Monthly Archives: June 2012

Die Invasion

Major Pluskat of the Wermacht (German Army) was bored. Day after day in the concrete bunker overlooking the Normandy Beach he had lifted his binoculars and searched the English Channel for ships-nothing. Anything to ease the monotony of his posting would have been welcome. For months now he had submitted the same mundane report to his superiors.  The war was elsewhere, he concluded, not here. He sat down, rubbed the fur of his faithful German shepherd and took pen in hand to write the same message. “Nothing of any interest in my sector. No enemy activity that we can detect. All is quiet.” But on this morning, June 6, he paused before his pen touched the paper. Something inside him, a strange feeling, an odd sort of impulse, told him to look again.  As he did so, peering intently out the narrow slit opening of that bunker carved into the cliff overlooking the Normandy beach at the vast expanse of water he noticed something odd. A ship, far away on the horizon, hovered like a mirage in the mist.  Pluskat blinked and looked again. It didn’t go away but stayed floating and dreamlike.  Then  another appeared beside it.  And another.  And another.  Transfixed, he saw the misty fog lift and the entire horizon magically filled with ships of every shape, size, and description, too many to count.  He blinked again and again to make sure he wasn’t imagining it. His eyes wide and his mouth agape, Pluskat turned to his aide, a sleepy lieutenant who had just awakened and tumbled into the chair at the small table where they did their work and drank their morning coffee. He gasped: “Die Invasion!”

He was right. June 6, 1944 was D-Day, or as author Cornelius Ryan put it, ”The Longest Day.”  It would be a day like no other. In the ETO, the European Theatre of Operations, the long anticipated second front was about to become a reality.

It had been a secret like no other, the un-secret-secret.  Everyone, from the highest-ranking general to the lowliest private knew an invasion was coming. The allies were going to invade the Northern coast of continental Europe, German-occupied territory, from England where, it was also well-known, immense and unprecedented preparations were being made, the massing and training of hundreds of thousands of troops, American, Canadian, English, Free French and others representing those nations opposing the Third Reich. There was no secret about any of that.  England had become a massive armed camp poised like a wound-up spring ready to strike continental Europe.

The big secret was just where along the long stretch of Northern European coastline they would land.  Would they land along the long Normandy coastline, where the distance across the channel was the longest, or would they land further to the Northeast, on that place known as the Pas de Calais where the distance between England and the continent was shorter? It was also the shortest route to the heart of Germany. Hitler was quite sure that Pas de Calais was the place.  He was certain of this because, so we’re told, his astrologers had told him. Other German leaders weren’t so sure.  Quite simply they could only guess as to where the allies would land. Would they land at Pas de Calais or Normandy?  It had to be one of these two places. Other spots along the coast were unsuitable.

An elaborate ruse was designed to keep the Germans guessing, or better still, to keep them looking in the wrong direction. In Southeastern England a phantom army gathered, a mighty force  of canvas tanks, trucks,  and planes, thousands of them, neatly arranged in long neat rows upon vast fields surrounded by high security fences and carefully guarded by soldiers with guns and dogs. Viewed from the air or even from a few hundred yards on the ground it all looked quite real, as if supplies were being gathered in the logical place for an allied landing at Pas de Calais. In dozens of other ways the deception was heightened, even to the point of putting General George Patton and his headquarters in the area as if he were commanding troops there, something that Patton resented;  he wanted to command a real army, not a paper army. Yet if the truth be known, it is likely that the humiliating months Patton spent in this elaborate charade may have been the most valuable service he performed in the war.

Only a few dozen high-ranking allied officers knew the real secret, just where the invasion would occur, and they were under the strictest of orders to keep quiet outside official meetings. One of these officers, an American general, had a little too much to drink at a London restaurant one evening in March and started talking loudly about future “operations on the Normandy beach.”  A junior officer sitting nearby overheard his remarks and filed a complaint. Within hours that general was sitting in a jail cell. Hearing of this Eisenhower himself came to visit the man, who, by this time, was sober and very sorry for the indiscretion.  He begged his old West Point classmate for mercy. But Ike was firm. Get packed,” Ike said to him. “You’re going home.”  Now that’s leadership-no good ole boys club-no WPPA, (West Point Protection Association). It was not a time for sweet deals; too much was at stake.  The man went home in disgrace.

Still, that general was lucky. If he had committed such an indiscretion under Hitler or Stalin, he would very likely have been shot or given a cyanide tablet.  If he had been Japanese, he would have been instructed to use his hari-kari knife on himself.

It seems now that the Germans were indeed fooled. Despite the many dots that they could have connected or clues that they could have sorted out to confirm a Normandy invasion location ( prior to June 6), the German High command never wavered from the belief that the invasion would come at Pas-de-Calais. Astonishingly enough, they clung to this belief for several days after June 6, holding fast to the notion that the attack at Normandy was merely a diversion!  Unlike Major Pluskat they weren’t out there on the beach to actually lay eyes on the invasion force. They were far away, trying to make sense of the dozens of reports from excited officers landing on their desks.  Why the German High Command, in spite of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, couldn’t get away from the “Pas de Calais” site until it was too late, remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the war. Patton’s phantom army, it seems, performed splendidly.

Hitler’s general on the spot, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, one of the best known and loved military leaders in all Germany, the hero of the extinct Afrika Corps, sure wished he knew the invasion location.  It would have made his job much easier. As it was, he had been working tirelessly since the Fall of 1943, eighteen hours a day, non-stop, directing and inspecting defensive preparations along the entire long coastline doing all that he could to arrange a warm fiery welcome for the allies. Many of his colleagues believed that the key to it all was to have reserve panzer units strategically positioned to come to the aid of any coastal defense unit that got into trouble. Rommel  disagreed. The fight would be won or lost on the beaches. He insisted upon more mines, more concrete, bigger gun emplacements, more beach obstacles, and on and on. The “Atlantic Wall” that he constructed was impressive, unprecedented. But would it be strong enough, and strong enough in the right places?   The reserve panzer units could only be released upon the orders of Hitler himself.  Hitler was too far away. Rommel knew that by the time Hitler officially released the tanks, it would be too late and an allied beach-head would be secure. They had to be stopped on the beaches.  Rommel was reported to have said that the day of the invasion would be: “the longest day.”

There was another perplexing matter. This nobody knew. When. When would the invasion take place? Even Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of SHAEF, Strategic Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force , the man who would ultimately give the all-important order, wasn’t quite sure.  There were a number of possible dates, days when the tides and the moon would be just right, matters crucial to the paratroopers who would be the first wave.  But just which of those dates would depend on the weather forecast. The English Channel could be a monster. In order for the men to hit the beach, the thousands of vessels transporting and supporting them, transports, destroyers, battleships, cruisers, and dozens of other varieties, would have be able to deliver them to the beach. The choppier the water, the worse it would be for all involved. A stormy rough channel could doom the invasion. The high command worried that their men might drown before they ever reached the beach.

In late May, troops began boarding docked transport vessels all along the heavily guarded, high security southern English coast.  When the ships were full they just sat there and waited. And it rained and rained. The boats tossed and bobbed on the water and hundreds of thousands of seasick, anxious, bored men waited and waited while miles away, their supreme commander worried and smoked cigarette after cigarette hoping and praying for a positive weather forecast. A date for launching was set and then, when the weather worsened, it was postponed.  But “Ike” knew that the waiting couldn’t go on much longer.

Among other worries, there was the matter of security. So far, the massing of men and material in this part of England, something that would surely have given away the destination of the invading force, had remained a secret. But a set of loose lips or perhaps the probing of one eager German spy (such as Die Nadle- see the book and movie, THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE), would tip the Germans off to the biggest secret of the war and the success of the invasion would be jeopardized. So much was at stake.

But finally, early in the evening of June 5, an Scottish weatherman brought Ike the news he’d been waiting for: there would be a break in the weather. The storm clouds and high winds over the channel would depart for awhile, a brief window of opportunity. With his staff gathered round Ike surveyed their faces and asked for their opinions. Though one or two dissented, the majority grimly nodded. “I don’t like it, but there it is. The order must be given.” said Ike, swallowing hard. And so it was.

Ike arose from the table, and not knowing what else to do with himself, ordered his driver to take him out to a nearby airfield where the men of the newly organized 101st Airborne Division (paratroopers) were already lining up to board the C-47 planes that would take them over the channel and from which they would  eject themselves to land behind enemy lines in the early morning darkness. Their job?  First, they were to seize key bridges and vital crossroads in order to make it difficult for the Germans to get reinforcements to the beaches.  And second, they would provide a noisy diversion to draw enemy forces and attention away from the big event that was soon to occur a few miles away on the beaches. Ike was worried about these men most of all. He walked among the men, shaking hands and offering encouragement with the knowledge that even if things went better than expected, many of those he spoke to would be dead soon. But that’s what a general does. He orders young men to their deaths. It goes with the job and there’s no avoiding it.

As everyone knows now, the invasion was a success. June 6, 1944, D-Day, “Operation Overlord”, the invasion of Normandy in Northern France was the turning point of the European war, the decisive battle that sealed the fate of Germany’s “Third Reich.” Many thousands of brave men and women made it possible. And for thousands, it was to be their last.

Some, such as British historian Richard Overy, have disputed the importance of D-Day. He claims, as many others before him have done, that it was on the Eastern front that Germany lost the war, at places such as Stalingrad and Kursk. This is not a fallacious argument. True enough, two thirds of the German soldiers that died in the war died on the “Eastern Front.”  In Russia, Germany experienced a long hard war of attrition as the Soviets recovered from their initial defeats and slowly but surely pushed the Germans away from the outskirts of Moscow and forced them into a gradual long retreat over a thousand mile front. For Germany the war in the East was a disaster.

Nevertheless, as historian Stephen Ambrose reminded us in his book on D-Day, until D-Day, and the “second front” there was always the chance that the war-weary Joseph Stalin would make a separate peace with Hitler. Despite the cordiality that the photos of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin implied, we now know that Roosevelt and Churchill trusted Stalin as “far as they could throw him.” They were well aware of who and what he was, a dictatorial tyrant without a shred of decency, a man similar to Herr Hitler in all the worst ways who craved world domination with equal measure.  Their pact with Stalin was simply a marriage of convenience, a “deal with the devil.” They knew that despite any assurances he might give them, if they didn’t open a second front in due time, he would probably, on his own, without the permission or approval of his two “Big Three” colleagues, make a separate peace with Hitler and thus ensure the survival of Nazi Germany, something intolerable to the nations of Western Europe.

June 6, 1944 was, in the view of Mr. Ambrose, the most decisive day of the war simply because it made that separate peace and the survival of Nazi Germany impossible, or at the very least, highly improbable.  With the opening of the “Second Front” Germany was placed in an impossible position, in a terrible vice grip between two determined and well equipped enemies, a position from which Germany could not escape.

We must remember that the famous “Officer’s Plot,” the attempt to assassinate Hitler, came a few weeks AFTER D-Day, an attempt on the part of sensible, high-ranking German officers, including Rommel himself, to get rid of Hitler so that they, with the delusional  leader out of the way, could negotiate with the allies for a cease-fire. Unlike their fanatical, out-of-touch leader, they could now clearly see that the war was lost, that it was just a matter of time before enemy ground forces entered their “Fatherland”, something that had not occurred in the First World War. They surely didn’t want it to come to that.  But, the assassination attempt failed and Hitler lived on for a few more terrible months.

D-Day made the difference. I’m convinced that the June 6, Battle for the Normandy beach was the most important day of the European war, the principal hinge upon which the entire European war turned.

Years later Major Pluskat, who had seen with his own eyes the vast armada of ships moving toward him, told author Cornelius Ryan that he knew at that moment that the war was lost.  If only his Fuhrer had come to his senses and done the same, many millions of lives would have been saved. But Hitler, by this time very alone and likely mentally ill, would remain alive in a bunker in Berlin until the bitter end in early May, 1945. But D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, eleven months earlier, was the beginning of the end.

 

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Miracle at Midway June 4, 1942 Part Two

And then the miracle. Around ten-thirty am  squadron commanders

The USS Yorktown lists after being hit by a Japanese torpedo. The US destroyer next to her was hit by a torpedo and sank a few minutes after this photo was taken.

Clarence McClusky and Maxwell Leslie, almost at the same time, spotted the big fat targets far below and ordered the attack.  For the Japanese, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Their decks were covered with planes and as yet un-installed bombs. Worst of all, their fighter cover was still low, way too low, having just concluded their fight against the previous American wave,  to climb fast enough to do anything about the dive bombers now dropping like angry hawks out of the sky in a long terrible line toward the carriers these fighters were supposed to protect. They could only watch helplessly. The AKAGI, Nagumo’s flagship, was the first  to be hit. A few minutes later it was a fiery inferno.  Soon the KAGA and SORYU steaming nearby went up in flames as well. With the destruction of these three carriers, and the death of hundreds of irreplaceable pilots of the Imperial Navy, the entire course of the war changed in a matter of minutes. Never in it’s entire history had anything like this happened to the Japanese navy.

One more Japanese carrier, the HIRYU, remained. Unseen by the American bombers and a few miles away from the others, it was untouched. As the shell-shocked, stricken Admiral Nagumo exited his burning flagship, his clear-headed chief of staff ordered the HIRYU to launch her planes and find the American carriers. It was still possible at this point to even the score. All was not lost- at least not yet.

One of the American planes on his way home inadvertently led the Japanese planes to the YORKTOWN.  The Japanese pilots were astonished when its familiar profile came into view. This time they determined to finish the job begun at the Coral Sea. Though the anti-aircraft guns of her escort vessels and the fighter interceptors took down most of the attackers, six got through and in a matter of a few minutes the grand old vessel was again a burning inferno, dead in the water.  An hour and a half later, when it seemed that the hard-working crew had finally gotten the fires under control the luckless vessel was hit again, this time by two torpedoes (from torpedo bombers).  The YORKTOWN listed to one side and Captain Buckmaster ordered his men to abandon ship. When he was sure that no one alive remained aboard, he himself stepped down onto a rescue boat. Unlike his fanatical, suicidal Japanese counterparts who deliberately went down with their ships that day, this sensible American captain,  knowing that good officers were badly needed by his nation, left his sinking ship, the last man off, and lived to fight another day*, a thing that the Japanese would have found dishonorable. Later, when US forces invaded various islands on their way to Japan, they would never see a Japanese officer surrender his command, a thing that happened quite often in the European theatre. Invariably, the Japanese fought to the death, even when they were out of ammunition and down to their last cracker or cup of water, or out of all hope for success, survival or rescue,  they continued to fight and offer up their lives for the Emperor-something that US servicemen, no matter how many times they witnessed it, could never understand.

The battle wasn’t over. The old proverb says: “Strike while the iron is hot.” At that moment it was red hot.  Admiral Spruance knew that this door of opportunity could slam shut at any moment. He had long suspected that a fourth carrier was in the area and his suspicion was confirmed when the YORKTOWN was struck. Burning, sinking carriers do not launch planes. When a search plane radioed back the position of the remaining Japanese carrier, planes from the HORNET and ENTERPRISE were immediately launched and sent in that direction. About an hour later the pilots radioed back with good news: the HIRYU was a blazing wreck, dead in the water. The surviving planes of the HIRYU were still out when the ship was attacked.  After returning to their now burning mother ship, it was reported that they hovered around pathetically until they simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean.

Historians tell us that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the overall commander of the Japanese offensive, took the terrible news calmly and ordered his fleet to continue its’ Eastward movement. He still wanted that big sea battle with the American ships, especially if he could catch them at night where the Japanese navy, with superior night-fighting techniques, had a decided advantage. But the sensible Admiral  Nimitz, knowing that his few cruisers and destroyers were no match for the Japanese battlewagons ordered his small fleet to head away from the Midway area and avoid the big battle which they would surely lose. With the Midway island-atoll reasonably safe and the tip of the Japanese naval spear broken off, so to speak, Nimitz knew that there was nothing to be gained by sticking around. Steaming Eastward the Japanese Navy was presented with a big, empty ocean.

Still the American forces on Midway Island stayed at the ready, expecting an invasion. But it never came.  With no fighter protection, Japanese supporting vessels, battleships and cruisers especially, were at far too great a risk from attacks by the American planes based on Midway.  When the Midway planes had attacked them at the beginning of the battle, it was primarily Japanese fighters that had shot them down.  Now, all of a sudden, the Japanese had no fighters or bombers and few planes of any kind.  They were painfully aware that the guys with the planes had the advantage, a truth of modern warfare that Colonel Billy Mitchell had taught everyone years before. They had no choice but to turn their back on little Midway.  With the invasion plans scrubbed and the US fleet gone with the wind, Admiral Yamamoto knew that there was no point in continuing Eastward. The Japanese Navy, still a formidable force, finally, after a few days of uncertainty, did an about face and left the area.  Midway remained in American hands for the remainder of the war.

The Japanese losses at Midway were irreplaceable, not so much the planes but the carriers and pilots.  In the following years they were never able to again put together the kind of naval armada that had sailed toward Midway.  Counting the loss of the carrier SOHO at Coral Sea, the Japanese navy lost five carriers within the space of a month.  With their days of easy conquest behind them, the Japanese had only one hope: to hang on to what they had recently taken and maybe, just maybe if they fought hard enough and made things difficult enough for the Americans, the Americans might tire of the bloodletting and sue for peace. They didn’t know us very well.  The Americans had already decided to settle for nothing less than unconditional surrender both in the Pacific and in Europe. There would be no deals, no armistice, no negotiated peace. It was to be a fight to the bitter end.

In the months that followed shipyards in the United States produced additional ships and vessels for the US Navy at an astonishing rate- a rate unmatched in the history of the world, a rate that the resource-poor Japanese couldn’t hope to match. By the end of the war, the US had the mightiest navy in the world. By early 1945, particularly after the battle of Leyte Gulf  (in the Philippines)  the once-proud Japanese Imperial Navy (and Merchant Marine) was mostly resting on the floor of the Pacific, a mere shadow of its’ former self with its’ glory days of early 1942 but a memory.

Seventy years later it is now clear that the Midway campaign was Japan’s last chance to win the war in the Pacific. And luck, or perhaps Providence, was simply not with them.  The events of that fateful day, June 4, 1942, still seem miraculous. The fortunes of war could just as easily have gone the other way. But they didn’t and the US had it’s first great victory of World War Two.

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*Later that evening a Japanese submarine put yet another torpedo into the YORKTOWN and she finally slipped beneath the waves a few hours later.

Sources: GREAT BATTLES OF WORLD WAR TWO, by John McDonald. pp. 64-71. &  1942: The Year that Tried Men’s Souls  by Winston Groom. Grove Press, New York. pp.198-246.

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Miracle at Midway: June 4, 1942 Part One

Dauntless Navy Dive-Bomber-widely used by US aircraft carriers in the Pacific War

It was a miracle plain and simple-a gift from the God if ever there was one. Seventy years later we’re still pinching ourselves to make sure that we’re not dreaming, that it really happened.  In early 1942 the US was losing the war in the Pacific, hanging on by a thread and then, almost in a matter of minutes on June 4, it all reversed and the confident, powerful Japanese were forced to pull back and lick their bitter wounds. In their entire history, they had never been dealt such a blow.  Now, instead of simply treading Pacific water and struggling to stay afloat, the US was on the move and growing stronger by the day. Instead of the quick, decisive victory that they had anticipated, the Japanese grimly realized that their initial land grab and hope for a quick war and a negotiated peace had gone up in smoke-literally. Now, their only real chance for victory, or perhaps even survival, lay in a long, exasperating, bloody war of attrition, simply fighting the US again and again, from island to island, until the US tired of the mounting body count and sued for peace.  So they hoped.

Midway, a tiny island that, under normal other- than- wartime circumstances,  would barely have registered on anybody’s radar, just another bit of rock in the vast Pacific, the body of water that constitutes the largest single geographic feature on our planet.  But in mid-1942 the circumstances were anything but normal. We were at war, the Pacific was the battleground and Midway island was important simply because it was ground, a bit of strategically-located, dry, solid ground needed by the US both as a stepping stone in our march toward Japan and as a defensive outpost for our naval base at Pearl Harbor.  Little Midway Island was extremely valuable, something worth fighting over. And it was in that great sea battle fought in the vicinity of Midway that the miracle occurred.

First, a little back story. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the wounded, under strength US navy had been forced to move cautiously. Dec.7 was a disaster, not a catastrophe. The Japanese had missed three vitally important targets. First and foremost, all US aircraft carriers were “out of town” when the attack occurred. These had been the principal targets. Not only were they untouched, their absence spooked the always cautious Admiral Nagumo into canceling plans for a third attack wave, an attack that would  have made things far worse. Second, the huge fuel tanks near the harbor full of badly needed fuel for future operations were untouched. And third, most of the enormous repair facilities were untouched. The Japanese had concentrated their bombs on the ships at harbor and nearby army airfields. Ironically, most of the ships heavily damaged or destroyed were almost obsolete anyway and the fighter planes destroyed at Hickam Field were easily replaceable. Though the US lives lost was a great tragedy, especially those who went down with the ARIZONA, one can make a good case that the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed at the time. With our four massive fleet carriers, fuel supplies, and repair facilities untouched, the US still had what it needed to make a counterattack. In short, the US was anything but helpless after December 7.

But with limited resources the US had to move with great caution. The powerful Japanese navy, with numerous battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and most of all, fleet aircraft carriers, second only to the British navy (in early 1942), still had all the advantages. Even if the US Pacific fleet had NOT been so badly wounded at Pearl Harbor, it would still have been at a serious disadvantage. Dec. 7 simply made a bad scenario worse.  Nevertheless, during those early months, unbeknownst to themselves, the Japanese were slowly but surely losing one key advantage: the ability to move about on the ocean undetected. Hardworking US codebreakers, quietly working around the clock in smoky Hawaiian basements, were listening in on Japanese transmissions, reading their airwave mail, in a sense, and finding out what the “Japs” were up to. This would be vital for the US in the Midway campaign.  These brilliant intelligence warriors would prevent any more surprise attacks on the US navy. The US was now wide awake and paying close, careful attention.

In late April, after getting some good intelligence from his codebreakers,  Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered an American task force built around the carriers LEXINGTON and YORKTOWN to intercept and surprise a roughly equal sized  Japanese task force of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and troop transports  headed for southern New Guinea.  The far-away engagement that ensued was known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was important for a number of reasons. First, it was the first major naval engagement for the US in World War Two. The US lost a fleet carrier, the LEXINGTON and the Japanese lost a light carrier SHOTO, for them a shocking development, their first loss of a major vessel . Two other Japanese carriers and the YORKTOWN were heavily damaged. When the latter limped away from the Coral Sea, the Japanese, knowing how long it usually took to make the needed repairs, assumed that they had seen the last of that boat for awhile, several months at least. In the Midway campaign a few weeks later, they learned the hard way what you get when you assume. This was part of a bizarre Japanese pattern: again and again they would underestimate the US with disastrous consequences each time.

Midway island, about a thousand miles West of the Hawaiian Islands, was just a little too close for Japanese comfort. The Doolittle Raid (see previous article) had truly spooked them and they wanted this troublesome US outpost banished from their vast Japanese Pacific lake. If they could succeed in taking it, they would then have a good base to operate from in a move against the Hawaiian Islands. If the latter were taken, the US, having no more Pacific presence, would be forced to sue for peace. So they believed. With the US banished from the Pacific, the Japanese would be free to do virtually as they pleased in that part of the world. And there would be no more embarrassing “Doolittle” raids. Furthermore, they might, in time, move against Australia. But first, that little pesky “Midway” thorn in their side had to be removed. And they were quite sure that they could do it.

Chester Nimitz suspected that the Japanese were not only up to something, but up to something big.  If his codebreakers could find out exactly when and just where, he had a real chance, with the much smaller US navy, to bite off and destroy a portion of the enemy navy, maybe a carrier or two, before the Japanese could respond accordingly. Maybe he could , in so doing , buy the US more time, more time to allow for strengthening of US forces and positions on Midway and in Hawaii.  It was the best they could reasonably hope for since all conventional US forces in the Philipines and elsewhere in the Pacific had, by this time, collapsed. But before they could get at the Japanese navy they had to find it. They had to find the enemy before the enemy found them. The Pacific is a mighty big place.

The codebreakers were pretty sure that the bulk of the Japanese navy in early June was headed toward Midway. It was a logical guess even without the benefit of codebreaking.  But a good guess was not good enough for Admiral Nimitz. He wanted proof. There was no room for error. So the codebreakers at Pearl Harbor devised a trick. They got word to radio operators on Midway that they should transmit a message  to Pearl saying that their freshwater supplies were running low. Though this wasn’t the case the Midway radio men did as ordered. Later, while listening to Japanese transmissions, US codebreakers heard them mention the need for freshwater supplies on “AF.” On hearing this the weary, cigarette smoking codebreakers jumped out of their seats and shouted for joy.  This intercept proved the case, that “AF” was Japanese code for Midway, something they had suspected all along.  From that point on, the US, continuing to listen in on Japanese transmissions and “connect the dots”, knew without a doubt that a large Japanese task force would soon be moving toward “AF” or Midway Island.

Based on this fresh knowledge of Japanese offensive movements, Nimitz and his associates concocted a plan. It was fairly simple.  US carriers and their escort vessels were to be sent to an area a hundred miles or so NE of Midway Island and lay in wait. The Japanese were sure to attack the island with aircraft and thus announce the arrival of their carrier force.  At this point the US would send out PBY spotters and launch dive bombers from their carriers to find the Japanese carriers.  Once they were located then maybe, just maybe, the US navy flyboys in their Dauntless dive-bombers could do some real damage before the Japanese knew what had hit them. In this the US had an excellent chance to ambush a portion of the Japanese fleet and possibly send the whole miserable lot packing.

It was still was a gamble.  If even one Japanese spotter plane flying far ahead of the pack spotted the smaller US carrier force first, and radioed this vital information back to Admiral Nagumo, their commander, it could be a disaster for the US. The Japanese  had a decided numerical advantage-more carriers, more planes-more of everything. If they were able to make the first move, Midway and the remaining US carriers would likely be lost and a second attack on Pearl Harbor was sure to come, a nightmare scenario for the US.

Whatever the case, this would not be another “Pearl Harbor sneak attack.”  This time US military leaders knew the “Japs” were coming and, as best they could, were making ready.  And, this time, with a little luck, or a little divine intervention, if one believes in that sort of a thing, the “Japs” themselves were in for an unpleasant surprise.

On one issue the Japanese were surely in the dark. Billowing clouds of smoke, the YORKTOWN, heavily damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, had limped back to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese believed that it would take months for the US to make that vessel seaworthy again. Nimitz thought otherwise. As soon as the enormous vessel slid into the repair dock he pulled repair crews off of dozens of other projects and put them to work on the damaged carrier. In an astonishing three days, after thousands of men had labored around the clock, it pulled away from the dock, not in exactly “ship shape” but ready enough to hit the seas again and join the fight taking shape around Midway. For the Japanese, the ghostly reappearance of the YORKTOWN  so soon after the Coral Sea would be a terribly unpleasant surprise.  Had they bombed those repair facilities on December 7, it is highly unlikely that this little miracle could have been accomplished.

While the major part of the Imperial navy moved toward Midway, Admiral Yamamoto sent a little force to the Aleutians far to the North as a diversion hoping to lure a sizable portion of the US navy away from the Midway area.  Nimitz wasn’t fooled. He stuck to his original plan, knowing that the principal attack would come at Midway.

And so it did. Shortly after daybreak on June 4, 1942 air-raid sirens went off on Midway Island and thousands of men scrambled to their battle stations. All island based planes got into the air. There would be no repetition of the Hickam field fiasco this time. In the early morning hours Japanese planes mercilessly strafed and bombed American positions on the island and the men on the ground fought back fiercely.

Among those who took to the sky from the Midway airfield were about three dozen Marine pilots in antiquated, slow moving “Brewster Buffalos.” Determined to dish out a little Pearl Harbor payback they ignored the planes bombing their base and set out for the Japanese carriers that had launched those planes, indeed the same carriers that had launched the planes for the Dec.7 attack.  Unfortunately, the charge of the Light Brigade was a smashing success in comparison. The guns of the Japanese escort vessels and the covering fighter Zeros made mincemeat of the clumsy Marine planes. Only a handful made it back to the Midway airfield and some of those were so shot up as to be virtually useless until extensive repairs were made. From high above heavy B-17 bombers  from Midway dropped their payloads. But every bomb missed.  No Japanese vessel was touched.

Still Admiral Nagumo on the bridge of his flagship, the carrier AKAGI, watching the American planes go down one by one into the sea was reported to have turned to his First Mate and said: “These Americans are not cowards as we supposed. They die like Samuri.” He probably could not have paid them a higher compliment. And despite his initial success in repelling the American attack, he was worried. The Americans now knew where he was and as to the whereabouts of their carriers, all two of them, HORNET and ENTERPRISE, he had not a clue.

In short order Nagumo was presented with a new problem. Understanding this is the key to understanding the whole Midway battle.  The commanders of those squadrons that had led the attack on Midway informed him over the air that the place was far from destroyed. Another wave would have to be sent in to finish the job. Nagumo couldn’t risk the possibility of another American attack from the island, ineffectual though it would probably be. He was sure that the Midway airfield and every plane on it had to be destroyed.  All it would take was one US 500 pound bomb dropped on the deck of a carrier to put that carrier out of the war, at least for a few months, and kill a large portion of its crew. Two well placed bombs could sink it. He couldn’t risk it. Midway had to be put out of business.

By the time he received this unpleasant news, Nagumo had already lined the decks of his carriers with torpedo equipped planes for an attack on the as-yet unlocated  American carriers, ready to take off before the others returned from the Midway strike. Of course, the torpedo-laden planes couldn’t be present on the crowded deck as the other planes returned. There wasn’t room-too dangerous anyway. Torpedoes were for water, not land. Nagumo had to make the wrenching decision to undo what had just been done, to send the torpedo-laden planes below, and re- arm them with 500 pound bombs for the second Midway attack. This took valuable time. And if US planes appeared overhead while this process was occurring, it could be disastrous. Though the US carriers were his principal concern, Nagumo at this crucial point, had no choice but to make preparations for a second attack on Midway. But he could not launch planes with torpedoes or send off a portion of his fighter escort to accompany them until the carriers were located.  They had to be out there somewhere.  He would have to respond to the Midway Island problem until information about the US carriers was forthcoming.

Nagumo’s suspicions were confirmed at 8:20 that morning when he received news that a US carrier had been sighted by one of his search planes.  Within minutes after receiving this bit of disturbing news, most of his planes from the Midway strike arrived (a few had been shot down). Nagumo had no choice but to order the big boats turned into the wind to receive them. He also had no choice but to order the other planes still down below to be re-armed yet again.  The bombs came off and the torpedoes were again put on. The exhausted, confused bomb crews on those four vessels must have wondered if their commander was hitting the saki. Valuable time was being lost and  Nagumo grew more uneasy by the minute.

At this point it is useful to consider just how a WW II aircraft carrier was protected from enemy aircraft, it’s biggest threat.  First, no carrier went to sea alone. It was always accompanied by numerous escort vessels. When enemy bombers approached, they would fly into a tremendous field of covering anti-aircraft fire from these vessels. And from the carrier itself.  If the gunners were good at their work they could take out most of the enemy bombers. But regardless of how good they were, a few enemy bombers could always squeeze through this wall of lead and steel and get close enough to a carrier to drop a bomb or launch a torpedo. And one lucky bomber could cause a heap of destruction.  All it took was one.

There was also the zig-zag tactic. Carriers would employ this when under attack making them harder to hit. This difficult maneuver helped. But not much.  It was most useful against submarine attack.

The best protection for an aircraft carrier, the best insurance that it had against that one lucky enemy bomber came from its’ own fighter contingent. An aircraft carrier carried about sixty planes of two types: fighters and bombers, not large heavy bombers but smaller dive bombers that, depending on the type of target it was attacking, be it land or sea, could carry a single large bomb or torpedo.  The bomber had no defensive role. On the other hand, fighter planes were essentially defensive in nature. They carried no bombs. Being faster and more nimble, they had two roles: A) accompany and protect the bombers on their missions or B) simply stay with the carrier and protect it. When enemy bombers approached they launched and went after them.  Regardless of what their own bombers were doing or where they were, a certain number of fighters stayed with the carrier at all times.  For a carrier, the nightmare scenario was to spot enemy planes nearby and to realize that it had somehow lost its’ fighter protection. Fighters always had a much better chance of knocking down enemy bombers from above than did anti-aircraft gunners from below. When a carrier was under attack, fighter cover was vital.

After getting word of the approximate position of the enemy carriers, four squadrons from the three American carriers, HORNET, ENTERPRISE and YORKTOWN were launched and set out for them. One squadron never found them and were forced to land on Midway Island. At around ten am the remaining three, about fifty bombers, did. Unfortunately Japanese fighters were already in the air waiting for them.  This attack fared no better than the air attack from Midway Island a couple of hours previous. Every American plane went into the water and none of their bombs or torpedoes found their targets.  Listening in on the battle air chatter back at the carriers, Admirals Fletcher and Spruance could only wince in pain. Their pilots were getting eaten alive. They were also angrily learning another bitter lesson. Their own torpedoes seemed to be mostly duds. Many of their brave doomed pilots were attacking with defective equipment. Damn.  No wonder the Japanese carriers were unharmed.

The day was young.  There was still hope. Two US squadrons, one commanded by  Lieutenant Commander Clarence McClusky, and another, commanded by Maxwell Leslie with seventeen dive bombers from the YORKTOWN were still in the air. But they had been up there searching for awhile, an hour or so, and now were running low on fuel. They had very little time left.  If those “Jap” carriers didn’t turn up soon they would have to turn around and head back to their own carriers.

(Part Two to follow next week)

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