Today in History, June 4, 1942:
The Battle of Midway.
The war had been going badly for the Americans in the Pacific. The Japanese had begun the war 7 months earlier by bombing Pearl Harbor, destroying most of the American fleet, but missing the US carriers, which had all been at sea. In the interim came sweeping victories across the Pacific for the IJN, raids by US carrier task forces on Japanese strongholds, the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The US lost the Lexington at Coral Sea, and the Yorktown had been badly damaged.
Then code breakers at Pearl figured out that the next target of the IJN was Midway Island, the westernmost island of the Hawaiian chain. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was to draw the American carriers out and destroy them, leaving the Pacific unprotected. The code breakers changed the entire game.
The Enterprise and Hornet rushed back to Pearl for rearming, as did the Yorktown. The repair crew told Admiral Nimitz they needed 3 months to repair the Yorktown; he gave them 3 days.
When the IJN attacked Midway, they expected the American carriers to be responding to the scene, giving them plenty of time to lay a trap; instead, Nimitz had positioned his carriers northeast of Midway to lay in wait. When a PBY seaplane (Strawberry 5) spotted the Japanese carriers, it was all Admirals Spruance and Fletcher needed.
The three American carriers launched their aircraft. The obsolete TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were the first to find the IJN carriers. The versatile Japanese Zero fighters dove to the wave tops and tore them apart, leaving almost no survivors. The sacrifice, while not intentional, served a purpose.
Next to arrive on the scene were SBD Dauntless dive bombers, which dove to attack from altitude. With all of the Japanese fighters drawn to the “deck”, they had no fighters to oppose them. Diving at 70 degrees, the pilots hanging from their seat belts, the rear gunners pressed against their seats with no view of what was to come, the bombers dropped their bombs with deadly accuracy.
Admiral Nagumo, informed of the American fleet by a scout plane, had ordered his aircraft, just back from Midway, rearmed. So when the American bombs fell, the Japanese carrier decks were filled with aircraft, bombs, torpedoes and fuel. Three of the four IJN carriers were destroyed in minutes. The fourth would be picked off in a later raid.
Within minutes, thanks to the sacrifice and courage of a few brave airmen, the tide of the war in the Pacific had changed. There was still a long road ahead; but the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of the IJN had been stopped. Worse than the loss of 4 carriers was the loss of hundreds of Japans finest aviators.
The Americans would lose the Yorktown, but the Japanese were devastated. Admiral Yamamoto had told his contemporaries that they had a year before the tide of the war turned against them due to American industries. The American sailors and airmen at Midway cut that time in half.
Today in History, February 23, 1945:
After a hard fought battle, the US Marines reach the top of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.
5 Marines and 1 US Navy Corpsman raised the US flag at the peak, and photographer Joe Rosenthal caught it on camera.
3 of the flag raisers would be dead before the Battle for Iwo Jima was won. After many deaths and the earning of 27 Medals of Honor (half posthumous), the tiny island was deemed “secure” on March 16. Then B29 Superfortress bombers and long range fighters could use the airstrip in the bombing of Japan.
The photo became famous, and inspired the US Marine Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The first flag was considered too small, and a second larger flag, scrounged up from one of the landing ships, was raised to replace it.
Admiral Chester Nimitz described the battle as one “where uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Today in History, October 18, 1942:
Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey is named commander of the South Pacific forces.
Things had not been going well after the invasion of Guadalcanal; a series of losses due to indecision by the previous commander, Admiral Ghormley, had left the troops demoralized.
CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific) Chester Nimitz knew the man for the job and appointed Halsey. Halsey was a no nonsense, get er done leader.
He had issued orders to his task force to shoot first and ask questions later if they spotted Japanese ships or aircraft…on November 28, 1941, ten days before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
He was famously quoted as saying, “Before we’re done with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.” His operational order for his command was simple: “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more Japs!” In retrospect, this attitude made be considered harsh or even racist. But during the largest conflict in human history, it was all about winning.
The demoralized Sailors and Marines serving on and around Guadalcanal had a sudden burst of confidence when they heard Halsey was their new boss. Things turned around almost immediately. The people under Halsey’s command knew he was willing to take chances for them, and they returned the sentiment.
Today in History, August 1-2, 1943:
PT-109 (Patrol Torpedo) is patrolling Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands when it is rammed and cut in half by Japanese Destroyer Amagiri.
Two of the crew are killed outright, but 11 others survive, although some are badly injured/burned. Their very young commander carried one of the injured on his back in the mile + swim to a nearby island. He then took turns with the boat’s exec swimming back out into the channel attempting to signal other PT’s at night while avoiding Japanese patrols.
Finally they were rescued thanks to natives working for an Australian coast watcher. Lt. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who could have easily sat out the war due to his wealth, displayed incredible courage and loyalty to his crew.
One question not asked in the propaganda of his Presidential campaign was, how does a craft that is basically a speedboat, navigated by an experienced sailor, get rammed by a slow moving man-of-war? That aside, nobody can deny President Kennedy’s courage.
Today in History, July 9, 1944:
Victory at the Battle of Saipan. The US Marines defeat the Japanese military on Saipan, the first island with Japanese civilians to be taken by the US.
It was a difficult battle, made all the more so by the existence of a civilian population. The Marines set up well lit camps for the civilians to be safe from battle.
Fearing that his citizens would find out that the Americans were not the vicious, heartless enemy projected by propaganda, the Emperor issued a communique to the civilian population of Saipan, telling them that if they committed suicide they would receive the same treatment in the afterlife as Japanese soldiers that died in battle.
American servicemen were horrified as Japanese civilians threw their children from cliffs, then followed them to the rocks below. The newly won island would be used as an air base for B-29 Superfortress bombers that would bomb the Japanese mainland.
Today in History, June 19, 1944:
Reversal of Fortunes, exhibited by “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”, or the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.
US Marines, supported by their parent service, the US Navy, are invading Saipan and other islands in the Marianas Islands, which is such a threat to Japan that the Imperial Japanese Navy finally comes out to fight a definitive battle.
When the war began the Japanese had the most advanced aircraft available, while the US Navy lagged sorely behind. The Japanese Zero, for example, was much faster and more maneuverable than the American Wildcat fighter. But by 1944 the American industrial complex had engaged fully. As late as 1943 the USS Enterprise stood alone in the Pacific against numerous IJN Carriers.
But by June of 1944 the Americans put to sea 15 Aircraft Carriers in 4 Task Groups equipped with modern aircraft that far out matched Japan’s aircraft, which had not been updated since the war began. In addition, Japan’s air service had lost nearly all of it’s experienced pilots, while the Americans had thousands of combat hardened, well-trained pilots and crews.
When the IJN sent it’s carriers and their crews against TF 58, they were massacred. In two days the Japanese lost over 400 aircraft and their crews, 3 aircraft carriers they could not spare, and the Americans lost 29 aircraft (some of the crews were rescued) and no ships. So many Japanese aircraft fell from the skies that a Lexington pilot referred to it as an old time turkey shoot, and the name stuck.
The air crews of the task force had been launched late in the day on the 20th to attack the Japanese fleet. When they returned, it was well after dark and they began landing their planes in the sea, unable to see the carriers well enough for landings aboard.
With the threat from enemy submarines and aircraft during the war, blackout conditions were the rule. Admiral Marc Mitscher wasn’t going to lose his boys and their planes, however. With his order the fleet lit up, and the planes began landing on fumes.