All posts in “Countdown to Midway”

Midway 66 Years Later – Lessons Learned

I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success.

- Fleet Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

In racing there is a saying – ‘luck is where preparation meets opportunity’ Perhaps there is no truer an example than the Battle of Midway. Popular literature seems to emphasize the American forces stumbling into a heaven-sent scenario of laden carrier decks and little to no opposition to the dive bombers, while giving short shrift to the preparation that enabled them to make use of that opportunity. How so?

COMINT: Communications Intelligence – the US code breakers labored mightily to figure out what the IJN was up to. Were it not for their efforts prior to Midway, and some particularly inspired thinking and risk taking, the US may well have fallen for the feint up to Alaska and end up caught in the trap laid by Yamamoto.

Damage Control: Had the crew of the Yorktown not been so proficient in DC, particularly something as seemingly mundane as draining the avgas lines and filling them with inert gas prior to the battle of Coral Sea, the Yorktown may very well have been lost, leaving CINCPAC with only two carriers facing four, forcing a different battle plan. Conversely, the almost lackadaisical approach the Japanese took in repairing Shokaku’s damage or replinishing Zuikaku’s air wing and repairing her light damage from Coral Sea’s action ensured their nonavailability for Midway, keeping the balance of forces on a razor’s edge.

Training: The contrast between USN and USMC effectiveness in employing dive bombers at Midway was signatory. Using the same platform (SBD-3’s) USN pilots scored major hits while minimizing losses to AAA and fighters, whereas the Marines suffered significant losses for little, if any gain. The difference? Tactics, training and procedures or TTP (yes, we know -ugh, one of those modern terms…) – the Navy employed steep, usually 70-degree, dives on the target whereas the Marines used much shallower, gliding approaches. The former minimizes your exposure time and profile to AAA and fighters while increasing the likelihood of a hit. However, it requires considerable practice at obtaining the proper dive angle, avoiding target fixation and knowing how/when to pullout of the dive and avoid over-stressing the airframe. Lots of practice, underscoring the maxim about training like you are going to fight…

Employment of forces: The Japanese were the first to employ massed striking power using carriers and the strike at Pearl (and subsequent actions through SE Asia and the IO) validated the philosophy. The problem was the Japanese failed to comprehend the inherent flexibility of carrier-based air and thus eschewed opportunities to utilize it in other scenarios, such as scouting, which in turn, led to less than robust search plans and reliance on out-dated search aircraft and methodologies. Curiously, the Japanese broke this rule in planning the Aleutian invasion, diverting forces on a mission of questionable value and success for territory that would prove to be exceptionally harsh on man and machine while yielding little, if any strategic value outside of propaganda for an overly wrought plan of entrapment. This leads to questions of planning…

Planning/Command: In studied contrast to the run-up at Pearl, Japanese planning for Midway was poorly thought out, egregiously evaluated and gamed and haphazardly executed (cf: the entire submarine picket plan). Indeed, it was put together and executed in such a toxic atmosphere of arrogance and bluster that even when one of the final wargame sessions showed American forces gaining an upper-hand because of gaps in the air search pattern, referees for the wargame manipulated the environment and other factors to bring about a successful conclusion for Kido Butai. As for dealing with changing factors at sea, commanders were loath to step outside the boundaries of the plan and demonstrate initiative. In studied contrast were the actions of the Americans from Nimitz’s orders based on calculated risk to Dick Best’s last minute change in targets.

Luck indeed smiled on the Americans that day, but she did not grab them by the hand (or scruff of the neck) and tell them what must be done in PowerPoint bulletized format. She merely opened the door, a crack, and offered a fleeting moment to change the course of the battle…the Americans grasped it and changed the direction of the war. Review the list above – these are timeless lessons learned, every bit as applicable today as they were 66 years ago. My observations lead me to believe we are ignoring them at our future peril. – SJS

66th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway: 4/5 June – Forces Engaged

In carrying out the task assigned … you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of our forces without good prospect on inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage on the enemy. (Extract from CINCPAC Operational Order to TF 17 Commander)

first hit

In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal – for what was before is forever changed afterwards.

Until 1019 on the morning of 4/5 June 1942, things had gone badly for the US and its allies. With few exceptions, the Allies were fighting a losing battle in the Pacific. Indeed, as events unfolded that morning, it appeared as of the rout was on. The attacks by land-based air forces from Midway had utterly failed culminating in the loss of many aircraft. The strikes by the torpedo aircraft were decimated – an entire squadron of TBDs shot down with only a sole survivor to claim witness. An entire airgroup missed the Japanese carriers and the battle altogether and of the remaining forces, they were scattered and disorganized. The future was looking grim. At 1019, Hiryu’s senior lookout shouted he had spotted dive bombers attacking Kaga from overhead. Despite being thrown into a hard turn, Kaga was struck by a 500 lb bomb and then successive strikes utterly crushed her…

At 1024 Soryu was struck a mighty series of blows…

At 1026, LT Dick Best led a flight of two other SBDs away from Kaga in an attack on Akagi. Attacking in a “V” formation from a right-hand turn, history held its breath as the first bomb missed and the third narrowly missed the carrier. But the second bomb, a 1,000 pounder from LT Best’s aircraft bore through the aft edge of the elevator and exploded in the upper reaches of the Akagi’s hangar bay, in the midst of the refueled/rearming aircraft parked there. In the blink of an eye, fate turned and three carriers lay burning.

To be sure the battle was not over and a dreadful price remained to be extracted from the American carriers. Likewise, Kido Butai had not seen the last of the Americans either and would pay the final price later in that day.

Across a seaborne canvass that stretched over 176,000 sq nm, larger than the country of Sweden the battle see-sawed back and forth. No other naval engagement has seen such breath-taking distances involved and few, short of a Trafalgar, have seen such a decisive turn of events. We honor today those who fought and gave their all in this signatory battle.

- SJS

To appreciate the sweep of events and the timescale involved, the reader is recommended to view the history of the battle as laid out over at Historyanimated, located here for the Battle of Midway.

Battle of Midway – First Contact (3 June 1942)

WEDNESDAY, 3 JUNE 1942

ALASKA: In an attempt to divert forces from the Midway area, a Japanese carrier-based bombers and fighters bomb and strafe Ft Mears and Dutch Harbor in several waves inflicting little damage but killing 52 US personnel. P-40s from Cold Bay trying to intercept them arrive 10 minutes after the last attack wave departs. Other P-40s at Umnak are notified too late due to communication failure. 9 P-40s and 6 B-26s fly a patrol but cannot find the fleet-l80 miles (288 km) S of Dutch Harbor- but 2 of the P-40s engage 4 carrier-based aircraft, shoot down one and damage another. An A6M2 Zero fighter crashes in the Aleutian Islands and is discovered intact five weeks later. It is shipped to the United States for testing and evaluation. (ed. – this is the Zero that the urban legend about the design of the F6F sprang from; in fact, the F6F will fly for the first time in a little over 3 weeks from today’s date)

  • Alaska – Japanese occupy Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians.

CHINA-BURMA-INDIA (CBI) THEATER OF OPERATIONS: A flight of 6 B-25s of the 11th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy), earmarked for China, take off from Dinjan, India for China. They bomb Lashio, Burma en route to Kunming, but afterward 9 crashed into an overcast-hidden mountain at 10,000 feet (3,048 m) and another is abandoned when it runs out of fuel near Chan-i, China. The remaining 2 B-25’s reach Kunming, China, 1 with its radio operator killed by a fighter.

Continue Reading…

This Date in Naval History: 29-30 May 1942 – Prelude to Midway

USS Yorktown (Apr 1942) EUROPE:

Britain launches its first 1000-plane bomber raid – the target: Cologne, Germany.

CHINA-BURMA-INDIA:

Myitkyina, Burma is again hit by B-17’s. Again no activity is observed and the attacks are discontinued. HQ 7th Bombardment Group transfers from Karachi to Dum-Dum, India.

ALASKA:

77th Bombardment Squadron (Medium), 28th Composite Group, based at Elmendorf Field, Anchorage, Territory of Alaska, begins operating from Umnak, Aleutian Is with B-26’s.

PACIFIC OCEAN AREA:

7th Air Force begins flying B-17’s from the Territory of Hawaii to Midway in the face of an expected attack on that. 394th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 5th Bombardment Group (Heavy), transfers from Hickam Field to Bellows Field, Territory of Hawaii with B-17’s.

Pearl Harbor: On the 27th of May, USS Yorktown arrived at Pearl Harbor bearing the wounds of her action from the Coral Sea action. Grievously wounded by both direct-hits and near-misses (even while having avoided a spread of eight air-launched torpedoes), Yorktown required at least a three month overhaul and refit. However, Nimitz knew Yorktown was the only carrier available to add to the task force that had previously sailed with Hornet and Enterprise. Two carriers against Kido Butai would not be sufficient – Saratoga, enroute from the West Coast, would not arrive until 7 Jun, too late to be of use. Ranger was otherwise engaged and Lexington, well, Lexington was lost after a valiant fight at Coral Sea. The third carrier had to be Yorktown.

When she entered Pearl on the 27th, over 1,400 shipyard workers swarmed aboard and immediately set to work repairing the damage, along with ship’s company. On 28 May she entered dry dock to repair cracks in the hull and fuel holding tanks from the near misses. In forty-eight hours another in a series of miracles ensued and Yorktown made ready for sea. At 0900L 30 May 1942, Yorktown put to sea, her airwing replenished with three of Saratoga’s squadrons (VB-3, VF-3 and VT-3 replacing VS-5, VF-42 and VT-5, all of which had suffered heavy losses at Coral Sea).

How significant was this action? In a word – it was pivotal. The urgency to turnaround Yorktown, bring aboard squadrons who had never operated off her before and in so doing, get a third carrier into action was one of the key points in the outcome of the coming battle – and make no mistake everyone from Nimitz down to the seaman on the Yorktown knew it. This was in studied contrast to the almost leisurely approach the Japanese took in repairing Zuikaku and replenishing her air wing (the Japanese did not rotate airwings between carriers and didn’t think about doing it until later in the war).

This Date in Naval History: 28 May 1942 – Prelude to Midway

Pacific Theater:

ALASKA (11th Air Force): A B-17 flies the first armed reconnaissance from the secretly constructed airfield at Unmak, Aleutian Islands over the Aleutian Chain, but finds no sign of the enemy. XI Fighter Command elements are not deployed at Unmak (P-40’s and P-38’s), Cold Bay (P-40’s), Kodiak (P-39’s), and Elmendorf Field [P-38's and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Kittyhawks].

USA- Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson warns Americans along the west coast to expect a Japanese attack as retaliation for the Doolittle raid on Tokyo.

SOUTHWEST PACIFIC AREA (5th Air Force): B-26’s attack the airfield at Lae, New Guinea.

New Hebridies – U.S. forces arrive at Espiritu Santo.

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii:

USS Enterprise, Hornet and escorts have sortied to meet the Japanese fleet bound for Midway. USS Yorktown, which arrived 27 May from action in the Coral Sea is in the shipyard undergoing deperate repairs to enable her to join Enterprise and Hornet.

In an inauspicious beginning, perhaps future, LCDR Lindsey, CO of VT-8 crashed astern of Enterprise while flying aboard Enterprise. He and the rest of his crew are rescued by the planeguard, USS Monaghan.

While Yorktown is in dock, her airwing receives new aircraft and performs maintenance on the others.

Kido Butai:

After clearing the Inland Sea on the 27th, Nagumo’s forces have set a north-easterly course at 14 knots. Ships crews turn to the daily routine of maintenance, cleaning and participating in drills while the embarked aircrew amused themselves playing cards in the ready room or passing around novels while sunning themselves on the flight deck – some had brought wooden deck chairs for this purpose. (ed – It would appear there were (are) some universal similarities across naval aviation…). The overall mood of the crews was relaxed. Duty carrier rotation was set with Soryu taking the first watch on the 27th. However, overnight on the 27th, CDR Fuchida Mitsuo, CAG for Akagi’s air group, was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. Although he pleaded otherwise, the flight surgeon overruled him and operated immediately. Fuchida would miss the coming battle, at least leading the air group in battle, and this was dismaying to the veteran crews.

1430, 28 May – Kido Butai’s supply ships are sighted and once they were joined in the force, a course change to east-northeast was ordered. Speed remained at 14 knots in consideration of the destroyers and other fuel hogs in the fleet.

This Date in Naval History: 27 May 1942 – Prelude to Midway


Akagi

“The Inland Sea of Japan was still veiled in darkness when the anchorage at Hashirajima began to awaken. On board the aircraft carrier Akagi, white-clad crewmen, ghostly in the deep twilight on the forecastle, began raising the ship’s anchors. The clatter of the capstan was overlain with the bright sound of spraying water as the foredeck gang played hoses along the dripping anchor chains, washing them clean of the harbor’s mud. All around Akagi, just barely discernable in the gloom, lay dozens of great grey warships, many of them weighing anchor as well. Nautical twilight was at 0437. But the dark waters of the bay, sheltered by the mountainous islands, would remain shrouded in gray until well after sunlight dappled the hilltops. Akagi would sortie around dawn.”
“The date was 27 May 1942.”
Shattered Sword (Parshall & Tully) 2005, p.3

JAPAN - Citing Japanese victories in the Coral Sea and other battles, Radio Tokyo the previous day announces that “America and Britain… have now been exterminated. The British and American fleets cannot appear on the oceans.”

 

On board the new battleship, Yamato, a final round of planning and wargaming had wrapped on the 25th, uncovering some potentially fatal flaws with Yamamoto’s plan – namely that there was a gap in the air search pattern south of the Hawaii/Midway axis which would prevent detection of American forces if they sortied to that area. Other officers were concerned that Nagumo’s forces were too far removed from the main body should additional support be required. However, Nagumo and his staff assured Yamamoto that they would be able to handle any such contingency, but another problem had arisen – namely that elements of Kido Butai would not be ready to sail on the established date.

Parshall & Tully note that Yamamoto declined to make changes in the operational schedule, believing that the tides at Midway would not accommodate Nagumo’s tardiness. Kido Butai would sail a day after the rest of the forces (invasion convoy and supporting force) and as such, would have one day less to knock out the island’s defenses for the invading force. No changes were made to the operational plan – no contingency plans put in effect. On the eve of departure for what the IJN leadership viewed to be the deciding battle, the battle that would utterly destroy the American fleet and end America’s presence in the Pacific, thereby securing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the planning and wargaming was almost a polar opposite of the tightly scripted, minutely detailed effort that led to the attack at Pearl Harbor.

Around the world, forces were joined and movement was afoot in this truly global war. In Russia, the 2nd Battle of Karkhov was winding to a close. After initial Soviet successes and re-capture of the city, they now found themselves surrounded and an attempted breakout two days earlier had failed. Southward, in the Crimea, the Nazis have begun their summer offensive. In Africa, Rommel has undertaken an offensive against the British defensive positions at Gazala. In Britain, preparations are being made for the first thousand plane raid against Germany – American forces were just beginning to arrive under the command of Eighth Air Force, VIII Bomber Command, but would not see their first combat for another 2 months. In the China-Burma-India theater, 10th Air Force moved B-17’s of the 11th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy) from Karachi to Lahabad, India with B-17’s. And in the Southwest Pacific Theater, 5th Air Force B-17’s bomb the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul. 8th FG P-39s intercept Japanese fighters attacking Port Moresby, Australia losing two P-39F’s in the process. And at CINCPAC HQ, Ed Layton answers a question from Nimitz – name the dates and dispositions the enemy intends to take up around Midway:

 

“‘I want you to be specific,’ Nimitz said, fixing me with his cool blue eyes. ‘After all, this is the job I have given you – to be the admiral commanding the Japanese forces, and tell me what is going on.’

It was a tall order, given that so much was speculation rather than hard fact. I knew that I would have to stick my neck out, but that was clearly what he wanted. Summarizing all my data, I told Nimitz that the carriers would probably attack on the morning of 4 June, from the north-west on a bearing of 325 degrees. They could be sighted at about 175 miles from Midway at around 0700 hours local time.

On the strength of this estimate, Admiral Nimitz crossed his Rubicon on 27 May 1942…I knew very well the extent to which Nimitz had staked the fate of the Pacific Fleet on our estimates, and his own judgment, against those of Admiral King and his staff in Washington.” - …And I was There (Ed Layton) 1985, pg. 430.

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Midway 65 Years Later – Lessons Learned

"I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success." – Fleet Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

In racing there is a saying – ‘luck is where preparation meets opportunity’ Perhaps there is no truer an example than the Battle of Midway. Popular literature seems to emphasize the American forces stumbling into a heaven-sent scenario of laden carrier decks and little to no opposition to the dive bombers, while giving short shrift to the preparation that enabled them to make use of that opportunity. How so?

Continue Reading…

65th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway: 4/5 June – Forces Engaged

In carrying out the task assigned … you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of our forces without good prospect on inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage on the enemy. (Extract from CINCPAC Operational Order to TF 17 Commander)

first hit

In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal – for what was before is forever changed afterwards. Continue Reading…

Countdown to Midway: 3 June – First Contact

WEDNESDAY, 3 JUNE 1942

ALASKA: In an attempt to divert forces from the Midway area, a Japanese carrier-based bombers and fighters bomb and strafe Ft Mears and Dutch Harbor in several waves inflicting little damage but killing 52 US personnel. P-40s from Cold Bay trying to intercept them arrive 10 minutes after the last attack wave departs. Other P-40s at Umnak are notified too late due to communication failure. 9 P-40s and 6 B-26s fly a patrol but cannot find the fleet-l80 miles (288 km) S of Dutch Harbor- but 2 of the P-40s engage 4 carrier-based aircraft, shoot down one and damage another. An A6M2 Zero fighter crashes in the Aleutian Islands and is discovered intact five weeks later. It is shipped to the United States for testing and evaluation. (ed. – this is the Zero that the urban legend about the design of the F6F sprang from; in fact, the F6F will fly for the first time in a little over 3 weeks from today’s date)

  • Alaska – Japanese occupy Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians.

CHINA-BURMA-INDIA (CBI) THEATER OF OPERATIONS: A flight of 6 B-25s of the 11th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy), earmarked for China, take off from Dinjan, India for China. They bomb Lashio, Burma en route to Kunming, but afterward 9 crashed into an overcast-hidden mountain at 10,000 feet (3,048 m) and another is abandoned when it runs out of fuel near Chan-i, China. The remaining 2 B-25’s reach Kunming, China, 1 with its radio operator killed by a fighter.

Continue Reading…

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