Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Today In History: A date which will live in infamy.

You know, in retrospect, I'll bet a bunch of Japanese pilots spent their last minutes floundering about in the flaming wreckage of the Chrysanthemum Fleet off Midway, wishing they'd slept in on this date sixty-nine years ago.

20 comments:

LL said...

Things didn't work out well for the Japs.

When I was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Japanese naval vessels visiting would man the rails and render honors to the USS Arizona. I always wondered whether they were 'sorry' or just vowing to get it right the next time...

After the war there wasn't much left of Japan. They're doing fine now, though.

Matt said...

My grandfather was a Pearl Harbor survivor. He was born in 1913 and joined the navy in 1927 at the age of 14. He used to tell me stories about turning 15 while cruising the Med.

On that fateful day in '41 he was serving on DD-357 USS Selfridge. He would never talk about that day and all I ever found out was when my grandmother told me that his best friend was killed right beside him.

When the movie Midway came out in '76 he took my brother and I to see it. He told us to grab seats up front and he sat in the back and watched. I remember looking back at him and seeing a look on his face I'd never seen before. As a 12 year old kid it scared me a bit and I worried if he was OK. As an adult, I realize he was remembering what he went thru and those he lost.

He was the closest thing I had to a father and his death in '95 hit me hard.

Rest In Peace Grandfather Bruce

Boat Guy said...

"Payback's a bitch" - something the current administration could learn to apply to our enemies instead of our friends.
Had occasion to visit Pearl Harbor again a few weeks ago. As ever, LOTS of Japanese tourists and like LL I once again found myself wondering what they were really thinking...

Ed Foster said...

Check out a Jimmy Buffett song called "Sending The Old Man Home". I think he wrote it about my dad, Aviaton Chief Machinist's Mate Edward H. Foster.

Two ships blown out from beneath him, malaria attacks each September, and a lot of ghosts. But a strong, quiet place inside him that said He'd "Seen The Elephant", and been part of mankind's last true crusade.

A complicated man, but there was nobody you would want more to cover your back when things went south. I hope he and Grandfather Bruce are chainsmoking, passing the bottle of Jack back and forth, and having a great game of five card stud. I'd like to hear some of their sea stories.

Nathan said...

"As ever, LOTS of Japanese tourists and like LL I once again found myself wondering what they were really thinking..."

If they're smart, some variation on "Yamamoto was right."

Malachias said...

"I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible resolve." --attributed to Naval Marshal-General Isoroku Yamamoto, Imperial Japanese Navy, 7 December 1941.

These words came back to haunt Yamamoto in a very personal way:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isoroku_Yamamoto#Death

mariner said...

Though not about Pearl Harbor, another attribution I like even better is what Yamamoto supposedly said about an invasion of the United States:

"It could never work. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass."

That was true in 1942. If we work hard enough today maybe we can return to being A Nation of Riflemen, and it will be true again.

Anonymous said...

Midway was a near-run thing.

The Japanese had a bad hair day and the USN managed to keep the usual F-ups to a minimum.

I'm reminded of the "Hunt for the Bismarck" minus a torpedo here and a radio message there, that would have been very bad day fo rthe British.

I'm always astonished how naval battles turn on (bad) luck. Numbers, skill and technology are well and good, and on average will prevail ( IF the engagements/war lasts long enough), but holy moly a lot of naval engagements seem to be decided on freak weather, tides, cloud cover, whether an engine was running hot and made a recon plane turns back too soon, a torpedo breaks left or right by a couple of feet, or whether the Admiral and the 3rd assistant machinists mate got laid in harbour last time.

Desertrat said...

Lotsa memories, for all that I was only seven years old. We heard the news rather late Sunday afternoon when we tuned to the radio news.

Got guided tours of Midway and Wake in 1949, during refueling on a flight to Manila.

War ain't fun when you're on the receiving end...

Randy said...

Anonymous, It's not just naval battles. Many of the major turning points in military history of gone to the side that made the fewest mistakes, or at least didn't make the last one.

alath said...

Another famous Yammamoto quote:
"I will run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have no confidence whatsoever after that."

Every year this time I remember visiting Pearl Harbor, and the veteran who showed us around. Sombre moment; sacred ground.

This http://northsidehomestead.blogspot.com/2010/05/hero-worship-john-c-waldron.html
is my favorite part of the Midway story.

mariner said...

alath,

That was a beautiful post.

Ye that ain't read it yet, hie thee there and do so. (Please.)

Pondering Waldron's integrity and courage calls to mind LCDR Ernest Evans, commanding USS JOHNSTON in the Battle Off Samar Island. Turning his ship (a destroyer) to attack a force of battleships and heavy cruisers (holy shit!) he announced to his crew:

"A large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."

I'd like to believe I have that kind of courage, but I don't know that I do. (I hope I never have to find out.)

Jim said...

Shame they thought building their cities of paper was a good idea.

Jim

GuardDuck said...

any of the major turning points in military history of gone to the side that made the fewest mistakes, or at least didn't make the last one.

For want of a nail...

Buddy said...

I think it was Napoleon who said, "What is luck? Only the ability to exploit one's enemy's mistakes!"

Read "Shattered Sword", by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. Explains a lot about the Midway battle...

Dr_Mike said...

I strongly second "Shattered Sword."

But as far as luck goes, a communications glitch and a mistake in doctrine leading to Kaga getting a double dose of dive bomber love is pretty high on the list. And we're lucky Thatch lived long enough to invent the "Thatch Weave."

And while I hate to put it in the same category, I'd suggest Dunnigan and Nofi's "Victory at Sea" for a discussion of what would have happened if Japan had taken Midway - we'd have starved them out. Dunnigan and Nofi read like Strategypage.com (for some odd, unexplained reason /sarc) in that it's a bunch of three paragraph lessons instead of one treatise. But what they neglect in tactics and strategy they make up for in logistics (Chapter title: The Really Important Stuff.)

And if I can sign off with a quote from Samuel Elliot Morrison, "The United States Navy could probably win a war without coffee, but they would prefer not to try."

Anonymous said...

Avalon Hill makes a (reasonably) realistic board game of Midway. The US always looses.
Wonder if they'll get a chance to make another game of the US/Chinese battles of 2015. Or there a bouts.

Ken said...

I third Shattered Sword.

Keads said...

I concur with previous approval of "Shattered Sword". Excellent read!

markm said...

Both sides made many errors, but by what seems like pure luck (plus a whole lot of grit and heroism), the American pilots made the Japanese mistakes count for more.

American mistakes:
-Stocked the Midway airfield with army bombers and pilots, who had no training in getting hits on ships that were dodging and shooting. Japanese logs show no significant damage until the carrier planes showed up.
-Also stocked Midway with Buffalo P-36 fighters. By 1942, the only use for those things should have been as target drones!
-SNAFU'd the process of getting the carrier planes launched and assembled for a mass attack. The first launched ran out far too much fuel circling and waiting for the rest.
-Misfigured the Japanese course and sent the carrier planes the wrong direction.

Japanese mistakes:
-Overly complex strategy (that is, trying to divert American forces with attacks towards New Guinea and the Aleutians, which wound up diverting more of their forces away from the key battle than American).
-Excessive trust in their coding machines. There's nothing like letting your enemy read your overly complicated plans!
-At the Battle of the Coral Sea (one of the diversions), two Japanese heavy carriers were lightly damaged and probably lost most of their aircraft. They sat out Midway. We lost the Lexington and the Yorktown was badly damaged - but it still made it to Midway, with a brand new air wing. Without the diversionary attacks, the Japanese would have had a 6 to 4 advantage at Midway, instead it was only 4 to 3.
-Underestimated the difficulty of knocking out the air base on Midway, when the airplanes and everything else more critical than pavement had been dragged off into the bushes and camoflauged. OTOH, they had little chance to learn this from experience; in the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Phillipines, the USAAF had their airplanes lined up and highly visible.
-Held half their planes on the carrier in reserve, fueled and armed for attacks on ships, for if and when the American carriers appeared. Then, as Midway's bombers continued to make ineffective attacks, had the bomb loads changed for ground attacks, with the other bombs and torpedos stacked next to the planes - and most of these airplanes were still on the deck when the dive bombers hit.

And then, the good luck:

1. The commanders of those godawful slow torpedo plane squadrons re-thought the estimated Japanese course as they flew, and changed their course accordingly. The SBD's (scout-divebombers) that were supposed to find the Japanese carriers and attack first, missed the whole Japanese fleet, but torpedo planes found it, and the rest homed on their radio transmissions.

2. Our pilots didn't worry about not having enough fuel to return - nor, in the case of the torpedo planes, going into the teeth of the Japanese defenses alone.

3. The dive bombers were supposed to provide a distraction for the torpedo attack. Since the dive bombers were late, it worked the other way around - and it did work, although the torpedo planes were slaughtered.

4. Dive bombing was unexpectedly highly effective - because their targets were half-loaded with fully fueled airplanes and two sets of bombs. A few hits had the entire hangar and flight decks in flames, with bombs cooking off. Scratch 3 carriers. The 4th carrier bagged the Yorktown (with an assist by a submarine), but was then destroyed by the second American attack.