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The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot at 76 Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I have been switching off between working on the revisions to my book and helping Judy do some nursing and care of our oldest Papillon, Miss Minnie Scule. She’s pretty exhausted from three full days in the veterinary hospital, and today we took her for a short subcutaneous infusion of fluids treatment at the emergency vet. Then we got out to do a little shopping at the base where masks and social distancing are mandatory and enforced. But for the most part I have been working on the book, and then helping Judy with Minnie, especially as Judy pooped out early. I imagine that tomorrow will be similar.

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 76 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.”

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

Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa

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

D4Y3 “Judy” Dive Bomber

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

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

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

Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher aboard the USS Lexington

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

A Japanese aircraft goes down in flames

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

Lieutenant Alexander 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+

7 Comments

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

“A Magic Blend of Skill Faith and Valor” the Miracle of Midway at 78 Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, a rerun because I have been so busy. Probably will be the case for the next few days. Busy at work, trying to get a book manuscript ready by early next week, and lots to do at home. However, the posts will deal with both the Battle of Midway, and the D-Day Invasion. Depending on what time I have I might post an article dealing with current events. Have a good night and please be safe.

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.

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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 the American’s dispatched Hornet to deliver the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, all opposition to the attack was dropped.

Yamamoto’s plan was overly complicated, and it relied too much on diversions, and placed his hugely superior fleet in a situation where none of his task forces, or the Main Body of the Combined Fleet could give mutual support each other, with catastrophic repercussions. Yamamoto and his planner relied too much on what they thought the Americans would do without the knowledge that the Americans had broken their code and had a very good idea of Yamamoto’s deployments, plans, and timetable.

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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 First Carrier Strike Group strike force was built around the aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu included 273 aircraft and was escorted by 2 battleships, 3 cruisers and 12 destroyers. They, along with the occupation group were to take Midway and then destroy the US Navy when it came out to fight. TheIr assumption was that the Americans would be unaware and unprepared for their plan and in a reaction mode, but the Americans were already at Midway.

In order to deceive the Americans, Yamamoto sent a force force of 4 battleships, 12 destroyers to  screen to the Aleutian invasion force which was accompanied by 2 carriers 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers. The carriers in this force 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. Since the Americans were already ahead of them, Yamamoto’s deployment plans opened the door for the Americans to strike a blow against the First Carrier Strike Group without having to be concerned that the Japanese Main Body would be in position to strike back.

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With the foreknowledge Of the Japanese plans provided by the code breakers of Commander Rochefort and Station Hypo the US forces hurried to an intercept position northeast of Midway eluding the Japanese submarine scout line by a full day. Admiral Yamamoto presumed that his submarines would find the Americans when they sailed to respond to the Japanese attack on Midway.

However, Admiral Nimitz had already dispatched Task Force 16 with the Enterprise and Hornet sailed formMidway from Pearl Harbor well 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. The Japanese believed that she had been sunk at Coral Sea, and assumed that they would only face two carriers. Fletcher, who was senior to Spruance assumed overall command and Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders to apply the principle of calculated risk when engaging the Japanese as the loss of any or all 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. US Army Air Force B-17 Flying Fortresses, long range bombers based at Midway launched attacks against it, but caused no damage. That evening a PBY from Midway hit a tanker on the bow, with a torpedo but caused little damage.

On the morning of the 4th the Americans adjusted their search patterns closer in to Midway as the Japanese came into range of Midway and commenced their first air strike against the island, still believing that no US Navy forces were in the vicinity, much less three carriers.

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In response, land based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese carrier force taking heavy casualties while failing to damage the Japanese task force. The American Carrier task forces launched their strike groups at the Japanese carrier strike group, just leaving enough aircraft behind to provide Combat Air Patrol and Anti-submarine patrol missions to protect the carriers.

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 which had been delayed at launch, discovered US ships but did not initially identify a carrier among them, until later into the patrol. The carrier Tone’s scout found was the Yorktown and TF 17. But for Admiral 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, and added to the fog of war which now shrouded the Kido Butai. 

Orders and counter-orders were issued as the Japanese attempted to recover their strike aircraft while trying to prepare for a second strike on Midway. and then the discovery of the Yorktown task force created confusion. Orders were changed and air crews now had to unloaded ground attack ordnance in favor of aerial torpedoes and armor piercing bombs. The hard working Japanese aircrews did not have time to stow the ordnance removed from the aircraft they were preparing to send against Yorktown. Finally, at 1020 they’re hard work 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. 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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Meanwhile the Americans also suffered under the fog of war. 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. But their miscalculation cost aircraft and lives. A number of bombers and their fighter escorts having to ditch inn the ocean and wait for rescue, and all did not survive.

it was a different situation for the SBD Douglas Dive Bombers from the Enterprise group composed of Bombing-6 and Scouting 6 under CDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when they spotted the wake of a Japanese destroyer moving at high speed  McClusky and his aircraft followed it to the Japanese Task Force. The Yorktown’s Dive Bombers 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 land based bombers and the carrier based torpedo planes was brought down. As those attacks died out and with their own aircraft ready to launch to deal a fatal blow to the American carrier, they wondered how big their victory would be. In their minds the war would soon be decided, the American Navy defeat, Midway captured, and the Americans suing for peace.

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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, while aboard Kaga aircraft were warming up for take off as they were on the Soryu.  Now the course of the war changed.
The unsuspecting Japanese were finally alerted to the presence of  nearly 60 SBD 3 and 4 Dauntless Dive Bombers when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” Wade McClusky’s aircraft lined up over the Akagi and Kaga pushing into their dives at 1022. There was a bit of confusion when the bulk of Scouting 6 joined the attack of Bombing 6 on the Kaga. That unprepared ship was struck by four 1000 pound bombs which exploded on her flight deck and hangar deck igniting the fully fueled and armed aircraft of her strike group and the ordnance littered about the hangar deck.  Massive fires and explosions wracked the ship and in minutes the proud ship was reduced to an infernal hell with fires burning uncontrollably. She was abandoned and would sink at 1925 taking 800 of her crew with her.

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LT Dick Best of Scouting 6 peeled off from the attack on Kaga and shifted to the Japanese flagship Akagi. On board Akagi were two of Japan’s legendary pilots CDR Mitsuo Fuchida leader of and CDR Minoru Genda the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent string of Japanese victories. Both officers were on the sick list and had come up from sick bay to watch as the fleet was attacked. Seeing Kaga burst into flames they stood mesmerized until Akagi s lookouts screamed out the warning “helldivers” at 1026.  Best’s few aircraft hit with deadly precision landing two of their bombs on Akagi’s flight deck creating havoc among the fully loaded and fueled aircraft. The bombs started fires and ignited secondary explosions of the high explosive bombs which still lay about the decks, 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 continue to do so into the night until nothing more could be done. They abandoned ship at 2000.  Admiral Yamamoto ordered her scuttled and at 0500 on June 5th the mighty Akagi, 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. She was torpedoed on the 6th but lingered until the 7th when she sank as dawn was breaking,

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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 their books about Midway Incredible Victory by Walter Lord and Miracle at Midway by Gordon Prange. 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, even as any combination of events could have negated what happened in those five minutes. 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 And instead proclaimed 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.” 

Those are words that Americans concerned about the survival of our republic today from this insidious forces of Trump’s looming fascist autocracy need to remember. Courageous people, making the Right decisions at the right moment despite danger and uncertainty, can change the course of history, and you do not need to command a carrier task force, or lead a dive bomber squadron to do it, Just stand for truth and facts and speak out regardless of the consequences.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under History, imperial japan, Military, Navy Ships, News and current events, Political Commentary, US Army Air Corps, US Marine Corps, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

“We Can do Anything Provided No One Cares Who Gets the Credit” Joe Rochefort, Station Hypo, and the Intelligence that Helped Win the Battle of Midway

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Johhn F. Kennedy noted that “Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” 

This week many people, especially those in the Navy, will be remembering the Battle of Midway on its 78th anniversary. One of its one hundred fathers was not appreciated or honored in the way he deserved, Commander Joe Rochefort.

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 Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Though Rochefort’s unit was based at Pearl Harbor and under the Administration of the 14th Naval District it was actually fell under the operational control Commander Laurence F. Safford, chief of Security Intelligence of Naval Communications in Washington. He and Rochefort were old friends. This was not surprising because the Code Breakers, as the were called, or cryptanalysts which, existed in the nether world between Communications and Intelligence. Gordon Prange wrote in his book Miracle at Midway:

“To excel in this work required a particular type of mentality, combining a well-above-average IQ, verging on the genius in mathematics, with an infinite capacity for painstaking detail. He should have genuine enthusiasm for the work, yet maintain a scholarly detachment. He must be without ambition as the world generally understands the term, for his chances of pinning a star on his shoulder were roughly those of being elected President of the United States. Awards or decorations very rarely came his way…The cryptanalyst never moved out of his specialty, so over the years these unique, dedicated men of similar aims and tastes came to know each other well. Each service developed a compact group of experts working together with mellow, anonymous perfection.”

Rochefort had such a team at Station Hypo were such a team. Working at Pearl Harbor they passed their analysis directly to Admiral Nimitz’s Fleet Intelligence Officer, Captain Edwin Layton who passed it directly to Nimitz. Rochefort provided a daily situation report to Nimitz and Washington which includes an analysis of all radio traffic from Japanese Fleet Units. Rochefort’s team relied on highly experienced enlisted Chiefs and Petty Officer Radiomen to listen in on Japanese signals, and they had in modern terminology had “hacked” the JN25, the Japanese Naval Code Which included over 45,000 grouping of five digit numbers, which their operators could change as needed. Yet without any code breaking machine or computer Rochefort’s team was able to read every fourth or fifth grouping in every message, and his radio operators could even recognize individual Japanese radio operators by their rhythm of tapping on the key of their radio teletype pads. Their skilled and accurate forecasting of Japanese intentions gained the complete trust of Nimitz, while Washington remained skeptical. Prange wrote:

“But Nimitz was “a thinking leader, a real intellectual,” who comprehended the intelligence mentality. Having come to appreciate the value of the work, he insisted that Rochefort have complete freedom to carry on his essential if off-beat activity. “You are supposed to tell us what the Japanese are going to do,” he told Rochefort, “and I will then decide whether it is good or bad and act accordingly.” 

Rochefort’s team provided Nimitz with information that three Japanese task forces, the occupation force, the Kiddo Butai, and the main body of the Japanese Fleet would attack Midway, down to the timing of the attack. To determine if Midway was the actual target a false message was directed to be sent by Midway to indicate that Midway’s water distilling plant had failed. When the Japanese notified the high command and fleet that their target was “short of water” it convinced Nimitz and the commanders of Task Force 16, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, and Task Force 17, Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher that Midway was the target of the Japanese operation and they planned accordingly in their deployment to meet the Japanese.

Hiryu Burning and Sinking 

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 their opposition, Nimitz was highly confident of Rochefort’s analysis. When all was said and done the U.S. Navy had defeated the Japanese, sinking four of the six aircraft carriers of the First Carrier Strike Force – Kido Butai that had attacked Pearl Harbor. In a matter of minutes three of the four, the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were hit by the dive bombers of the USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown. A few hours later the fourth carrier, Hiryu was blasted by at least six bombs and mortally wounded, but before she was fatally damaged her aircraft had crippled the Yorktown. the next day the heavy cruiser Mikuma was sunk, and her sister ship Mogami so heavily damaged that she was out of action for a year. The loss of the carriers, and so many of their extremely skilled pilots and aircrews  ripped the heart out of Japan’s premier naval striking force. Combined with their aircrew losses at the Battle of Coral Sea their losses crippled their ability to fight the Americans for the rest of the war.

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 themselves.

As an act of retribution they effectively removed Rochefort from further participation in the war at what he did the best, cryptanalysis. They had him reassigned to command a floating dry dock in San Francisco by the Department of the Navy as a way to punish him, and effectively end his career. Rochefort retired as a Captain after the war, and his contribution to the victory at Midway remained 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 Rochefort’s supporters 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 Rochefort’s 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 Information Warfare 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.”

Today, the high tech Information Warfare professionals have their own community, officer and enlisted, and work seamlessly with Naval Intelligence, Operations, and Communications professionals. Their importance is recognized and relied upon. That is in large part due to Joe Rochefort and his team at Station Hypo.

Have a great day and please don’t forget men and women who embody the spirit, intellect, and integrity of Joseph Rochefort, for today, and especially not in the military it is a rare commodity.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, imperial japan, leadership, Military, national security, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

The Ships that Held the Line: The Yorktown Class Carriers, Part One, the Yorktown

USS Yorktown CV-5

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been continuing to read and pay attention to the current developments in the COVID-19 pandemic.  Though I have already written a fair amount about it, I still have much to lean. I am still studying models on the spread of it, current numbers of total infections, new infections, and deaths in this country and around the world, as well as reading about the 1918-1919 Great Influenza. Finally I am trying to take in the current political and social disruption, the virus is causing, as well as the ever increasing threats of revolt and harm being mounted against the politicians and scientists who are actually following sound policies to slow the spread of the virus so it does not overwhelm our hospital system until successful treatments and a vaccine can be found. Sadly, much of this is coming in response to words and Tweets of President Trump, and appears to be a coordinated, and not spontaneous protest against the social distancing, isolation, and other restrictive measures to slow the spread of the disease. This perplexes me as a civil rights advocate, historian, defender of the First Amendment, as well as a veteran who has worked as a Medical Service Corps Officer and Critical Care Chaplain in two previous pandemics. 

As you can imagine that takes time to do, and I won’t shoot from the hip when I start writing new articles on the virus and its spread, the response, the casualties, and the political and social battle being waged by extremists using it as an excuse to promote their ideology. But I digress, I can write about that later. So tonight I go back to a less controversial subject, about which I know much, and have written about before. 

This article is part one of a three part series about the USS Yorktown Class Aircraft Carriers. Part one serves as an introduction as well as the story of the lead ship of the Class, the USS Yorktown CV-5. I wish you the best tonight, as well as tomorrow. Please be safe.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Seldom in the annals of war is it recorded that three ships changed the course of a war and altered history as we know it. After December 7th 1941, the three ships of the Yorktown Class Aircraft Carriers, the USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise , and USS Hornet served as the shield against the seemingly unstoppable Japanese string of victories, and then served as the spearhead of the American counteroffensive that began far earlier that the Japanese imagined in the spring and summer of 1942.

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

USS Yorktown and Enterprise under Construction, Newport News Virginia, at the dock above either the USS Boise or St.Louis 

The Carriers of the Yorktown Class hold a spot in United States Naval History nearly unequaled by any other class of ships, especially since they were a class that numbered only three ships.  Designed and built in the mid 1930s they were the final class of pre-war carriers commissioned by the U.S. Navy

Unlike their predecessors they were no longer experimental ships. They were built incorporating the lessons learned through operational experience with the USS Langley, USS Lexington, USS Saratoga and USS Ranger. The Class had features that would become standard in the design of all future US Aircraft Carriers. As such they were the template for future classes of ships beginning with the Essex Class until the advent of the super carriers of the Forrestal Class. 

Yorktown Refueling Underway

The ships displaced 19.800 tons with a 25,000 full load displacement. They were capable of steaming at 32.5 knots, and they were the Navy’s first truly successful class of carriers built from the keel up.  The ships could embark over 80 aircraft and could steam long distances without refueling.  Protection was good for their era and the ships proved to be extraordinarily tough when tested in actual combat. In speed and air group capacity the only carriers of their era to equal them were the Japanese Hiryu and Soryu and the larger Shokaku and Zuikaku. British carriers of the period were about the same size but were slower, had a shorter range of operations, and carried a smaller and far less capable air group. However, their protection which included armored flight decks and hull armor that was superior to both the American and Japanese ships. That would prove particularly valuable in their survival, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea against massed attack by the German Luftwaffe.

Yorktown Operating Near the Coral Sea

The lead ship, the Yorktown CV-5 was laid down in 1934 and commissioned on 30 September 1937 at Newport News Shipbuilding.   She served in the Atlantic conducting carrier qualifications and operating with her sister ship USS Enterprise CV-6  to develop the tactics and operational procedures that would be used by US carrier forces until she joined the Pacific Fleet in late 1939.

Upon joining the Pacific Fleet, Yorktown took part in various major fleet exercises and due to the deteriorating situation in the Atlantic was transferred back to the Atlantic Fleet along with other significant Pacific Fleet units to screen convoys bound for Britain against U-Boat attacks. Yorktown was at Norfolk when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and 9 days later she departed for the Pacific where she would join Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher’s Task Force 17 (TF-17) at San Diego on December 30th 1941.

Her first duty to escort a convoy ship transporting Marine reinforcements to Samoa.  This was followed by the first American offensive action of the war, a raid on the Gilbert Islands including Makin Island in late January, and against eastern New Guinea in March. On May 4th the Yorktown’s air group attacked Japanese installations on Tulagi and Gavutu sinking the Japanese destroyer Kikuzuki.


The actions of Yorktown and TF-17 in the Solomons were connected to the Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby, in preparation for attacking Australia. The Japanese forces were led by a task force centered on the carriers  Shokau and Zuikaku and the light carrier Shoho. The Americans parried the Japanese thrust with Task Group 11 centered on the USS Lexington and Fletcher’s Task Force 17 built around Yorktown.

Yorktown’s Nemesis The IJN Hiryu

The clash of the Japanese and American forces on the 7th and 8th of May 1942  is known as the Battle of the Coral Sea.  This was the first Naval Battle fought by forces that did not come within visual distance of each other, and which was fought exclusively by carrier based aircraft against the ships and aircraft of the opposing forces.

On the 7th Japanese aircraft busied themselves attacking the oiler USS Neosho and destroyer USS Sims, sinking Sims and damaging Neosho so badly that her shattered hulk would be sunk by US destroyers on the 11th. As the Japanese aircraft worked over the unfortunate Sims which went down with all hands, Neosho, while aircraft from the Yorktown and Lexington attacked and sank the Shoho.

On the May 8th the main event began.  Aircraft from Yorktown scored two bomb hits on Shokaku holing her flight deck, starting fires and knocking her out of the fight.  The Japanese countered and their aircraft discovered the US ships scoring two torpedo and three bomb hits on Lexington which would result in her loss when fumes were ignited by a generator causing catastrophic explosions which forced her abandonment. Lexington was lost more to poor damage control and failure to cut off fuel from damaged lines, than it was to battle damage.

TBD Devastators from Yorktown Operating in the Solomon Islands

Meanwhile, as the Japanese attacked Lexington, Yorktown was under attack by Japanese aircraft.  Expertly maneuvered by her Captain Elliott Buckmaster, she was able to avoid the deadly torpedoes launched by Nakajima Kate torpedo bombers, but suffered a bomb hit that penetrated her flight deck and exploded below decks killing 66 sailors and causing heavy damage.

                                            Sinking of the Shoho 

The battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese who sank Lexington, however it was a strategic victory for the Americans as the Japanese move on Port Moresby was blunted and the lifeline to Australia preserved.  Additionally neither the damaged Shokaku nor the Zuikaku, whose air group suffered heavy losses of aircraft and experienced aircrews would be available for the attack on Midway scheduled for June.

The damage suffered by Yorktown at Coral Sea was severe, and it was estimated by naval engineers that repairs to make her ready for combat would take three months. But the due to the success of US Navy code breakers the Navy had deciphered the Japanese intention to attack Midway, and forced the Navy to ensure that repairs to Yorktown could not take three months.

Critically short of ships the Navy determined that Yorktown would have to be available for the fight, meaning that her repairs had to be accomplished in three days, not the months.

Yorktown and her escorts arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 27th and in less than 72 hours she received the essential repairs that enabled her to speed to Midway.  It was an amazing performance by the shipyard workers at Pearl Harbor who worked around the clock to put Yorktown back in fighting shape.  Yorktown departed Pearl Harbor on May  30th with her escorts and her air group, which was augmented by squadrons from USS Saratoga which was unavailable for action after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in January, and which was still enoute to Hawaii following repairs and modernization on the West Coast.

With her necessary repairs completed, even lacking a fresh coat of paint. she and her cobbled together air group led Task Force 17 to the waters east of Midway where they linked up with Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Task Force 16 built around Yorktown’s sisters the Enterprise and Hornet. Yorktown and her escorts took station ten miles to the north of Task Force 16 as they waited for the appearance of the Japanese Fleet.  They would not have long to wait as on June 3rd the Japanese invasion force was spotted by search planes operating out of Midway.

On June 4th the Japanese Kido Butai, the crack Carrier strike group commanded by Admiral Nagumo composed of the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, the light cruiser Niagara, and numerous escorting destroyers led Admiral Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet into battle.

Not expecting any intervention by US Navy forces, Nagumo’s aircraft hit Midway.  Before the attack land based aircraft from Midway manned by inexperienced flight crews made uncoordinated, and piecemeal attacks against the veteran Japanese combat air patrol A6M Zeros, who decimated the attackers.

The American ships were given a grace period and avoided detection as a scout plane from the cruiser Tone was late in departing for its assigned search sector.  Later, when the scout first spotted the Yorktown group, it did not report the presence of a carrier. The report provided Nagumo with a false sense of security, and he began to prepare for a second attack on Midway, and began removing torpedos and armor piercing bombs from his second wave, and replacing them with high explosive bombs. This created mayhem on the flight decks and hangar decks of his carriers.

Then the American carrier aircraft attacked as the Tone’s scout belatedly reported the presence of one aircraft carrier. The first to attack were slow, underpowered, under-armed, and obsolete TBD-1 Devastator torpedo planes attacked first.  Their attacks were suicidal, lacking fighter cover and uncoordinated with the attacks of the Dive Bombers, they were slaughtered. Of the 41 attacking aircraft only 6 returned to Enterprise and Yorktown, while all 15 aircraft from Hornet’s Torpedo 8 were lost.

The attack of the Devastators increased the chaos aboard the the Japanese carriers. Their crews scrambled to recover their returning aircraft, and to once again rearm the second wave with torpedoes and armor piercing bombs as they prepared to launch their aircraft to attack the American Task Force.

Likewise, while the Zeroes of the Japanese Combat Air Patrol were drawn down to the deck pursuing the remaining Devastators, the SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown surprised the Japanese carriers. With their now fully fueled and armed aircraft preparing for launch, the bombs unloaded from the Kate Torpedo planes were still laying about the deck waiting to be stowed when the American dive bombers attacked.

Bombing 6 and Scouting 6 from Enterprise blasted Akagi and Kaga while Yorktown’s Bombing 3 hit Soryu causing massive damage and fires that would sink all three, leaving on Hiryu to continue the fight.

Hiryu’s first wave of dive bombers found Yorktown and suffered heavy losses to the F4F Wildcats of Yorktown’s CAP,  yet three Val’s from Hiryu scored hits which started fires and disabled Yorktown, causing her to lose power and go dead in the water.  Yorktown’s damage control teams miraculously got the fires under control, and patched the her damaged flight deck, while her engineers restored power. Soon Yorktown was back in action steaming at a reduced speed of 20 knots, but able to conduct air operations again.

Hiryu’s second strike composed of Kate Torpedo Bombers discovered Yorktown, and thinking she was another carrier since she appeared undamaged attacked. Yorktown’s reduced CAP was unable to stop the Kates and the Japanese scored 2 torpedo hits causing another loss of power and a severe list.  Thinking that she might capsize Captain Buckmaster ordered that she be abandoned.  As this was occurring a mixed attack group of dive bombers from Enterprise and now “homeless” Yorktown aircraft attacked Hiryu causing mortal damage to that brave ship.

Damage Survey Report of Torpedo Hits from I-158 on Yorktown and Hammann

With water lapping at her hangar deck it appeared that Yorktown would soon sink the ship was abandoned and left adrift.  However, she floated through the night and the next morning a repair crew went aboard to try and save her. The destroyer USS Hammann came alongside to provide pumps and power for the salvage operations while 5 other destroyers provided an anti-submarine screen.

It looked like the repair crews were gaining the upper hand when the Japanese submarine I-158 reached a firing position undetected and fired 4 torpedoes one of which stuck Hammann causing her to break in half, jack-knife and sink rapidly. Two more torpedoes hit Yorktown causing mortal damage. Once again her crew evacuated the proud ship. While Captain Buckmaster planned another attempt to save her on June 7th,  but on the morning of the 7th the gallant Yorktown rolled over and sank ringed by her escorts.

Yorktown Abandoned and Sinking

Yorktown was stricken from the Navy list on October 2nd 1942 and her name given to the second ship of the Essex class.  The second Yorktown would provide gallant service in war and peace. She is now is a museum ship in Charleston South Carolina.

On May 19th 1998, a search team led by Dr. Robert Ballard who had discover the wreck of RMS Titanic, found the wreck of Yorktown some 16,000 feet below the surface sitting upright on the ocean floor. Apart from the battle damage little deterioration was noted. The Ballard team photographed the wreck and left it alone. Since then no other explorations of Yorktown have been made. The great ship now lies over three miles below the Pacific, a memorial to her crew and the victory at Midway.

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

Bloody Betio, The God of Death Has Come: The Battle of Tarawa

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight an interlude before I resume my narrative on the Nuremberg Trials. This article is about the Battle of Tarawa, one of the sharpest, bloodiest battles of the Pacific War, all for one square mile of barren land which within the next half century will probably be under water due to sea rise and climate change.

That leads me to tonight’s article. There are some things that should not be forgotten, unfortunately many of them are lost to history. One of these events was the American assault against the Japanese fortress on Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. The battle was one of the deadliest encounters of the Second World War, and was waged for the control of a tiny coral atoll that only occupied one square mile of the earth’s s surface. Dug in on that atoll were about 4,000 Japanese defenders.

The only Japanese officer to survive, Warrant Officer Kiyoshi Ota recalled, “We could see the American landing craft coming towards us like dozens of spiders over the surface of the water.  One of my men exclaimed, ‘The God of Death has come!’”

I hope that this small attempt to detail that battle helps you understand the sacrifice of the men who fought there.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The American Decision: Operation Galvanic

The Target: Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll

Following the Guadalcanal campaign and the shift of significant naval forces away from the Solomons, the focus of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps shifted to operations in the Central Pacific. Unlike the Solomons campaign, which was initially a Navy and Marine Corps Operation, but shifted to Army control under General Douglas MacArthur as the campaign shifted to Borneo; the operations in the Central Pacific would be an almost total Navy and Marine Corps operation.

Operation Galvanic was the first offensive operation in the Central Pacific. It came about as a result of the Joint U.S. Strategic Committee decision in April 1943 to favor an advance in the Central Pacific while continuing to maintain McArthur’s offensive in the South Pacific.[i]

Betio Island after the Battle

The driving force behind this strategy was Admiral Ernest King. King fought for the plan and “insisted that any campaign should focus on the destruction of Japan’s overseas resources, which meant an offensive directed only toward the Western Pacific sea lanes.”[ii] The Joint Chiefs believed that a simultaneous attack by the forces of Admiral Chester Nimitz in the Central Pacific, and MacArthur in the South Pacific would “keep the Japanese guessing” in regard to which direction the Americans would strike. [iii] The decision of The Joint Chiefs was presented to the British at the TRIDENT meetings in May 1943 and while the British resisted the American plans, a compromise was reached which allowed the Americans to “simultaneously…maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan….”[iv]

Japanese Troops Emplacing 8″ Vickers Gun

The decision to begin operations in the Central Pacific meant that the priority that MacArthur’s had been given in logistics and personnel would be reduced in order to launch the Central Pacific operation.  MacArthur protested to no avail, and the Joint Chief’s stood firm in their decision that the Central Pacific operation “would make it easier to isolate Japan from her domain in the south.”[v]

MacArthur was allowed to continue OPERATION CARTWHEEL in order to neutralize the key Japanese base at Rabaul while Nimitz’s forces attacked the Marshall and Caroline islands.[vi] Nimitz’s staff began their preparations and decided on a conservative course to capture the Gilberts first before taking the more heavily defended Marshalls.[vii] This was in part due to the “need to minimize the risks to his untried amphibious forces against such heavily fortified enemy bases out of reach of air cover.”[viii]

Japanese Naval Infantry conducting Live Fire with Type 99 Machine Guns

Several factors were considered by Nimitz and his planners considerations in this choice.  Nimitz did not have enough troops to capture all of the vital heavily defended locations in the Marshalls without dividing his forces.[ix] Additionally the Gilbert operation could be supported by land based bombers.[x] A final consideration was the Joint Chief’s decision to allow MacArthur to retain control of 1st Marine Division, which Nimitz had hoped to employ in his operations in the Central Pacific.[xi] The Staff of CINCPAC did a thorough photo reconnaissance of the Gilbert’s, and convinced the Joint Chiefs that Tarawa and Makin needed to be taken to provide air bases for the assault on the Marshalls.  Finally, the order for Galvanic was issued on 20 July 1943 with its execution planned for November 1943.[xii]

Japanese Preparations

Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki

“It will take a million men a thousand years to take Betio”

The Japanese had done little to prepare against potential American offensive operations against the Gilbert’s until Makin Island was raided by elements of the 2nd Raider Battalion in August 1942.  The Makin raid shook the Japanese and they reinforced Makin and occupied Betio.[xiii]

The Japanese deployed the Yokosuka 6th Special Landing Force, essentially Naval Infantry or Marines[xiv] and the 111th Construction Battalion to Betio on 15 September 1942, over nine months after they attacked Pearl Harbor.[xv] What many people do not know is that these Special Naval Landing Forces were some of the most murderous and criminal elements of the Japanese military during the Second World War. They fully embraced the twisted version of Bushido and Emperor worship to justify their brutal conduct of war. While the Japanese on Betio were not accused of war crimes, it was only because they had no prisoners, military or civilian to torture and kill as other Special Naval Landing Forces had in the Pacific.

The forces on Betio were commanded by Admiral Tomanari Sachiro, who at once began to fortify Betio. Tomanari was a skilled officer who appreciated the value of strong fortifications on exposed islands like Betio. Likewise, recognizing that his forces were inadequate to the mission, Tomanari asked Tokyo for reinforcements. The reinforcements came in the form of Commander Sugai’s 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, which landed on 14 March.[xvi]Commander Sugai’s troops were the famed Rikusentai, the best of the Japanese Navy’s land forces and considered to be better disciplined, trained, and effective than Imperial Army Units of the same size.

Japanese Gunnery Exercises before the Invasion

The fortification of Betio proceeded slowly until Rear Admiral Shibasaki relieved Tomanari, who returned to Japan. [xvii] Shibasaki was a tough veteran of service at sea and ashore including 19 months as a Rikusentai[xviii] officer in China. Shibasaki was chosen by Admiral Mineichi Koga, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto’s to instill a better fighting spirit on the island.

The Imperial General Headquarters, issued a “New Operations Plan,” which ordered the outer defensive islands, such as Tarawa, to “hold up any American advance while an inner line of fortresses was constructed….”[xix]

Shibasaki drove the garrison hard, inspiring them to “extraordinary heights of labor that resulted in Betio’s superb defenses.”[xx]Betio mounted four 8” Naval guns[xxi], four 14 cm guns, four dual mount 5.5” dual purpose guns[xxii] six 80 mm anti-boat guns, eight 75 mm dual purpose guns, ten 75 mm mountain guns, six 70 mm guns and nine 37 mm anti-tank guns, numerous machine guns. The defenders were also equipped with light AA guns and 14 Type 95 Ha-Gō light tanks.[xxiii]

These weapons were mounted in well camouflaged, armored, or reinforced pillboxes, connected by trenches. [xxiv] In accordance with the directives of the high command, Shibasaki ordered his troops “to defend to the last man all vital areas and destroy the enemy at the waters’ edge.”[xxv]

The Japanese records note that Shibasaki “immediately began to strengthen morale and carried out advanced training, and as a result…the garrison remarkably enhanced its fighting capability and they were full of confidence.”[xxvi] Even the service troops were thoroughly trained to fight from their superb defensive positions.[xxvii] Shibasaki reportedly told his men that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio.

American Preparations for Galvanic

LVT Amphibious Tractor

Nimitz organized his forces into three major commands, the 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, the 5th Amphibious Force under Admiral Richmond “Kelly” Turner, and the V Amphibious Corps under Major General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC.[xxviii] The 2nd Marine Division, which was assigned to assault Tarawa, was commanded by Major General Julian Smith.

The force that sustained this operation, and the subsequent amphibious operations was the Service Force Pacific Fleet.[xxix] This was a collection of ships whose mission it was to sustain the fleet in mobile operations. [xxx] This force, greatly “increased the range and power of the Navy in amphibious operations.”[xxxi] The plans for Galvanic called for the Army’s 27th Division take Makin Island, and the 2nd Marine Division which had been blooded at Guadalcanal, to take Tarawa, supported by the carriers and battleships of Admiral Raymond Spruance’s 5th Fleet.

Galvanic was the first application of new amphibious tactics developed for the Pacific war.[xxxii] Air and sea bombardment would precede the actual assault. The Marines would be transported ashore in a new vehicle called an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and other amphibious ships and craft including the LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel).

The LVTs were absolutely vital at Tarawa because of the distance that the reef extended from the beaches. The LVT’s, nicknamed “Amtracks” or “Amphtracks” were essentially a tracked amphibious personnel carrier. They were developed from a commercial vehicle used by U.S. Forrest Service Rangers in the Florida Everglades and were capable of crossing coral reefs that other craft could not cross.

The early LVTs had retrofitted armor and mounted a .50 cal. machine gun.  At Tarawa the Marines deployed 75 LVT-1s[xxxiii] and 50 LVT-2s. A total of 93 LVTs were part of the first wave of the Marine assault.[xxxiv] The LVTs were transported to Tarawa aboard LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks.)

Other innovations in this new form of amphibious warfare included the assignment of Naval Gunfire Support teams to the Marine Regiments, and down to some battalions. [xxxv] The attack at Tarawa was the first time that the Marines used the M4 Sherman tank in combat. [xxxvi]

Tarawa, ended up being a real combat proving ground for the tactics and equipment which would be improved on and used in every subsequent amphibious operation in the Pacific.  Tarawa also marked the last major use of rubber landing craft by the Marine Corps in an opposed landing.[xxxvii]

There were limitations to American preparations. First the size of the force meant that it could not be assembled in one place for rehearsals or to train as a team.[xxxviii] A second problem for the Americans was the assumption that high and low tides would be sufficient to get their landing craft across the reef in spite of warnings to the contrary.[xxxix] Likewise, the Americans failed to completely anticipate the scope to which the Japanese had fortified the island.

The latter was a failure of commanders to appreciate good intelligence that had been provided to them. In particular, aerial photos taken by the Air Force, and ULTRA intercepts provided good information on the strength and composition of the Japanese units on the island, as well as the layout of the defenses.[xl]

Likewise, some important equipment shortages were not remedied. The Marine Bazooka’s did not arrive, and neither the 6th or 8th Marines had ever made an actual amphibious assault.  At Guadalcanal the these regiments made an administrative landing, and few field-grade officers remained from the 2nd Marine Regiment who had landed at Tulagi.[xli] Despite their combat experience, they were far from the “amphibious experts” that they would become.[xlii]

However, they made up for their lack of practical amphibious experience by their cohesiveness, high morale and esprit. Likewise, they were well armed and equipped, in top physical condition and knew the basic tools of their trade: “weapons proficiency and field firing, close combat techniques, fire and maneuver, tactical leadership, fire discipline.”[xliii]

Japanese Vickers 8″ Gun Emplacement

The most critical aspect of the operation was to get across the reef onto the island.  There were few good landing sites and it was decided to make the landings from inside the atoll’s lagoon onto the Betio’s north shore.  This decision meant that transports embarking the Marines would have to unload outside of the lagoon and that the landing craft would have to make a 10 mile trip to get to the beaches.[xliv]

Another problem was that there was only one entrance into the lagoon, and it was not deep enough for heavy ships to enter.[xlv] This meant that ships such as battleships and cruisers would not be able provide direct, close range fire on the Japanese positions which were best situated to disrupt the Marines.

The execution of the plan involved land based bomber strikes beginning on D minus 7. Carrier aircraft would begin their operations on D minus 2.  Cruisers and destroyers joined the cacophony of destruction on D minus 1 and the battleships on D-Day itself.[xlvi]

On D-Day the Navy planned to bombard the island with 3,000 tons of shells in 2 ½ hours.[xlvii] The Navy was confident in its bombardment plans. Rear Admiral H. F. Kingman, who commanded the fire support group declared “We will not neutralize; we will not destroy; we will obliterate the defenses on Betio!”[xlviii]

Four battalions of Marines would land in the first wave, the three battalions of the 2nd Marines Regiment, and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines, all commanded by Colonel David Shoup.

Colonel Shoup would win the Medal of Honor on Betio and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps. However, he assumed command of the 2nd Marines when the Regimental commander fell ill on the journey to Efate.[xlix] The division reserve were the remaining two battalions of the 8th Marine Regiment. The Division’s 6th Marine Regiment served as the corps reserve.[l]The assault units would be reinforced by tanks, and the 1st and 2nd Battalions 18th Marine Regiment, the division’s combat engineers.

The Invasion: Day One

Marines Going Ashore on Day One

The final naval gunfire bombardment commenced at 0542 hours on 20 November, and the assault waves began their trek to the beaches.  The transports were out of range of Japanese guns, but since they were so far out, the small amphibious craft boats have to make a 10 mile trip to get to the beaches. [li]At this point things began to go seriously wrong for the Marines.

LCT (Landing Craft Tank) Sinking after Being Hit

Unfortunately, Admiral Kingman and the Navy had “badly miscalculated the amount of softening-up that could be done in two and a half daylight hours bombardment.” Although the bi Vickers guns were silenced, not enough damage was done to the Japanese defenses.[lii] The Japanese unwittingly helped the Marines by firing their larger guns at the warships instead of holding fire, thus identifying their positions to Navy gunners.[liii]

The bombardment was lifted to allow an attack by carrier based aircraft. However, the aircraft were late to arrive and the ships did not resume fire, allowing the Japanese to emerge and re-train their weapons on the approaching landing craft.[liv] Likewise the destroyers USS Ringgold and USS Dashiell, the only ships operating inside the lagoon and providing close Naval Gunfire Support, were ordered to cease fire, knowing the Japanese gunners along the shore were still active.[lv] Some believe that an extra half hour of direct fire from the destroyers would have saved many lives.[lvi]

The LVTs in the first three waves were delayed by a heavy chop outside the lagoon and did not make landfall until 0913, which threw off the landing schedule.[lvii] The expected and planned for rise in tides did not materialize, and tides remained unpredictably low for the first 48 hours. As a result, no landing craft other than the LVTs could cross the reef, and the Marines were forced to wade ashore from distances of 600 to 1000 yards.[lviii]

Marines Wading Across the Lagoon

Shoup’s Marines landed on three beaches.  Red One and Red Two lay to the west of a 500 yard long pier, while Red Three lay to the east.  Third Battalion Second Marines (3/2) landed on Red-1, while 2/2 on Red-2. Second Battalion Eighth Marines (2/8) landed on Red-3, while elements of 1/18 and the scout snipers landed at the pier, with First Battalion Second Marines (1/2) remained at sea in reserve to land behind the battalion making the best progress.[lix]

As soon as the Amtracks hit the reef the Japanese began firing.  Every “working weapon along the north and west shorelines….blazed forth in fierce, interlocking fields of fire.”[lx] As they watched the Amtracks craw over the reef that Japanese knew they were in for a tough fight, one of Warrant Officer Ota’s men exclaimed “Heavens! The God of Death has come!”[lxi]

The Marines of 3/2 on Red-1 received enfilade fire from Japanese guns emplaced in a U around the beach. Even before the Marines landed they began to take causalities, Amtracks were hit in the lagoon and most that were not sunk or destroyed were unfit for further use.[lxii] The 2000 Marines who landed on the beaches in the first hour of the assault were badly disorganized, and the commanding officer’s of 2/2 and the Amtracks were killed. 3/2’s commander was isolated on the reef and only 2/8’s commander was with his troops. 2/8 was the only battalion being to reach the shore relatively intact.[lxiii] 3/2 was down to 65% of its strength and Kilo Company, 3/2 had taken over 50% casualties.[lxiv]

The Marines in the fourth to sixth waves were struggling to wade ashore from the reef. Landing craft “ran aground or milled about helplessly outside the reef, which was swept by crossfire from behind the beaches and from a grounded hulk northwest of the pier.”[lxv] Most of the tanks were put out of action either through accurate fire by Japanese guns or by sinking in deep areas of the lagoon, the Tank battalion commander was blown out of his Amtrack, wounded and survived 24 hours by clinging to a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning.[lxvi]

Colonel Shoup Directing Operations

Colonel Shoup landed at Red-2 and began directing operations on the beach.  He knew that he had to get more troops ashore to exploit the minimal gains his Marines had made.  The news from Red One and Two was bad; he decided to bring 1/2 in at Red-2 thought that 3/8 should go in at Red-3.[lxvii] At 1018 General Julian Smith ordered the 8th Marines to dispatch 3/8 to Red-3.[lxviii] The Marines of 3/8 had to make their way across 700 yards through the water to get to the beach. They were slaughtered, and only 30 percent of the first wave got ashore, while the second and the third “were practically wiped out.”[lxix]

Close Combat

As Shoup’s Marines struggled to reach the beaches, those who had gotten ashore engaged the Japanese at point blank range. First Lieutenant William Hawkins of the 2nd Marine Scout and Sniper platoon and five of his men engaged the Japanese on the pier in vicious hand to hand fighting. [lxx] Staff Sergeant Bordelon of the Engineers on Red-2 though grievously wounded knocked out four gun positions, some by lobbing dynamite charges into them and galvanizing survivors into action, finally being killed while taking on a Japanese position alone.  Both Marines would be awarded the Medal of Honor.[lxxi]

Wounded Being Evacuated by Rubber Raft

By afternoon Julian Smith realized that he needed more troops, his last battalion, 1/8 waited to go ashore.[lxxii] Smith asked for the 6th Marines. He had Rear Admiral Wilbur Hill, Commander of Amphibious Group Two, send a message to Admiral Richmond K. Turner stating “Issue in doubt. I concur.” This message sent a chill through the listening Naval Staff.[lxxiii]

Ashore, Colonel Shoup brought in howitzers from 1st Battalion 10th Marines on his surviving Amtracks to the eastern edge of Red Two near the pier. [lxxiv] The howitzers landed in the early evening.[lxxv] Shoup sent Lieutenant Colonel Carlson to make a personal report to General Smith that he would hold onto his beachhead no matter what happened.

Shoup ordered his Catholic Chaplain to lay out a cemetery and begin burying the dead who were already decomposing in the tropical heat.[lxxvi] As this transpired, 2/8 got two of its 37mm anti-tank guns into position to drive off Japanese tanks approaching the beachhead.[lxxvii]

Members of the Second Marine Division Band assisted Navy Hospital Corpsman in bringing back wounded Marines.[lxxviii] For the rest of the day the Marines continued to eke out a beachhead. Shoup’s Marines on Red-2 and Red-3 managed to advance about halfway across the island, while 3/2 and elements 1/2 and 2/2 were isolated. Major Ryan of Lima Company 3/2 pulled them back to meet an expected Japanese counter-attack.[lxxix]

By nightfall the Marines had taken over 1500 casualties of 5000 men landed the first day.[lxxx] There is no evidence that Shoup considered withdraw that night.[lxxxi] No counterattack occurred due to Japanese command and control problems. The primary cause was that Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were killed while shifting the position of their headquarters during the afternoon,[lxxxii] and the Japanese communications were in shambles. A well organized counterattack would have been disastrous for the Marines,[lxxxiii] but it did not happen, even though the Japanese assembled over 1000 men to oppose the Marines on day two.[lxxxiv] Had Shibasaki lived and the Japanese communications survived, a counterattack might have had ramifications far beyond Tarawa.[lxxxv]

Day Two

Advancing Under Fire

The second day began with the First Battalion EighthMarines landing on Red Two, while the 6th Marines began to land on Green Beach at the far western tip of Betio.  Like the Marines who landed on the first day, 1/8’s landing turned into a bloodbath, the tide fell even lower than the previous day. As they hit the reef and waded ashore they drifted into some of the heaviest Japanese defenses. Japanese guns, including the dual 5.5” guns took direct aim at the boats, while Marines ashore watched helplessly. War correspondent Robert Sherrod noted: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.”[lxxxvi] Only half of 1/8 reached the beach with none of their heavy weapons or equipment.  Shoup ordered the remnants of the battalion into line on his western flank in preparation for an advance inland.[lxxxvii] During five hours of landings on day two, the “Marine casualties reached a higher rate than that sustained on the first morning.”[lxxxviii]

Meanwhile, Shoup ordered Ryan’s “orphans” to make an attack down the right flank of the Japanese positions on Green Beach. Shoup’s decision and Ryan’s leadership made the attack a success. The “American victory at Betio evolved from the attack during one intense hour the second morning.”[lxxxix]

Taking every available Marine, two surviving Sherman tanks, and some mortars, Ryan gathered his force and coordinated Naval Gunfire support. The area contained a number of heavy guns including two of the remaining 8” mounts.  A destroyer blanketed the Japanese positions with 5” shells and fire from her light AA guns.[xc] Attacking behind the beach, Ryan’s Marines isolated and destroyed everyone and everything that looked hostile.[xci] Against minimal opposition Ryan’s Marines quickly seized the gun positions and the western end of the airfield.  Within an hour his Marines occupied the entire western side of Betio up to a 200 yard depth. At 1200 he radioed Shoup to let him know the good news, and that he now intended to advance east against the airfield.[xcii] The attack allowed the Marines to land intact battalions with supporting arms for the first time battle.[xciii]

To the east behind Red Two and Red- Three, the 8th Marines and survivors of 1/2 and 2/2 attacked against fierce Japanese opposition near Shibasaki’s former command bunker and two other large bunkers which were mutually supporting.  The attack by the 2nd Marine survivors eventually succeeded in getting completely across the south side of the island.[xciv] During the attack Lt. Hawkins of the Scout Snipers, who had distinguished himself at the pier the previous day was mortally wounded.

The attack cut the island in two, but the Japanese launched a viscous counterattack on the Marine positions which was beaten back.[xcv] The 8th Marines faced a more difficult task going against what was now the heart of the Japanese defense as the defenders had been reinforced by Lt. Minami and his third company of the 7th Special Naval Landing Force.

Vicious fighting ensued and by nightfall “the Marines had little to show for their heavy losses,[xcvi] but they did make significant inroads against the Japanese to warrant optimism for D+2.[xcvii] By evening the Marines on Red-1 and Red-2 had consolidated their beachhead so that reinforcements were finally able to land, including jeeps, artillery and heavy equipment.

By mid-day the Marines noted that Japanese defenders were beginning to commit suicide, and they began to feel that Japanese morale had broken.  By late afternoon Shoup transmitted the message: “Casualties many. Percentage of dead unknown. Combat efficiency-We are winning.”[xcviii] By late afternoon Major Jones’s First Battalion Sixth Marines landed on Green beach in their rubber boats, reinforcing Ryan’s orphans. It was the first of the 7 battalions on the island to get ashore intact.

Ryan and Jones coordinated their units for a night defense and an early attack the next morning.[xcix] Meanwhile, Second Battalion Sixth Marines cleared the nearby island of Bairiki, allowing the artillery of Second Battalion Tenth Marines to land its howitzers on the island.  This in cut off any line of retreat for the defenders of Betio.[c] Colonel Merritt Edson came ashore during the evening to relieve Shoup[ci], who remained to help coordinate the next day’s attack. Once again there were no coordinated Japanese counterattacks. The senior officer, Commander Takes Sugai, was isolated in the pocket between the Red and Green beaches, and no senior officer could coordinate any attacks.[cii]

Mopping Up: Day Three and Four

Wrecked LVT’s and Dead Marines Litter the Beach

Day three began with attacks against Japanese strong points and the arrival of more reinforcements, including 3/6 which landed on Green Beach, and three light tank platoons which landed on Red-2.[ciii] The Marines attacked from Green Beach, sweeping east to join the 2nd Marines who had cut the island in two the day before.  The 8th Marines continued to attack the heavily fortified bunker complex, and eventually captured the heavily fortified and defended positions.

During the assault First Lieutenant Sandy Bonnyman of 1/18 won the Medal of Honor for leading the assault on these positions, including destroying a major bunker defended by 150 Japanese, he was killed during the fight.[civ] Fighting remained fierce throughout the day and General Smith arrived to take command on shore.  The Marines continued to attack supported by tanks, artillery and naval gunfire.  By the evening they were established at the east end of the airfield.

The now desperate Japanese defenders launched a series of Banzai charges which beginning about 1930 hours and ending about 0400 when the Marines annihilated the last attack with the assistance of artillery.[cv] The attack, which could have succeeded the first or early the second day, now aided the Marines by killing troops that might have been used to exact a higher price in Marine lives for the tail of the island.[cvi]

The next morning the Marines pushed forward and eliminated the last Japanese defenders, and by 1200 Betio was secured.  Of about 5000 defenders only 17 Japanese and some Korean laborers were taken prisoner.[cvii] The Marines lost over 1000 killed and 2300 wounded.[cviii]

One of the Japanese Survivors being Interrogated

Epilogue

The Marines paid a heavy price for Betio, but it was not to be a useless sacrifice. However, it was a source of great controversy especially among politicians.[cix] Historian Ronald Spector wonders if waiting for better tides or a full moon would have saved lives.[cx] Holland Smith later argued that Tarawa should have been bypassed, but Nimitz’s biographer, E. B. Potter notes “if the lessons of the amphibious assault had not been learned at Tarawa, they would have to be learned elsewhere, probably at greater cost.”[cxi]

The lessons learned aided all future amphibious operations in the Central Pacific and elsewhere.  Timing and coordination of naval gunfire support, air strikes and combat loading of transports were all refined in future operations. Large numbers of armored and up-gunned Amtracks would be part of every future operation.[cxii] Intelligence was emphasized and replicas of the Japanese fortifications were built and tested to determine the best way of destroying them.[cxiii] Likewis, the Marines shocked the public by releasing photos and films of the carnage on Tarawa to awaken them to the challenges ahead.[cxiv]

Today the battle is remembered annually by the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Each year, an ever shrinking number of veterans of the battle attend the ceremonies.  Samuel Eliot Morison put it best: “All honor, then, to the fighting heart of the United States Marine. Let the battle for that small stretch of coral sand called Betio of Tarawa be remembered as terrible indeed, but glorious, and the seedbed for victory in 1945.”[cxv]

Appendix: The Commanders

Lieutenant General Holland Smith and Major General Julian Smith

General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith USMC: (1882-1967) Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith commanded V Amphibious Corps during the Gilberts operation.  Prior to the war he had worked extensively on amphibious warfare doctrine for both the Marine Corps and Navy. Unlike many senior officers Smith was not a Naval Academy graduate having matriculated from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1903 and law school in 1903.  Smith served as Adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade in the First World War and served in Panama and the Dominican Republic in addition to other Marine tours afloat and ashore.  He served well and had many key assignments between the wars culminating in as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Subsequent to the Gilbert campaign he served as Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific and later commanded the Marines at Iwo Jima.  He retired in 1946.

Major General Julian Smith USMC: (1885-1975) Major General Julian Smith served as Commanding General 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa.  He graduated from the University of Delaware and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1909.  He served in Haiti, Santo Domingo and the Vera Cruz expedition. During the First World War he served as an instructor in the Marine Officer training camps at Quantico. After the war he served in Cuba, Nicaragua and various command and staff posts including the Army Command and General Staff College.  He commanded 5th Marines in 1938 and in 1942 was promoted the Major General serving as director of Fleet Marine Force Schools, New River, NC.  He took command of 2nd Marine Division in May 1943 and served there until April 1944 when he became Commanding General, Expeditionary Troops, Third Fleet and in December 1944 took command of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He retired in 1946.

Colonel David Shoup

Colonel David Shoup USMC: (1904-1983) Colonel David Shoup commanded the 2nd Marines at Tarawa, being appointed as commander when its commander fell ill.  Shoup won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Tarawa.  A 1926 graduate of DePauw University, Shoup was commissioned a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program that year.  He served in various assignments to include service in China, at sea on the battleship Maryland and Marine Barracks Puget Sound Navy Yard. He joined the staff of 6th Marines in October 1940 and assumed command of 2/6 in February 1942.  He was assigned as the Assistant Operations Officer for 2nd Marine Division in July 1942 and promoted the Lieutenant Colonel.   He went with the Division to New Zealand where he became the G-3 and from which he was fleeted up to command 2ndMarines at Tarawa.  After Tarawa he served as the Division Chief of Staff at Saipan and Tinian.  After the war Shoup continued to be assigned in key billets at the Pentagon and as commanding General, 1st Marine Division and then the Third Marine Division.  He became Chief of Staff, Headquarters Marine Corps in 1958 and was appointed as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps by President Eisenhower, a post that he retained until his retirement in 1963.

Rear Admiral Tomanari Sachiro

Admiral Tomanari Sachiro IJN: (1887-?) Commander of Tarawa garrison until relieved by Rear Admiral Shibasaki.   Graduate Naval Academy 1910, initially a communications officer he held various commands including three destroyers, an Oiler, the Light Cruiser Yuma, Heavy Cruisers, Furutake and, Haguro and the Battleship Kirishima. Assigned to Tarawa in February 1943, he helped design and supervised the initial construction of the defenses until he was relieved by Admiral Shibasaki on 20 July1943.  He returned to Japan and served the remainder of the war on Navy Division of Imperial General Headquarters.  Tomonari survived the war though nothing is mentioned as to his postwar fate.

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji IJN: (1894-1943) Commanded Tarawa Garrison until his death during the battle.  He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1915 and he was a skilled navigator and instructor.  Prior to the war he had served afloat and ashore and ashore and had commanded a ship and naval station and served as a naval attaché to Prince Kuni Asaakira, a member of the Imperial Family.  Among his assignments was 19 month combat tour with the special Naval Landing Forces in China, where he served as Chief of Staff of Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force.  Shibasaki’s leadership helped the garrison improve their defensive capabilities and combat skills as he inspired them to great heights and executed an intense training program. He was killed in the battle.

A Personal Note

I have not been to Tarawa but feel that I know it well.  I served in Second Marine Division from April 1999 through December 2001.  Due to my prior service experience I was used to fill gaps where chaplains were needed and ended up serving in four different battalions.  I served in 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, the descendant of 1/18, the combat engineers.  We had a WWII Bulldozer outside our command post named after Sergeant Bordelon, the Medal of Honor Citations for Bordelon and Boonyman were prominently displayed.  I also served in 1/8 and 3/8.  I knew the accounts of the slaughter of these Marines as they attempted to land but as I re-read the accounts I was moved by their courage under fire.  The CPs of these battalions are also adorned with citations of their heroes lost at Tarawa.  Veterans would visit our units during Tarawa Days at Camp LeJeune, worn by the battle and the years they always made a great impression on me.

There is almost a mystical connection between the Second Marine Division and the Marines of Tarawa; it was a crucible that defined the division, whose motto is the same as the Army Infantry School. “Follow Me!”

Semper Fidelis,

Padre Steve+

Notes

[i] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985. p.253

[ii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000. p.338

[iii] Ibid. Spector. p.253

[iv] Ibid. p.255 The conference also set a date for the invasion of France.

[v] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.468

[vi] Ibid. Spector. p.255

[vii] Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982. p.430

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979. p.243. Nimitz’s forces would have had to seize 5 major Japanese bases and his staff was not sure that the Pacific carrier force would be strong or experienced enough to provide the necessary air cover for the operation.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.243-245

[xii] Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963. p.296.

[xiii] Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.  Text copyright 1998 Eric Hammell and John E. Lane. p.4

[xiv] See Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995. pp. 39-40.  This unit became the Third Special Base Unit on its deployment and was joined by the 111th Construction Battalion.

[xv] Ibid. Hammell. p.4

[xvi] See Alexander pp.39-40. This unit was basically a reinforced infantry battalion with 3 rifle companies, a weapons battery, anti-aircraft battery, a light tank company and support units numbering about1600 men.

[xvii] Ibid. Alexander. p.43

[xviii] Alexander p.27 The Rikusentai was the Japanese equivalent of Marines, who numbered about 50,000 men.  The officers attended Army schools and qualified enlisted men attended additional Army specialist training.

[xix] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xx] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxi] See Alexander p.77. While most writers say that these guns were brought from Singapore, Alexander notes that British writer William H Bartsch submitted proof (serial numbers) that the guns were sold by Vickers to Japan in 1905 as a legitimate business transaction.

[xxii] These are the same guns (127mm) mounted as the secondary armament of Nachi and Takao Class Heavy Cruisers and later mounted on light cruisers to replace the main battery with a more effective anti-aircraft armament.

[xxiii] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxiv] Hammell notes that many of these bunkers and pillboxes were so well concealed that they could not be seen.

[xxv] Ibid. Toland. p.469.

[xxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.43.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.28

[xxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297

[xxix] Ibid. Costello. p.429

[xxx] At this point the force could provide everything except major permanent repairs to warships.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H.  History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY 1970. p.511

[xxxii] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xxxiii] The older LVT-1s had boiler plate armor added as a field modification and were given a heavy machine gun. Prior to this they were unarmored and had two light machine guns.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[xxxv] Hammell includes a by name list of these officers in Appendix B.  Of note for today, each MEUSOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable) has an assigned Naval Gunfire Support Team.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp. 61-62.  The Shermans had to be transported aboard pre-loaded LCM-3s carried in the well decks of the LSDs.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.58-59

[xxxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297.  As a sidebar discussion it should be noted that Galvanic helped provide the model for the organization of all further Marine Corps amphibious doctrine now known by the acronym PERMA; Planning, Embarkation, Rehearsal, Movement and Assault, which describes the 5 phases of a amphibious assault.

[xxxix] Ibid. Hammell details the intricacies of the particular tides seen at Tarawa and the knowledge that the Marines had from the former Resident Commissioner of the Island, Major Frank Holland who warned the division staff that he knew that there would not be enough water over the reef to get landing craft across it. (pp.18-20)

[xl] Ibid. Alexander. pp.75-77

[xli] Ibid. Alexander. pp.67-68.

[xlii] Ibid. p.70

[xliii] Ibid. p.71

[xliv] Ibid. Morison. p.302

[xlv] Ibid. Hammell. p.16

[xlvi] Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948. p.106

[xlvii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511  Johnson says 2,700 tons. (p.106)

[xlviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.106

[xlix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[l] Ibid.

[li] Ibid.. Hammell. 46-47

[lii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[liii] Ibid. Alexander. p.113.  Alexander notes that the Japanese would have been better served by using these guns on the stalled out landing craft.

[liv] Ibid. Hammell. p.47.

[lv] Ibid. Hammell. p.58

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[lviii] Ibid. Alexander. p.79

[lix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[lx] Ibid. Alexander. p.121

[lxi] Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. NAL Caliber, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York NY, 2006. p.112

[lxii] Ibid. Johnston. p.116

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid. Wukovits. P.119  Other companies suffered as grievously, K/3/2 was not alone in its suffering.

[lxv] Ibid. Spector. pp.263-264

[lxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.136-138

[lxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.90

[lxviii] Ibid. p.95

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.264

[lxx] Ibid. Wukovits. p.114

[lxxi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.139-140

[lxxii] 1/8 did not arrive on the beach due to botched communications until D plus 1.

[lxxiii] Ibid. p.150  The last time this signal had been sent it was by Major Devereaux at Wake Isalnd

[lxxiv] Ibid. p.151

[lxxv] Ibid. Johnston. p.132

[lxxvi] Ibid. Hammell. p.112

[lxxvii] Ibid. p.130

[lxxviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxix] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxx] Ibid. Costello. p.436

[lxxxi] Ibid. Alexander. p.163

[lxxxii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.157-158  Hammell notes that Shibasaski was most likely killed by fire from Ringgold or Dashiell.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Hammell.pp.139-140

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Alexander. p.162

[lxxxv] Ibid.  Wukovits. p.176. Wukovits notes how this could have affected the planning for the Normandy invasion.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.173

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.160

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Costello. p.437

[lxxxix] Ibid. Alexander. p.170

[xc] Ibid. Hammell. p.163

[xci] Ibid. Hammell. p.166

[xcii] Ibid. Wukovits. p.178

[xciii] Ibid. Alexander. p.170 Ryan would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

[xciv] Ibid. Hammell. p.172

[xcv] Ibid. Alexander. p.179

[xcvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.181

[xcvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.178

[xcviii] Ibid.. Wukovits. p.194

[xcix] Ibid. Hammell. p.202

[c] Ibid. Hammell. p.212

[ci] Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor and eventually go on to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[cii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.191-192

[ciii] Ibid. Johnston. p.134  2 platoons landed on Red-2 and one on Green Beach.

[civ] Ibid. Alexander. pp.202-205

[cv] Ibid. Johnston. pp.145-146

[cvi] Ibid. Johnston. p.147

[cvii] Ibid. Toland. p.470

[cviii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.345

[cix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511

[cx] Ibid. Spector. p.266

[cxi] Ibid. Potter. P.264

[cxii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.347  The Amtrack in improved forms has been part of the Marines ever since. The current model serves in a traditional amphibious role as well as a Armored Personnel Carrier for Marines involved in ground combat operations ashore.

[cxiii] Ibid. Costello. p.439. The method found to work best was long range plunging fire by heavy guns found on battleships and heavy cruisers.

[cxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.346

[cxv] Ibid. Morison. p.306

Bibliography

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

Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982

Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963

Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.

Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948

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

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985 Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970

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Filed under History, imperial japan, Military, US Marine Corps, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

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.

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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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“The God of Death has Come” The Battle of Tarawa

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some things that should not be forgotten, unfortunately many of them are lost to history. One of these events was the American assault against the Japanese fortress on Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. The battle was one of the deadliest encounters of the Second World War, and was waged for the control of a tiny coral atoll that only occupied one square mile of the earth’s s surface. Dug in on that atoll were about 4,000 Japanese defenders.

The only Japanese officer to survive, Warrant Officer Kiyoshi Ota recalled, “We could see the American landing craft coming towards us like dozens of spiders over the surface of the water.  One of my men exclaimed, ‘The God of Death has come!’”

I hope that this small attempt to detail that battle helps you understand the sacrifice of the men who fought there.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The American Decision: Operation Galvanic

The Target: Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll

Following the Guadalcanal campaign and the shift of significant naval forces away from the Solomons, the focus of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps shifted to operations in the Central Pacific. Unlike the Solomons campaign, which was initially a Navy and Marine Corps Operation, but shifted to Army control under General Douglas MacArthur as the campaign shifted to Borneo; the operations in the Central Pacific would be an almost total Navy and Marine Corps operation.

Operation Galvanic was the first offensive operation in the Central Pacific. It came about as a result of the Joint U.S. Strategic Committee decision in April 1943 to favor an advance in the Central Pacific while continuing to maintain McArthur’s offensive in the South Pacific.[i]

Betio Island after the Battle

The driving force behind this strategy was Admiral Ernest King. King fought for the plan and “insisted that any campaign should focus on the destruction of Japan’s overseas resources, which meant an offensive directed only toward the Western Pacific sea lanes.”[ii] The Joint Chiefs believed that a simultaneous attack by the forces of Admiral Chester Nimitz in the Central Pacific, and MacArthur in the South Pacific would “keep the Japanese guessing” in regard to which direction the Americans would strike. [iii] The decision of The Joint Chiefs was presented to the British at the TRIDENT meetings in May 1943 and while the British resisted the American plans, a compromise was reached which allowed the Americans to “simultaneously…maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan….”[iv]

Japanese Troops Emplacing 8″ Vickers Gun

The decision to begin operations in the Central Pacific meant that the priority that MacArthur’s had been given in logistics and personnel would be reduced in order to launch the Central Pacific operation.  MacArthur protested to no avail, and the Joint Chief’s stood firm in their decision that the Central Pacific operation “would make it easier to isolate Japan from her domain in the south.”[v]

MacArthur was allowed to continue OPERATION CARTWHEEL in order to neutralize the key Japanese base at Rabaul while Nimitz’s forces attacked the Marshall and Caroline islands.[vi] Nimitz’s staff began their preparations and decided on a conservative course to capture the Gilberts first before taking the more heavily defended Marshalls.[vii] This was in part due to the “need to minimize the risks to his untried amphibious forces against such heavily fortified enemy bases out of reach of air cover.”[viii]

Japanese Naval Infantry conducting Live Fire with Type 99 Machine Guns

Several factors were considered by Nimitz and his planners considerations in this choice.  Nimitz did not have enough troops to capture all of the vital heavily defended locations in the Marshalls without dividing his forces.[ix] Additionally the Gilbert operation could be supported by land based bombers.[x] A final consideration was the Joint Chief’s decision to allow MacArthur to retain control of 1st Marine Division, which Nimitz had hoped to employ in his operations in the Central Pacific.[xi] The Staff of CINCPAC did a thorough photo reconnaissance of the Gilbert’s, and convinced the Joint Chiefs that Tarawa and Makin needed to be taken to provide air bases for the assault on the Marshalls.  Finally, the order for Galvanic was issued on 20 July 1943 with its execution planned for November 1943.[xii]

Japanese Preparations

Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki

“It will take a million men a thousand years to take Betio”

The Japanese had done little to prepare against potential American offensive operations against the Gilbert’s until Makin Island was raided by elements of the 2nd Raider Battalion in August 1942.  The Makin raid shook the Japanese and they reinforced Makin and occupied Betio.[xiii]

The Japanese deployed the Yokosuka 6th Special Landing Force, essentially Naval Infantry or Marines[xiv] and the 111th Construction Battalion to Betio on 15 September 1942, over nine months after they attacked Pearl Harbor.[xv]

These forces were commanded by Admiral Tomanari Sachiro, who at once began to fortify Betio. Tomanari was a skilled officer who appreciated the value of strong fortifications on exposed islands like Betio. Likewise, recognizing that his forces were inadequate to the mission, Tomanari asked Tokyo for reinforcements. The reinforcements came in the form of Commander Sugai’s 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, which landed on 14 March.[xvi]Commander Sugai’s troops were the famed Rikusentai, the best of the Japanese Navy’s land forces and considered to be better disciplined, trained, and effective than Imperial Army Units of the same size.

Japanese Gunnery Exercises before the Invasion

The fortification of Betio proceeded slowly until Rear Admiral Shibasaki relieved Tomanari, who returned to Japan. [xvii] Shibasaki was a tough veteran of service at sea and ashore including 19 months as a Rikusentai[xviii] officer in China. Shibasaki was chosen by Admiral Mineichi Koga, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto’s to instill a better fighting spirit on the island.

The Imperial General Headquarters, issued a “New Operations Plan,” which ordered the outer defensive islands, such as Tarawa, to “hold up any American advance while an inner line of fortresses was constructed….”[xix]

Shibasaki drove the garrison hard, inspiring them to “extraordinary heights of labor that resulted in Betio’s superb defenses.”[xx]Betio mounted four 8” Naval guns[xxi], four 14 cm guns, four dual mount 5.5” dual purpose guns[xxii] six 80 mm anti-boat guns, eight 75 mm dual purpose guns, ten 75 mm mountain guns, six 70 mm guns and nine 37 mm anti-tank guns, numerous machine guns. The defenders were also equipped with light AA guns and 14 Type 95 Ha-Gō light tanks.[xxiii]

These weapons were mounted in well camouflaged, armored, or reinforced pillboxes, connected by trenches. [xxiv] In accordance with the directives of the high command, Shibasaki ordered his troops “to defend to the last man all vital areas and destroy the enemy at the waters’ edge.”[xxv]

The Japanese records note that Shibasaki “immediately began to strengthen morale and carried out advanced training, and as a result…the garrison remarkably enhanced its fighting capability and they were full of confidence.”[xxvi] Even the service troops were thoroughly trained to fight from their superb defensive positions.[xxvii] Shibasaki reportedly told his men that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio.

American Preparations for Galvanic

LVT Amphibious Tractor

Nimitz organized his forces into three major commands, the 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, the 5th Amphibious Force under Admiral Richmond “Kelly” Turner, and the V Amphibious Corps under Major General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC.[xxviii] The 2nd Marine Division, which was assigned to assault Tarawa, was commanded by Major General Julian Smith.

The force that sustained this operation, and the subsequent amphibious operations was the Service Force Pacific Fleet.[xxix] This was a collection of ships whose mission it was to sustain the fleet in mobile operations. [xxx] This force, greatly “increased the range and power of the Navy in amphibious operations.”[xxxi] The plans for Galvanic called for the Army’s 27th Division take Makin Island, and the 2nd Marine Division which had been blooded at Guadalcanal, to take Tarawa, supported by the carriers and battleships of Admiral Raymond Spruance’s 5th Fleet.

Galvanic was the first application of new amphibious tactics developed for the Pacific war.[xxxii] Air and sea bombardment would precede the actual assault. The Marines would be transported ashore in a new vehicle called an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and other amphibious ships and craft including the LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel).

The LVTs were absolutely vital at Tarawa because of the distance that the reef extended from the beaches. The LVT’s, nicknamed “Amtracks” or “Amphtracks” were essentially a tracked amphibious personnel carrier. They were developed from a commercial vehicle used by U.S. Forrest Service Rangers in the Florida Everglades and were capable of crossing coral reefs that other craft could not cross.

The early LVTs had retrofitted armor and mounted a .50 cal. machine gun.  At Tarawa the Marines deployed 75 LVT-1s[xxxiii] and 50 LVT-2s. A total of 93 LVTs were part of the first wave of the Marine assault.[xxxiv] The LVTs were transported to Tarawa aboard LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks.)

Other innovations in this new form of amphibious warfare included the assignment of Naval Gunfire Support teams to the Marine Regiments, and down to some battalions. [xxxv] The attack at Tarawa was the first time that the Marines used the M4 Sherman tank in combat. [xxxvi]

Tarawa, ended up being a real combat proving ground for the tactics and equipment which would be improved on and used in every subsequent amphibious operation in the Pacific.  Tarawa also marked the last major use of rubber landing craft by the Marine Corps in an opposed landing.[xxxvii]

There were limitations to American preparations. First the size of the force meant that it could not be assembled in one place for rehearsals or to train as a team.[xxxviii] A second problem for the Americans was the assumption that high and low tides would be sufficient to get their landing craft across the reef in spite of warnings to the contrary.[xxxix] Likewise, the Americans failed to completely anticipate the scope to which the Japanese had fortified the island.

The latter was a failure of commanders to appreciate good intelligence that had been provided to them. In particular, aerial photos taken by the Air Force, and ULTRA intercepts provided good information on the strength and composition of the Japanese units on the island, as well as the layout of the defenses.[xl]

Likewise, some important equipment shortages were not remedied. The Marine Bazooka’s did not arrive, and neither the 6th or 8th Marines had ever made an actual amphibious assault.  At Guadalcanal the these regiments made an administrative landing, and few field-grade officers remained from the 2nd Marine Regiment who had landed at Tulagi.[xli] Despite their combat experience, they were far from the “amphibious experts” that they would become.[xlii]

However, they made up for their lack of practical amphibious experience by their cohesiveness, high morale and esprit. Likewise, they were well armed and equipped, in top physical condition and knew the basic tools of their trade: “weapons proficiency and field firing, close combat techniques, fire and maneuver, tactical leadership, fire discipline.”[xliii]

Japanese Vickers 8″ Gun Emplacement

The most critical aspect of the operation was to get across the reef onto the island.  There were few good landing sites and it was decided to make the landings from inside the atoll’s lagoon onto the Betio’s north shore.  This decision meant that transports embarking the Marines would have to unload outside of the lagoon and that the landing craft would have to make a 10 mile trip to get to the beaches.[xliv]

Another problem was that there was only one entrance into the lagoon, and it was not deep enough for heavy ships to enter.[xlv] This meant that ships such as battleships and cruisers would not be able provide direct, close range fire on the Japanese positions which were best situated to disrupt the Marines.

The execution of the plan involved land based bomber strikes beginning on D minus 7. Carrier aircraft would begin their operations on D minus 2.  Cruisers and destroyers joined the cacophony of destruction on D minus 1 and the battleships on D-Day itself.[xlvi]

On D-Day the Navy planned to bombard the island with 3,000 tons of shells in 2 ½ hours.[xlvii] The Navy was confident in its bombardment plans. Rear Admiral H. F. Kingman, who commanded the fire support group declared “We will not neutralize; we will not destroy; we will obliterate the defenses on Betio!”[xlviii]

Four battalions of Marines would land in the first wave, the three battalions of the 2nd Marines Regiment, and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines, all commanded by Colonel David Shoup.

Colonel Shoup would win the Medal of Honor on Betio and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps. However, he assumed command of the 2nd Marines when the Regimental commander fell ill on the journey to Efate.[xlix] The division reserve were the remaining two battalions of the 8th Marine Regiment. The Division’s 6th Marine Regiment served as the corps reserve.[l]The assault units would be reinforced by tanks, and the 1st and 2nd Battalions 18th Marine Regiment, the division’s combat engineers.

The Invasion: Day One

Marines Going Ashore on Day One

The final naval gunfire bombardment commenced at 0542 hours on 20 November, and the assault waves began their trek to the beaches.  The transports were out of range of Japanese guns, but since they were so far out, the small amphibious craft boats have to make a 10 mile trip to get to the beaches. [li]At this point things began to go seriously wrong for the Marines.

LCT (Landing Craft Tank) Sinking after Being Hit

Unfortunately, Admiral Kingman and the Navy had “badly miscalculated the amount of softening-up that could be done in two and a half daylight hours bombardment.” Although the bi Vickers guns were silenced, not enough damage was done to the Japanese defenses.[lii] The Japanese unwittingly helped the Marines by firing their larger guns at the warships instead of holding fire, thus identifying their positions to Navy gunners.[liii]

The bombardment was lifted to allow an attack by carrier based aircraft. However, the aircraft were late to arrive and the ships did not resume fire, allowing the Japanese to emerge and re-train their weapons on the approaching landing craft.[liv] Likewise the destroyers USS Ringgold and USS Dashiell, the only ships operating inside the lagoon and providing close Naval Gunfire Support, were ordered to cease fire, knowing the Japanese gunners along the shore were still active.[lv] Some believe that an extra half hour of direct fire from the destroyers would have saved many lives.[lvi]

The LVTs in the first three waves were delayed by a heavy chop outside the lagoon and did not make landfall until 0913, which threw off the landing schedule.[lvii] The expected and planned for rise in tides did not materialize, and tides remained unpredictably low for the first 48 hours. As a result, no landing craft other than the LVTs could cross the reef, and the Marines were forced to wade ashore from distances of 600 to 1000 yards.[lviii]

Marines Wading Across the Lagoon

Shoup’s Marines landed on three beaches.  Red One and Red Two lay to the west of a 500 yard long pier, while Red Three lay to the east.  Third Battalion Second Marines (3/2) landed on Red-1, while 2/2 on Red-2. Second Battalion Eighth Marines (2/8) landed on Red-3, while elements of 1/18 and the scout snipers landed at the pier, with First Battalion Second Marines (1/2) remained at sea in reserve to land behind the battalion making the best progress.[lix]

As soon as the Amtracks hit the reef the Japanese began firing.  Every “working weapon along the north and west shorelines….blazed forth in fierce, interlocking fields of fire.”[lx] As they watched the Amtracks craw over the reef that Japanese knew they were in for a tough fight, one of Warrant Officer Ota’s men exclaimed “Heavens! The God of Death has come!”[lxi]

The Marines of 3/2 on Red-1 received enfilade fire from Japanese guns emplaced in a U around the beach. Even before the Marines landed they began to take causalities, Amtracks were hit in the lagoon and most that were not sunk or destroyed were unfit for further use.[lxii] The 2000 Marines who landed on the beaches in the first hour of the assault were badly disorganized, and the commanding officer’s of 2/2 and the Amtracks were killed. 3/2’s commander was isolated on the reef and only 2/8’s commander was with his troops. 2/8 was the only battalion being to reach the shore relatively intact.[lxiii] 3/2 was down to 65% of its strength and Kilo Company, 3/2 had taken over 50% casualties.[lxiv]

The Marines in the fourth to sixth waves were struggling to wade ashore from the reef. Landing craft “ran aground or milled about helplessly outside the reef, which was swept by crossfire from behind the beaches and from a grounded hulk northwest of the pier.”[lxv] Most of the tanks were put out of action either through accurate fire by Japanese guns or by sinking in deep areas of the lagoon, the Tank battalion commander was blown out of his Amtrack, wounded and survived 24 hours by clinging to a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning.[lxvi]

Colonel Shoup Directing Operations

Colonel Shoup landed at Red-2 and began directing operations on the beach.  He knew that he had to get more troops ashore to exploit the minimal gains his Marines had made.  The news from Red One and Two was bad; he decided to bring 1/2 in at Red-2 thought that 3/8 should go in at Red-3.[lxvii] At 1018 General Julian Smith ordered the 8th Marines to dispatch 3/8 to Red-3.[lxviii] The Marines of 3/8 had to make their way across 700 yards through the water to get to the beach. They were slaughtered, and only 30 percent of the first wave got ashore, while the second and the third “were practically wiped out.”[lxix]

Close Combat

As Shoup’s Marines struggled to reach the beaches, those who had gotten ashore engaged the Japanese at point blank range. First Lieutenant William Hawkins of the 2nd Marine Scout and Sniper platoon and five of his men engaged the Japanese on the pier in vicious hand to hand fighting. [lxx] Staff Sergeant Bordelon of the Engineers on Red-2 though grievously wounded knocked out four gun positions, some by lobbing dynamite charges into them and galvanizing survivors into action, finally being killed while taking on a Japanese position alone.  Both Marines would be awarded the Medal of Honor.[lxxi]

Wounded Being Evacuated by Rubber Raft

By afternoon Julian Smith realized that he needed more troops, his last battalion, 1/8 waited to go ashore.[lxxii] Smith asked for the 6th Marines. He had Rear Admiral Wilbur Hill, Commander of Amphibious Group Two, send a message to Admiral Richmond K. Turner stating “Issue in doubt. I concur.” This message sent a chill through the listening Naval Staff.[lxxiii]

Ashore, Colonel Shoup brought in howitzers from 1st Battalion 10th Marines on his surviving Amtracks to the eastern edge of Red Two near the pier. [lxxiv] The howitzers landed in the early evening.[lxxv] Shoup sent Lieutenant Colonel Carlson to make a personal report to General Smith that he would hold onto his beachhead no matter what happened.

Shoup ordered his Catholic Chaplain to lay out a cemetery and begin burying the dead who were already decomposing in the tropical heat.[lxxvi] As this transpired, 2/8 got two of its 37mm anti-tank guns into position to drive off Japanese tanks approaching the beachhead.[lxxvii]

Members of the Second Marine Division Band assisted Navy Hospital Corpsman in bringing back wounded Marines.[lxxviii] For the rest of the day the Marines continued to eke out a beachhead. Shoup’s Marines on Red-2 and Red-3 managed to advance about halfway across the island, while 3/2 and elements 1/2 and 2/2 were isolated. Major Ryan of Lima Company 3/2 pulled them back to meet an expected Japanese counter-attack.[lxxix]

By nightfall the Marines had taken over 1500 casualties of 5000 men landed the first day.[lxxx] There is no evidence that Shoup considered withdraw that night.[lxxxi] No counterattack occurred due to Japanese command and control problems. The primary cause was that Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were killed while shifting the position of their headquarters during the afternoon,[lxxxii] and the Japanese communications were in shambles. A well organized counterattack would have been disastrous for the Marines,[lxxxiii] but it did not happen, even though the Japanese assembled over 1000 men to oppose the Marines on day two.[lxxxiv] Had Shibasaki lived and the Japanese communications survived, a counterattack might have had ramifications far beyond Tarawa.[lxxxv]

Day Two

Advancing Under Fire

The second day began with the First Battalion EighthMarines landing on Red Two, while the 6th Marines began to land on Green Beach at the far western tip of Betio.  Like the Marines who landed on the first day, 1/8’s landing turned into a bloodbath, the tide fell even lower than the previous day. As they hit the reef and waded ashore they drifted into some of the heaviest Japanese defenses. Japanese guns, including the dual 5.5” guns took direct aim at the boats, while Marines ashore watched helplessly. War correspondent Robert Sherrod noted: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.”[lxxxvi] Only half of 1/8 reached the beach with none of their heavy weapons or equipment.  Shoup ordered the remnants of the battalion into line on his western flank in preparation for an advance inland.[lxxxvii] During five hours of landings on day two, the “Marine casualties reached a higher rate than that sustained on the first morning.”[lxxxviii]

Meanwhile, Shoup ordered Ryan’s “orphans” to make an attack down the right flank of the Japanese positions on Green Beach. Shoup’s decision and Ryan’s leadership made the attack a success. The “American victory at Betio evolved from the attack during one intense hour the second morning.”[lxxxix]

Taking every available Marine, two surviving Sherman tanks, and some mortars, Ryan gathered his force and coordinated Naval Gunfire support. The area contained a number of heavy guns including two of the remaining 8” mounts.  A destroyer blanketed the Japanese positions with 5” shells and fire from her light AA guns.[xc] Attacking behind the beach, Ryan’s Marines isolated and destroyed everyone and everything that looked hostile.[xci] Against minimal opposition Ryan’s Marines quickly seized the gun positions and the western end of the airfield.  Within an hour his Marines occupied the entire western side of Betio up to a 200 yard depth. At 1200 he radioed Shoup to let him know the good news, and that he now intended to advance east against the airfield.[xcii] The attack allowed the Marines to land intact battalions with supporting arms for the first time battle.[xciii]

To the east behind Red Two and Red- Three, the 8th Marines and survivors of 1/2 and 2/2 attacked against fierce Japanese opposition near Shibasaki’s former command bunker and two other large bunkers which were mutually supporting.  The attack by the 2nd Marine survivors eventually succeeded in getting completely across the south side of the island.[xciv] During the attack Lt. Hawkins of the Scout Snipers, who had distinguished himself at the pier the previous day was mortally wounded.

The attack cut the island in two, but the Japanese launched a viscous counterattack on the Marine positions which was beaten back.[xcv] The 8th Marines faced a more difficult task going against what was now the heart of the Japanese defense as the defenders had been reinforced by Lt. Minami and his third company of the 7th Special Naval Landing Force.

Vicious fighting ensued and by nightfall “the Marines had little to show for their heavy losses,[xcvi] but they did make significant inroads against the Japanese to warrant optimism for D+2.[xcvii] By evening the Marines on Red-1 and Red-2 had consolidated their beachhead so that reinforcements were finally able to land, including jeeps, artillery and heavy equipment.

By mid-day the Marines noted that Japanese defenders were beginning to commit suicide, and they began to feel that Japanese morale had broken.  By late afternoon Shoup transmitted the message: “Casualties many. Percentage of dead unknown. Combat efficiency-We are winning.”[xcviii] By late afternoon Major Jones’s First Battalion Sixth Marines landed on Green beach in their rubber boats, reinforcing Ryan’s orphans. It was the first of the 7 battalions on the island to get ashore intact.

Ryan and Jones coordinated their units for a night defense and an early attack the next morning.[xcix] Meanwhile, Second Battalion Sixth Marines cleared the nearby island of Bairiki, allowing the artillery of Second Battalion Tenth Marines to land its howitzers on the island.  This in cut off any line of retreat for the defenders of Betio.[c] Colonel Merritt Edson came ashore during the evening to relieve Shoup[ci], who remained to help coordinate the next day’s attack. Once again there were no coordinated Japanese counterattacks. The senior officer, Commander Takes Sugai, was isolated in the pocket between the Red and Green beaches, and no senior officer could coordinate any attacks.[cii]

Mopping Up: Day Three and Four

Wrecked LVT’s and Dead Marines Litter the Beach

Day three began with attacks against Japanese strong points and the arrival of more reinforcements, including 3/6 which landed on Green Beach, and three light tank platoons which landed on Red-2.[ciii] The Marines attacked from Green Beach, sweeping east to join the 2nd Marines who had cut the island in two the day before.  The 8th Marines continued to attack the heavily fortified bunker complex, and eventually captured the heavily fortified and defended positions.

During the assault First Lieutenant Sandy Bonnyman of 1/18 won the Medal of Honor for leading the assault on these positions, including destroying a major bunker defended by 150 Japanese, he was killed during the fight.[civ] Fighting remained fierce throughout the day and General Smith arrived to take command on shore.  The Marines continued to attack supported by tanks, artillery and naval gunfire.  By the evening they were established at the east end of the airfield.

The now desperate Japanese defenders launched a series of Banzai charges which beginning about 1930 hours and ending about 0400 when the Marines annihilated the last attack with the assistance of artillery.[cv] The attack, which could have succeeded the first or early the second day, now aided the Marines by killing troops that might have been used to exact a higher price in Marine lives for the tail of the island.[cvi]

The next morning the Marines pushed forward and eliminated the last Japanese defenders, and by 1200 Betio was secured.  Of about 5000 defenders only 17 Japanese and some Korean laborers were taken prisoner.[cvii] The Marines lost over 1000 killed and 2300 wounded.[cviii]

One of the Japanese Survivors being Interrogated

Epilogue

The Marines paid a heavy price for Betio, but it was not to be a useless sacrifice. However, it was a source of great controversy especially among politicians.[cix] Historian Ronald Spector wonders if waiting for better tides or a full moon would have saved lives.[cx] Holland Smith later argued that Tarawa should have been bypassed, but Nimitz’s biographer, E. B. Potter notes “if the lessons of the amphibious assault had not been learned at Tarawa, they would have to be learned elsewhere, probably at greater cost.”[cxi]

The lessons learned aided all future amphibious operations in the Central Pacific and elsewhere.  Timing and coordination of naval gunfire support, air strikes and combat loading of transports were all refined in future operations. Large numbers of armored and up-gunned Amtracks would be part of every future operation.[cxii] Intelligence was emphasized and replicas of the Japanese fortifications were built and tested to determine the best way of destroying them.[cxiii] Likewis, the Marines shocked the public by releasing photos and films of the carnage on Tarawa to awaken them to the challenges ahead.[cxiv]

Today the battle is remembered annually by the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Each year, an ever shrinking number of veterans of the battle attend the ceremonies.  Samuel Eliot Morison put it best: “All honor, then, to the fighting heart of the United States Marine. Let the battle for that small stretch of coral sand called Betio of Tarawa be remembered as terrible indeed, but glorious, and the seedbed for victory in 1945.”[cxv]

Appendix: The Commanders

Lieutenant General Holland Smith and Major General Julian Smith

General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith USMC: (1882-1967) Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith commanded V Amphibious Corps during the Gilberts operation.  Prior to the war he had worked extensively on amphibious warfare doctrine for both the Marine Corps and Navy. Unlike many senior officers Smith was not a Naval Academy graduate having matriculated from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1903 and law school in 1903.  Smith served as Adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade in the First World War and served in Panama and the Dominican Republic in addition to other Marine tours afloat and ashore.  He served well and had many key assignments between the wars culminating in as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Subsequent to the Gilbert campaign he served as Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific and later commanded the Marines at Iwo Jima.  He retired in 1946.

Major General Julian Smith USMC: (1885-1975) Major General Julian Smith served as Commanding General 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa.  He graduated from the University of Delaware and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1909.  He served in Haiti, Santo Domingo and the Vera Cruz expedition. During the First World War he served as an instructor in the Marine Officer training camps at Quantico. After the war he served in Cuba, Nicaragua and various command and staff posts including the Army Command and General Staff College.  He commanded 5th Marines in 1938 and in 1942 was promoted the Major General serving as director of Fleet Marine Force Schools, New River, NC.  He took command of 2nd Marine Division in May 1943 and served there until April 1944 when he became Commanding General, Expeditionary Troops, Third Fleet and in December 1944 took command of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He retired in 1946.

Colonel David Shoup

Colonel David Shoup USMC: (1904-1983) Colonel David Shoup commanded the 2nd Marines at Tarawa, being appointed as commander when its commander fell ill.  Shoup won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Tarawa.  A 1926 graduate of DePauw University, Shoup was commissioned a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program that year.  He served in various assignments to include service in China, at sea on the battleship Maryland and Marine Barracks Puget Sound Navy Yard. He joined the staff of 6th Marines in October 1940 and assumed command of 2/6 in February 1942.  He was assigned as the Assistant Operations Officer for 2nd Marine Division in July 1942 and promoted the Lieutenant Colonel.   He went with the Division to New Zealand where he became the G-3 and from which he was fleeted up to command 2ndMarines at Tarawa.  After Tarawa he served as the Division Chief of Staff at Saipan and Tinian.  After the war Shoup continued to be assigned in key billets at the Pentagon and as commanding General, 1st Marine Division and then the Third Marine Division.  He became Chief of Staff, Headquarters Marine Corps in 1958 and was appointed as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps by President Eisenhower, a post that he retained until his retirement in 1963.

Rear Admiral Tomanari Sachiro

Admiral Tomanari Sachiro IJN: (1887-?) Commander of Tarawa garrison until relieved by Rear Admiral Shibasaki.   Graduate Naval Academy 1910, initially a communications officer he held various commands including three destroyers, an Oiler, the Light Cruiser Yuma, Heavy Cruisers, Furutake and, Haguro and the Battleship Kirishima. Assigned to Tarawa in February 1943, he helped design and supervised the initial construction of the defenses until he was relieved by Admiral Shibasaki on 20 July1943.  He returned to Japan and served the remainder of the war on Navy Division of Imperial General Headquarters.  Tomonari survived the war though nothing is mentioned as to his postwar fate.

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji IJN: (1894-1943) Commanded Tarawa Garrison until his death during the battle.  He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1915 and he was a skilled navigator and instructor.  Prior to the war he had served afloat and ashore and ashore and had commanded a ship and naval station and served as a naval attaché to Prince Kuni Asaakira, a member of the Imperial Family.  Among his assignments was 19 month combat tour with the special Naval Landing Forces in China, where he served as Chief of Staff of Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force.  Shibasaki’s leadership helped the garrison improve their defensive capabilities and combat skills as he inspired them to great heights and executed an intense training program. He was killed in the battle.

A Personal Note

I have not been to Tarawa but feel that I know it well.  I served in Second Marine Division from April 1999 through December 2001.  Due to my prior service experience I was used to fill gaps where chaplains were needed and ended up serving in four different battalions.  I served in 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, the descendant of 1/18, the combat engineers.  We had a WWII Bulldozer outside our command post named after Sergeant Bordelon, the Medal of Honor Citations for Bordelon and Boonyman were prominently displayed.  I also served in 1/8 and 3/8.  I knew the accounts of the slaughter of these Marines as they attempted to land but as I re-read the accounts I was moved by their courage under fire.  The CPs of these battalions are also adorned with citations of their heroes lost at Tarawa.  Veterans would visit our units during Tarawa Days at Camp LeJeune, worn by the battle and the years they always made a great impression on me.

There is almost a mystical connection between the Second Marine Division and the Marines of Tarawa; it was a crucible that defined the division, whose motto is the same as the Army Infantry School. “Follow Me!”

Semper Fidelis,

Padre Steve+

Notes

[i] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985. p.253

[ii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000. p.338

[iii] Ibid. Spector. p.253

[iv] Ibid. p.255 The conference also set a date for the invasion of France.

[v] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.468

[vi] Ibid. Spector. p.255

[vii] Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982. p.430

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979. p.243. Nimitz’s forces would have had to seize 5 major Japanese bases and his staff was not sure that the Pacific carrier force would be strong or experienced enough to provide the necessary air cover for the operation.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.243-245

[xii] Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963. p.296.

[xiii] Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.  Text copyright 1998 Eric Hammell and John E. Lane. p.4

[xiv] See Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995. pp. 39-40.  This unit became the Third Special Base Unit on its deployment and was joined by the 111th Construction Battalion.

[xv] Ibid. Hammell. p.4

[xvi] See Alexander pp.39-40. This unit was basically a reinforced infantry battalion with 3 rifle companies, a weapons battery, anti-aircraft battery, a light tank company and support units numbering about1600 men.

[xvii] Ibid. Alexander. p.43

[xviii] Alexander p.27 The Rikusentai was the Japanese equivalent of Marines, who numbered about 50,000 men.  The officers attended Army schools and qualified enlisted men attended additional Army specialist training.

[xix] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xx] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxi] See Alexander p.77. While most writers say that these guns were brought from Singapore, Alexander notes that British writer William H Bartsch submitted proof (serial numbers) that the guns were sold by Vickers to Japan in 1905 as a legitimate business transaction.

[xxii] These are the same guns (127mm) mounted as the secondary armament of Nachi and Takao Class Heavy Cruisers and later mounted on light cruisers to replace the main battery with a more effective anti-aircraft armament.

[xxiii] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxiv] Hammell notes that many of these bunkers and pillboxes were so well concealed that they could not be seen.

[xxv] Ibid. Toland. p.469.

[xxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.43.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.28

[xxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297

[xxix] Ibid. Costello. p.429

[xxx] At this point the force could provide everything except major permanent repairs to warships.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H.  History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY 1970. p.511

[xxxii] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xxxiii] The older LVT-1s had boiler plate armor added as a field modification and were given a heavy machine gun. Prior to this they were unarmored and had two light machine guns.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[xxxv] Hammell includes a by name list of these officers in Appendix B.  Of note for today, each MEUSOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable) has an assigned Naval Gunfire Support Team.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp. 61-62.  The Shermans had to be transported aboard pre-loaded LCM-3s carried in the well decks of the LSDs.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.58-59

[xxxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297.  As a sidebar discussion it should be noted that Galvanic helped provide the model for the organization of all further Marine Corps amphibious doctrine now known by the acronym PERMA; Planning, Embarkation, Rehearsal, Movement and Assault, which describes the 5 phases of a amphibious assault.

[xxxix] Ibid. Hammell details the intricacies of the particular tides seen at Tarawa and the knowledge that the Marines had from the former Resident Commissioner of the Island, Major Frank Holland who warned the division staff that he knew that there would not be enough water over the reef to get landing craft across it. (pp.18-20)

[xl] Ibid. Alexander. pp.75-77

[xli] Ibid. Alexander. pp.67-68.

[xlii] Ibid. p.70

[xliii] Ibid. p.71

[xliv] Ibid. Morison. p.302

[xlv] Ibid. Hammell. p.16

[xlvi] Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948. p.106

[xlvii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511  Johnson says 2,700 tons. (p.106)

[xlviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.106

[xlix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[l] Ibid.

[li] Ibid.. Hammell. 46-47

[lii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[liii] Ibid. Alexander. p.113.  Alexander notes that the Japanese would have been better served by using these guns on the stalled out landing craft.

[liv] Ibid. Hammell. p.47.

[lv] Ibid. Hammell. p.58

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[lviii] Ibid. Alexander. p.79

[lix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[lx] Ibid. Alexander. p.121

[lxi] Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. NAL Caliber, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York NY, 2006. p.112

[lxii] Ibid. Johnston. p.116

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid. Wukovits. P.119  Other companies suffered as grievously, K/3/2 was not alone in its suffering.

[lxv] Ibid. Spector. pp.263-264

[lxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.136-138

[lxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.90

[lxviii] Ibid. p.95

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.264

[lxx] Ibid. Wukovits. p.114

[lxxi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.139-140

[lxxii] 1/8 did not arrive on the beach due to botched communications until D plus 1.

[lxxiii] Ibid. p.150  The last time this signal had been sent it was by Major Devereaux at Wake Isalnd

[lxxiv] Ibid. p.151

[lxxv] Ibid. Johnston. p.132

[lxxvi] Ibid. Hammell. p.112

[lxxvii] Ibid. p.130

[lxxviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxix] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxx] Ibid. Costello. p.436

[lxxxi] Ibid. Alexander. p.163

[lxxxii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.157-158  Hammell notes that Shibasaski was most likely killed by fire from Ringgold or Dashiell.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Hammell.pp.139-140

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Alexander. p.162

[lxxxv] Ibid.  Wukovits. p.176. Wukovits notes how this could have affected the planning for the Normandy invasion.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.173

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.160

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Costello. p.437

[lxxxix] Ibid. Alexander. p.170

[xc] Ibid. Hammell. p.163

[xci] Ibid. Hammell. p.166

[xcii] Ibid. Wukovits. p.178

[xciii] Ibid. Alexander. p.170 Ryan would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

[xciv] Ibid. Hammell. p.172

[xcv] Ibid. Alexander. p.179

[xcvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.181

[xcvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.178

[xcviii] Ibid.. Wukovits. p.194

[xcix] Ibid. Hammell. p.202

[c] Ibid. Hammell. p.212

[ci] Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor and eventually go on to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[cii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.191-192

[ciii] Ibid. Johnston. p.134  2 platoons landed on Red-2 and one on Green Beach.

[civ] Ibid. Alexander. pp.202-205

[cv] Ibid. Johnston. pp.145-146

[cvi] Ibid. Johnston. p.147

[cvii] Ibid. Toland. p.470

[cviii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.345

[cix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511

[cx] Ibid. Spector. p.266

[cxi] Ibid. Potter. P.264

[cxii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.347  The Amtrack in improved forms has been part of the Marines ever since. The current model serves in a traditional amphibious role as well as a Armored Personnel Carrier for Marines involved in ground combat operations ashore.

[cxiii] Ibid. Costello. p.439. The method found to work best was long range plunging fire by heavy guns found on battleships and heavy cruisers.

[cxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.346

[cxv] Ibid. Morison. p.306

Bibliography

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

Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982

Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963

Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.

Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948

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

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985 Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970

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The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa

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

D4Y3 “Judy” Dive Bomber

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

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

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

Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher aboard the USS Lexington

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

A Japanese aircraft goes down in flames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admiral Raymond Spruance

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

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

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

“A Magic Blend of Skill, Faith, and Valor” The Battle of Midway

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aichi D3-A “Val” Dive Bomber 

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

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

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LCDR Lance Massey CO of VT-3

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LCDR John Waldron CO of VT-8

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LCDR Eugene Lindsey CO of VT-6

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

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There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers. Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 from Hornet did not find the carriers and had to return for lack of fuel while losing a number of bombers and their fighter escort having to ditch inn the ocean and wait for rescue. The Enterprise group composed of Bombing-6 and Scouting 6 under CDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when the wake of a Japanese destroyer was spotted.  McClusky followed it to the Japanese Task Force. The Yorktown’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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Filed under History, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific