Category Archives: World War II at Sea

Götterdämmerung in the Pacific: The Okinawa Campaign

USMC-M-Okinawa-2

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Saturday, June 22nd is 74th anniversary  of the end of the Okinawa Campaign, one of the longest and bloodiest campaigns waged by United States Forces in the Pacific during the Second World War. I have resurrected this article from the archives because even today Okinawa is a key strategic location, and the base of thousands of U.S. military personnel, mostly Marines and Air Force personnel, along with Navy and Army personnel. In the event of a military conflict with with North Korea or China, Okinawa would be at the center of the conflagration.

Today, many Okinawans do not consider themselves Japanese, though the United States returned control of Okinawa to Japan in 1972. They are culturally more Chinese than Japanese and during the battle over a third of the civilian population died. Many are opposed to the continued presence of over 26,000 American troops, and also desire independence from Japan. So as you can see the conflict over Okinawa is not yet finished.

The Okinawa Campaign 

The United States decided to invade Okinawa in the fall of 1944 following the seizure of Peleliu and the Philippine landings.  The planned invasion of Formosa was cancelled after General Simon Bolivar Buckner objected.[i] Buckner argued that the Japanese army on it was “much too strong to be attacked by the forces by American Forces then available in the Pacific.”[ii] The strategic rationale behind the decision to invade Okinawa included Okinawa’s proximity to Japan as a staging base for a future invasion of the Japanese mainland.  Likewise taking the island would severe Japan’s lines of communication and commerce with Southeast Asia and to serve as base for strategic bombers.[iii] Planning began in October 1944 and the detailed plan for OPERATION ICEBERG was issued 9 February 1945.[iv] The campaign was not planned in isolation but “was bound up strategically with the operations against Luzon and Iwo Jima; they were all calculated to maintain unremitting pressure against Japan and to effect the attrition of its military forces.”[v]

LIEUTENANT_GENERAL_SIMON_B._BUCKNER_in_Okinawa     Lt General Simon Bolivar Buckner Commander of US 10th Army

The War Department insisted that Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner command the newly formed 10th US Army.[vi] .  Buckner was chosen to command based on his taking of the Aleutians, displacing the veteran Marine Holland M. Smith. One critical history noted that “compared to his subordinates, Buckner was hardly fit to command a corps, let alone a field army.”[vii]

The 10th Army consisted of the 3rd Amphibious Corps (1st, 2nd and 6th Marine Divisions) under Major General Roy Geiger and the XXIV Army Corps (7th, 27th, 77th and 96th Divisions) under Major General John Hodge.[viii] 2nd Marine Division was designated as a diversionary force, and the 77th Division was assigned to take the nearby island of Kerama Retto prior to the landings to provide the Navy a safe anchorage and as an artillery platform to shell Okinawa. The 27th Division was in corps reserve.  All were veteran units and had it was believed they would be “more than enough to overwhelm the estimated 70,000 Japanese on Okinawa.”[ix] However, much of XXIV Corps had only been engaged in hard combat on Leyte and was not relieved of their duties on Leyte on 1 March 1945.  This provided these units with no time to rest and refit.[x] More importantly badly needed troop replacements had been diverted to Europe due to the crisis in infantry strength there during the battle of the Bulge.[xi] The operation was very large and “mounted on a scale that matched the previous year’s Allied landing in Normandy.”[xii]

                                      The Japanese Preparations

Mitsuru_UshijimaJapanese Commander Lt General Ushijima

American intelligence underestimated the number of Japanese on the island, with an estimate of 55,000 with the expectation of 66,000 by 1 April.[xiii] However by the time of the invasion the Japanese defenders numbered over 100,000.[xiv] The defense of Okinawa was entrusted to the 32nd Army was activated in 1 April 1944 commanded by Lieutenant General Ushijima.  In addition to Okinawa the 32nd Army was responsible for the entire Ryukyu chain.[xv] General Ushijima had commanded an infantry group in Burma and was commander of the military academy when appointed to command 32nd Army and ordered to Okinawa.  His Chief of Staff, General Cho was a firebrand.  Cho had served in China and had participated in a number of attempted military coups in the 1930s as a member of the “Cherry Group.”[xvi] Another key officer though relatively junior was Colonel Yahara the Operations Officer. He had served as an exchange officer in the United States and was intellectual and a modern soldier. He viewed war as a science, won by “superior tactics adjusted to terrain, weapons and troops…not Banzai charges.”[xvii] He was “widely recognized as an expert in his field,”[xviii] and devised the Japanese defensive plan for Okinawa.

Yahara_Hiromichi          Colonel Yahara Architect of the Japanese Defensive Plan

Until 32nd Army was activated Okinawa was garrisoned by a mere 600 troops,[xix] and until major units arrived these soldiers concentrated on airfield construction.[xx] Eventually the 9th, 24thand 62nd Infantry Divisions, the 44th Mixed Brigade along with a light tank regiment and significant artillery came to Okinawa. Additional forces were alloted to outlying islands.  The 24th Division was a triangular division of 3 infantry regiments of 3 battalions each and supporting arms. The 62nd Division was a “brigaded” division activated in 1943 was formed from the veteran 63rd and 64thbrigades each with 4 infantry battalions and supporting arms. It had no organic artillery.  Both of the brigades of this division received an additional infantry battalion in January 1945 giving the division ten maneuver battalions.[xxi] Okinawa’s defenses were significantly weakened when 9th Division was transferred to Formosa by the 10thArea Army in late 1944. To compensate General Ushijima converted Naval and service troops on the island into front line troops. Additionally he called the Okinawan Boeitai volunteers and conscripts into service.[xxii] The Boeitai numbered 20,000 and burned “with ardor to serve their emperor.”[xxiii] Seven sea raiding units were converted into infantry battalions.[xxiv] The major units, with the exception of 24th Division which had been transferred from Manchuria had combat experience.[xxv]

BB-43-LVT-okinawaUSS Tennessee Provides Naval Gunfire Support while LVTs Advance toward the Beaches

Ushijima’s plans to concentrate his forces in the south were delayed by Tokyo.[xxvi] Likewise the number and disposition of troops in the Ryukyu’s were decided by Imperial Headquarters.[xxvii] Colonel Yahara wrote that had Imperial Headquarters “been able to give us an overall plan with specific unit names and arrival dates, we would have been able to follow a consistent policy, disposing units in an efficient manner rather than moving them left and right.”[xxviii] He noted how the 44th Mixed Brigade had to change location and thus its defensive preparations “seven times during the ten months before the actual battle….”[xxix]

XXIV_Corps_turns_south                                     XXIV Corps Advancing South

The loss of the 9th Division and its 25,000 soldiers forced Ushijima to change his initial plan to defend the beaches and then launch a major counterattack to drive the Americans into the sea.[xxx]Ushijima decided to defend the south end of the island. This was the most defensible area, with a network of fortifications and underground caves centered on the ancient citadel of Shuri Castle. “Troop disposition would conform to local terrain; troop strength would be concentrated; and an extensive system of subterranean fortifications constructed.”[xxxi] The defenses were “anchored in natural and artificial caves which dotted the mountainous regions around Shuri.”[xxxii] “Terrain features were incorporated into the defense and weapons were well sited with excellent fields of fire.”[xxxiii] General Ushijima left Colonel Udo’s 2nd Infantry Unit to fight a delaying action in the north,[xxxiv] having decided that the area was of “little military value.”[xxxv] Likewise Ushijima decided not to contest the landings or to defend the airfields at Kadena and Yontan.[xxxvi] He planned to use Boeitai units to demolish the airfields when the Americans approached.[xxxvii]

Okinawa_flamethrowerFlamethrowers were Widely Employed their Operators were Targeted by the Japanese

Ushijima’s defensive scheme laid out by Yahara involved concentric defensive lines, tunnels and bunker systems and even the Chinese tombs which dotted the island were converted to pillboxes over the objections of Okinawan elders.[xxxviii] Yahara and Ushijima planned a battle of attrition with all artillery in the army concentrated on the southern end of Okinawa.  Yahara believed the battle would be a “bitter yard-by-yard” defense of the island,[xxxix]with a focus on defense in depth with preparations for anti-tank warfare. There were to be no Banzai charges.[xl] Ushijima turned Bushido “inside out” and urged his soldiers to “Devise combat method [sic] based on mathematical precision, then think about displaying your spiritual power.”[xli] The defenders would be assisted by suicide boat squadrons based on Okinawa and Kerama Retto and over 4000 aircraft, conventional and Kamikaze and a naval force built around the super battleship Yamato.[xlii]

                                                      The Landings

Attack_on_bloody_ridgeWrecked Tanks on Skyline Ridge

The assault on Okinawa began with landings by 77th Division on Kerama Retto on 26 March.   The landings were met with little opposition as most of the combat troops on the islands had been moved to Okinawa leaving only base and service troops and members of a Sea Raiding Unit and Korean laborers to defend the small island.[xliii] By the 29th of March the islands were taken, along with numerous prisoners.  Over 350 of the fast “Suicide Boats” that were to attack US transports and landing craft were destroyed at Kerama Retto and long range artillery was emplaced were it could support the Okinawa landings.[xliv] More importantly Kerama Retto provided the Navy a safe anchorage, and Service Squadron 10 arrived on 27 March to support naval forces around the island.[xlv]The naval bombardment was led by Admiral Deyo’s battleships and Admiral Blandy’s escort carriers[xlvi] and culminated on 1 April when 10th Army went ashore. By the time of the landing 10 battleships and 11 cruisers would join the attack.[xlvii] Over 13,000 large caliber shells were fired and a total of 5,162 tons of ammunition were expended on ground targets and 3,095 air sorties were flown by L Day.[xlviii] Fortunately for the Japanese Ushijima had listened to Colonel Yahara and elected not to defend the beach, and thus most of the shells fell on empty positions and terrain.[xlix]

The Americans landed on the Hagushi beaches adjacent to Kadena and Yontan air bases.  No organized resistance was encountered and in the first hour 16,000 troops landed.[l] There was little disorganization and all units landed on time on the planned beaches.[li] The beaches were bisected by the Bishi River which served as the Corps boundary.  The 1st and 6th Marine Divisions landed north of it and the 7th and 96th to the south.  The Marines chopped up the “Bimbo Butai” in their area many of whom melted back into the civilian population.[lii] The Americans moved rapidly inland and by nightfall over 60,000 Marines and Soldiers were ashore.[liii] As the landings were made the 2nd Marine Division conducted a demonstration off Minatoga on the east side of the Okinawa actually launching several waves of landing craft.[liv] On 2 April the operation was repeated which helped divert some Japanese attention off of the actual landings. Ushijima reported that the attempt “was complete foiled, with heavy losses to the enemy.”[lv] Some Marine veterans of Peleliu were jubilant at not having to land and some wondered what the Japanese were up to.[lvi]

US_Flag_raised_over_Shuri_castle_on_Okinawa     Marine Battalion Commander Raising Flag over Shuri Castle

In the following days the two Marine divisions would race north and east while Army troops advanced cautiously to the south first encountering light opposition.[lvii] The 1st Marine Division cut the island in two on April 3rd and was allowed to clear the Katchin Peninsula which it took without opposition.[lviii] The 6th Marine Division moved north and by the 7th it had had taken Nago.  Colonel Udo’s troops of the 2nd infantry Unit defended the Motubu with great skill[lix] but the Marines took the center of resistance on April 18th.[lx] They then cleared the remainder of the peninsula and the rest of the northern end of the island by the 20th.[lxi] The Marines had advanced 84 miles and killed 2,500 Japanese at the cost of 261 killed and 1,061 wounded. The Japanese survivors according to the plan of Colonel Udo afterward retreated into the hills and engaged in guerilla warfare.[lxii]

                                                  The Ordeal Begins

Corkscrew-demolition_team                                      Demolition Team Advancing

As the Soldiers of the 7th and 96th Infantry Divisions felt their way south, they began to encounter resistance from Japanese outposts.  On 4 April 96th Division’s advanced elements including the 96thRecon Troop and 763rd Tank Battalion encountered the first Japanese anti-tank defenses, losing 3 tanks to well concealed 47mm anti-tank guns.[lxiii] The following day both the 7th and 96thdivisions encountered more resistance and were held to minimal gains as they drove the Japanese out of their outpost positions. On the 6th and 7th they captured “the Pinnacle” and “Cactus ridge” from elements of 3 independent infantry battalions which put up stiff resistance.[lxiv] By the end of 8 April against strong opposition XXIV Corps had suffered 1,510 battle casualties and was virtually halted.[lxv] Savage hand to hand fighting took place as the defenders worked to separate the American tanks from their infantry. They held the Americans outside the Shuri zone for 8 days.[lxvi]

USMC-C-Okinawa burialThe Human Cost of War: Marine Colonel Fenton prays for his Fallen Son

The 96th Division attacked the heavily defended Kakazu Ridge and Tombstone Ridge and was repulsed.  The 7th Division was halted at Hill 178.  The Japanese fought at close quarters and desperate hand to hand fighting “would characterize the Okinawa land battle.” While the Japanese infantry contested every yard “carefully concealed anti-tank guns seemed anchored into the terrain.”[lxvii]The deployment and concealment of the anti-tank guns helped nullify the American advantages in armor. The Japanese also employed 320mm spigot mortars[lxviii] and well sited machine guns and artillery sited on reverse slopes took a heavy toll of the attacking Americans. Of one company of 89 men which attacked Kakazu on 9 April “only three returned unwounded.”[lxix] Assisted by monsoon rains, “the Japanese turned every hill, every ridge into a bloody deathtrap.[lxx] On the 10th two regiments of 96th Division attempted a power drive with battalions advancing on line and were thrown back.[lxxi] The two divisions suffered 2.890 casualties in their abortive attacks while the Japanese lost close to 4,000, mainly to artillery fire.[lxxii] Ushijima’s defense planned by Yahara was “chillingly professional and efficient. Within a week the Japanese had stopped two very good Army divisions in their tracks.”[lxxiii]General Buckner paused sent for the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions and brought the 27th and 77th Divisions ashore to strengthen XXIV Corps.[lxxiv]

                                                  Counterattack

475px-USS_Bunker_Hill_burningThe War at Sea: Kamikaze Attack on USS Bunker Hill

It was at this point when “Yahara’s war of attrition was working well” that a division arose in the 32nd Army Staff, when General Cho; Ushijima’s Chief of Staff had “his first outburst of samurai offensive fever.”[lxxv] Cho noted the failure of the American attacks and believed reports that the American Navy had been heavily damaged by Japanese air power and by the reported success of Operation Ten-Go, the sortie of the Yamato and her escorts on their suicide mission.  He based his optimism on a telegraph from Imperial Navy headquarters “claiming that Ten-go had been “very successful”[lxxvi] when in fact the Yamato and her escorts had been dispatched in hours by carrier aircraft with few American losses.  Cho also assumed a reduction in the number of ships in the Hagushi anchorage and in the number of air sorties as signs of American weakness.[lxxvii] Cho persuaded Ushijima to launch a counterattack over the protestations of Yahara who argued that “it would waste men.”[lxxviii] The attack by four battalions of the 62nd and 24thDivisions began the night of 12-13 April. Based on infiltration tactics and supported by artillery the attack was badly planned and coordinated. One attack almost overran American positions on the draw on Kakazu Ridge, but the Japanese return to “bamboo spear tactics” exposing them to the “overwhelmingly superior America artillery fire….”[lxxix] The attack was a “total failure.”[lxxx]The Japanese lost nearly 1,600 men, half their force in an “operation ill conceived, understrength, misdirected, haphazard and uncoordinated.”[lxxxi]

                                     Cracking the Outer Line

Reinforced by the 27th Division XXIV Corps prepared for another attack against the outlying Shuri defenses. In the interval between the Japanese attack and the new offensive the 77th Division landed on Ie Shima on 16 April and secured it on the 24th amid very heavy fighting killing over 4,700 Japanese, many armed civilians against the loss of 172 killed and 902 wounded Americans.[lxxxii] Among the American dead was legendary reporter Ernie Pyle.

The Americans aimed to penetrate the defenses and “seize the low valley linking Yonabaru on the east coast with the capital of Naha on the west.”[lxxxiii] The attack was supported by 27 battalions of artillery[lxxxiv] including 9 Marine artillery battalions.[lxxxv]Additional Naval gunfire support in the form of 6 battleships, 6 cruisers and 9 destroyers added to the rain of steel unleashed on the Japanese.[lxxxvi] Morison notes that Army historians stated that “Naval gunfire…was employed in greater quantities in the battle for Okinawa than in any other in history.”[lxxxvii] The 7th Division was to take Hill 178 and drive south to the Naha Yonabaru road. 96thDivision minus the 383rd Infantry was to “drive straight through the heart of the Shuri defenses seizing the town of Shuri and the highway beyond.”  27th Division attacking 50 minutes later to take advantage of artillery was to take Kakazu ridge and the coast plain north of Naha.[lxxxviii]

The attack began on April 19th and was preceded by a 19,000 shell bombardment.[lxxxix] Ushijima wisely ordered his men to remain in their caves.  The Corps Artillery commander “doubted as many as 190 Japanese…had been killed in the bombardment.”[xc] The attack was immediately halted all along the line, gains, where there were any were measured in yards. Over 750 casualties were inflicted by the Japanese on the corps and 27th Division’s tank battalion lost 22 of 30 tanks to well positioned 47mm anti-tank guns.[xci] Buckner rejected the requests of the Corps commander Hodge and the Marine divisional commanders,[xcii] to launch a flanking amphibious operation at Minatoga with the 2nd Marine Division, and continued the frontal attacks.  John Toland writing of the rejection of the amphibious operation noted that Ushijima “feared such a maneuver (“It would bring a prompt end to the fighting”) and had already been forced to move his “rear guard division north to beef up the Shuri line.”[xciii] Thus the three divisions continued to press their attacks, suffering heavy casualties.  Eventually the Americans forced the Japanese off Skyline ridge[xciv] though the Japanese still held Kakazu.[xcv] When the 27th Division attacked again it found Kakazu abandoned by the Japanese.[xcvi] By the 24th Ushijima’s line was “pierced in so many places that it was in danger of collapsing….So General Ushijima withdrew to his next chain of defenses.”[xcvii] On April 30th the 1st Marine Division relieved the battered 27th Division which had suffered 2,661 casualties in less than two weeks.”[xcviii] The 1st Marine Regiment launched an attack on 1 May and was driven back with heavy causalities.[xcix]

                                    General Cho’s Final Offensive

General Cho supported by 62nd Division’s commander, General Fujioka persuaded Ushijima over the strenuous objections of Yahara to launch a counter-offensive with the intention of isolating and annihilating the 1st Marine Division and “rolling up” XXIV Corps.[c]The attack was to occur along the entire line and include an amphibious landing behind American lines.[ci] The 62nd Division would take the lead as it had been less heavily engaged than 24thDivision.[cii] Yahara argued his case strongly and warned the Ushijima that to attack “is reckless and will lead to an early defeat.”[ciii] The attack began on the night of 3 May and the forces making the amphibious landing were annihilated by the Marines.[civ] The Japanese made little headway during the main attack; one battalion achieved a small penetration of American lines at Tanabaru but was eliminated the next day.[cv] The Japanese 27thTank Regiment lost most of its tanks and those remaining were used as “stationary artillery and pillboxes.”[cvi] The Japanese lost about 5,000 troops in the offensive.[cvii] Ushijima halted it and told Yahara “as you predicted this offensive has been a total failure.  Your judgment was correct….”  He ordered Yahara “to do whatever you feel is necessary.”[cviii] Cho saw “no hope at all”[cix] and asked Yahara jokingly “when will it be okay for me to commit hari-kari?” [cx]

                                               Göttdammerung

The American offensive resumed on 11 May and amid stubborn Japanese defense and heavy rains which hindered movement. The 1st and 6th Marine Divisions[cxi] and the 77th and the 96th infantry divisions attacked along the line but the primary objective was Shuri.[cxii] The Americans continued to apply pressure and make small gains against strong Japanese resistance put up by the 44thMixed Brigade.  The defense was particularly strong on Sugar Loaf Hill[cxiii] which cost 6th Marine Division nearly 4,000 total casualties before it was cleared out on 21 May.[cxiv] The 96thDivision turned the Japanese east flank at Conical Hill on the 13th  [cxv] while the First Marine Division cracked through the Japanese lines at Dakeshi Ridge.  It fought through Wana Ridge[cxvi] and engaged the Japanese in a costly battle in the Wana Draw. The 2ndBattalion 5th Marines supported by 30 tanks blasted their way through the draw, again against brutal Japanese resistance.[cxvii]On the 22nd Yahara persuaded Ushijima to withdraw from Shuri to the Kiyan Peninsula.[cxviii] The 1st Battalion 5th Marines crossed the divisional boundary of 77th Division to capture Shuri Castle on 24May.[cxix] The Company commander, from South Carolina who took it did not have an American flag so he “substituted the flag of the Confederacy, a banner that he…carried in his helmet.” [cxx] Two days later the American flag was raised along with the standard of the 1st Marine Division in full view of the Japanese.[cxxi]

Following the Japanese withdraw from Shuri the battle continued with heavy rains hampering both sides, especially the more vehicle dependant Americans.[cxxii] The 6th Marine Division cleared the Oruku Peninsula south of Naha the first two weeks of June[cxxiii]killing 5,000 of the Japanese Navy defenders at a cost of 1,608 Marines. The Japanese resistance crumbled when Admiral Ota committed suicide and many defenders fled while others surrendered.[cxxiv] 7th Division pushed onto the Chinen Peninsula and 1st Marine and both 77th and 96th Infantry Divisions pushed steadily south against Japanese rear-guards.[cxxv] The 8th Marines from 2nd Marine Division were brought to the island to reinforce the depleted 3rd Amphibious Corps[cxxvi] A hard fight was fought along the Kunishi-Yuza-Yaeju escarpment where the Japanese conducted their last organized defense.[cxxvii] By the 17th the “32nd Army was dazed and shattered. Discipline had evaporated.”[cxxviii] The 32ndArmy’s discipline and morale collapsed, and it “degenerated into a mob.”[cxxix] Yahara noted that “naturally, morale is low at the end of a battle, but we had never experienced anything like this.”[cxxx]

Last_picture_of_LtGen._Buckner_at_OkinawaLt General Buckner (Right) Observing 8th Marines Assault minutes before Being Killed

General Buckner was killed while observing 8th Marines attack Kunishi on the 18th and was succeeded by General Geiger of the Marine amphibious corps.[cxxxi] A final message from Tokyo congratulated 32nd Army on its achievements on the 20th.[cxxxii]General Ushijima and General Cho committed Hari-Kari early on the 23rd after ordering Yahara not to do so. Cho told Yahara “to bear witness as to how I died.”[cxxxiii]

American battle casualties totaled 49,151 including 12,520 dead.[cxxxiv] The Japanese lost over 110,000 killed and 7,400 taken prisoner by the Americans.[cxxxv] About 75,000 Okinawan civilians were killed.[cxxxvi] Small numbers of Japanese renegades and Okinawan rebels conducted low-level guerilla operations until 1947.[cxxxvii]

                                                         Analysis

The key Japanese mistake occurred at the strategic level when 9thDivision was transferred off the island[cxxxviii] and no further reinforcements were sent.  With these forces Ushijima might have been able to hold out until the end of hostilities. Yahara criticized Imperial Headquarters which panicked when the landings occurred and ordered a counterattack which “left our army in utter confusion.”[cxxxix] General Ushijima’s major mistakes during the battle were the two costly offensives urged by General Cho against the protest of Colonel Yahara. These attacks sacrificed of some of his best troops for no effect and significantly weakened the 32nd Army’s defensive posture.  Yahara objected to both of these offensives. According to the American intelligence debriefing Yahara considered the May 4th offensive “as the decisive action of the campaign.”[cxl] Gordon Rottman simply called that attack a “blunder.”[cxli]

On the American side Buckner fought an unimaginative and uninspired battle, much like Mark Clark’s Italian campaign or Courtney Hodges at the Huertgen Forrest.  Murray and Millett, note that Buckner’s “flawed generalship contributed to the slaughter.”[cxlii] Buckner’s decision not to land the 2nd Marine Division or the 77th Division at Minatoga surrendered his one opportunity to maneuver against the Japanese to force them out of their prepared positions.[cxliii] Ronald Spector notes that “in retrospect Buckner ought to have given more consideration to an amphibious attack[cxliv] while Murray and Millett state that Buckner “did not have the experience to make such a critical decision.”[cxlv] Nimitz wondered if “the Army was using slow, methodical tactics to save the lives of soldiers at the expense of the Navy”[cxlvi] which was exposed to Kamikaze attacks as they had to continue to provide the close in support to 10th Army. Buckner’s rejection of this opportunity left him with the straight ahead attack.   Another option which was available to Buckner was to seal off the Japanese and let them wither on the vine. Such an action in effect would have bypasses the Japanese defenders and force them to make Banzai attacks against dug in Americans.[cxlvii] The Americans had the airfields on day one and most of the key facilities needed for future operations and there was little to gain by continuing offensive operations in the south.  Sealing off the Japanese would have certainly caused the Americans fewer casualties than the strategy which Buckner employed.[cxlviii]

Buckner’s leadership was poor his strategy and tactics both unimaginative and foolish bordering on incompetent.  In a time when American infantry replacements were tapped out and no new Infantry divisions were available for action he decimated good formations by throwing them into frontal attacks against well prepared fortified positions manned by experienced troops.  Had Ushijima not followed General Cho’s advice squandering is own troops the battle would have cost even more American lives with the invasion of Japan looming.  The War Department in its attempt to wrest control of an operation that should have remained under the control of the Navy and Marine Corps put the wrong man in the job when other more competent corps commanders such as General “Lighting Joe” Collins who had finished off the Japanese at Guadalcanal were available with European hostilities winding down.  Why Buckner was chosen despite his incredibly limited command experience serving in the relatively inactive Aleutians and not even commanding a company in World War One had to be due to Army politics and in the end it cost nearly 50,000 American casualties on the land alone, not counting Navy casualties which totaled almost 10,000 including over 4,900 dead. The capture of Okinawa provided the Americans with valuable anchorages and airfields close to Japan had there been an invasion of the home islands, but they were obtained at great cost.

Notes


[i] Appleman, Roy, E., Burns, James M., Gugeler, Russell A., and Stevens, John. The United States Army in World War II, The War In the Pacific. Okinawa: The Last Battle, Center of Military History, United States Army. Washington DC. 1948.  p.4

[ii] Leckie, Robert. Okinawa: the Last Battle in the Pacific Penguin Books, New York NY 1996. p.2.  Although not mentioned by Leckie this shortage of forces was due to the American decision to limit the Army to 90 Divisions with dire consequences in Europe and Asia especially in the number of infantry available.  For a good account of the impact of this see Russell Weigley’s Eisenhower’s Lieutenants.

[iii] Willmont, H.P. The Second World War in the Far East. John Keegan General Editor. Cassell Books, London, 1999. p.186.

[iv] Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Boston MA 1963. p.525

[v] Ibid. Appleman. p.4

[vi] Costello, John. The Pacific War: 1941-1945 Quill Publishers, New York, NY 1981. p.554.

[vii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 2000. p.515

[viii] Ibid. Leckie. pp. 53-54.  Note Costello misidentifies both of these corps calling them 3rd Marine Corps and XIV Army Corps.   He also does not count the 77th Division in his figures.

[ix] Ibid. Costello. pp. 554-555.  Costello’s figures are slightly above the official estimates listed below.

[x] Ibid. Leckie. p.56

[xi] Ibid. Leckie. p.57 An important point to note is that the Army had reached a critical point in its ability to conduct the war.  The steady drain on infantry strength that began in Normandy was heightened in the Huertgen Forrest and the Bulge.

[xii] Ibid. Costello. p.556

[xiii] Ibid. Appleman. p.15

[xiv] Ibid. Costello. p.555

[xv] Yahara, Hiromichi. The Battle for Okinawa. Introduction and Forward by Frank Gibney. Translated by Frank Pineau and Masatoshi Uehara. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY. 1995. p.3

[xvi] Rottman, Gordon R. Okinawa 1945: The Last Battle. Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2002. p.35

[xvii] Ibid. Leckie. pp.31-32

[xviii] Ibid. Rottman. p.37

[xix] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945. Random House, New York, NY 1970. p.683.

[xx] Ibid. Yahara. p.7

[xxi] Ibid. Rottman. Pp.47-48

[xxii] Ibid. Toland. pp.683-684.  Yahara also notes the arrival of the 15th Mixed Brigade and the fact that the Japanese considered the 44th Mixed Brigade “one of our Army’s prized units.” (p.12)

[xxiii] Ibid. Toland. p.683.  Leckie comments on the low opinion of many Japanese soldiers about the Boeitai calling them Bimbo Butai(Poor Detachment), as the most of the Japanese had come to loathe Okinawa and all things Okinawan. A comment from my own service in Okinawa in 2000-2001 is that this loathing of Okinawa by Japanese is still common, Japanese tend to look down on Okinawans and the Okinawans now tend to resent the Japanese.

[xxiv] Ibid. Appleman. p.87

[xxv] Ibid. Yahara. p.31 All sources note that the 24th was a “well trained” division.

[xxvi] Ibid. Costello. p.555

[xxvii] Ibid. Yahara. p.15

[xxviii] Ibid. Yahara. pp. 14-15

[xxix] Ibid. Yahara. p.15

[xxx] Ibid. Yahara. pp. 20-22 and 32.  Yahara details the initial plan and the changes necessitated by the departure of 9th Division.  Rottman gives 9th Division a strength of 17,000. (Rottman p.46)

[xxxi] Ibid. Yahara. p.20

[xxxii] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan. The Free Press and Division of MacMillan, Inc. New York, NY 1985. p.533

[xxxiii] Ibid. Rottman. p.25

[xxxiv] Ibid. Leckie p.32 and Costello. p.555. The unit was between 3000 and 3500 strong. Leckie simply identifies the force as the 2ndInfantry Unit while Costello identifies them as a Special Naval Landing Force. Appleman identifies Colonel Udo and the approximate number of troops but does not identify the unit. There appears to be confusion about the Japanese units, Appleman says that the 2nd Infantry Unit was constituted from survivors of 44thMixed Brigade (which had lost most of its troops when their ship was sunk by an American submarine) and 15th Independent Mixed Regiment which was brought in to bolster it, but Yahara consistently places the reconstituted 44th in the south as part of the main defense. (see Appleman p.87) I will relay on Yahara as he was the 32nd Army Operations Officer and in a position to have first hand knowledge.

[xxxv] Ibid. Yahara. pp.22-23

[xxxvi] Ibid. Leckie. p.32

[xxxvii] Ibid. Leckie. pp.32-33

[xxxviii] Ibid. Toland. p.684

[xxxix] Ibid. Yahara. p.32

[xl] Ibid. Yahara. p.25

[xli] Ibid. Leckie. p.35

[xlii] Ibid. Leckie. p.19

[xliii] Ibid. Appleman. pp.52-58

[xliv] Ibid. Appleman. p.60

[xlv] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press. Annapolis, MD. 1976. p.369

[xlvi] Ibid. Costello. p. 556 and Morison p.530.

[xlvii] Ibid. Appleman. p.64. Leckie (pp. 67-68) names only 9 battleships: Arkansas, New York, Texas, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Tennessee and West Virginia. Of these ships all were built before the war and four were in commission before the US entered the First World War.  Three had been at Pearl Harbor and with the exception of their engines the Tennessee and West Virginia had been completely rebuilt and modernized to the standards of the fast new battleships of the South Dakota class.

[xlviii] Ibid. Appleman. p.64

[xlix] Ibid. Leckie. p.69.

[l] Ibid. Leckie. p.72

[li] Ibid. Appleman. p.74

[lii] Ibid. Leckie. p.73

[liii] Ibid. Appleman. p.75

[liv] Ibid. Appleman. p.74

[lv] Ibid. Leckie. p.72  A point to note is that the “Demonstration” is still one of the Amphibious Operations in the USMC Amphibious doctrine.

[lvi] Sledge, E.B. With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Presidio Press. Novato, CA. 1981. Oxford University Press Paperback, New York, NY 1990. pp. 187-188  William Manchester in Goodbye Darkness talks about the first few days as his 6th Marine Division moved up North.  He talks of the minimal resistance and the beauty of the island. Manchester, William, Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War Little Brown and Company, New York NY, 1979.pp.356-357

[lvii] Ibid. Potter. pp.370-371

[lviii] Ibid. Leckie. p.78

[lix] Ibid. Manchester. p.357.  Manchester notes that the fight in the north was like “French and Indian Warfare.”

[lx] Ibid. Appleman. p.148

[lxi] Ibid. Leckie. p.83

[lxii] Ibid. Appleman. p.148

[lxiii] Ibid. Appleman. p.104

[lxiv] Ibid. Appleman. pp.107-110

[lxv] Ibid. Appleman. pp.112-113.

[lxvi] Ibid. Appleman. p.112.

[lxvii] Ibid Yahara. p.35

[lxviii] Ibid. Leckie. p.104

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.534

[lxx] Ibid. Murray and Millet. p.514

[lxxi] Ibid. Appleman. pp. 126-127

[lxxii] Ibid. Leckie. pp.104-105

[lxxiii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.514

[lxxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.514

[lxxv] Ibid. Yahara. p.36

[lxxvi] Ibid. Leckie. p.108

[lxxvii] Ibid. Leckie. p.108

[lxxviii] Ibid. Yahara. p.36  The battle for a counter-offensive began on 6 April but was rejected. (Appleman. p.130)  Yahara actually went to the commanders of the 24th and 62nd divisions and persuaded them not to use 3 battalions each but only two. (Leckie. pp.107-108)

[lxxix] Ibid. Leckie. p.113

[lxxx] Ibid. Appleman. p.137

[lxxxi] Ibid. Leckie. p.113.

[lxxxii] Ibid. Appleman. p.182. Leckie gives the total of 258 killed and 879 wounded. (Leckie. p.125) and estimates that most might have been uniformed civilians.  Appleman citing Army figures estimates about 1,500 civilians.  Even adding the American MIA totals the differences between Appleman and Leckie’s count of US casualties is puzzling.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Leckie. p.126

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Leckie. p.127

[lxxxv] Ibid. Appleman. p.185

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Leckie. p.127

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Morison. p.553

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Appleman. pp.184-185

[lxxxix] Ibid. Leckie. p.128

[xc] Ibid. Leckie. p.128

[xci] Ibid. Leckie. p.131 It is interesting to note the vulnerability of the Sherman tanks to the obsolescent 47mm anti-tank guns used by the Japanese.  By this stage of the war comparable German and Russian tanks would not be stopped by such weapons, baring a luck shot.

[xcii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.515

[xciii] Ibid. Toland. p.706

[xciv] Ibid. Toland. pp.708-709

[xcv] Ibid. Leckie. p.138

[xcvi] Ibid. Appleman. pp. 243 and 247

[xcvii] Ibid. Leckie. p.139

[xcviii] Ibid. Toland. p.709

[xcix] McMillan, George. The Old Breed: A History of the First Marine Division in World War Two. The Infantry Journal Inc., Washington DC. 1949. p.375

[c] Ibid. Leckie. pp.148-149

[ci] Ibid. McMillan. p.377

[cii] Ibid. Yahara. p.37

[ciii] Ibid. Toland. p.710

[civ] Ibid. Toland. p.710

[cv] Ibid. Appleman. p.299

[cvi] Ibid. Appleman. p.302

[cvii] Ibid. Appleman. p.302.  Rottman states 7,000 and Leckie 6,000.

[cviii] Ibid. Yahara. p.41

[cix] Ibid. Toland. p.712

[cx] Ibid. Yahara. p.42

[cxi] Ibid. Manchester. pp. 358-359. Manchester notes the distain that the Marines felt toward 27th Division which both they and 1stMarine Division had relieved in the south.  Manchester comments that they felt that “the dogfaces lacked our spirit.”

[cxii] Ibid. Rottman. p.80

[cxiii] See Manchester pp.363-378 for a chilling description of the battle for Sugar Loaf.

[cxiv] Ibid. Leckie. pp.172-173

[cxv] Ibid. Appleman. pp.355-356

[cxvi] Ibid. McMillan. pp.385-395. 7th Marine Regiment suffered 1,249 casualties in this fight.

[cxvii] Ibid. Sledge. p.243

[cxviii] Ibid. Yahara. pp.67-73.  Yahara has an interesting account both listing the military options available and the interaction between him and the other officers leading tom the withdraw.  Among those he had to persuade were the divisional commanders of 24th and 62nd Divisions.

[cxix] Ibid. McMillan. p.401

[cxx] Ibid. McMillan. p.401

[cxxi] Ibid. Leckie. p.186

[cxxii] Ibid. Rottman. p.81

[cxxiii] Ibid. Rottman. p. 82  This included an amphibious landing by two regiments to flank the position which was the last opposed amphibious landing in the war.

[cxxiv] Ibid. Leckie. pp.199-200

[cxxv] Ibid. Rottman. p.83

[cxxvi] Ibid. Leckie. p.197  Leckie notes that the 2nd Marine Division had been transported back to Saipan rather than remain at sea as a target for Kamikazes.  As a result the Marines had no reserve on the island.

[cxxvii] Ibid. Sledge. p.301

[cxxviii] Ibid. Toland p.721

[cxxix] Ibid. Appleman. p.456

[cxxx] Ibid. Yahara. p.133

[cxxxi] Ibid. Rottman. p.83

[cxxxii] Ibid. Yahara. p.144

[cxxxiii] Ibid. Yahara. pp.154-156.  Yahara would hide among refugees hoping that he might escape to Japan but was discovered by an interrogation panel and identified on 26 July. (Yahara pp.189-191)

[cxxxiv] Ibid. Appleman. p. 473 This includes Navy losses of 4,907 killed and 4,824 wounded, mostly to Kamikaze strikes on ships supporting the operation. 10th Army lost 7,613 killed and 31,800 wounded. (Morison. p.556)

[cxxxv] Ibid. Appleman. pp473-474.  Other sources report Japanese losses at 65,000 to 70,000.  This may be from listing military civilians like those in the Naval Force and Okinawan militia as civilian casualties and only counting actually Japanese Army and Navy troops in this tally.  Costello gives a count of 10,755 prisoners; this could again be a tally including these civilians and auxiliaries. (Costello. p.578)  Rottman spends some time analyzing the discrepancies in the Japanese casualty numbers and comes to the same conclusion. (Rottman pp.84-85)

[cxxxvi] Ibid. Toland. p.726

[cxxxvii] Ibid. Rottman. p.85

[cxxxviii] Ibid. Yahara. p.31

[cxxxix] Ibid. Yahara. p.196.

[cxl] Ibid. Yahara. p.214

[cxli] Ibid. Rottman. p.73

[cxlii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.514

[cxliii] Ibid. Leckie. p.162

[cxliv] Ibid. Spector. p.535

[cxlv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.515

[cxlvi] Ibid. Potter. p.373

[cxlvii] Ibid. Leckie. p.162  Leckie does not know if this was considered by Buckner though the tactic was used throughout the “island hopping” campaign where Japanese strong points were bypassed and isolated to whither on the vine.

[cxlviii] Ibid. Leckie. p.162

 

                                                Bibliography

 

Appleman, Roy, E., Burns, James M., Gugeler, Russell A., and Stevens, John. The United States Army in World War II, The War In the Pacific. Okinawa: The Last Battle, Center of Military History, United States Army. Washington DC. 1948

Costello, John. The Pacific War: 1941-1945 Quill Publishers, New York, NY 1981

Leckie, Robert. Okinawa: the Last Battle in the Pacific Penguin Books, New York NY 1996.

McMillan, George. The Old Breed: A History of the First Marine Division in World War Two. The Infantry Journal Inc., Washington DC. 1949.

Manchester, William, Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War Little Brown and Company, New York NY, 1979

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Boston MA 1963

Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 2000.

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press. Annapolis, MD. 1976.

Rottman, Gordon R. Okinawa 1945: The Last Battle. Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2002.

Sledge, E.B. With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Presidio Press. Novato, CA. 1981. Oxford University Press Paperback, New York, NY 1990.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan. The Free Press and Division of MacMillan, Inc. New York, NY 1985.

Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945. Random House, New York, NY 1970.

Willmont, H.P. The Second World War in the Far East. John Keegan General Editor. Cassell Books, London, 1999.

Yahara, Hiromichi. The Battle for Okinawa. Introduction and Forward by Frank Gibney. Translated by Frank Pineau and Masatoshi Uehara. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY. 1995

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The Battle Of the Philippine Sea, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot at 75 Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was out late tonight at a fundraiser for #VBStrong at Gordon Biersch where the proceeds went to the major organization helping the victims and the families impacted by the mass murder that took place here in Virginia Beach on May 31st. It was also a night that I got to meet and have dinner with one of my blog followers, and his wife who are in town for their church denominational conference. It was a wonderful evening. Judy and I really enjoyed meeting Brian and his wife Ruth, and thoroughly enjoyed our time with them. It is really a wonderful experience to meet and have a wonderful time with people that enjoy what you write. Hopefully, when any of my books get published I will get the chance to meet others like them. Since I don’t do my blog for money, it is the people who are kind enough to comment, and even those who disagree with me at times that make it worthwhile. Trolls are another matter, but people interested in intelligent discussion without personal invective even when we disagree are a joy to behold.

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. That was 75 years ago, and unlike D-Day I have not seen a single news article or mention of it, even on Navy and DOD websites. But is was the battle that broke the back of Japanese Naval Aviation in the Pacific and helped speed the defeat of Japan.

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.”

http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/destroyed-in-seconds-marianas-turkey-shoot.html

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 Vraicru holds up six fingers for six kills

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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The Battle Of Midway at 77 Years: “A Magic Blend of Skill, Faith, and Valor”

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today we remember the Battle of Midway, the turning point of World War Two in the Pacific. By all empirical means the vastly superior Japanese fleet should have defeated the Americans, but success in war is not based on material alone. There are things unaccounted for, things that happen in the confusion of battle that The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote.

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

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

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Akagi April 1942

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

Hermes_sinking

HMS Hermes sinking after Japanese Carrier air attack in the Indian Ocean

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

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USS Hornet launching B-25 Bombers during the Doolittle Raid

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

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SBU-2 Vindicator Dive Bomber landing on Midway (above) PBY Catalina (below)images-43

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

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

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                            Isoroku Yamamoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As the Japanese crews worked the Japanese carriers were engaged in fending off attacks by the US torpedo bomber squadrons, VT-6 from Enterprise, VT-8 from Hornet and VT-3 from Yorktown. The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down. Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron.

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LCDR Lance Massey CO of VT-3

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LCDR John Waldron CO of VT-8

LCDR Eugene Lindsey CO of VT-6

Torpedo 6 from Enterprise under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo 3 from Yorktown under the command of LCDR Lem Massey from the Yorktown. These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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USS Enterprise

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 EnterpriseHornet 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.

Walter Lord, whose history of the battle is still the classic presentation of it wrote:

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Joe Rochefort and Codebreakers Of Midway “We can accomplish anything provided no one cares who gets the credit.”

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This week many people, especially those in the Navy, will be remembering the Battle of Midway on its 77th anniversary. The victory at Midway would not have happened without the exceptional intelligence gathering and code breaking by the cryptologists of Combat Intelligence Unit – Station Hypo – at Pearl Harbor under the command of Commander Joseph Rochefort. He and his small yet skillful team cracked the Japanese Naval code in time for Admiral Chester Nimitz to make the correct decision as to where to send his tiny carrier task forces to oppose the massive Japanese Combined Fleet under the Command of Isoroku Yamamoto.

Rochefort’s efforts were opposed by the key officers in the Office of Naval Intelligence who refused to believe that Midway was the target of the Japanese force. In spite of this opposition Nimitz was highly confident of Rochefort’s analysis and when all was said and done the U.S. Navy had defeated the Japanese, sinking four of the carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor as well as a heavy cruiser, ripping the heart out of Japan’s premier naval striking force.

Historian Walter Lord wrote:

“Against overwhelming odds, with the most meager resources, and often at fearful self-sacrifice, a few determined men reversed the course of the war in the Pacific. Japan would never again take the offensive. Yet the margin was thin—so narrow that almost any man there could say with pride that he personally helped turn the tide at Midway. It was indeed, as General Marshall said in Washington, “the closest squeak and the greatest victory.”

One of those men was Joseph Rochefort. Admiral Nimitz credited Rochefort for breaking the codes and setting the stage for the victory, and recommended him for the Distinguished Service Medal, however, Rochefort’s rivals in Washington D.C. ensured that the award was turned down in order to claim the success for them. Shortly after Midway, Rochefort was reassigned to command a floating dry dock in San Francisco by the Department of the Navy as a way to punish him, and effectively ending his career. Rochefort retired as a Captain after the war, his contribution to the victory at Midway unrecognized by the Navy. Admiral Nimitz again recommended him for the award of the Distinguished Service Medal in 1958 and again it was turned down, but his supports continued to work to right the injustice.

In 1983 Rear Admiral Donald Showers who had worked for Rochefort in 1942 again recommended the award to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman who approved it. Unfortunately Rochefort was no longer alive to receive it, he had died in 1976. Today his service to the Navy and nation is remembered with the annual Captain Joseph Rochefort Information Warfare (IW) Officer Distinguished Leadership Award which is awarded to annually recognize the superior career achievement of one IW officer for leadership, teamwork, operational contributions and adherence to the principle by which he served, “We can accomplish anything provided no one cares who gets the credit.” 

Have a great day and please don’t forget men and women who embody the spirit of Joseph Rochefort, it is a rare commodity. I am afraid that in much of the current U.S. Navy there is not the same ideal as Joseph Rochefort. Without men and women who hold the ideal of Joe Rochefort you cannot win wars. This matters even today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Week Of Momentous Historical Events


D-Day, June 6th 1944

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am posting a small thought to begin the week. For those that do not know, the next several days are full of the anniversaries of many historical events which still reverberate to our time.

The Evacuation Of Dunkirk

On June 3rd 1940, the British finished the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and some French forces from Europe at Dunkirk, though defeated, the British action preserved the British Army and kept Britain in the war.


The Battle Of Midway 

From June 4th through June 6th 1942 a small American fleet defeated a much larger, more experienced and better equipped fleet at the Battle of Midway. The battle did not end the war, but it ensured that Japan never could win the war against the United States in the Pacific. It was a turning point. It has rightly been called an “Incredible Victory” as all the elements that make war what it is, the element of chance, the element of friction, and the  element of surprise all broke the American way. The Japanese leaders, and for that matter many if not the vast majority of their soldiers and sailors were full of hubris, believing themselves invincible they were decisively defeated.

Two Years later on June 6th 1944, Allied forces landed on the Normandy Peninsula of France to begin their long awaited attack on Nazi occupied Europe. The invasion, code named Operation Overlord did not end the war, but coupled with the Soviet offensive against the German Army Group Center which began just two weeks later, Operation Bagration, it was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Germany.

Battle of Belleau Wood, 1918

Twenty-six years earlier U.S. Marines and Army soldiers turned back the Germans at the Battle of Belleau Wood near Chateau-Thierry France. The effort blocked a German drive on Paris, giving the Allies the time to begin a counter-offensive that would end the war.


Senator Robert F. Kennedy lays Mortally Wounded after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan 

But in addition to the battles other important events shook the world, in 1919 the Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which when ratified gave women the right to vote. In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down by the assassin Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic Party primary. He would have been the odds on favorite to defeat Republican Richard Nixon in the general election. On June 8th 1789 James Madison introduced twelve amendments to the U. S. Constitution, of which ten were ratified by the states to become known as the Bill of Rights. 

On June 8th 1967, the USS Liberty, a surveillance ship, was attacked by Israeli ships and aircraft during the Six Day Warthe attack resulted in the death of 34 American sailors and the wounding of 171 more.

Of course there are numerous other events that took place at different times on these days, some which were very important, and others which are interesting but less important in terms of their historical impact. I’ll be writing about some of these events in the coming days.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sinking Leviathan: The Death of the Bismarck

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is an edited version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lutjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

As darkness fell on May 26th, Bismarck, unable to steer towards Brest due to her damage and the following seas steered toward the oncoming British armada at a reduced speed. Her crew, now exhausted from countless hours on watch and at their battle stations knew that they were doomed.

Despite this the officers and sailors aboard Bismarck still labored trying in vain for a way to repair and save their their ship. As Bismarck’s engineers and damage control personnel sought at way to repair the damage on that dark night Royal Navy destroyers under the command of Captain Phillip Vian harassed her, closing to fire torpedoes and keep the exhausted crew of the mighty German ship engaged at their battle stations throughout the long night. Knowing that the end was near the Captain of the Bismarck ordered the contents of the ship’s store to be given to crew members.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of May 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet which still had enough fuel in their tanks to continue the action, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill. Norfolk had been in on the hunt since the beginning when she and her sister ship the HMS Suffolk had discovered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen as the transited the Denmark Strait on the night of May 23rd and 24th.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

Warily the British ships closed the crippled but still powerful German battleship. At 0847 Admiral Tovey ordered British Battleships to open fire on Bismarck. The crippled German ship replied with accurate salvos and straddled Rodney. However, the British shells hammered the Bismarck. 16” shells from Rodney destroyed the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns of the Bismarck which had sunk the Hooddays before were silenced.  With no opposition from the stricken German ship the British battleships and cruisers pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

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The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits on Bismarck and though they had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

The Bismarck’s First Officer, Fregattenkapitan (Commander) Hans Oels ordered her Chief Engineer Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant Commander) Gerhard Junack to prepare the ship for scuttling and ordered the crew to abandon ship. The watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams and engineers as the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the fish fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship, but truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations leaving hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors were rescued later by German ships or U-boats, but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. When it was all over just 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck, combined with the three men who survived the sinking of the Hood nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander Junack to scuttle the ship.

Within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world, and while legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service. Likewise the surfing German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

As an officer who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

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String Bags vs. The German Leviathan: The Crippling Of the Battleship Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

There is one other thing to mention. I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a crewman on the Bismarck, knowing that nightfall would bring them safely unter the protection of the Luftwaffe, and then discover that there was no escape from death and destruction. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German battleship.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

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