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The Pinnacle of Naval Superiority or Obsolescence: The Battle Cruisers of 1920 and the Aircraft Carriers of 2020

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Artists Depiction of G3 Battlecruiser 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The next few days I will be reflecting on the old year and the coming new year, but tonight I decided to tweak and republish an article from about four years ago dealing with the battle cruisers being built by Great Britain, Japan, and the United States after the First World War. They represented the pinnacle of naval design for their era and would have been far superior to their adversaries had technology and war remained static. As Admiral Ernest King noted:

“Nothing remains static in war or military weapons, and it is consequently often dangerous to rely on courses suggested by apparent similarities in the past.”

As the First World War ended a new Naval Race was heating up. The United States had announced its intention during the war to build a navy second to none while Imperial Japan was making plans for a fleet that would give it superiority in the Western Pacific. The British, though still be far the largest naval power in the world were burdened by the massive costs of war and empire, but also seeking to maintain their naval dominance and to that end they were in the process of building a class of massive super-Dreadnought battleships, and Battle Cruisers.

Much of each powers actions in the coming years would be based on internal politics, foreign policy, and the simple economics of how much each power could afford to spend on their militaries after such a costly war. The result was the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 which limited the signatories to specific numbers, tonnage, and armaments each Navy would be allowed. Do to those reasons the massive Battle Cruisers planned by Britain, the United States and Japan were canceled. The Japanese and Americans would choose to convert two of their incomplete ships to aircraft carriers, while the British would convert the already completed ships of the Courageous Class battlecruisers (Courageous, Glorious, and Furious) into aircraft carriers as though none of the G3 ships had been laid down.

The ships known as the G3 battle cruisers were first designed by the British Royal Navy as a compliment to the all big gun Dreadnought battleships. The Battle Cruiser concept was for a ship of roughly the same size and firepower as a Battleship, but sacrificed armor protection for greater speed, endurance and range.  The United States and Japan joined in the Battle Cruiser race before and during the war. However, Britain the United States had concentrated on building battleships during the war but following the war began to design and build its own classes of massive battle cruisers.

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HMS Invincible Blowing Up at Jutland 

During the war the weaknesses of the battlecruisers as a type were exposed during the Battle of Jutland where three British Battle Cruisers, the HMS InvincibleHMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blew up with the loss of most of their crews; of the 3311 officers and sailors on the ships only 26 survived. The HMS Lion was almost lost in a similar manner but the heroic actions of her crew saved her from her sisters fate. The British ships had glaring deficiencies in armor protection and the arrangement of their ammunition magazines and hoists which certainly contributed to their loss. Their German counterparts on the other hand proved much tougher and though all sustained heavy damage while engaging British Battleships and Battle Cruisers, only one the Lützow was lost. She absorbed over 30 hits from large caliber shells and only lost 128 crew members. However, though a battle cruiser Lützow, and other German battle cruisers wer designed for relatively short range operations which meant they neither sacrificed armor protection, speed, or firepower as did the British ships which were designed for missions far and wide, needing more displacement for fuel and crew supplies, often sacrificing armor protection in order to maintain their high speed capabilities.

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HMS Hood

As the war progressed other Battle Cruisers were built, the British launched the HMS Repulse and HMS Renown and completed the HMS Hood shortly after the war was over. The Japanese built the four ship Kongo class from a British design, the first of which, the Kongo was completed in a British yard, the others Haruna, Hiei, and Kirishima were built in Japanese yards. The Kongo Class would prove to be the workhorses of the Battle Force of the Imperial Japanese Navy, all seeing significant combat action.

As the powers embarked on the next Naval Race planners and naval architects designed ships of massive firepower, better protection and higher range and speed. All would have been better classed as Fast Battleships, a better description of the Kongo Class or the Hood than previous ships.

The British designed and funded the G3 class in 1921, while the Japanese began work on the Amagi Class, and the United States the Lexington Class. However the construction and completion of these ships as Battle Cruisers was prevented by the Washington Naval Treaty.

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The treaty, which was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each. Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest, in fact the G3 Class had just been approved for construction and there is no proof that construction had begun on any of the ships.

The G3 class would have comprised four ships and been similar to the N3 Class Battleships. They were very well balanced ships and would have mounted nine 16” guns in three turrets on a displacement of 49,200 tons and deep load of 54,774 tons. They had an all or nothing protection plan meaning that the armored belt was concentrated in vital areas around the armored citadel, conning tower, turrets and magazines and engineering spaces. Their armor belt would have ranged from 12-14 inches, deck armor from 3-8 inches, conning tower 8 inches, barbettes 11-14 inches, turrets 13-17 inches and bulkheads 10-12 inches. Their propulsion system of 20 small tube boilers powering 4 geared steam turbines connected to 4 propeller shafts would have produced 160,000 shp with a designed speed of 32 knots.

The four ships, none of which were named were ordered between October and November of 1921. Their construction was suspended on November 18th 1921 and they and the N3 Battleships were cancelled in February 1922 due to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty. Many concepts of their design were incorporated in the Nelson Class battleships which were a compromise design built to stay within the limits of the treaty.

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Amagi Class as Designed, Akagi as Completed (below) 

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The four planned Japanese Amagi Class ships would have mounted ten 16” guns on a displacement of 47,000 tons at full load. Their propulsion system 19 Kampon boilers powering four Gihon turbines would have given them a maximum speed of 30 knots, They would have had less protection than the G3 ships being more of a traditional Battle Cruiser design. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty the Japanese elected to convert two of the ships, the Amagi and Akagi to aircraft carriers. Amagi was destroyed on the ways during the great Tokyo earthquake and Akagi was completed as a carrier. The other two vessels were scrapped on the ways. To replace Amagi the Imperial Navy selected the incomplete Tosa Class battleship Kaga. 

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The United States Navy planned the six ship Lexington Class. These ships would have mounted eight 16” guns on a ship measuring 874 feet long and 105 feet in beam, displacing 43,254 tons at full load, or nearly the size of the Iowa Class battleships. They would have had a maximum speed of 33 knots being powered by 16 boilers which drove 4 GE electric turbines producing 180,000 shaft horse power. Theirs was a massive engineering plant and while the class did not have as heavy armor protection as either the G3 or Amagi classes, they were superior to them in speed as well as endurance. Upon ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty four of the six ships were cancelled and the remaining two, the Lexington and Saratoga competed as aircraft carriers.  Had any of the ships been completed as Battle Cruisers it is likely due to their speed that they would have operated primarily with the the carriers that the US Navy built during the 1930s.

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One can only speculate what the navies of World War II would have looked like had the Washington and the subsequent London Naval Treaties not been ratified. One can also only imagine how the war at sea would have been different had the ships completed as carriers been completed as Battle Cruisers. It is certain had the Royal Navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the United States Navy Not Converter These ships, that Naval Aviation would have take years, or maybe more than decades to reach its potential.

However that was not to be, of the planned 14 ships of these three classes only three were completed, all as aircraft carriers, ships that helped to forge the future of naval operations and warfare for nearly a century. Thus the uncompleted ships are an interesting footnote in naval history yet have their own mystique.

                 HMS Queen Elizabeth 

Yet nothing remains static. The carriers have ruled the waves since December 7th 1941. But the massive aircraft carriers which have ruled the seas since the Second World War are not necessarily invincible and depending on how technology progresses could be heading into obsolescence, and may end up serving in support roles or being paid off. Yet that being said the United States is continuing to construct carriers of the Ford Class, the British the Queen Elizabeth Class, while the Chinese and Indian Navies pursue the development of new super carriers, while the French Navy operates the CVN Charles De Gaulle.  

But with the development of more and more relatively cheap, long range, and maneuverable land based anti-ship missile systems, and the capabilities of modern submarines we have to ask the legitimate question, is the aircraft carrier’s reign of the seas in jeopardy? This is a good question, but not the only one because since World War II there have been no carrier versus carrier engagements on the high seas. There are some places that are outside the range of land based anti-ship weapons, although submarines may prove a problem for surface forces to deal with, and for carriers their survival.

But since there have been no carrier versus carrier actions since the Second World War it would be interesting to see how the current carriers now operational or being developed would fare against each other if such an encounter occurred. It would be a test of air wings, ship design, and the protective capabilities of their escorts, as well as the cyber realm, on, above, and below the surface. Until such an engagement occurred all opinions, even those done in computer simulations are at best guesses as most of the weapons systems have never been tried in actual combat against peer competitors. Thus, like the carriers and their escorts designed before the Second World War, they will have to be tested in combat to see if they are still relevant in their designed role, or if they will be relegated to support roles which could be done by less costly alternatives such as the LHA/LHD type ships of the United States, France, Japan, and South Korea, or the the Sea Control Ship derivations in other smaller Navies in Europe and Asia.

Perhaps to meet some missions smaller and cheaper carriers will be developed, or existing platforms modified to carry more capable aircraft as the Japanese are doing with their Izumo and Hyuga Class “Helicopter Destroyers,” and the South Koreans are doing with their two Dokto Class LPH (Landing Platform Helicoptor) both of which may soon begin to operate the F35B fighter aircraft purchased from the United States, the same aircraft with will operate from United States Navy LHAs and LHDs as well as the British Queen Elizabeth Class. 

JMSDF “Helicopter Destroyer” Kaga 

Thus, one might wonder if the large new aircraft carriers currently being built by the United States, Britain, China, India, and other nations will also be displaced by advancing technology as were the battlecrusiers of the 1920s. It is a question that must be asked. There are certainly arguments for them, but what would the effect be on the United States Navy if one of the Nimitz or Ford Class carriers was sunk by the Chinese, or evening the Iranians? My guess is that it would be the same kind of shock that hit the Royal Navy after Jutland, and the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor.

I still believe in the aircraft carrier, as a weapon of deterrence, support of operations ashore, and against enemy ships on the high seas. But eight decades is a long run for any weapons system, and it is possible that despite the major power’s investment in carriers, that their reign may be coming to an end, at the same time it may be too early to count out the Super Carriers. Perhaps their mission will be modified to support smaller ships in sea control missions and reserved for potential combat with countries which have no answer to them, or against similar platforms in open ocean battles.

USS Gerald R. Ford 

I believe that the future has not been decided in relation to the aircraft carrier and much of that will have to do with how the operators of such vessels adapt to a changing world with many more threats, in order to maximize their capabilities while minimizing the dangers to such expensive national security assets. This is the aspect of war and national security that is within the control of human beings. I think of Admiral Arleigh Burke’s words at times like this:

“For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.”

he other possibility is that the navies that operate them decide that they are too expensive, and that their vulnerabilities outweigh their capabilities. This was the case in the 1920s with the battlecruisers then under construction.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, Navy Ships, News and current events, US Navy, World War II at Sea

Pearl Harbor and the Advent of the Aircraft Carrier, But Can the Carrier Remain Supreme?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On the morning of December 7th 1941 8 of the 9 Battleships assigned to the US Pacific Fleet were in Pearl Harbor. Seven, the USS California, USS Maryland, USS Oklahoma, USS Tennessee, USS West Virginia, USS Arizona and USS Nevada were moored on Battleship Row. The USS Pennsylvania was in the massive dry dock which she shared with the destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes. The USS Colorado, a sister ship of Maryland and West Virginia was at the Puget Sound Naval Yard being overhauled.

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USS West Virginia sinking at left and USS Tennessee burning at Pearl Harbor

At the time both the United States Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy still viewed the Battleships as the heart of the fleet and the essence of naval power. Aircraft Carriers were still viewed as an adjunct and support to the traditional battle line.

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Thus as the Japanese Carrier Strike Group, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo approached Pearl Harbor and intelligence reports came in indicating that the carriers were not present the Japanese were not overly concerned. The lack of concern was in a sense ironic because the force they assigned to destroy the Battleships of the Pacific Fleet was the carrier strike group, not their battle line. The Kido Butai was the largest carrier strike group assembled until late 1943 when the U.S. Pacific Fleet fielded a larger carrier strike group, something no other country has done since.

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The Kido Butai enroute to Pearl Harbor

Comprised of six carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku the force embarked over 300 first line aircraft. The aviators of the air groups aboard the carriers had been training for months to attack Pearl Harbor. Their aircraft had been specially outfitted with Type 91 Model 2 aerial torpedoes designed to run in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor and Type 99 Model 5 armor piecing bombs modified from battleship shells. These weapons would be employed with a devastating effect on the morning of December 7th 1941.

The three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet, the USS Saratoga, USS Lexington and USS Enterprise had been dispatched on missions that took them away from Pearl Harbor that fateful Sunday.

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USS Lexington

The Lexington and Task Force 12 had departed Pearl Harbor on December 5th to ferry 18 SB2U Vindicator Dive Bombers of VSMB-231 to Midway Island. These aircraft would ultimately take part in the Battle of Midway and the sinking of the Japanese Cruiser Mikuma. Saratoga was entering San Diego to embark her air group, and Enterprise which had left Pearl Harbor on November 28th to deliver VMF-211 to Wake Island was due to return to Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December. As such none of these ships were in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Their absence helped save the United States and Allied cause in the Pacific.

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USS Saratoga

The United States had other carriers but all were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet due to the belief that Nazi Germany was a greater threat than Japan. The USS Yorktown was at Norfolk in between deployments in support of the Neutrality Patrol. USS Ranger was returning to Norfolk from a Neutrality patrol, USS Wasp was at Grassy Bay Bermuda and the newly commissioned USS Hornet was training out of Norfolk. The USS Long Island, the first Escort carrier was undergoing operational tests and training out of Norfolk.

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Had any of the three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet been in Pearl Harbor on the morning of the Japanese attack the results would have been even more disastrous for the United States. Instead these carriers began operations against the Japanese almost immediately. Carriers based on the East Coast including Hornet, Yorktown and Wasp were transferred to the Pacific. In the perilous months following the Pearl Harbor attack the US carriers took the fight to the Japanese conducting raids against Japanese held islands. In April 1942 the Enterprise and Hornet, the latter with 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle struck Tokyo.

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USS Hornet launching the Doolittle Raiders

The result of that attack resulted in a severe embarrassment and loss of face to the Imperial Navy. the strategic and psychological implications were such that Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto decided to attack Midway Island to force the US fleet and its carriers into a decisive battle. Although the Japanese had lost a good number of aircrew from Shokaku and Zuikaku at the Battle of Coral Sea, while sinking Lexington Yamamoto remained committed to the decisive battle.

That battle was decisive, but not in the way Yamamoto had planned. Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu were sunk by aircraft operating from Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet. Yorktown was lost in the battle bat it was a decisive defeat for the Japanese. From that point, though they still were superior to the U.S. Navy in numbers of Carriers and surface warships, and still maintained a massive number of islands which they had fortified and built airbases on in defiance of treaties they agreed to at the end of the First World War,

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Sinking the Akagi at Midway

In the succeeding months in the vicious battles around the Solomon Islands the remaining US carriers proved decisive. Although Wasp and Hornet were sunk in those battles and both Saratoga and Enterprise were often heavily damaged, they held the line. The carriers that the Japanese missed proved decisive in turning the tide and winning the war.

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Raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor the USS West Virginia in Tokyo Bay

Though Yamamoto did not realize it, the attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the end of the supremacy of the Battleship and the ascendency of the Aircraft Carrier. By 1943 Battleships were regulated to escorting the fast carrier task forces or conducting shore bombardments. The ultimate irony was that the last battleship engagement in history was won by the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Raised from the mud the West Virginia, Tennessee, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania joined by the USS Mississippi rained destruction on two Japanese task forces attempting to penetrate Leyte Gulf and destroy the US invasion force transports at the Battle of Surigao Strait.

It was a fascinating turn of events. The Japanese dispatched the cream of their carrier air forces to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl. Harbor, and though they crippled the battleships they failed to destroy the American aircraft carriers, at Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway, or the Guadalcanal campaign. In the following years the Enterprise and Saratoga, bolstered by the carriers of the Essex Class, and the Light Fleet Carriers of the Independence Class, and helped by the addition of dozens of Escort Carriers, which relieved them of the mundane tasks of convoy escort and amphibious landing support, wreaked havoc on the Imperial Japanese Navy from late 1943 on. The Battles of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, the raid on Formosa, and the strikes on the Japanese homeland proved the superiority of the carrier force the Japanese missed at Pearl Harbor and failed to destroy in subsequent engagements.

Today, nearly eight decades later there is a question of the relevance of aircraft carriers, even though the United States, Great Britain, China, Russia, India, and other nations continue their development. I have to admit, that with the development of other weapons platforms and technologies, that I do not know the ultimate fate of the aircraft carrier. However, like the Ships of the Line that dominated late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries., the Ironclads that dominated the late 19th Century, and the Dreadnaughts that dominated until Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor was 78 years ago. Since then carrier and submarine eclipsed the power of the the battleship. We cannot assume that the era of the aircraft carrier will continue without end. The Japanese discounted the power of the aircraft carrier and submarine, assuming that battleships supported by carriers and submarines would maintain control of the Oceans. They were wrong. Regardless of what weapons system we presume will dominate the future, we also must admit the very real possibility that we could be wrong. Technologies that we have not ever began to imagine, except possibly in the realm of science fiction may change everything we believed possible.

i am neither the prophet nor the son of the prophet, thus my opinion is only that: I believe that the carrier will remain the centerpiece of Naval power and strategy for the next decade, and possibly another, but as a military and Naval historian I cannot predict that they remain so longer than that. Thus the United States Navy, and for that matter all navies begin looking toward and planning for technologies that are either in their infancy or not yet imagined. To ignore that fact would be to ignore history. We do that to our detriment.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Doomed Fleet: The Ships and Men of the Japanese Kido Butai Which Attacked Pearl Harbor

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Early December is such an interesting time of year for a historian. There are a lot of events that occurred which still linger in our memories. One of those is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. I find it interesting and compelling because of its significance in world history, not just American. Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, followed by its belated declaration of war and those of Germany and Italy ushered in a new world with ramifications that extend to our day. Tonight, I will not be addressing the issue of Japanese War crimes, and those committed by the Imperial Navy, although the crew of Heavy Cruiser Tone massacred many of the survivors of the S.S. Behar  in the Indian Ocean in early 1944.

Early in the morning on November 26th 1941 the ships of the Japanese Carrier Strike Force, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo weighed anchor from Tankan Bay in the northern Kurile Islands of Japan. The plan was top secret and very few Japanese officers knew of the target. Many officers presumed that war was immanent but most assumed the target would be the Philippines or other targets in Southeast Asia.

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Nagumo

The next day Nagumo expressed his personal misgivings about the attack to his Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka as the task force plunged through heavy seas. He blurted out, “Mr. Chief of Staff, what do you think? I feel that I’ve undertaken a heavy responsibility. If I had only been more firm and refused. Now we’ve left home waters and I’m beginning to wonder if this operation will work.” 

Admiral Kusaka came up with the right answer:  “Sir, there’s no need to worry. We’ll make out all right.” 

Nagumo smiled. “I envy you, Mr. Kusaka. You’re such an optimist.” 

The attack on Pearl Harbor was designed to be pre-emptive in nature. It was supposed to deliver such a crushing blow to the United States Navy that the Japanese could complete their Asian conquests before it could recover. It was a plan of great risk that doomed Japan to horror never before imagined when the United States dropped Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than four years later. By then the bulk of the Imperial Navy would be at the bottom of the Pacific and millions of people killed.

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Yamamoto 

The Japanese, even Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind the plan understood that it entailed great risks. Yamamoto had opposed the Japanese war against China, the alliance with Germany and Italy, and war with the United States, which he believed could not be won. Radicals in the Japanese Army wanted him dead before the war, and his appointment as commander of the Combined Fleet was in large part based on the Navy’s desire to prevent his assassination. Retired Japanese Admiral Yoji Koda says “Yamamoto faced a commander’s worst nightmare: Lead his men into a war he knew they could not win and should not fight; or step aside and let them face defeat alone.” (Legacy Still Not Settled for Reluctant Architect of Attack on Pearl Harbor http://nation.time.com/2013/04/22/legacy-still-unsettled-for-reluctant-architect-of-pearl-harbor/

A simulation of the plan conducted in early September by the senior officers of the Combined Fleet and the Kido Butai calculated that two of Japan’s precious aircraft carriers could be lost in the operation. But despite the opposition and reservations of key officers, including the Kido Butai commander, Admiral Nagumo Yamamoto pressed forward.

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The Kido Butai was the most powerful carrier strike group assembled up to that time. In fact the United States Navy would not equal the power of the force until late 1943. Comprised of six aircraft carriers, the massive flagship Akagi, and the Kaga, the fast 18,000-ton Soryu and Hiryu and the most modern Shokaku and Zuikaku. The carrier embarked over 400 aircraft, of which over 350 were to be used in the two aerial assault waves. Most of the pilots and aircrew were experienced, many with combat experience in China. The carriers were escorted by the old but fast and modernized battleships Kirishima and Hiei, the new heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, the light cruiser Abukuma, the new Kagero Class destroyers, Urakaze, Isokaze, Tanikaze, Hamakaze, Kagero and Shiranuhi, the Asashio class destroyers Arare and Kasumi. Two additional destroyers the Fubuki class Sazanami and Ushio were assigned to neutralize the American base on Midway Island. The submarines I-19, I-21 and I-23 and 8 oilers were assigned to the force. Five additional submarines the I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22 and I-24 each embarked a Type-A midget submarine.

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Hiryu prior to sinking at Midway

On December 7th the force delivered a devastating blow to the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, however no American aircraft carriers were present. It would go on for the next several months on a rampage across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However their success would be short lived. Within a year, the carriers that were not present at Pearl Harbor sank the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu at Midway. Hiei and Kirishima were lost at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. Over the course of the war every ship of the attack force but one was lost.

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The Last Banzai aboard Zuikaku as she sinks at the Battle of Cape Engano (Leyte Gulf) October 25th 1944

Shokaku was torpedoed and sunk at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and Zuikaku, Chikuma and Abukuma were lost at Leyte Gulf, most of the destroyers and submarines were lost in various engagements. However three destroyers, Isokaze, Hamakaze and Kasumi accompanied the great Battleship Yamato on her suicide mission at Okinawa and were sunk on April 7th 1945. The heavy cruiser Tone was sunk at her moorings at Kure during air strikes by the US 3rd Fleet on July 24th 1945.

Heavy Cruiser Tone sunk in Kure Japan 1945

All of the submarines were lost during the war, however I-19 sank the USS Wasp and the destroyer USS O’Brien while damaging the USS North Carolina on September 15th 1942 off Guadalcanal. Only the destroyer Ushio survived the war and was broken up for scrap in 1948.

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Fuchida (above) and Genda 

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Among the leaders of the Japanese strike force, Admiral Yamamoto was killed on April 18th 1943 when his aircraft was shot down at Buin. His body was recovered and cremated with the ashes interred at two different locations, however, no military or government leaders attended his funeral, no honor guard was furnished, and no wreathes were laid. He is little mentioned in Japanese history books, resurgent Japanese Nationalists have little regard for him, and unlike the main Japanese War Memorial, the Yushukan museum at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, the small museum in Nagaoka to Yamamoto does not offer revisionist history of Japan’s innocence and victim status. Likewise, no Japanese military bases or ships bear his name.

Most of the sailors who took part in the attack would be dead by the end of the war. Nagumo who resisted the strike and was ordered to lead it realized his worst fears at Midway and during the battles around Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, died in the American invasion of Saipan in 1944. The two aviators who planned and executed the tactical details of the raid, Mitsuo Fuchida, and Minoru Genda, both survived the war. Genda became a general in the Japanese Air Self Defense Force and died at the age of 84 in 1989. Fuchida converted to Christianity after reading the story of Doolittle Raid survivor Jacob DeShazor. Fuchida became a Methodist pastor and evangelist and died in 1976 at the age of 73.

Few present at Tankan Bay on that fateful November morning could have expected the triumph and tragedy ahead. However Yamamoto was probably more of a realist than almost anyone in the Japanese government and military leadership when he told Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” Yamamoto was eerily prophetic and those that counsel pre-emptive war need to never forget his words or the results of his decisions.

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

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

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

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

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

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LCDR Lem Massey Commanding Officer of Torpedo 3

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

They were still in service in 1942 as their replacement the TBF Avenger was not available for service in large enough numbers to replace them before Midway.  The TBDs of Torpedo Two and Torpedo Five based on the Lexington and Yorktown performed adequately against minor opposition in strikes against the Marshall Islands, and contributed to the sinking of the Japanese Light Carrier Shoho at the Battle of Coral Sea..

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

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

The Zeroes of Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed Devastators as they came in low and slow to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of aircraft were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron. From his observation point hiding under floating wreckage Gay would see the dive bombers get revenge and would be rescued later by a PBY Catalina patrol plane.

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LCDR John Waldron Commanding Officer of Torpedo Eight

Torpedo Six from the Enterprise under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties too. It lost 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo Three from the Yorktown under the command of LCDR Lem Massey losing 11 of 13 aircraft with Massey a casualty last being seen standing on the wing of his burning aircraft as it went down.

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These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.  The six aircraft of the Torpedo Eight detachment from Midway under the command of LT Fieberling lost 5 of their 6 aircraft while pressing their attacks.  Only Ensign Bert Earnest and his aircraft survived the battle landing in a badly damaged state on Midway.  Four U.S. Army B-26 Marauder Medium Bombers were pressed into service as torpedo bombers of which 2 were lost.  No torpedo bomber scored a hit on the Japanese Task force even those torpedoes launched at close range failed to score and it is believe that this was in large part due to the poor performance of the Mark 13 aircraft torpedoes.

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Despite the enormous losses of the torpedo squadrons their sacrifice was not in vain. Their attacks served to confuse the Japanese command and delay the rearmament of aircraft following the Japanese strikes on Midway. They also took the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to sea level and opened the way for American Dive Bombers to strike the Japanese with impunity fatally damaging the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu in the space of 5 minutes.

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

“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

“In High Spirits and Full of Confidence” The Eve of Disaster at Midway

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The Flagship IJN Akagi

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On the night of June 3rd 1942 the Japanese First Carrier Strike Force under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sailed east toward the tiny Midway Atoll. Midway was the target of an operation designed by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to draw out the remnants of the United States Pacific Fleet, destroy them and set the conditions for Japanese victory and the subsequent dominance of the Pacific by the Empire of Japan. It was to be the battle that ended the war. Yamamoto believed that the Japanese had no chance if the war dragged on and that the only chance of victory, it had to be quick and decisive, it had to destroy the aircraft carriers that were the remnant of American seapower in the Pacific, and it had to happen before the industrial might of the United States was fully mobilized. Yet Yamamoto was so confident of victory now that he believed that “the American fleet was a beaten, demoralized outfit that would need to be coaxed to its annihilation.” 

For six months the Japanese Navy and Army had experienced nothing but victory. Nagumo’s carriers had crushed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Land based Japanese bombers sank the British battleships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse near Singapore, while another Japanese fleet destroyed a combined American, British, Dutch, and Australia fleet in the Java Sea. Nagumo’s carriers raided British bases and sank British ships in the Indian Ocean, and devastated shipping in the Australian port of Darwin. Other Japanese land, air, and naval forces conquered Hong Kong, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines. Yet victory would not be assured until the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been destroyed.

To do that Yamamoto and his staff began to plan a massive operation against the American base on Midway Atoll, just 1100 miles from Pearl Harbor. His plan was to force the remaining American naval forces into a decisive battle in which they would be destroyed by overwhelming Japanese naval and air assets. However his plan was in conflict with plans of the Army and the Naval General Staff. Some wanted to attack westward against India with the goal of linking up with Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Middle East. Others preferred land offensives against China, or trying to cut maritime supply line from the United States to Australia by striking Samoa and the Fiji Islands.

In the end no agreement was reached and in April 1942 the Japanese were surprised and embarrassed by bombing of Tokyo by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 bombers which had taken off from the USS Hornet. The raid had caused very little damage but Yamamoto was humiliated and pushed for the operation which despite opposition was approved by Japanese leaders.

There were problems in the plan the chief of which was that the Japanese Fleet was divided and deployed in such a way that should there be trouble the main force under Yamamoto could not support the carrier strike force under Nagumo. Evidence and intelligence reports were ignored, the logistics of the operation minimized, recommendations that the carrier force be refitted and new air crews brought fully up to the high standards of December 1941 were disregarded. Further evidence that suggested that aircrews were not tactically proficient based on observed bombing and torpedo exercises similarly ignored. A war game conducted by the Combined Fleet Staff predicted the loss of two carriers but Yamamoto’s Chief of Staff, Admiral Ugaki revered the call of the umpire and  refloated one from the dead carriers by erasing the hits scored by those playing the American side. It was symptomatic of the “victory disease” that would cloud and distort all that the Japanese did between April and June.

Even so the operation continued forward and doubters put aside those doubts mostly due to a profound disrespect of the United States Navy. Admiral Nagumo had seen many of the risks involved in the plan and in the beginning considered it an “impossible and pointless operation.” But that was before the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and Nagumo fell in line as Yamamoto successfully lobbied for the operation. Other leaders of the strike on Pearl Harbor including Commander Mitsuo Fuchida could not see the value in attacking Midway.

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Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo

As the First Carrier strike force closed within 300 miles of Midway on the night of June 3rd 1942 Nagumo and his staff prepared for the battle that they and many others believed would be the decisive battle. Aircraft received their final preparations, bombs were loaded and as night faded into early morning air crew arose, ate their breakfast and went to their aircraft.

The ships had been observing radio silence since they departed their bases and anchorages in Japan the previous week. Honed to a fine edge the crews of the ships and the veteran aircrews anticipated victory.

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

However, Nagumo and his sailors had no idea that most of what they knew about their American opponents was wrong, just as Yamamoto had no idea that American code breakers had broken the Japanese Naval codes and determined that the Japanese were going to attack Midway.

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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto 

The Japanese were confident that the Americans could field no more than two operational carriers. However, the Yorktown, which the Japanese believed had been sunk at Coral Sea had been repaired, She was fully operational the air group from the damaged USS Saratoga replaced her air group and Yorktown with Task Force 17 rushed to join the EnterpriseHornet and Task Force 16 northeast of Midway.

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

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

In the next couple of days I will write some articles on Midway and republish older articles on this site. The fact of the matter is that like Yamamoto and the Japanese that many military leaders, including those of the United States make assumptions about campaigns and battles that turn out to be wrong. Wars are often expected to be short, decisive and glorious but many times end up long, indecisive and agonizing. History has shown that to be the case for the United States in every fight it has been engaged since the Second World War, even when we win every pitched battle.

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

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The Japanese had known nothing but victory and on the night of June 3rd 1942 they expected nothing more than a glorious victory. However the wisdom of the Romans was proved right yet again,“Sic transit Gloria mundi,” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”,) or as it is more commonly paraphrased “all glory is fleeting.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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