Vengeance at Midway

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.

The End of an Era – The Age of Sail was Over

Today in History, March 9, 1862:

The Battle of Hampton Roads.

Few are able to be part of a truly history changing event.

When the Civil War began, the Union abandoned the Naval Base at Norfolk, Virginia, burning everything they could in retreat.

The Confederacy took the base, and raised the sunken Union USS Merrimack. They then rebuilt her into the ironclad CSS Virginia.

The Union Navy placed an embargo on all Southern ports, including the entrance to the Southern capitol of Richmond. The South attempted to break this embargo with their new ironclad ship, sinking two Union wooden “ships of the line” in the process.

The Virginia returned to base for the night, then returned to finish off the last major embargo ship on 9 March, 1862.

She was confronted by the Union version of the ironclad…the USS Monitor. The two new iron ships battered away at each other for over three hours without seriously damaging each other, and then withdrew.

The Virginia would be scuttled at her base as the Union advanced…the Monitor would be lost at sea.

But more importantly….navies worldwide…Britain, France, Spain, the Far East, watched and realized that their wooden navies had suddenly become obsolete.

“Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue”

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.”

“The American People, in Their Righteous Might, Will Win Through to Absolute Victory…”

Today in History, December 8, 1941:

As the Japanese continued their invasion of the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and other Allied interests in the Pacific, President Franklin Roosevelt gives his famous “Day of Infamy” speech asking Congress to declare that a state of war had existed since the bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor the day before.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later…

Today in History, November 28: 1941 –

Ten days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Task Force built around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) sailed from Pearl Harbor bound for Wake Island.

In response to a “war warning” the Enterprise had taken aboard a squadron of US Marine F4F Wildcat fighter planes and their pilots, with orders to deliver them to Wake to bolster the island’s defenses.

Once they were at sea, the TF commander, Admiral William F. (Bull) Halsey signed off on Battle Order #1, which put the Enterprise and her supporting Cruisers and Destroyers on a war footing.

The crew began adding armor behind the pilot’s position’s in the ship’s fighters, painting them in combat colors, and arming them for combat.

More than a week before the Japanese attacked, the Enterprise TF had orders to shoot first and ask questions later should they encounter any foreign ships or planes. The CAP (Combat Air Patrol) kept watch overhead.

The Big E would deliver the Marines and return to Pearl on Sunday, December 7. Her scout plane pilots would fly ahead, ending up right in the middle of the air raid. But that’s another story.

But on this date, Admiral Halsey and Captain Murray closed by telling their sailors “Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.”

Halsey Takes Command – Its All About Attitude

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.

Iron Bottom Sound Receives Its First Occupants

Today in History, August 9: 1942 – Two days after the US Marines had made an amphibious landing on Guadalcanal seized what would become Henderson Field, the transports that brought them still stood off the coast, protected by 8 American and Australian Cruisers and 14 destroyers. In the early morning hours a force of Japanese Heavy and Light Cruisers moved silently into the waters between Guadalcanal and Savo Island and opened fire on the American and Australian warships, which they caught, quite literally, napping. The British commander of the Allied force, Admiral Crutchley had taken his flagship to a conference with the amphibious force commander, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner and Marine Gen. Alexander Vandergrift, leaving a subordinate in command. The Japanese Navy had been practicing and perfecting night time combat tactics for years, a fact the USN was not aware of, so they weren’t really expecting an assault. The Japanese also had very effective torpedoes. Several of the Allied ships managed to get off some shots that caused minor damage to the IJN cruisers, but the experienced, practiced Japanese crews poured withering torpedo and gunfire into the American and Australian ships, whose crews were exhausted from 2 days of shelling the enemy ashore in humid high temperatures.

Within an hour the USS Astoria, USS Quincy and USS Vincennes were on their way to the sea floor, making the first of many deposits that would give this passage the name “Iron Bottom Sound” because of all of the Allied and Japanese ships that now rest there with their crews. The next day, Admiral Turner would order the HMAS Canberra scuttled due to her damage. The US aircraft carriers that had been providing air cover for the landings had been ordered out of the area by their commander, Adm. Frank “Black Jack” Fletcher. The transports and their covering surface ships could not remain with range of Japanese aircraft without air cover of their own, so they too left the area, leaving the Marines to their own devices for quite some time. Numerous battles would be fought in the waters of Guadalcanal, Savo and Tulagi Islands, and in “The Slot” leading from Guadalcanal to the enemy bases in the Solomons.