Category Archives: aircraft

The Divine Wind at Leyte Gulf: Kamikazes Enter the War

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USS St Lo exploding after being hit by a Kamikaze

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Again I am taking some time off the Presidential campaign and am posting some articles on the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This deals with the first use of Kamikaze aircraft whose pilots would attempt to dive into Allied warships, committing suicide rather than attempting to bomb a ship and return home.

In an age where suicide bombers and attackers do such things it is important to remember that this is not new. I hope you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

“In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of A6M Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier…” Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi

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It was a tactic born of desperation but one that fit in well with the philosophy of Bushido. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” in June 1944 and the slaughter of land based Japanese Naval and Army air forces based in Formosa in September of that year Japanese leaders began to look to a tactics born of desperation but which fit their Bushido based ethos of sacrifice.

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Lt. Yukio Seki

Suicide attacks were nothing new to the Japanese, but until October 1944 they were tactics decided on by individuals who saw no alternative to the choice. In October 1944 that calculus changed, instead of individuals or isolated units which had no hope of victory conducting suicide attacks, commanders decided to employ suicide attackers as a matter of course.

When the American forces invaded the Philippines Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi was commander of the First Air Fleet based in the Northern Philippines. He was not a fan of Kamikaze tactics and viewed them as heresy. However after the slaughter of the reconstituted Naval Air Force at the Battle of the Philippine Sea he reluctantly changed his mind. I say reluctantly based on his previous views and because after he committed ritual suicide following the Japanese surrender he apologized to the estimated 4000 pilots that he sent to their death and their families.

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Admiral Ōnishi

But in October 1944 with Japan reeling from defeats in the Pacific and its supply route for oil and other raw materials threatened desperation was the order of the day.

The 201st Navy Flying Corps based out of Clark Field near Manila was the major land based Japanese Naval Air Force unit in the Philippines. Among its pilots was a young Naval Officer and Aviator named Lt. Yukio Seki. Seki was a graduate of the Japanese Naval Academy at Eta Jima and was recently married. He was not an ideologue or believer in suicide attacks. When questioned by a reporter before his squadron launched the first Kamikaze attacks he remarked to Masashi Onoda, a War Correspondent :“Japan’s future is bleak if it is forced to kill one of its best pilots. I am not going on this mission for the Emperor or for the Empire… I am going because I was ordered to!”

On October 25th 1944 Seki led his group of 5 A6M2-5 Zero fighters, each carrying a 550 pound bomb took off and attacked the Escort Carriers of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague’s “Taffy-3.” The five pilots all died in their attacks but two damaged the USS Kalinin Bay and USS Kitkun Bay while two aircraft, one believed to be Seki’s hit the USS St Lo causing mortal damage which sank that ship in less than half an hour with the loss of over 140 sailors.

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The attacks of Seki’s small squadron were a harbinger of what was to come. Over the next 10 months over 4000 Japanese pilots would die in Kamikaze attacks against US Navy and Allied Naval units. Numbers of ships destroyed or damaged by Kamikazes are debated by some historians believe that 70 US and Allied ships were sunk or damaged beyond repair and close to 300 more damaged. 2525 Imperial Japanese Navy pilots and 1387 Imperial Army pilots died in Kamikaze attacks killing almost 5000 sailors and wounding over 5000 more.

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Admiral Ōnishi who made the decision to make Kamikazes a part of Japan’s offensive strategy in 1944 appeared to regret that decision. In his suicide note he urged young Japanese to rebuild the country and seek peace with all people and offered his death a penance for the nearly 4000 pilots he sent to their deaths. Accordingly when he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) he did so alone, with a second to finish the job and died over 15 hours after disemboweling himself.

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A Final Toast

The Kamikaze campaign did not alter the course of the war, but it did introduce a new dimension of terror and misguided sacrifice. I do pray that one day war will be no more and that even though I expect war to remain part of our world until longer after my death  that nations, peoples or revolutionary groups will no longer send their best and brightest to certain death.

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Filed under aircraft, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been another long day or work in the house, dealing with contractor complications and delays, and running back and forth to Lowe’s and going in to work to take care of business despite being on leave. Tomorrow promises to be similar. So for now part two of my article dealing with my favorite resistors will have to wait.

Because of that I am reposting an older article on the Battle of the Philippine Sea, also known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot which was fought on the 19th and 20th of June 1944.

U.S. Navy personnel observe the Air Battle from a Carrier

This battle was the largest battle between aircraft carrier fleets in history.  Twenty four aircraft carriers, 15 American and 9 Japanese embarking over 1400 aircraft dueled in the Central Pacific in a battle that so decimated Japanese Naval Aviation that it never recovered. The battle and the subsequent fall of Saipan brought down the government of General Tojo and was the beginning of the collapse of the Japanese Empire and the “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

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In late 1943 the Japanese realized that they needed to recover the initiative in the Pacific.  Between the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Santa Cruz Japanese Naval aviation suffered crippling losses especially among the elite pilots and aircrews with who they had begun the war.  These losses were compounded when the Navy attempted to support the operations of the Army to defend the Solomons and New Guinea.  Squadrons sent to battle the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Corps suffered at the hands of the every more skilled and well equipped American fighter squadrons the victims of which included Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto the Commander of the Combined Fleet when the Betty bomber that he was traveling on was ambushed by U.S. Army Air Corps P-38 Lightening fighters.

Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa

By late 1943 the Japanese were attempting to train new pilots and aircrews to man the carriers of the Combined Fleet’s Carrier Striking Forces.  Admiral Soemu Toyoda, the new commander of the Combined Fleet and its third commander in less than a year developed “Plan A-Go” as a means to mass carrier and land based aviation assets to defeat the Fast Carrier Task Forces of the United States Navy.  The rebuilt Carrier Striking Groups built around 9 carriers embarking 473 aircraft was commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa who had taken over from Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

D4Y3 “Judy” Dive Bomber

The Japanese discerned the intentions of the Americans when American Carrier aircraft struck Saipan and Guam. The Japanese had expected the Americans to strike further south and the Marianas had few land-based aircraft in the area. Toyoda made the decision to engage the Americans and ordered the fleet to attack. American submarines discovered the gathering Japanese forces. The Japanese forces were assembled by the 17th and by the 18th the 5th Fleet under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance spearheaded by Task Force 58 Commanded by Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher had assembled west of Saipan to meet the Japanese.  The Americans fielded 15 carriers including 9 Fleet Carriers of which 6 were the new Essex Class Fleet Carriers which embarked 956 aircraft.

The F6F Hellcat cemented its place as the premier fighter plane of the Pacific war during the “Turkey Shoot”

The Americans held both a quantitative and qualitative advantage against the Japanese. The American fighter squadrons were equipped with the F6F Hellcat which was far superior to the now obsolescent Japanese Zero fighters and their pilots and aircrews were now more experienced and proficient than the newly minted Japanese aviators who by and large had little combat experience and were flying inferior aircraft.  The Japanese had not planned for a long war and had done little to systemically address the heavy losses that their force experienced during 1942 and 1943 at Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz and in the Solomons campaign.

Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher aboard the USS Lexington

Mitscher desired to move aggressively against the Japanese. However he was overruled by Spruance who acting on the advice of his Battle Line Commander Vice Admiral Willis Lee decided that a possible night surface action with the Japanese was not desirable. Spruance instead directed Mitscher to be ready to defend against Japanese air strikes knowing that his carriers and carrier based air groups was more than a match for the Japanese air groups.   Spruance has been criticized for his decision but the words of Willis Lee, a veteran of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal where he defeated a Japanese force sinking the Battleship Kirishima.  He prevailed in his flagship the USS Washington but losing three of four escorting destroyers and seeing his second battle wagon the USS South Dakota heavily damaged. A night surface engagement was not worth the risk as in Lee’s eyes it evened the playing field for the Japanese and took away the American air power advantages.

A Japanese aircraft goes down in flames

The Japanese began the action on the 19th sending successive attack waves against Task Force 58. They were met by massed formations of Hellcats vectored in by air controllers in the Combat Information Centers of the American carriers using their superior air search radar systems.  In less than two hours well over 200 Japanese aircraft were downed by the Hellcats.  Lieutenant Alexander Vraicu shot down 6 “Judy” dive bombers in minutes before low on fuel he returned to the USS Lexington.

Lieutenant Alexander Vraicu holds up six fingers on board the USS Lexington

While the Hellcats were chewing up the Japanese squadrons the American submarines USS Albacore and USS Cavalla each sank a Japanese Fleet Aircraft Carrier.  The Albacore hit the Ozawa’s flagship, the new Tiaho with a torpedo which caused minimal damage, but ruptured fuel lines. The Japanese damage control officer opened vents in the ship which allowed the fumes to spread throughout the carrier. They were ignited by a generator causing massive explosions and forcing Ozawa to abandon his flagship. Tiaho would sink by late afternoon after being ripped apart by a series of massive explosions taking with her 1650 of 1750 officers and crew. Cavalla hit the Pearl Harbor veteran Shokaku with a spread of three torpedoes causing that ship to burst into flames with aircraft and ordnance adding to the conflagration. A massive explosion ripped through the ship causing her to sink with a loss of over 1200 officers and crew.

The Japanese flagship Tiaho (above) and her killer the USS Albacore

Toyoda desired that Ozawa retire from the battle before he suffered more losses but Ozawa wanted to stay around and hit the Americans with everything that he had left. The Americans sailed west during the night to seek out the Japanese Fleet. It took the majority of the day to find the Japanese. With only 75 minutes of daylight remaining Mitscher launched a strike despite the risk to his aircrew the majority whom were not trained in night landings.  The American strike sank the carrier Hiyo and two tankers and damaged the carriers Zuikaku, Chitoyda and Junyo as well as the battleship Haruna.  By the end of the day Ozawa had 35 aircraft in flyable condition. About 435 of the aircraft operated from the Japanese carriers were lost with the vast majority of their pilots and aircrew.

The Japanese Fleet under attack, carrier Zuikaku and two destroyers on June 20th

The final part of the drama was the return of the American strike group to the carriers. Knowing that if he maintained darken ship he would lose many aircraft and the men that flew them Mitscher ordered that the fleet turn on its lights. This act was incredibly risky but helped bring the majority of the returning aircraft to land or ditch near the task force.  The Americans lost less than 100 aircraft during the battle, most due to the night landings and unlike the Japanese who lost the majority of their aircrews, most of the American pilots and aircrew were rescued. In addition to their carrier based losses the Japanese lost nearly 200 land based aircraft.

Admiral Raymond Spruance

The battle was the death-kneel of Japanese Naval Aviation. Later in the year the carriers again under Ozawa sailed against the Americans only this time they were a decoy force at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a role that they succeeded in admirably. The American carriers now had free run of the Pacific only opposed by land based aircraft many used in a Kamikaze role until the end of the war. These would cause fearful losses among the American ships heavily damaging a number of carriers.

The battle is often forgotten by due to its proximity to the Normandy landings but was a significant step in the fight against Japan. The islands captured by the Americans, Saipan, Tinian and Guam would provide major sea and air staging areas for the final assault against Japan. Tinian would become the base of many Army Air Corps B-29 “Superfortress” bombers including those that dropped the Atomic bombs less than 14 months later. It was a turning point both militarily and politically. With the fall of the Tojo government the Japanese leaders began to slowly tell the truth about wartime setbacks and losses to a people that it had lied to since their invasion of China and occupation of Mongolia.  It was a setback that even Tojo and the highest leadership of Japan knew that they could not recover.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

Devastators Into the Valley of Death: The Sacrifice of the Torpedo Bombers at Midway

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:

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.

They were not six hundred and they were not mounted on horses but the Naval Aviators of Torpedo Squadrons Three, Six and Eight and their aerial steeds 42 Douglas TBD Devastators and 6 TBF Avengers wrote a chapter of courage and sacrifice seldom equaled in the history of Naval Aviation. Commanded by veteran Naval Aviators, LCDR Lance “Lem” Massey, LCDR Eugene Lindsey and LCDR John Waldron the squadrons embarked aboard the carriers flew the obsolete TBD Devastators and the young pilots of the Midway based Torpedo 8 detachment under the command of LT Langdon Fieberling flew in the new TBF Avengers.eneterprise-vt-6-midway1

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

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LCDR Lem Massey Commanding Officer of Torpedo 3

A total of 129 Devastators were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet, while a limited number embarked aboard Wasp.  The Devastator saw extensive service prior to the war which pushed many airframes to the end of their useful service life.  When war began only about 100 remained operational. By then the TBDs were for all purposes obsolete.They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament.

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 of Torpedo Two and Torpedo Five based on the Lexington and Yorktown performed adequately against minor opposition in strikes against the Marshall Islands, and contributed to the sinking of the Japanese Light Carrier Shoho at the Battle of Coral Sea..

However in the Battle of Midway the squadrons embarked on Yorktown, Torpedo Three which had previously been assigned to Saratoga which was undergoing repair, Torpedo Six of Enterprise, and Torpedo Eight of Hornet were annihilated with only 6 of 41 aircraft surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force.

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When the Japanese were discovered the American carriers launched a massive strike agains the Japanese carriers. Unfortunately the attacking squadrons became separated from each other and the torpedo bombers arrived before the dive bombers and without fighter escort. Over the course of an hour and ten minutes the three squadrons attacked independently of each other.  Lacking coordination and with inadequate escort, the lumbering aircraft were easy prey for the modern Japanese A6M Zeroes.

The Zeroes of Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed Devastators as they came in low and slow to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of aircraft 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. From his observation point hiding under floating wreckage Gay would see the dive bombers get revenge and would be rescued later by a PBY Catalina patrol plane.

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LCDR John Waldron Commanding Officer of Torpedo Eight

Torpedo Six from the Enterprise under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties too. It lost 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.

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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.

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, History, leadership, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

Fly the Friendly Skies

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m traveling to Houston today by air. Truthfully I have never been much a fan of flying. When I was younger I actually had a big fear of crashing, but after flying all around Iraq in all sorts of military aircraft, and occasionally getting shot at, the issue of crashing is the least of my concerns, notwithstanding the fact that two years after Judy and I had flown back from our tour in Germany on December 28th 1986 on it that the Pan Am 747 Maid of the Seas was blown up over Lockerbie Scotland.

When I was a kid flying was an adventure, it was something special, and the airlines were doing their best to give good customer service, even in coach, because they wanted to eliminate their competition, which was then America’s vast passenger rail system. Truthfully, I loved going across country by train. Yes, it took more time, but it was relaxing and you could see so much of this beautiful country.

But today, air travel for the most part is not to be enjoyed, and much of that is due to the way the airlines, the airports, and airport security treat you. The recent public relations fiascos involving U.S. flagged air carriers which included the outright abuse of customers showed this in all its ugliness. As far as airport security, I cannot tell you how many bad experiences I have had even in uniform. Honestly I don’t mind flying, once I get aboard airlines like Lufthansa, British Air, KLM, or Air France. I dread flying on United, pretty much abhor American, and approach Delta with trepidation.

As far as travel in the continental United States I prefer Southwest Airlines. First, since I have been in the military for almost 36 years I am used to the cattle car experience. I don’t mind not having assigned seating. Likewise, I have never had a bad experience on that airline, the customer service I have had has always been awesome. Two years ago I was flying to Houston for the same purpose that I am today. I was booked on Southwest and flew the first leg from Norfolk to Baltimore. I arrived at Baltimore and went to grab a beer while waiting for my flight to Houston when I discovered that I didn’t have my wallet. Some gentleman bought my beer as I dashed back to the gate. The gate agent sent people back into the aircraft to find my wallet and it wasn’t aboard. They contacted Norfolk as I made my way to the gate when my next flight was to depart. I told the gate agent there what was happening and he already had the answer. My wallet had been found by the Norfolk gate agents and they had already made arrangements to get me back to Norfolk, pick up my wallet and fly to Houston through Orlando, all at no extra cost. That is customer service. They went the extra mile to make things right even though they had done nothing wrong. I will never forget that.

So anyway, until tomorrow, please, if you fly… fly the friendly skies.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Pearl Harbor, Tactical Success, and Failure


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who have followed my writings since I began this site in 2009 know how much I study and think about the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The fact is I am kind of a Pearl Harbor geek. Ever since I read Walter Lord’s classic treatment of the attack, Day of Infamy, back in 7th Grade I was hooked and I began to read everything that I could about the attack. Then in 1978 I was privileged to be part of a Navy Junior ROTC cruise to Pearl Harbor and back. I visited the USS Arizona Memorial on Easter Sunday of that year. I have never forgotten peering into the aqua waters of Pearl Harbor and looking down into the wreck of the Arizona as I looked upon the names of the officers and sailors who died aboard her that Sunday morning in 1941. 

The battleships of the Pacific Fleet, including Arizona which were moored on battleship row were unprepared for the onslaught of torpedoes and bombs unleashed by the Japanese Naval aviators that morning. The Japanese had prepared a diabolical set of weaponry that would wreak havoc on the ships moored on Battleship Row. 

The Japanese had learned well from the British Royal Navy attack on the Italian Fleet moored at Taranto earlier in the year. Pearl Harbor was shallow, so the Type 91 aerial torpedoes used by the Imperial Navy were modified to allow them to be dropped from the Nakajima BN5 “Kate” torpedo bombers against targets inshallow waters. The modification was simple. Commander Minoru Genda worked with other specialist in order to modify the torpedos with a wooden fins that kept them from hitting bottom. Likewise 16″ armor piercing shells from the Nagato class battleships were modified to be dropped from other Kates operating as level bombers at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet. 


The combination proved deadly. Some 19 torpedoes found their mark on the Battleships California, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Nevada, as well as the gunnery training ship Utah, light cruiser Raleigh, and light cruiser Helena. Meanwhile some 24 of the modified armor piercing shells found their targets on Battleship Row or the far side of Ford Island. 

When all was said and done every one of the Battleships moored along Ford Island as well as the USS Pennsylvania were sunk or heavily damaged during the attack. Tactically the Japanese achieved remarkable success, but their strategic goals remained unfulfilled. The Aircraft Carriers of the Pacific Fleet were not in port on that Sunday morning; likewise the Japanese neglected to attack the fuel oil tank farm on Ford Island, or the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. The omissions of the Japanese High Command in regard to the attack helped doom their empire in the coming months and years. 


Technical marvels which provide tactical successes are important, but when those who unleash those devices without fully comprehending the strategic situation, or forgetting the other military, informational, diplomatic, and economic policy aspects of war and conflict will find that their short term tactical success will prove less than successful. The U.S. Navy was able to recover and within a year had wrested the initiative from the Japanese and was rolling back the initial Japanese success at Coral, Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal. Four of the six aircraft carriers and both battleships involved in the attack were at tepee bottom of the Pacific by November 1942. In the meantime the United States recovered. All of the battleships except Oklahoma and Arizona returned to action, and some, like West Virgina, California, Tennessee, Maryland, and Pennsylvania wrought havoc on the Japanese at the Battle of Surigao Strait, while Nevada returned to the fight in North Africa, and Normandy before going back to the Pacific. The carriers which the Japanese failed to sink at Pearl Harbor, as well as the submarines proved to be decisive in the battle against Japan. 

The Japanese Navy concentrated their attacks at Pearl Harbor on the America battleships and in the process lost the war. The Japanese, for all of their tactical and operational acumen neglected the larger factors of diplomacy, information, military power, and economics when they attacked the United States and its allies on December 7th 1941. Weapons and tactics are only one part of the equation, something that many war “buffs” fail to appreciate. 

Have a great day,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under aircraft, History, Military, My Other Blogs, national security, World War II at Sea

Eugene Ely and the Birth of Naval Aviation

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Eugene Ely

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am back from our trip to Washing DC and my excursion to the Manassas battlefield yesterday. However today I remembered that something very important happened not far from where I live back in 1910.

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Ely taking off from USS Birmingham

On a blustery November 14th in the year 1910 a young civilian pilot hailing from Williamsport Iowa became the first man to fly an aircraft off the deck of a ship.  Eugene Ely was just 24 years old and had taught himself to fly barely 7 months before. With the wind whipping about the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Ely readied himself and his Curtis biplane aboard the Cruiser USS Birmingham anchored just south of Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads.

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Captain Washington Irving Chambers 

Ely was there because he was discovered by Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers.  Chambers had been tasked with exploring how aircraft might become part of Naval Operations. Chambers had no budget or authority for his seemingly thankless task nor any trained Navy aviators. But when he heard that a German steamship might launch and aircraft from a ship Chambers hustled to find a way to stake a claim for the U.S. Navy to be the first in flight.

The weather was bad that day as is so typical for Hampton Roads in November. Between rain squalls Ely decided to launch even though Birmingham did not have steam up to get underway to assist the launch.  Ely gunned the engine and his biplane rumbled down the 57 foot ramp and as he left the deck the aircraft nosed down and actually make contact with the water splintering the propeller. The damage to his aircraft forced Ely to cut the flight short and land on Willoughby Spit about 2 ½ miles away. This is not far from the southern entrance to the modern Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

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Chambers then talked Ely into making the first landing on a Navy ship the Armored Cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18th 1911. In this flight his aircraft was modified and equipped with an arrestor hook, a standard feature on carrier aircraft since the early days of US Navy aviation.

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Ely desired employment in the Navy but the Navy Air Arm, but since it had not yet been established he continued his exhibition flying around the country. Sadly, Ely died in a crash while performing at the Georgia State Fairgrounds on October 11th 1911 less than a year after his historic flight off the deck of the Birmingham.

Ely would not be forgotten. Though he was a civilian he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress in 1933. The citation read in part: “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”

It is hard to believe that Naval Aviation traces its heritage back to this humble beginning. However the next time you see an aircraft taking off and landing from a modern super carrier, remember the brave soul named Eugene Ely who 106 years ago today gunned his frail aircraft down that short ramp aboard the USS Birmingham. Tonight let us raise a glass to Eugene Ely and all the men and women who would follow him as Naval Aviators.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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High Anxiety: The Plane Flight to Oktoberfest

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today Judy and I are leaving for a trip to the Oktoberfest. I love Europe, we have lived in German and travelled in much of Europe and I do look forward to the trip with Judy. In addition to our time in Munich at the Oktoberfest we plan on making side trips to Salzburg and Nuremberg.

Of course we are flying which frankly is neither of our big thrill. I have never been much about flying, though I readily admit that this is a control thing, I would rather be in the cockpit flying the aircraft than sitting back in steerage. To tell the truth I would love to learn to fly and fly classic World War II war birds like the P-51 Mustang or the Messerschmitt Me-109, or maybe the Focke-Wulf FW-190. But then, I do get to drive Judy’s 2013 Mustang a lot, and I will be driving the Autobahnen in Germany when we get there, but I digress….

The fact is that I have always a distinct fear of flying, or rather crashing. Professor Liloman calls the condition High Anxiety, a condition that he treated the world famous psychiatrist Richard H. Thorndyke for at the renowned Institute for the Very Very Nervous. (Note the gratuitous Mel Brooks film reference) This only has gotten worse with age. Not that I don’t know how to keep myself calm, beer at every stop from beginning to end of the flight with a good number of Hail Mary’s thrown in; in German of course because that is where I first learned the prayer.

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There is a song about the condition too, appropriately named High Anxiety.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHrQC67aPBU

High anxiety whenever you’re near – High anxiety – it’s you that I fear.

My heart’s afraid to fly – it’s crashed before …

But then you take my hand;  My heart starts to soar once more.

 High anxiety … it’s always the same; High anxiety … it’s you that I blame.

It’s very clear to me I’ve got to give in. High anxiety: you win.

High Anxiety 1977, Words by Mel Brooks, arranged by John Morris

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When we returned from our first tour in Germany after Christmas in December 1986 we flew on a Pan Am Boeing 747. It had a beautiful name, I can never forget reading it before we boarded it at Frankfurt, the Maid of the Seas. I mentioned it to Judy before we boarded, and talked about how I wish all airlines named their aircraft. If the name of the airplane rings a bell, just think a bit. In 1988 Libyan terrorists blew up a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie Scotland. When I saw the wreckage I was stunned to see the name Maid of the Seas on the crumpled wreckage. I have a hard time getting that picture out of my mind. So there is a reason for my gallows humor, I need to take the edge off.

I did make my peace with flying and have done so too many times to count, to far too much of the world, many times on long distance overseas flights to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I have gotten used to the hassles of flying, especially security, check in lines and lost or damaged luggage. I even managed to get through flying in Iraq, although getting shot at flying out of Ramadi one night in 2007 was quite unnerving.

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Ever since coming home from Iraq flying has taken on a new old sense of terror. I don’t like it. It is a necessary evil to go places. Personally I would rather take trains or ships if I had the option, but I don’t live in Europe.

Anyway, unless I get a chance to write a short article while in Germany everything that will be posted will have be scheduled before I left home.

Peace, love and beer,

Padre Steve+

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