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A Miracle of Maritime Salvage: The Salvage of the Fleet at Pearl Harbor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more interesting aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack were the efforts of the US Navy to salvage and return to duty the ships sunk or so heavily damaged that they were thought to be irreparable after the attack. 19 ships were sunk or damaged during the attack, or roughly 20% of the fleet present on December 7th 1941. Unlike other great feats of maritime salvage like that of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow after the First World War, this massive effort led to the majority of the ships being returned to an operational status for further service in the war.

Captain Homer Wallin directing Salvage Operations

Many people know something about the attack, but one of the most remarkable aspects of it was the effort to salvage the fleet in the months following the attack. Under the leadership of Captain Homer N. Wallin teams of Navy and civilian divers from the Pacific Bridge Company worked day and night to salvage the sunken ships. The divers spent over 20,000 man hours under water in the highly hazardous waters; which were filled with unexploded ordinance, and contaminated by fuel and sadly decomposing human bodies. Wallin wrote: “The scene to the newcomer was foreboding indeed. There was a general feeling of depression throughout the Pearl Harbor area when it was seen and firmly believed that none of the ships sunk would ever fight again.”

The divers wore were rubberized coveralls with gloves. The divers were equipped with a lead-weighted belt which weighed 84 pounds and lead-weighted shoes, each of which weighed 36 pounds. Each diver wore a copper helmet attached to a breastplate. Air was supplied through a hose which was attached to the helmet and ran up to a compressor monitored by men on the surface. The work was extremely hazardous, the wrecked ships contained numerous hazards, any of which could cut his air hose and cause his death, and they also contained highly toxic gasses. They often worked in total darkness and had to communicate with the men on the surface via a telephone cable. The divers had to be exceptionally talented to and needed a great amount of coordination senses and balance to work with welding torches, suction hoses, and heavy equipment in the confines of the shattered ships. During the salvage operations a number of divers lost their lives. Before the ships could be raised ammunition, including the massive 14 and 16 inch shells weighing anywhere from 1300 to 2000 pounds each, Japanese bombs and torpedoes, fuel oil, gasoline, electrical equipment and batteries, weapons, and whenever possible the bodies of the entombed crews had to be removed, and then every hole had to be patched to make them buoyant. After the ships were raised cleanup crews had to go aboard and clear the ships of other hazardous waste as repair crews began their work to repair the basic systems needed to get the ships to West Coast shipyards for the major overhauls, The herculean effort was one of the greatest engineering feats in maritime history.

Of these were battleships, the USS Arizona sunk by a cataclysmic explosion, her broken hulk with her collapsed foremast the iconic symbol of the attack. USS Oklahoma was capsized on Battleship Row.  USS Nevada was grounded and sunk off Hospital Point after an abortive attempt to sortie during the attack. USS California and USS West Virginia lay upright on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, their superstructure, distinctive cage masts and gun turrets visible above the oily water.

The former battleship USS Utah lay capsized on the far side of Ford Island while the light cruiser USS Raleigh was fighting for her life barely afloat near Utah.  The ancient Minelayer USS Oglala was laying on her side next to the light cruiser USS Helena at the 1010 Dock. She was not hit by a bomb or torpedo but was said to have “died of fright” when Helena was hit by a torpedo, the blast which opened the seams of her hull. The destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes were wrecks in the main dry dock. USS Shaw was minus her bow in the floating dry dock after exploding in what was one of the more iconic images of the attack. Other ships received varying amounts of damage.

As the engineers, damage control and salvage experts looked at the damage they realized that every ship would be needed for the long term fight. The building program of the US Navy was just beginning to pick up steam and it would be some time before new construction could not only make up for the losses but also be ready to fight a Two Ocean War. The decision was made to salvage and return to duty any ship deemed salvageable.

Even the seemingly less important ships needed to be rapidly salvaged. Some which initially appeared to be unsalvageable needed at the minimum to be cleared from dry docks and docks needed by operational or less damaged ships. Likewise equipment, machinery and armaments from these ships needed to be salvaged for use in other ships.

Even by modern standards the efforts of the Navy divers and salvage experts and the civilians who worked alongside them were amazing. In the end only three of the 19 ships never returned to service. The work began quickly and on December 14th Commander James Steele began to direct the salvage operations on the sunken hulks. Captain Wallin relieved Steele on January 9th 1942. Wallin formed a salvage organization of Navy officers and civilian contractors. The civilian contractors were instrumental in the operation. Many of the civilians had experience in salvage operations, or underwater construction efforts, such as working on the Golden Gate Bridge which often exceeded the experience of the Navy divers.

The divers recovered bodies whenever possible, salvaged equipment, removed weapons and ammunition, made temporary repairs and help rig the ships for righting or re-floating. In each case the salvage experts, divers and engineers faced different challenges.

Arizona was never raised. Her superstructure was cut down, main battery and some anti-aircraft guns removed. The main batter guns were delivered to the Army Coastal Artillery for use as shore batteries but none reached an operational status before the end of the war. The dives aboard were so dangerous that eventually the attempts to recover bodies ceased as several divers lost their lives in the wreck.  Over the years the National Parks Service has continued to dive on the wreck to assess it as a war grave and memorial.

Utah too was not raised. She was righted in 1942 but efforts to do more were halted because the elderly wreck had no remaining military value. Her wreck along with that of Arizona are war graves, many of their crew members, including over 1000 of Arizona’s men forever remain entombed in their ships. When I visited Pearl Harbor in 1978 as a Navy Junior ROTC Cadet and visited both memorials I was humbled at what I saw. They are haunting reminders of the cost paid by sailors during wartime.

Nevada was the first major ship salvaged. She was re-floated in February 1942 and after temporary repairs sailed to the West Coast on her own power. After repairs and a significant modernization of her anti-aircraft systems was complete she returned to action in 1943 in the invasion of Attu Alaska. She participated in many amphibious operations including Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jim and Okinawa. She survived the Atomic Bomb tests in 1946 but wrecked and radioactive she was sunk as a target off Hawaii in 1948.

 

 

The salvage of the Oklahoma was one of the more challenging endeavors faced by Wallin’s men. Hit by at least five torpedoes during the attack the great ship capsized, her tripod masts digging deep into the mud of the harbor as she settled. Over 400 over her crew lay dead inside the ship. Since it was apparent that the ship was a total loss the salvage operations did not commence until the middle of 1942. The primary goal of the operation was to clear needed space for berthing large ships along Battleship Row. The operation involved making the ship as watertight as possible, solidifying the bottom of the harbor around her to enable her to roll and emplacing a massive system of righting frames, anchor chains and shore mounted winches and cables. The process involved cutting away wrecked superstructure, removing ammunition, weapons and the bodies of those entombed in their former home. She was completely righted in July 1943, and floated again in November. Moved to a dry dock in December she was made watertight and moored in another part of the harbor. Following the war she was being towed to a scrap yard but sank in a storm in May 1947.

California was raised in March and after temporary repairs sailed under her own power to the West Coast. Her repairs and modernization were a major undertaking. Fully reconditioned and modernized to standards of most modern battleships she returned to service in January 1944. She served in retaking Saipan, Guam, Tinian, as well as Leyte Gulf were she had a significant part in the Battle of Surigao Strait. Hit by a Kamikaze she was repaired and returned to action at Okinawa and support the occupation operations of the Japanese Home Islands. She was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrapping in 1959.

West Virginia suffered the most severe damage of the battleships returned to duty. She was raised in July 1942 and after repairs sailed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Like California she was completely rebuilt and returned to action in October 1944 in time to take the lead role in destroying the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro. She served throughout the remainder of the war in the Pacific at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the occupation of Japan.

The Mahan Class destroyers Cassin and Downes were so badly damaged sitting in the Dry Dock Number One with Pennsylvania that initially they were believed beyond salvage. However after closer inspection it was determined that the hull fittings, main weapons systems and propulsion machinery on both ships were worth salvaging. These items were removed, shipped to Mare Island Naval Shipyard and installed on new hulls being constructed. The hulks of the old ships were scrapped at Pearl Harbor. Those ships were commissioned as the Cassin and Downes and served throughout the war.

Both were decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1947. Their sister ship Shaw which had blown up in the floating dry dock was wrecked from her bridge forward. However the rest of the ship including her engineering spaces were intact. A temporary bow was fashioned and the ship sailed to Mare Island under her own power. Completely overhauled she was back in service by July 1942. She was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1946.

The ancient minelayer Oglala was raised in July and sent back to the West Coast where she was repaired and recommissioned as an internal combustion engine repair ship. She survived the war was decommissioned and transferred to Maritime Commission custody. She was a depot ship at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet until 1965 when she was sold for scrap.

The salvage feat to return these ships to duty was one of the most remarkable operations of its type ever conducted. Not only were most of the ships salvaged but most returned to duty. While none survive today many played key roles during the war. Artifacts of some of the ships are on display at various Naval Bases, Museums and State Capitals. They, their brave crews and the Navy Divers and civilian diving and salvage experts who conducted this task exhibited the finest traditions of the US Navy. The successors of the Navy divers at Mobile Diving Salvage Units One and Two still carry on that tradition today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Honoring the Men of Pearl Harbor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A Second World War veteran wrote:

“Never a day goes by for all these many years when I haven’t thought about it. I don’t talk about it too much, but when December rolls around I do. It’s important the American people don’t forget.” 

Today I had the great privilege and honor of delivering the invocation and benediction at the annual Pearl Harbor Remembrance Ceremony at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek Fort Story. It is a part of how the Navy seeks to remember and not forget what happened what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, a Day of Infamy. This year marked the seventy-sixth anniversary of the attack and we had the last living survivor of the attack in our area at the service. Ninety-six year old Fire Controlman First Class Paul Moore who was then a Seaman Second Class aboard the USS West Virginia was there with his wife. Other families, wives, and children of other survivors who have since passed away were also in attendance.

Those who have followed my writings over the years know that I have written much about that attack. In part this goes back to growing up as a Navy Brat and son of a Navy Chief Petty Officer and also having an innate love of history. In the fall of 1971 in junior high school while my dad was deployed to Vietnam I picked up Walter Lord’s classic account of the attack on Pearl Harbor Day of Infamy. Since then I have immersed myself in books about the attack as well as the navy’s actions across the Pacific during the Second World War and I have written a number of articles about Pearl Harbor on this site. I think if I bundled them together I could probably have a nice little book. Maybe I should talk with my agent, but I digress.

Today was a special day. My part in it was small compared to some others, Chaplains are always in the supporting cast on such occasions and as long as you don’t screw things up you have done your job. On all occasions, but especially during events like this I strive to do my part in a way that enhances the rest of the ceremony.

Our sailor of the year and our base Executive Officer gave orations that were as excellent as they were timely. After the main part of the ceremony was conducted in the Chapel after I gave the benediction we moved the ceremony over to the Pearl Harbor Memorial. There a 21 gun salute was rendered, taps played, and a wreath laid at the memorial at the Executive officer, our sailors of the year and I escorted Mr. Moore to the memorial. Before and after the event I met some wonderful people, including Mr. Moore as well as the family members of other survivors of the attack who have passed away. I have been invited by some of the families to join them at a local restaurant at noon Saturday where they want to share their stories and pictures of their now deceased fathers, or husbands. That is also an honor.

This is a time of year that we should remember the price that has been paid for our freedoms and that we must defend them from both external enemies, as well as some Americans who have seem to forgotten that the ideal of liberty as defined in our Declaration of Independence is that All Men are Created Equal…

Likewise it is equally important to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln who said: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” This is especially important to remember today as the descendants of the men of the Japanese carrier task force who attacked us at Pearl Harbor now stand alongside of us as the risk of war on the Korean Peninsula grows more likely on a daily basis.

So as December 7th 2017 passes into memory it is important to remember the price that was paid by so many members of what we now call The Greatest Generation, men like Paul Moore, and never to forget it even as young men and women stand today in harm’s way.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Illusion of Peace: December 6th 1941 and 2017

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For most Americans December 6th 1941 was an ordinary day, a day of peace to shop, watch movies and football games or spend time with family. Though war raged in Europe and Hitler had overrun all of Europe and was at the Gates of Moscow, and United States Navy destroyers had been torpedoed and sunk or damaged by German U-Boats, many people and politicians did not believe that war would happen or were completely opposed to entering it. In the Pacific events were building to a crescendo as the Japanese had continued their aggression in China, occupied French Indochina, while the Roosevelt administration had imposed severe economic sanctions on raw materials needed by the Japanese war machine. But the peace was an illusion.

Walter Lord wrote, “A nation brought up on Peace was going to war and didn’t know how.”

For most Americans and Western Europeans December 6th is a time of peace. time of peace. Well, at least the illusion of peace.

Tens of thousands of American, NATO and European Union troops operating in a number of mandates are in harm’s way. In some places like Afghanistan they are at war, in others attempting to keep the peace. Around the world regional conflicts, civil wars, insurgencies  and revolutions threaten not only regional peace but the world peace and economy. Traditional national rivalries and ethnic and religious tensions especially in Asia and the broader Middle East have great potential to escalate into wars that should they actually break will involve the US, NATO and the EU, if not militarily economically and diplomatically.

But, we live in a dream world an illusory world of peace. as W.H. Auden said in his poem September 1st 1939:

Defenseless in the night

Our world in stupor lies…

On December 6th 1941 the world was already at war and the United States was edging into the war. The blood of Americans has already been shed but for the vast majority of Americans the events in Europe and Asia were far away and not our problem. Though President Roosevelt had began the expansion of the military there were those in Congress seeking to demobilize troops and who fought all attempts at to intervene.

Most people went about their business that last furtive day of peace. People went about doing their Christmas shopping, going to movies like The Maltese Falcon staring Humphrey Bogart or the new short Tom and Jerry cartoon, The Night Before Christmas.

Others went to football games. UCLA and USC had played their annual rivalry game to a 7-7 tie, Texas crushed Oregon in Austin by a score of 71-7 while Texas A&M defeated Washington State in the Evergreen Bowl in Tacoma by a score of 7-0.

In Europe the German Wehrmacht was at the gates of Moscow but at the end of its tether. Its troops pressed on as Stalin readied the Red Army for a counteroffensive that would bring the vaunted Wehrmacht to the bring of collapse. U-Boats were taking a distressing toll of ships bound for Britain including neutral US merchant ships and warships, including the USS Reuben James. American Airmen were flying as the volunteer Flying Tigers for the Nationalist Chinese against the Japanese invaders.

War was everywhere but there was still the illusion of peace. When the messages came out of Pearl Harbor the next morning it was already early afternoon on the East Coast. The Japanese Ambassador had been delayed in delivering the declaration of war, people across the country going about their Sunday business, going to church, relaxing or listening to the radio. Thus when war came, despite all the precursors and warnings war came. When it happened it took the nation by surprise. Walter Lord wrote in his classic account of the Pearl Harbor attack Day of Infamy: “A nation brought up on Peace was going to war and didn’t know how.”

By the end of the day over 2400 Americans were dead and over 1200 more wounded. The battleships of the Pacific Fleet were shattered. 4 sunk, one grounded and 3 more damaged. 10 other ships were sunk or damaged in the attack. 188 aircraft were destroyed and 159 damaged.

The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the nation to action requesting that Congress declare war on Japan. That speech was masterful. Roosevelt detailed the Japanese aggression:

Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that Nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American Island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation.

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

But always will our whole Nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces- with the unbounding determination of our people- we will gain the inevitable triumph- so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

Today tens of thousands of US and NATO troops are deployed in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, Syria, and many regions of Africa and Asia. Some of them are dying that people that most of us do not care about in the least might have a chance at peace and a better life. Likewise the situation on the Korean Peninsula is rapidly escalating and could easily due to miscalculations on the part of the Trump Administration or the Korean dictator Kim Jong Un could lead to a war that will be more destructive and costly in human life since the Second World War. Eleanor Roosevelt reflected:

“Lest I keep my complacent way I must remember somewhere out there a person died for me today. As long as there must be war, I ask and I must answer was I worth dying for?”

Wars, revolutions and other tensions in other parts of the world threaten on every side, but most Americans and Europeans live in the illusion of peace.  A very few professi0onals are given the task of preparing for and fighting wars that our politicians, business leaders, Armageddon seeking preachers and the talking heads of the media sow the seeds. As such many have no idea of the human, material and spiritual cost of war and when it comes again in all of its awful splendor few will be prepared.

We do not know what tomorrow will bring and unfortunately for the vast bulk of Americans and Western Europeans the comments of Walter Lord are as applicable today as they were on December 7th 1941.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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In Harm’s Way They Went…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a busy day as we finished the major part of decorating our home for the Advent and Christmas seasons. I think that this year is the first year that we have everything ready before the first Sunday of Advent and that even means getting all the boxes that our decorations came in back up to the attic. When we finished we went out to our favorite local German restaurant, The Bier Garden over in Portsmouth.

Since we are coming up on the seventy-sixth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and it seems that the United States may again become involved in a truly major and destructive war the likes that we have not seen since the Second World I decided to put on the classic film In Harm’s Way, directed by Otto Preminger and starring John Wayne and an all star cast. It is an unusual film because it deals with very fallible people who can be heroes and scoundrels who have miserable failings. It deals with families, strong ones and broken ones, and it also deals with a topic that is all too current, sexual harassment and rape.

Of course it is set during the Second World War and deals with the Navy in the Pacific during the early part of the war and though it is fictional it represents real battles around the Solomons. Those battles were often bloody. During the first engagement of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal a U.S. task force slugged it out at close range with a Japanese Force which had the mission of knocking out the Marine airbase on the island the Navy lost two cruisers and four destroyers and of thirteen ships engaged only one remained undamaged. To give an idea how brutal it was, both admirals embarked on the U.S. force were killed in the action.

The tag line for the movie is one that I really like because it kind of tells it like it is when a nation, not just a volunteer professional military goes to war: “In harm’s way they went. The men. The women. The lovers for a night. The lovers for keeps. The strong. The weak. They went, as they were…in Harm’sway.”

I have made two wartime deployments, one on a cruiser and one in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. I have seen men and women, and families who have gone to war and come home, sometimes rather worse for the wear. I still have nightmares and night terrors from Iraq, but I have written about that before. PTSD is a bitch.

But anyway, as I ponder what is going on in our country and the world I realize that things are probably going to get much worse before they get better. I expect that many unsuspecting people will find themselves in harm’s way sooner rather than later, and like the Americans of 1941, complacent though the world was already at war, will come face to face with a rude awakening that will determine who we are and what we will be for at least a generation. The closing credits of the film are dramatic moving from waves braking upon a beach, to stormy seas, to the explosions of war culminating in the blast of a hydrogen bomb, before going back to a calm sea.

https://youtu.be/_OGVzjqoJ0Q

W.H. Auden wrote:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Until,tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Doolittle Raid at 75: And Then There Was One

Lieutenant Colonel Dick Cole

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. 80 US Army Air Corps flyers manning 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers conducted a mission from the deck of the USS Hornet CV-8 which though it caused little damage changed the course of World War Two in the Pacific.

Doolittle and his Airmen with Hornet’s C.O. Captain Marc Mitscher 

The genus of the strike came from the desire of President Franklin Roosevelt to bomb Japan as soon as possible during a meeting just prior to Christmas 1941. Various aircraft types were considered and in the end the military chose the B-25 because it had the requisite range and had the best characteristics. Aircraft and their crews from the 17th Bomb Group which had the most experience with the aircraft were modified to meet the mission requirements. Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was selected to lead the mission.

Once the aircraft were ready they and their crews reported to Eglin Field for an intensive three week period of training. Supervised by a Navy pilot the crews practiced simulated carrier take offs, low level flying and bombing, night flying and over water navigation. When the training was complete the aircraft and crews and support personnel flew to McClellan Field for final modifications and then to NAS Alameda California where they were embarked on the Hornet Hornet’s air group had to be stowed on the ships hanger deck since the 16 B-25s had to remain of the flight deck. Each bomber was loaded with 4 specially modified 500 lb. bombs, three high explosive and one incendiary.

Departing Alameda on April 2nd the Hornet and her escorts, Hornet’s Task Force 18 rendezvoused with the Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 16 built around the USS Enterprise CV-6. task Force 16 provided escort and air cover during the mission. The carriers, escorted by 4 cruisers, 8 destroyers and accompanied by two oilers hoped to get close enough to the Japanese home islands so that the raiders could reach bases in allied China.

Hornet in Heavy Seas while launching the Raiders

The destroyers and slow oilers broke off on the evening of the 17th after refueling the carriers and cruisers. The two carriers and the cruisers then commenced a high speed run to get into range. However early in the morning of April 18th the ships were sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, the #23 Nitto Maru which was quickly sunk by the USS Nashville but not before it got off a radio message alerting the Japanese command. However the Japanese knowing that carrier aircraft had a relatively short range did not expect an attack. However, realizing the danger that the sighting brought, Mitscher elected to launch immediately, even though it meant that bombers would have to ditch their aircraft or attempt to land well short of the friendly Chinese airfields. The launch was 10 hours earlier and about 170 miles farther out from the Chinese bases than planned.

B-25 Launching from Hornet

Flying in groups of two to four aircraft the raiders struck the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Minimal damage was done and only one aircraft was damaged. However they needed to fly nearly 1500 more miles to get to areas of China unoccupied by Japanese forces. Miraculously most of the aircraft and crews managed to find refuge in China. 69 of the 80 pilots and crew members avoided death or capture. Two flyers drowned, one died when parachuting from his aircraft. Eight men were captured. Of those captured by the Japanese three, Lieutenants William Farrow, Dean Hallmark and Corporal Harold Spatz were tried and executed for “war crimes” on October 15th 1942.

Many of the surviving flyers continued to serve in China while others continued to serve in North Africa and Europe, another 11 died in action following the raid. Doolittle felt that with the loss of all aircraft and no appreciable damage that he would be tried by courts-martial. Instead since the raid had so bolstered American morale he was awarded the Medal of Honor, promoted to Brigadier General and would go on to command the 12th Air Force, the 15th Air Force and finally the 8th Air Force.

The raid shook the Japanese, especially the leadership of the Imperial Navy who had allowed American aircraft to strike the Japanese homeland. The attack helped convince Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that an attack on Midway was needed in order to destroy the American Carriers and the threat to the home islands.

When asked by a reporter about where the attack was launched from, President Roosevelt quipped “Shangri-La” the fictional location of perpetual youth in the Himalayas’ made famous in the popular book and movie Lost Horizon.

The raid in terms of actual damage and losses to the attacking forces was a failure, but in terms of its impact a major victory of the United States. The attack was psychologically devastating to Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, whose personal aircraft was nearly hit by one of the raiders and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who felt personally humiliated and dishonored by the fact that bombers launched from American carriers.

Likewise the raid gave the people of the United States a huge morale boost at a time when very little was going right. It forced the Japanese Navy to launch the attack on Midway that turned out to be a disaster, decimating the best of the Japanese Naval Air Forces and the loss of four aircraft carriers and enabled the US Navy to take the offensive two months later at Guadalcanal.

Franklin Roosevelt Awards Medal of Honor to Jimmy Doolittle 

In the years after the war the survivors would meet. Today only one survivor of the raid remain alive. One hundred and one year old Lt.Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, Doolittle’s co-pilot will attend the ceremony today.

It will not be long before he too is gone and it is up to us to never forget the heroism, sacrifice and service in a mission the likes of which had never before been attempted, and which would in its own way help change the course of the Second World War.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Take Increased Devotion… Pearl Harbor at 75, a Personal Reflection

uss-arizona-memorial-pearl-harbor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I never will forget the day that I took a Navy launch from Naval Station Pearl Harbor to the USS Arizona Memorial. It was Easter Sunday, March 26th 1978, the day before my 18th birthday and I was in Pearl Harbor as part of a Naval Junior ROTC Cadet Cruise. Cadets from my school sailed aboard the USS Frederick LST-1184 from San Diego to Pearl, and remained there for a week until returning to San Diego aboard the USS Gray FF-1054.

I honestly don’t know how many young people ever have had that kind of adventure, but for me I know that those three weeks were profoundly important in who I am today, but the one that constantly reverberates in me is the visit to the Arizona Memorial. Back then there was no visitor center on Ford Island, nor was the USS Missouri moored where the USS Oklahoma was that fateful Sunday. The day was sunny with partly cloudy skies, the sunlight reflected on the placid waters of Pearl Harbor. As the launch, manned by Sailor’s in Dress Whites neared Ford Island the bridge like white memorial loomed ahead, the rusty barbette of the battleship’s “C” turret rose slightly out of the water aft of the memorial, and the mooring quay with the USS Arizona inscribed upon it glinted in the bright morning sunlight. To our rear cruisers and destroyers lined the piers of the Naval Station.

uss-airzona-shrine-wall

Alighting from the launch I went aboard the memorial at the entry room and walked across the bridge and the assembly room before entering the shrine. As I walked slowly across the bridge I peered into the water below thinking about all the men still entombed in the wreck. Pausing in the shrine I read the names of the 1,177 men killed aboard Arizona that Sunday morning, one of those was the ship’s chaplain, Captain Thomas Kirkpatrick. It was a pivotal moment for me. I had begun to feel a call to the ministry but in that moment I was sure that I wanted to serve as a Navy Chaplain. I remember finding a post card that I had sent my grandparents from the USS Gray when we returned to San Diego, my words were “Dear Ma Maw and Pa Paw, I think I am supposed to be a Navy Chaplain.” I laughed when I saw it because I was then serving as a Chaplain in the Army Reserve. Sadly, when my grandmother died in November 1996 I was deployed, and that simple postcard, my link with that part of my past was discarded by family members who did not think enough to read it, or if they did didn’t give enough of a damn about me to save it. I should have taken it when I had the chance, but sometimes I am too sentimental. 

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It took me a while to get there, my long strange trip included a 17 ½ year detour in the U.S. Army before I became a Navy Chaplain in February 1999.

Abraham Lincoln spoke of the ground that was hallowed at Gettysburg in his Gettysburg Address. The wreck of the Arizona is also hallowed. Despite our best efforts we cannot consecrate it more than the men who served aboard her that day seventy-five years ago, but we can as Lincoln said so well be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

For me that means to continue to serve as a Chaplain in the Navy, never forgetting that the duty of a Chaplain is with his or her Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, and Airmen, especially when they go in harm’s way.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Unlikely and Incredible: Victory at Midway

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As I mentioned that I would be writing about a number of watershed events this week. Today is the 74th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Midway. As a Navy officer and having grown up in a Navy family, this battle is still something that I find fascinating. It was a battle that could have easily been lost, and with it the war in the Pacific significantly lengthened, and which had the Japanese won, forced a change in strategy that might have allowed Hitler to strengthen his grip on Europe and maybe even defeat the Soviet Union.

It was a watershed event because it was the first real defeat that the Japanese Imperial Navy sustained in the war, and it ensured that the Japanese would not be able to win the war, except by exhausting the United States.

So it still remains important even today. If you are interested in books about Midway I recommend Walter Lord’s classic “Incredible Victory” and Gordon Prange’s “Miracle at Midway.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Prelude to Battle

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

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

“I Shall Run Wild for the First Six Months”

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Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

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

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

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

In only one place had a Japanese Naval task force been prevented from its goal and that was at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Between 4-8 May the US Navy’s Task Force 11 and Task Force 17 centered on the Carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown prevented a Japanese invasion force from taking Port Moresby. Their aircraft sank the light carrier Shoho, damaged the modern carrier Shokaku and decimated the air groups of the Japanese task force. But it was the unexpected raid by US Army Air Corps B-25 Bombers launched from the USS Hornet under command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle on April 18th 1942 which embarrassed Yamamoto so badly that he ordered the attack to take Midway and destroy the remaining US Naval power in the Pacific.

Cracking the Code

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Admiral Chester Nimitz

United States Navy codebreakers had broken the Japanese diplomatic and naval codes in 1941, and in May the Navy code breakers at Pearl Harbor discovered Yamamoto’s plan to have the Imperial Navy attack Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands.  Knowing the Japanese were coming, and that the occupation of Midway by Japanese forces would give them an operational base less than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet committed the bulk of his naval power, the carriers USS Enterprise CV-6, USS Yorktown CV-5 and USS Hornet CV-8 and their 8 escorting cruisers and 15 destroyers to defend Midway.  This force of 26 ships with 233 aircraft embarked to defend Midway while a force of smaller force 5 cruisers and 4 destroyers was dispatched to cover the Aleutians.  The forces on the ground at Midway had a mixed Marine, Navy and Army air group of 115 aircraft which included many obsolete aircraft, 32 PBY Catalina Flying Boats and 83 fighters, dive bombers, torpedo planes and Army Air Force bombers piloted by a host of inexperienced but resolute airmen with which to defend itself. It also had a ground force of U.S. Marines, should the Japanese actually land on the island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo

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

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

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

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

Hawks at Angles Twelve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half a league half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred:

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns’ he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

They were not six hundred and they were not mounted on horses, but the Naval Aviators of Torpedo Squadrons 3, 6 and 8 and their aerial steeds 42 Douglas TBD Devastators and 6 TBF Avengers wrote a chapter of courage and sacrifice seldom equaled in the history of Naval Aviation. Commanded by veteran Naval Aviators, LCDR Lance “Lem” Massey, LCDR Eugene Lindsey and LCDR John Waldron the squadrons embarked aboard the carriers flew the obsolete TBD Devastators. The young pilots of the Midway based Torpedo 8 detachment under the command of LT Langdon Fieberling flew in the new TBF Avengers.

he TBD which first flew in 1935 entered service in 1937 and was possibly the most modern naval aircraft in the world when it entered service.  It was a revolutionary aircraft. It was the first monoplane widely used on carriers and was first all-metal naval aircraft.  It was the first naval aircraft with a totally enclosed cockpit, the first with hydraulic powered folding wings.  The TBD had crew of three and had a maximum speed of 206 miles an hour and carried a torpedo or up to 1500 pounds of bombs (3 x 500) or a 1000 pound bomb.  129 were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet with a limited number embarked aboard Wasp. 

The Devastator saw extensive service prior to the war which pushed many airframes to the end of their useful service life and by 1940 only about 100 were operational by the beginning of the war.  They were still in service in 1942 as their replacement the TBF Avenger was not available for service in large enough numbers to replace them before Midway.  The TBDs performed adequately against minor opposition at Coral Sea and in strikes against the Marshalls but the squadrons embarked on Yorktown (VT3), Enterprise (VT-6) and Hornet (VT-8) were annihilated at Midway with only 6 of 41 aircraft surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force.  They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament.

The Torpedo squadrons attacked independently of each other between 0920 and 1030 on June 4th 1942. The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron to be picked up later by a PBY Catalina patrol plane.

Torpedo Six from the Enterprise under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo Three from the Yorktown under the command of LCDR Lem Massey losing 11 of 13 aircraft with Massey a casualty last being seen standing on the wing of his burning aircraft as it went down.  These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.  The six aircraft of the Torpedo Eight detachment from Midway under the command of LT Fieberling lost 5 of their 6 aircraft while pressing their attacks.  Only Ensign Bert Earnest and his aircraft survived the battle landing in a badly damaged state on Midway.  Four U.S. Army B-26 Marauder Medium Bombers were pressed into service as torpedo bombers of which 2 were lost.  No torpedo bomber scored a hit on the Japanese Task force even those torpedoes launched at close range failed to score and it is believe that this was in large part due to the poor performance of the Mark 13 aircraft torpedoes.

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

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After Midway the remaining TBDs were withdrawn from active service and no example survives today. The TBF became the most effective torpedo bomber of the war and some remained in service in a civilian capacity to fight forest fires until 2012.

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The Provence of Chance: Five Minutes that Changed the War

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

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

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

There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers. Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 from Hornet made a wrong turn and not find the Japanese carriers. The squadrons had to return due to a lack of fuel and a number of bombers and their fighter escort had to ditch in the ocean and wait for rescue. The Enterprise group composed of Bombing-6 and Scouting 6 under CDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when they spotted the wake of a Japanese destroyer steaming at high speed to catch up with the Japanese carriers.  Taking a chance, McClusky followed it straight to the Japanese Task Force arriving about 1020. The Yorktown’s group under LCDR Max Leslie arrived about the same time.

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.

At 1020 the first Zero of the Japanese attack group began rolling down the flight deck of the flagship Akagi, aboard Kaga aircraft were warming up as they were on the Soryu.  The unsuspecting Japanese were finally alerted to the threat of the American dive bombers when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” The Japanese fighters assigned to the combat air patrol were flying too low as the mopped up the last of the doomed torpedo bombers and were not in a position to intercept the Americans.

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.

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 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.

VB-3 under LCDR Max Leslie from the Yorktown stuck the Soryu with 17 aircraft, however only 13 of the aircraft had bombs due to an electronic arming device malfunction on 4 of the aircraft, including that of Commander Leslie.  Despite this Leslie led the squadron as it dove on the Soryu at 1025 hitting that ship with 3 and maybe as many as 5 bombs. Soryu like her companions burst into flames as the ready aircraft and ordnance exploded about her deck. She was ordered abandoned at 1055 and would sink at 1915 taking 718 of her crew with her. A few hours later Hiryu, which had succeeded in launching strikes that seriously damaged Yorktown met the fate of her sisters. Yorktown would be sunk by a Japanese submarine, along with the destroyer Hamman a few days later as her crew attempted to get her to Pearl Harbor. In five pivotal minutes the course of the war in the Pacific was changed.

A Final Ignominy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

The American victory at Midway changed the course of the war in the Pacific. The Battle of Midway established the aircraft carrier and the fast carrier task force as the dominant force in naval warfare which some would argue it still remains. Finally those five minutes ushered in an era of US Navy dominance of the high seas which at least as of yet has not ended as the successors to the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown ply the oceans of the world and the descendants of those valiant carrier air groups ensure air superiority over battlefields around the world today.

 

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