of the risks involved in the plan and considered it an “impossible and pointless operation” before the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, but even the reluctant Nagumo fell in line as Yamamoto relentlessly lobbied for the operation.

As the First Carrier strike force closed within 300 miles of Midway on the night of June 3rd 1942 Nagumo and his staff prepared for the battle that they and many others believed would be the decisive battle. Aircraft received their final preparations, bombs were loaded and as night faded into early morning air crew arose, ate their breakfast and went to their aircraft. The ships had been observing radio silence since they departed their bases and anchorages in Japan the previous week. Honed to a fine edge the crews of the ships and the veteran aircrews anticipated victory.

The crews of the ships of the task force and the air groups embarked on the great aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu as well as their escorts were confident. They had since the war began known nothing but victory. They had devastated the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and roamed far and wide raiding allied targets and sinking allied shipping across the Pacific and deep into the Indian Ocean. Commander Magotaro Koga of the destroyer Nowaki wrote in his diary “Our hearts burn with the conviction of sure victory.

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Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo

However, Nagumo and his sailors had no idea that most of what they knew about their American opponents was wrong. Nagumo and Yamamoto were confident that the Americans could field no more than two operational carriers to defend Midway. They had no idea that the Yorktown, which they believed had been sunk at Coral Sea was operational and her air group reinforced by the aircraft of the damaged Saratoga which was being repaired on the West Coast. Unknown to the Japanese the Yorktown and her escorts had joined Enterprise and Hornet northeast of Midway.

The Japanese were going into battle blind. They had planned to get aerial surveillance of US Fleet dispositions at Pearl Harbor, but that had been cancelled because the atoll at French Frigate Shoals that the Japanese flying boats would operate from had been occupied by a small US force. Likewise a line of Japanese submarines arrived on station a day too late, after the US carrier task forces had passed by them. Those aboard the First Carrier Strike Force, including Nagumo or his senior commanders and staff had no idea that the Americans not only knew of their approach but were already deployed in anticipation of their strike.

Within a day all of the Japanese carriers would be sunk or sinking. Thousands of Japanese sailors would be dead and the vaunted air groups which had wreaked havoc on the Allies would be decimated, every aircraft lost and the majority of pilots and aircrew dead. It would be a most unexpected and devastating defeat stolen out of the hands of what appeared to be certain victory.

There is a lesson to be learned from the Japanese who sailed into the night on June 3rd 1942 and saw the sunrise of June 4th. There is no battle, campaign or war that goes according to plan. Thousands of Japanese sailors and airmen went to bed on the night of the 3rd expecting that the following night, or within the next few days they would be celebrating a decisive victory. Thousands of those sailors would be dead by the night of the 4th of June 1942, and as their ships slid beneath the waves, the ambitions of Imperial of Japan to defeat the United States Navy and end the war were dealt a decisive defeat from which they never recovered.

Hawks at Angles Twelve

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One of the more overlooked aspects of the Battle of Midway is the sacrifice of Marine Fighter Squadron 221 on the morning of June 4th 1942.   The Marine aviators flying a mix of 21 obsolescent Brewster F2A-3 Buffalos and 7 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats engaged a vastly superior force of Japanese Navy aircraft as they vectored toward the atoll to begin softening it up for the planned invasion.

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Led by Major Floyd Parks the squadron had arrived at Midway on Christmas day 1941 being delivered by the USS Saratoga after the aborted attempt to relieve Wake Island.  The squadron along with Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB 241) formed Marine Air Group 22.  They fighter pilots of VMF-221 scored their first victory shooting down a Japanese Kawanishi H8K2 “Emily” flying boat. The squadron which initially was composed of just 14 aircraft, all F2A-3’s was augmented by 7 more F2A-3s and 7 of the more advanced F4F-3s before the battle.

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USMC Vought SB2-U3 Vindicators

When the Japanese First Carrier Striking Group was spotted in the wee hours of June 4th the Marines and other aircrew aboard Midway scrambled to meet them.  The 18 SBD-2 Dauntless’ and 12 Vought SB2-U3 Vindicator dive bombers of VMSB-241, the 6 TBF Avengers of the Navy Torpedo Eight detachment, 4 Army Air Corps B-26 Marauders and 15 B-17 Flying Fortresses flew out to attack the Japanese carriers while the fighters rose to intercept the 108 aircraft heading toward Midway. The 72 strike aircraft, 36 Aichi 99 Val Dive Bombers and 36 Nakajima B5N Torpedo/ High Level Bombers were protected by 36 AM6-2 Zeros which thoroughly outclassed the Marine opponents in speed, maneuverability and in the combat experience of their pilots.

The Marine fighters audaciously attacked the far superior Japanese force, throwing themselves against the Japanese phalanx with unmatched courage.  Despite their courage the Marine fighters were decimated by the Japanese Zeros.  The Marines shot down 4 Val dive bombers and at least three Zeros but lost 13 Buffalos and 3 Wildcats during the battle.  Of the surviving aircraft only three Buffalos and three Wildcats were in commission at the end of the day. Among the casualties killed was Major Parks.  Of the surviving pilots of VMF-221, two became “Aces” during the war. Lieutenant Charles M. Kunz would later fly in VMF-224, adding six victories to end the war with 8 victories. Capt. Marion E. Carl would later fly in VMF-223 raising his score to 18.5 Japanese aircraft shot down.  Other pilots like 2nd Lieutenant Clayton M. Canfield shot down two additional aircraft while flying with VMF-223. 2nd Lieutenant Walter W. Swansberger won the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal.

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VMF-221 Attacks

The last remaining Marine fighter pilot of VMF-221 from the battle of Midway, Williams Brooks died in January 2010 and was buried with full military honors, in Bellview, Nebraska. Brooks in his after action report described his part in the battle:

I was pilot of F2A-3, Bureau number 01523, Our division under Capt. Armistead was on standby duty at he end of the runway on the morning of June 4, 1942, from 0415 until 0615. At about 0600, the alarm sounded and we took off. My division climbed rapidly, and I was having a hard time keeping up. I discovered afterwards that although my wheels indicator and hydraulic pressure indicator both registered “wheels up”, they were in reality about 1/3 of the way down. We sighted the enemy at about 14,000 feet, I would say that there were 40 to 50 planes. At this time Lt. Sandoval was also dropping back. My radio was at this time putting out no volume, so I could not get the message from Zed. At 17,000 feet, Capt. Armistead led the attack followed closely by Capt. Humberd. They went down the left of the Vee , leaving two planes burning. Lt. Sandoval went down the right side of the formation and I followed. One of us got a plane from the right side of the Vee. At this time, I had completely lost sight of my division. As I started to pull up for another run on the bombers, I was attacked by two fighters. Because my wheels being jammed 1/3 way down, I could not out dive these planes, but managed to dodge them and fire a burst or so into them as they went past me and as I headed for the water. As I circled the island, the anti-aircraft fire drove them away. My tabs, instruments and cockpit were shot up to quite an extent at this time and I was intending to come in for a landing. 

It was at this time that I noticed that a important feature in their fighting. I saw two planes dog-fighting over in the east, and decided to go help my friend if at all possible. My plane was working very poorly, and my climb was slow. As I neared the fight both planes turned on me. It was then that I realized I had been tricked in a sham battle put on by two Japs and I failed to recognize this because of the sun in my eyes. Then I say I was out-numbered, I turned and made a fast retreat for the island, collecting a goodly number of bullets on the way. After one of these planes had been shaken, I managed to get a good burst into another as we passed head-on when I turned into him. I don’t believe this ship could have gotten back to his carrier, because he immediately turned away and started north and down. I again decided to land, but as I circled the island I saw two Japs on a Brewster. Three of my guns were jammed, but I cut across the island, firing as I went with one gun. But I could not get there in time to help the American flier and as soon as the Brewster had gone into the water I came in for a landing at approximately 0715 (estimated). 

As for VMF-221 it was re-equipped with the F4F-4 and later with the F4U Corsair during the course of two more deployments overseas.  VMF-221 finished the war with a score of 155 victories, 21 damaged and 16 probable kills, the second highest total of any Marine Corps Squadron during the war.

Their bomber counterparts of VMSB 241 attacked the Japanese task force on the morning of June 4th and scored no hits while losing 8 aircraft. The survivors were again in action later in the day as well as the following day where they helped sink the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Mikuma with their squadron leader Major Henderson diving his mortally wounded aircraft into the cruiser’s number 4 8” gun turret. While the Marines’ actions are not as well known or as successful as those of their Navy counterparts they were brave.  Fighter pilots had to engage some of the most experienced pilots flying superior machines while the bomber crews had little to no experience before being thrown into combat.

Into the Valley of Death: The Last Ride of the Torpedo Bombers

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in the Charge of the Light Brigade something that echoes to this day when we talk or write about men who charge the gates of death against superior enemies.

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.

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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. 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.  129 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. 

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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.  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.

The Torpedo squadrons attacked independently of each other between 0920 and 1030 on June 4th 1942. 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 (above) LCDR Lem Massey (below)

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.  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.

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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.

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The men of Torpedo 8 only one survived 

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 and some remained in service in a civilian capacity to fight forest fires until 2012.

 

The Provence of Chance: Five Minutes that Changed the War

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The land based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese carrier force taking heavy casualties and failed to damage the Japanese task force. When the results of the first strike of the Japanese bombers that hit Midway was analyzed Nagumo readied his second wave.

As this was happening the American carriers launched their strike groups at the Japanese fleet leaving enough aircraft behind as for Combat Air Patrol and Anti-submarine patrol missions.  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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Aboard the Japanese ships, orders and counter-orders were issued as the Japanese attempted to recover their strike aircraft and prepare for a second strike on the island, but when the Yorktown task force was discovered, orders were changed and air crews unloaded ground attack ordnance in favor of aerial torpedoes and armor piercing bombs. In their haste to get their aircraft ready to strike the Americans, the hard working Japanese aircrews did not have time to stow the ordnance removed from the aircraft. But due to their hard work at 1020 they had the Japanese strike group ready to launch against the US carriers. Aircraft and their crews awaited the order to launch, their aircraft fully armed and fully fueled.

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CDR Wade McClusky 

There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers. Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 from Hornet made a wrong turn and not find the Japanese carriers. The squadrons had to return due to a lack of fuel and a number of bombers and their fighter escort had to ditch in 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 they spotted the wake of a Japanese destroyer steaming at high speed to catch up with the Japanese carriers.  Taking a chance, McClusky followed it straight to the Japanese Task Force arriving about 1020. 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 to the threat of the American dive bombers when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” The Japanese fighters assigned to the combat air patrol were flying too low as the mopped up the last of the doomed torpedo bombers and were not in a position to intercept the Americans.

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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.

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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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LCDR Max Leslie ditches his aircraft near a cruiser 

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. A few hours later Hiryu, which had succeeded in launching strikes that seriously damaged Yorktown met the fate of her sisters. Yorktown would be sunk by a Japanese submarine, along with the destroyer Hamman a few days later as her crew attempted to get her to Pearl Harbor. In five pivotal minutes the course of the war in the Pacific was changed.

A Final Ignominy

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IJN Mikuma 

Admiral Yamamoto was still attempting to digest the calamity that had befallen Admiral Nagumo’s carrier task force. In the shocked atmosphere of the mighty Super Battleship Yamato’s command center the Staff of the Combined Fleet was hastily attempting to arrive at a solution which might reverse the disaster and bring victory.  Admiral Ugaki, Yamamoto’s Chief of Staff, despite strong personal doubts, ordered Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo to prepare for a night surface engagement with the US Fleet and dispatched a strong surface force to bombard Midway in order to prevent the Americans from reinforcing it and to prevent its further use against his forces should the invasion move forward.  Kondo then organized his fleet to attempt to find the American carriers and bring them to battle before dawn.

Kondo detached Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Close Support Group composed of Cruiser Seven, the fastest and most modern cruisers in the Imperial Navy proceed at full speed to attack Midway.  Kurita’s cruisers, the Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma and Mogami were each armed with 10 8” guns and were escorted by the two destroyers.

Kurita’s force was 80 miles from Midway when Yamamoto realizing that his plan was unrealistic ordered Kondo’s forces to retreat and rendezvous with his main force shortly after midnight. The order was met with a measure of relief by most officers in the force and the force turned northwest and steamed at 28 knots to meet the Main Body.  At 0215 lookouts on Kumano sighted a submarine on the surface which turned out to be the USS Tambor which had been shadowing the group, and made a signal for the force to make a emergency 45 degree turn to port.

During the process Mogami’s Navigator took over from the watch to oversee the tricky maneuver. In doing so he thought that there was too much distance between him and the ship ahead, the Mikuma. So he adjusted his course to starboard and then realized his mistake. The ship he thought was Mikuma was actually Suzuya and Mikuma was directly ahead. As soon as he recognized his mistake Mogami’s Navigator ordered a hard turn to port and reversed the engines but it was too late. Mogami’s bow crashed into Mikuma’s port quarter. The impact caused minimal damage to Mikuma but Mogami was heavily damaged. She lost 40 feet of her bow and everything else was bent back to port at right angles to her number one turret.

Mogami’s damage control teams isolated the damage and worked the ship up to 12 knots. This was not fast enough for Kurita to make his rendezvous so he left Mikuma and the destroyers to escort Mogami while he steamed ahead with Kumano and Suzuya.

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Tambor’s skipper LCDR John W Murphy sent a contact report at 0300 reporting “many unidentified ships.” He followed this with more detailed information and the Americans on Midway began to launch its remaining serviceable aircraft to attack the threat. A flight of B-17 Bombers launched at 0430 could not find the Japanese ships but at 0630 a PBY Catalina found the Japanese and radioed Midway “two Japanese battleships streaming oil.”  The remaining 12 aircraft of VSMB-241 under command of Captain Marshall Tyler a mix of SBD Dauntless and SB2U Vindicators took off at 0700. His force attacked at 0808 scoring no hits. However, Marine Captain Richard Fleming, his Vindicator on fire dropped his bomb and then crashed his aircraft into Mikuma’s after turret. Sailors aboard Mogami were impressed, the American had sacrificed himself in a suicide attack worthy of the Samurai. The fire was sucked down air intakes into the starboard engine room with disastrous results. The Mikuma’s engineers were suffocated by the smoke and fumes and Mikuma was greatly reduced in speed.

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Mikuma shattered, note wreckage of Captain Fleming’s Vindicator on turret 

The two ships limped northwest at 12 knots escorted by the destroyers and were unmolested through much of the day with the exception of an ineffective attack by the B-17s at 0830. The following morning the Dive Bombers of Enterprise and Hornet were at work and found the crippled Japanese ships. Waves over US Dive Bombers attacked the cruisers throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Mikuma was hit at least 5 times and secondary explosions of ammunition and torpedoes doomed the ship. Mogami was also heavily damaged but remained afloat while both destroyers received bomb damage.  At sunset the tough cruiser rolled over to port and sank into the Pacific. Mogami whose damage control teams had performed miracles to keep their ship afloat helped the destroyers rescue survivors from Mikuma.  Only 240 were rescued with 650 officers and sailors going down with the ship.

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Survivors abandoning Mikuma

The action against the cruisers ended the combat operations at Midway. The Japanese ships were doomed by Yamamoto’s decision to try to salvage victory from defeat and the error of Mogami’s Navigator during the emergency turn when Kumano sighted Tambor. The only thing that kept the result from being total was the efficacy of Mogami’s damage control teams.  Mogami was out of the war for 10 months following repairs and conversion to an Aircraft Cruiser in which her aft turrets were removed to increase the number of float plane scouts that the ship could carry. She rejoined the fleet in April 1943 and was sunk following the Battle of the Surigao Strait on 25 October 1944.

The Mogami and Mikuma proved to be tough ships to sink. Unprotected by friendly aircraft they fought hard against the unopposed American Dive Bombers. They suffered massive damage from 500 and 1000 pound bombs, both direct hits and near misses. Mogami was saved by the skill of her damage control teams and the foresight of her Damage Control Officer to jettison her torpedoes so that they did not explode and compound the damage wrought by the American bombs.

 

Epilogue

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.

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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.

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 today.

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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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Filed under History, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific