“The Most Stunning and Decisive Blow in the History of Naval Warfare:” The Battle of Midway

Two American SBD's fly over a Japanese ship, presumably Mikuma, during the Battle of Midway.

Two American SBD’s fly over a Japanese ship, presumably Mikuma, during the Battle of Midway.

Nearly six months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the war in the Pacific was not going well for the Allies. A terrible beating by the Japanese at the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27, 1942, resulted in the dissolving of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command and the threat of a victorious Japanese fleet sailing for Australia and possibly Hawaii. The next major encounter between the Japanese and Allied fleet, in May, was a tactical Japanese victory at Coral Sea which in turn set the stage for the Battle of Midway, which occurred from June 4-7, 1942.

US code breakers had broken the Japanese Navy’s JN-25b code, and knew that a carrier strike force under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was heading for the island of Midway, which was being defended by American forces. Nagumo’s plan was to trap and then destroy the American carriers and end US presence in the Pacific Ocean. The Americans intended to ambush Nagumo’s force, surprising and destroying them in the process.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, had only two carriers after Coral Sea, USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8). The USS Yorktown (CV-5), in Hawaii for rushed repairs, was to rendezvous with the task force and help find and destroy the Japanese. Nagumo launched his attack on Midway Island on June 4, 1942, nearly at the same time that American planes took off from the island to find the Japanese carriers. Unfortunately, the Midway pilots were all rookies and flying already obsolete aircraft. Only 1 in 4 of the US airmen returned from fending off Japanese fighters, bombers, and ships. Still, the Japanese were impressed with the American pilots’ fighting spirit, which they likened to that of the samurai.

Admiral Raymond Spruance, aboard USS Enterprise, decided to make a huge gamble early on in the fighting. Hoping to catch the Japanese by surprise, he sent his pilots further out, all with the knowledge that they may not have enough fuel to make it back to their carriers. A Japanese scout plane spotted the Americans first, but for some reason delayed getting the message back to Admiral Nagumo. The Americans continued to search for the Japanese carriers off of Midway. They received some luck when the torpedo bomber crews spotted a Japanese destroyer that for four hours had been trying to destroy a US submarine and followed it, heading back to rejoin the fleet. Finally, the Americans had found Nagumo’s carrier group. The American squadrons had become separated from one another at some point, and US torpedo bombers found themselves without fighter cover, but valiantly attacked the Japanese carriers and released several torpedoes into the water. The torpedo bombers were promptly torn to pieces by the faster, more nimble Zero fighter planes providing air cover for Nagumo’s ships. Of 28 men flying from the Enterprise, 18 were killed. From the Yorktown, 21 of 24 pilots died during their brave attack, while only one man from the Hornet survived. None of the torpedoes launched by the American pilots hit a Japanese ship. Almost before it had even begun, the US was quickly losing the battle.

However, the fortunes of war began to change dramatically for the Americans. The sacrifice of the torpedo bomber crews provided the next wave of US dive bombers an opportunity to strike Nagumo’s force. Confident and hopeful just before the battle began, Admiral Nagumo had suddenly become indecisive and uncertain. He had wanted to launch a more coordinated attack against the US carriers, and ordered his combat aircraft patrol planes to land in order to refuel. American dive bombers, with fighter escorts this time, found the Japanese carriers and struck first. They fiercely attacked the Empire’s carriers, catching the Japanese planes refueling or just about to take off. In a matter of only five minutes, three of Japan’s carriers, the Kaga, Agaki, and Soryu, were all hit and burning fiercely. Kaga had been hit with four 1,000 pound bombs on her flight deck and hangar bay, igniting fuel and explosives from the planes awaiting takeoff. Eight hundred of her crew went down with the ship. The Agaki was hit by two bombs and suffered a similar fate to Kaga. The Soryu and Kaga were both scuttled later in the day, followed by the Agaki on June 5th. The fourth carrier, Hiryu, was still able to launch aircraft, which struck back at the USS Yorktown, and damaged the ship with three well-placed bomb hits. The Hiryu was the final Japanese carrier to be sunk on June 5th when dive bombers from Yorktown and Enterprise bombed her repeatedly.

Aboard the Yorktown, sailors were ordered to abandon ship after a series of bomb strikes caused her to list heavily to port. On June 7th, a Japanese submarine slipped through the cordon of destroyer escorts and finished Yorktown off by torpedoing and sinking her and the destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412). The US Navy also suffered the loss of 150 aircraft and 307 airmen and sailors. Despite this, Midway was an overwhelming American victory. The Empire of Japan had lost 248 aircraft, over 3,000 Japanese sailors, and one heavy cruiser. Four of the Empire’s seven carriers were now at the bottom of the ocean. It was a hard-won victory for the US, albeit one in which both sides made many mistakes. The US had not only bought valuable time to build up its Pacific Fleet, but dealt the Japanese a stunning defeat, their first naval loss since 1863.

The Battle of Midway is often cited as a turning point in World War II. While not completely crippling Japan’s navy, the US greatly wreaked havoc on the Empire’s resources. Military historian John Keegan called Midway, “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” This single battle did not immediately end the war in the Pacific, but it was a much needed victory at the time, and one in which the US was able to build momentum from.

Five Little Known Facts About the Battle of Midway

  1. Some 60-70% of the American pilots that flew the various aircraft during the battle were reserve officers. According to Vice Admiral (retired) William Ward Smith, author of Midway: Turning Point of the Pacific, a fighter pilot named Ed Bassett was one such reservist that tried to pack in as much life as he could, due to a fortuneteller having once told him that he would never live beyond his twenty-seventh birthday. Having turned twenty-seven just a few days prior to the Battle of the Coral Sea, he flew raids at Salamaua and Lae and also had “several close calls” during Coral Sea as well. Bassett, like many a good fighter pilot, rushed in headlong to danger, and threw his plane at the Japanese carriers at Midway, but was never heard from again. The fortuneteller was ultimately right; if only off by a couple of months.
  2. Ensign George Gay, a TBD Devastator pilot with VT-8 (Torpedo Squadron 8) from USS Hornet (CV-8), was the sole survivor of his squadron of 30 aircraft. Going up against the Japanese carrier Kaga, Gay launched a torpedo which missed. Fired upon by five pursuing Japanese Zeros and anti-aircraft fire from the Kaga, Gay was wounded in the left arm, had his left rudder control blown away, and lost his rear seat gunner to Japanese fire. He briefly thought of ramming the Kaga with his plane, but decided against it and ditched in the ocean. Using a seat cushion to conceal himself, Gay watched the battle unfold, hid from strafing Zeros and Imperial Navy ships that passed so close he could see the faces of the crewmen. He went undetected and from his unique vantage point, witnessed the sinking of three of the four Japanese carriers lost at Midway. After nearly 30 hours in the water, Gay was finally rescued by a Navy PBY plane.
  3. Damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, USS Yorktown (CV-5) was ordered to refit at Pearl Harbor to be ready for Midway. The breaking of the Japanese codes had given the Americans the upper hand. Having been told it would take 90 days to repair the Yorktown, Admiral Nimitz gave the repair workers just three to get her back in the war, which they amazingly accomplished. Yorktown served admirably during the battle, was disabled after being struck by three bombs which killed 141 sailors, and was the only American carrier sunk when a Japanese submarine sent two torpedoes into her side on June 7th.
  4. Three American servicemen captured during the battle were rescued from the sea, interrogated, and then murdered by the Japanese. Ensign Wesley Osmus, a pilot off the Yorktown, was picked up by the destroyer Arashi, while Ensign Frank O’Flaherty and his radioman-gunner Aviation Machinist’s Mate Bruno Gaido were picked up by either the cruiser Nagara or destroyer Makigumo (accounts vary). All three were questioned, and Osmus was soon after tied to water-filled kerosene cans and thrown overboard to drown. Admiral Nagumo only mentioned Ensign Osmus in a report that he had “died on 6 June and was buried at sea.” O’Flaherty received the Navy Cross for his attack on the Japanese invasion fleet, which curiously cites that he was killed in action on June 4th, the first day of the battle. However, a postwar investigation stated that O’Flaherty and Gaido were most likely murdered on June 15th, eleven days after they were forced to ditch in the ocean when their SBD ran out of fuel. Japanese sailors allegedly tied weights to their ankles and threw both men overboard to their deaths.
  5. Hollywood director John Ford served as a commander in the Naval Reserve during the war, as well as head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Considered the best director of Hollywood at the time (Ford still holds the record for Academy Award wins for directors with four); he was at Midway and captured the battle on film. Wounded in the arm by bomb shrapnel when the Japanese attacked the island, he was so moved by the American defenders and the young fighter and bomber pilots, that he made two films: “Battle of Midway,” which was intended for the American public at large; and “Torpedo Squadron,” which had been made specifically for the families of the torpedo bomber pilots, many of whom had been killed while they attacked the Japanese carriers during the battle.

The SS and Superman

Superman takes on der Fuhrer during World War II.

Superman takes on der Fuhrer during World War II.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s some “pleasant” American guy in “red shorts!” In the comics, Superman would even go on to attack the West Wall in those very same shorts. The Nazis were somewhat bemused that an American would even dare try and breach the Siegfried Line, arrogantly assuming it would take a superhuman effort to do so. The Nazis, who considered themselves the Ubermensch of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, must have been somewhat weary upon learning of a new American comic book superhero who seemed more Aryan in theory, and thus like themselves, than a typical American.

The Nazis came to despise Superman, the comic hero created in 1939 by Cleveland native Jerry Siegel. And yes, you probably wouldn’t be wrong at all in assuming Mr. Siegel’s being Jewish had something to do with the extreme dislike the Nazis had for Siegel and his All-American cartoon creation.

Superman with Hitler and Tojo. Hopefully he's about to clunk their heads together like Moe.

Superman with Hitler and Tojo. Hopefully he’s about to clunk their heads together like Moe.

The SS simply didn’t like competition. For them, there could only be one race of Supermen on the planet, and some super strong American wearing a cape, who flew around and saved people’s lives instead of snuffing them out wasn’t going to steal the Schutzstaffel’s thunder! Just the fact that these goose-stepping morons were getting worked up enough to devote an entire article in their newspaper concerning a fictional character tells you everything you need to know about Aryan insecurities.

The link below will take you to the April 25, 1940 article taken from Das Schwarze Korps, or The Black Corps, the official newspaper of the SS. Curiously, the US was not yet even at war with the Axis Powers, and wouldn’t be for almost another twenty months.

http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/superman.htm

Superman would of course outlive the Nazis and Waffen-SS that he helped beat up, depose, and detain in the fictional world at war. He helped bring Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo to be held accountable for their crimes against humanity, ensuring that truth, justice, and the American way survived. Superman was the polar opposite of the Nazis. In fact, the SS were more akin to Bizarro Superman than anything. But it sure was nice of them to worry about the minds of young Americans, whom they felt would be “poisoned” by an iconoclastic character who’s creator just happened to be their kryptonite-Jewish.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels makes an appearance on the cover of a Superman comic book.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels makes an appearance on the cover of a Superman comic book.

I’m Baaaaaack!!

Colonel Robert Hite, of the Doolittle Raiders, is escorted by two Japanese soldiers after being captured in Japanese-occupied China in April 1942.

Colonel Robert Hite, of the Doolittle Raiders, is escorted by two Japanese soldiers after being captured in Japanese-occupied China in April 1942.

Sorry to have been gone for so long. So much has happened in the nearly 9 months that I’ve been away from this blog. I no longer work with the US Army, I am now back with the Navy. I just honestly got sick of ripping on all those Colonels and Majors about the Midshipmen crushing the Black Knights every Army/Navy game. Only kidding…a little.

I will write some more later on what has been going on. A ton of World War II history has continued on in my absence, some of it good, some of it not so good. We recently lost Colonel Robert Hite, one of the original Doolittle Raiders, leaving only two men of that amazing event alive now. I apologize for being away and now that I am in a rhythm once again work and health-wise, hope to be able to keep on bloggin’. Hope everyone has been good, and I’ll see you again soon!

The Legacy of the USS Indianapolis

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) on station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1937.

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) on station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1937.

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35), was sunk on this day sixty-nine years ago. As a former sailor myself, just thinking about what the Indy’s crew went through in the coming days after having their ship sunk from underneath them, still gives me shivers.

Also, I have never understood how the Navy held Captain McVay responsible for the loss of his ship and the majority of his crew due to enemy action. “He didn’t zigzag enough or at all,” is such a horrible and almost laughable charge, if it wasn’t so tragic in the end for McVay, who blamed himself for the tragedy for rest of his life. The article by Captain (retired) William J. Toti, does a great job explaining why McVay was court-martialed and why the entire debacle was unfair. The surviving crew of the Indy sought justice for their captain for years, whose earthly torment only ended with his suicide in 1966.

Captain Charles McVay

Captain Charles McVay

Legacy of the USS Indianapolis

Survivors from the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), onboard the USS Bassett (APD-73) after being rescued.

Survivors from the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), onboard the USS Bassett (APD-73) after being rescued.

The Bocage Myth: Allied Planners Did Not Leave Out the Norman Hedgerows in Planning D-Day

Last week I received a phone call at work from FOX News in Washington D. C. They wanted to send a crew up here to look at the items we hold concerning the D-Day landings that occurred on June 6, 1944. That very same day, a box of items was found in our classification vault. The box was from the Arthur S. Nevins Collection. Nevins was Eisenhower’s assistant in the War Plans Division, on the Army’s General Staff, and a close friend of the Supreme Commander. The documents within the box include a document from June 5, 1944, seventy years ago today, detailing how the Allied Commanders met in the early hours of the morning to discuss Operation OVERLORD. This was one meeting in a long series regarding the execution of the invasion of Normandy, and featured great concern over “chancey” weather conditions. The document pictured here are pages 1 and 2 of the original copy of the memorandum of record detailing the final Commanders’ Meetings, which occurred on June 4, 1944, at 9:30 PM, and again on June 5, 1944, at 4:15am.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

For decades now it has been almost taken as gospel that Ike and the rest of the Allied planners completely failed in even noticing the bocage, the notorious Norman hedgerows that held up the US Army inland during the Normandy campaign. The bocage slowed the Allied assault down for the rest of June and the better part of July, until Bradley’s Operation COBRA began a breakout of that bitterly contested French countryside towards the end of July 1944. COBRA was a success, but many Americans had died fighting in the small country lanes of Normandy. Immediately and now for decades afterward, the blame was laid at the feet of men like Eisenhower, Bradley, and their staffs.

Interestingly, also within Nevins’ collection is a photo, map, and some documents pertaining to the bocage:

A map showing the locations of the bocage countryside.  From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

A map showing the locations of the bocage countryside. From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

An aerial photograph from the Nevins Collection, showing just some of the hundreds of hedgerows the Americans had to contend with in June-July 1944. Photo by Guy Nasuti

An aerial photograph from the Nevins Collection, showing just some of the hundreds of hedgerows the Americans had to contend with in June-July 1944.

Included within that same folder is a typed report on the forests and bocage. I’m including a photo of the document (as well as a close-up of the same page) which discusses the bocage and how they may or may not be useful to the men that had to do the fighting in the fierce French foliage. In my estimation, the planners did not leave out the bocage, but perhaps in typical military thinking, just figured they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. England also has hedgerows, although they are quite different from the ones in France. The English hedgerows were typically smaller and not as thick as the French bocage. American troops had conducted training in these smaller English hedgerows, but it took good ‘ol American ingenuity to cut through the denser ones in France as the GIs also had to learn how to launch attacks against Germans making good use of the bocage.

I have not come across any evidence showing the Allies totally ignored the bocage, so where did this long-held belief of negligent military intelligence come from (other than the oft-mocked oxymoron “military intelligence” itself)? Surely Allied operatives and French Resistance members on the scene relayed information on Normandy’s terrain back to England before the invasion. Was it then just a fundamental misunderstanding on how large these formations could be? Some confusion is obvious from a statement within the report itself, and I quote: “It is difficult to judge whether such terrain favors defending or attacking infantry.” So in some ways, perhaps, the Allies did not know what the French bocage was all about. But to state they missed it or ignored it is completely false. In any case, the Germans once again made great and strong defenses from the hedgerows, as they had the bombed-out abbey at Monte Cassino, and as they would again later in the Hurtgen Forest, making the Allies pay dearly in blood for every square-inch of ground gained during the war.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

And a close-up of the same document:

Close-up of the document detailing the bocage in the French countryside of Normandy.  Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

Close-up of the document detailing the bocage in the French countryside of Normandy. Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

The Dead and Those About to Die

dead and those about to die

Before everyone begins moaning about a new book focusing on not just the Normandy invasion, but also the American task of invading and securing Omaha Beach, Dr. John McManus has been researching D-Day and the 1st Infantry Division for years. A full professor of U. S. military history at Missouri University of Science and Technology, his latest book The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach, is out in book stores now. This coming Monday, May 5th, he will be discussing and signing the book at the National Press Club in Washington, D. C. This is McManus’ 11th book, and I’ve read probably 8 or 9 of them and have yet to be disappointed. From what I’ve seen so far, the reviews on this one are very good. Plus, with the 70th anniversary of D-Day a little more than a month away, McManus’ new book is very timely.

I will post a review of the book once I have read it. I’m about to deliver my Final Exam in the Civil War course I am teaching this semester, so once that is through, I’m hoping to have a little more free time for reading. If you’ve read it already, shoot me a comment or email and let me know what you thought!

GIs of the 1st Infantry Division "Big Red One," leave port at Weymouth, England, for the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944.  Photo by Robert Capa

GIs of the 1st Infantry Division “Big Red One,” leave port at Weymouth, England, for the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Photo by Robert Capa