Archive for the ‘Pacific’ Category


The holiday of good cheer and lights.  The morning of presents under a tree, wrapped and ready to be opened.  It’s the one day when most everything business-related comes to a screeching halt and people can just relax.  For millions of people, it’s the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is easily the most influential person that ever walked the planet.  We sing Silent Night and, for a day (and night), many folks actually do sleep in heavenly peace.

For the Alamo Scouts, December 25, 1944 was a day of peace.  The Scouts had been formed in November of the previous year and operated in the Southwest Pacific Theater, primarily around the Philippines.  As you might expect from the group’s name, their job involved reconnaissance and occasional raider activity.  And since that first scouting mission to Los Negros, teams had been sent out forty-nine times.  And forty-nine times the teams had come back intact – not a single man killed.  The most recent mission, conducted by the Sumner Team, had returned on the 21st after forty-seven days in the field.

The men were treated to a lavish meal with all the fixings.  Next Christmas, with the war over, the Alamo Scouts would be just a recent memory.  But on this day, it was time for thanks and celebration.

Merry Christmas everyone!!  Be safe and joyful.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

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It’s been a really long time since we visited the Second World War battleground of Guadalcanal.  Of course, it’s been a while since we discussed any topic at all on these pages.  But I’m around this evening, so we should look at something.  As you probably well know, Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands) was the site of a pivotal six-month battle during 1942.

The First Marine Division had come ashore on the 7th of September – exactly nine months after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, achieving a measure of surprise of their own – and, with a bit of help from the Navy, had taken command of the situation.  But the cost had been high.  The cemetery on Guadalcanal held the bodies of 650 Marines.  Nearly 1,300 had been wounded, and more than 8,500 had suffered through crippling tropical disease, namely malaria.  They, along with their leader General Alexander Vandegrift, were ready for a rest.

And on December 9, 1942, that rest began.  Transports unloaded the last of the Army’s American Division, and General Vandegrift turned over command to Army General Alexander Patch.  The ceremony had little fanfare.  Richard Frank writes that the departing General read “a concise letter that paid generous tribute to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who had worked, fought, and died side by side with his marines.

For another two months, Americans would still fight and die on Guadalcanal.  But for the First Marine Division, the end of this battle was drawing to an end.

Recommended Reading:  Guadalcanal

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For the Japanese military, 1942 was a study in contrasts.  The first half of the year was filled with heady exhilaration, as victory after victory was achieved with stunning speed.  One by one, each objective was marked off the list.  It started at Pearl Harbor and was quickly followed by the Philippines, Burma, Singapore, and Malaysia.  All over the central and south Pacific, Japanese forces pushed their American, British, and Australian counterparts back.  As May rolled around, Australia looked ripe for the picking.

It was then that things begin to change.  The Americans fought the Japanese to a draw in the waters of the Coral Sea.  A month later, Admiral Spruance’s forces shocked a vastly superior Japanese force at Midway, taking down four Japanese carriers and halting Japan’s advance in the central Pacific.

Of course, a defeat at Midway didn’t cause the Japanese Navy to simply roll over or run away.  In fact, the Japanese, despite their losses, were still in a much better position than the Americans, who still could only boast a single aircraft carrier to cover the entire Pacific.

At this point, the Japanese started looking for ways to strengthen their perimeter.  As early as mid-May, they had been scouting the Solomon Islands, and before a month had passed, the decision was made to build an airfield on the largest of the islands – Guadalcanal.  The second week of June, even as final plans were still being made, the first Japanese soldiers arrived, with the task of building a wharf. Before too long, heavy smoke hung in the air as large areas of grass were burned on the Lunga Plain.

And on July 6, 1942, the first serious forces arrived on Guadalcanal.  A twelve-ship convoy landed, disembarking 2,500 men of the 11th and 13th Construction Units.  Their job was to build an airfield.

Not a single one of these 2,500 men could have possibly known that, just the day before, the American military (through its knowledge of Japanese codes) had discovered Japan’s interest in Guadalcanal.  Suddenly, Admirals King and Nimitz were also interested in owning this piece of real estate as well.

And thus was set in motion the single most pivotal land campaign in all the Pacific War…the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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My grandmother celebrates her 98th birthday today.  So a bunch of us gathered yesterday at the assisted living care facility where she lives.  After taking her out to lunch, we had a little party with cake and ice cream.  I think she really enjoyed it, even though all the attention and all the movement probably wore her out.  She was also quick to remind us that Sunday (the 11th) was her birthday, not Saturday.

I’ve mentioned it before, but grandma has lived through a mammoth amount of change.  Yesterday she looked in wonder at a smartphone.  She probably began her life in a home without any phone at all, and lived most of it with a corded phone hooked to the wall.  And that’s just one thing…there are countless other examples.

Grandma is finally beginning to forget things.  I’m not complaining, because it’s taken her nearly a century of living to reach that point.  But I’m really grateful for our ability to write stuff down.  As we age, our brains lose their capacity to process and remember information.  So fifty years from now, if I’m still around and these pages still exist, I might not remember going to visit grandma on her 98th birthday, but at least I’ll be able to read about such an event…if I can still see.

Today we remember the one-year anniversary of the terrible earthquake-driven tsunami that ravaged parts of Japan.  In the days of instant video and those smartphones that grandma just discovered, the events of that day are compressed to a series of ones and zeroes and stored on a hard drive, just waiting for a mouse click or finger tap to be brought back to the surface of YouTube as a sobering reminder.

Had smartphones and YouTube been around in Japan on March 11, 1945, they would have recorded the earth shaking.  They would have brought images of fire and destruction to your video screen.  Terror and death might have been your vista.  But it wasn’t an earthquake and it wasn’t a tsunami.

Grandma’s 31st birthday was the day the U.S. Air Force paid a visit to Nagoya, Japan.  It was not the first time.  Indeed, bombs had fallen on the city several times, beginning in December of the following year.  There was a Mitsubishi factory located there that supplied the dwindling Japanese war effort, and it was the first target.  But this was the first time Nagoya had been hit using new tactics.

Taking a page from the European theater, General Curtis LeMay had recently decided to mass large groups of bombers as a single force when attacking Japan.  Previous attempts using small packages was proving ineffective.  The first real test, a couple of days before against Tokyo, had been (from the perspective of the U.S. military) a resounding success.

So while Tokyo was still smouldering, LeMay’s massed Superfortresses hit Nagoya.  And while the damage may not have been as bad as the Tokyo raid (sixteen square miles turned to dust and nearly 200,000 killed and wounded), it was extensive.

With this result, General LeMay and the U.S. Air Force believed they had found a weapon that would finally end the war against Japan.

Recommended Reading: Superfortress: The B-29 and American Air Power

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Ususally, when we’re faced with a crisis, our first reaction is some degree of shock.  In a figurative (or maybe even literal) sense, we stand there, staring blankly and not really focusing on anything, with our arms hanging at our sides, not really knowing what to do.  Eventually, our wits return, and we can begin assessing our situation and reacting to it.

That’s kind of how things work.

At the time of the Japanese attacks in December of 1941, many in the U.S. military did much the same.  There was the initial surprise.  It was followed by the “thousand-yard stare”, as the Japanese rolled over objective after objective all over the South Pacific.  And then came the chance to respond, which really didn’t get underway until Doolittle and Midway several months later.

But during that time, there were many instances where soldiers in harm’s way put forth a super-human effort.  Over the years, we’ve discussed Bataan and Corregidor as places where our military men, facing terrible odds and no real hope of rescue, gave an incredible accounting for themselves.

The garrison at Wake Island is another example.

For the men stationed there, it must have been a pretty lonely existence.  The island measured a couple of square miles, so there wasn’t much to see.  It was situated in the middle of nowhere, about 1,500 miles from anything, so there wasn’t anywhere to go.

And as for defenses, well, they were pretty pathetic as well.  Some 5-inch guns from a deceased battleship comprised the big iron.  There were a couple of ancient 3-inch guns that didn’t fully function, some heavy machine guns, a handful of anti-aircraft weapons, and whatever small arms the 450 men (a Marine Defense Battalion and a smattering of others) carried on their hips.  Oh, and there was a Marine fighter squadron with a dozen F4F Wildcats.

Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake was targeted by Japanese bombers.  They concentrated on the air defenses, destroying eight of the twelve aircraft (the other four were flying defense).  There were some subsequent attacks, but all of this was the prelude to the main action.

On December 11, 1941, a Japanese landing force arrived to take over.  It included three cruisers, a half-dozen destroyers, and a pair of troop transports carrying the invasion sortie of 450 soldiers.  The expectation was one of a fairly easy landing and occupation.

Wake’s defenders, however, had different ideas.  They met their unwelcome visitors with all the firepower they could muster.  The men manning the five-inchers succeeded in sinking a destroyer and heavily damaging a cruiser.  In the air, the remaining Wildcats dropped bombs and successfully blew the tail off another Japanese destroyer, sending her to the bottom with all hands.

All of a sudden, this little skirmish had turned into a crisis for the Japanese, and they were the ones staring in shock.  Hopelessly out-gunned, this little garrison was putting a pasting on a much larger invasion force.  And for the first time in the war, the Japanese withdrew from an objective to regroup.

For the men at Wake, it was an awesome sight to see a Japanese force falling below the horizon in retreat.  Commander Winfield Cunningham, when ordering a long list of supplies, humorously included more enemy soldiers to fight.  But as we know, the small atoll was under siege, and no supplies or reinforcements would arrive.  The Pacific belonged to the Japanese, so Wake was on its own.

But Wake would manage to hold out for another two weeks against overwhelming pressure…a pretty remarkable feat considering the circumstances.

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We ate dinner last night with our son Andrew and his three boys.  It was his birthday last week, but he was out of town, so we celebrated it late.  He picked Uncle Buck’s as his restaurant, where the food is always good.  As we sat at the table, 5-year-old Teagan informed us that another word for delicious is “scrumptious.”  So my Cajun Catfish sandwich, which I always get and comes with about a pound of fish, was scrumptious.

Let’s tackle some history.

Saburo Sakai (who is no stranger to us) was a nervous pilot.  It’s not that piloting an airplane made him nervous, but rather the circumstances surrounding this particular flight.  He was part of the attack force heading for Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  It was December 8, 1941, and his was just one of many forces heading for targets all over the vast Pacific.

His buddies had struck a few hours before (and on the other side of the International Date Line) against the U.S. Navy parked at Pearl Harbor.  The 5th and 18th army divisions were landing along the coasts of Thailand and Malaya.  Three regiments were causing havoc in Hong Kong.  Wake Island was being bombarded, and Burma was being invaded by the Japanese 15th army.

Attacks were happening everywhere, but the timing of this particular mission, against General Douglas MacArthur’s center of command, was what caused Sakai’s concerns.  His squadrons had been scheduled to attack Clark at roughly the same time as the attacks on Pearl.  But some incredibly dense fog that settled on their base in Formosa had caused their flights to be delayed by hours, ruining any chance of surprise.

However, as Sakai approached Clark with the other pilots, it was they who were surprised.  Below were dozens of bombers and fighters parked neatly in rows, just waiting to be blown up.  They couldn’t believe their fortune.  Their timing had actually been perfect.  When word reached Clark of the attacks at Pearl Harbor, many of the planes had been sent aloft.  When the attacks didn’t come, the planes were brought back and parked so they could be refueled and the crews could eat.

And it was then that the Japanese arrived, and proceeded to demolish the place.

Like Hawaii, war had come to the islands of the Philippines.

Recommended Reading:  Tears in the Darkness – A must read.

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In all of the readings here (which now number more than 700), there has been precious little said about Rabaul.  That’s going to change…at least for today.  As you might know, there isn’t a whole lot to say about the present-day place…oh, where is it?  Ok, go to your globe and find Australia.  Then find Papua New Guinea off Australia’s northeast coast.  To the northeast of Papua, there’s a bow-shaped island.  That is New Britain, and on the very northeast tip of New Britain lies the town of Rabaul…right here.

As I was saying, Rabaul really doesn’t exist anymore, due to a volcanic eruption in 1994.  The ash that rained down was heavy and thick enough to collapse most of the structures, and the place was abandoned.  But up until then, it had been the provincial capital.

And during the Second World War, it was one of the largest and most important Japanese bases in the Pacific.  I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times.  It was the origin of Isoroku Yamamoto’s final flight and it was the destination of Saburo Sakai’s remarkable “flight of survival”.

And on November 5, 1943, it was the destination for a bunch of U.S. carrier-based planes.  It was then that Task Force 38’s six-day assault of Rabaul began.  And while it may have been the first of the naval attacks on this Japanese fortress, it certainly wasn’t the first attack.  Land-based planes had begun air strikes in mid October.

Rabaul had been lost to the Japanese in 1942 (along with a bunch of territory), but rather than try to recapture it by a costly direct assault, Allied planners decided to bypass Rabaul and capture more accessible targets.  This would allow Rabaul to simply wither away due to lack of supplies.  Furthermore, with the recent Allied invasion of Bougainville (in the western Solomon Islands), attacks on Rabaul would keep Japanese air and naval assets from threatening that operation.

So aircraft from Admiral Sherman’s carriers struck, assisted by air cover from a frontal system.  Pilots succeeded in damaging a bundle of cruisers and destroyers, though nothing was sunk.  Fifth Air Force would add their bombs and bullets a little later in the day, so it was a pretty solid start to the reduction of Rabaul, and a far better option than an invasion.

Recommended Reading:  The Pacific War Day by Day – I just picked this little gem up a couple weeks back.

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For the captain and crew of the USS Salmon, the events of October 30, 1944 probably felt more than just a little like their own spin on Das Boot.  If you’ve seen that classic movie, you know the crew of the Salmon had some serious danger that day.  If you haven’t seen it, you now have a two-part homework assignment:  find Das Boot…watch Das Boot.  Out on what was her 11th patrol of the war, she was near the Ryukyu Islands (you might recognize Okinawa as the main island) with a couple of other submarines.  On this night, the group attacked Jinei Maru, a Japanese tanker, and all three subs scored hits.

But like most wartime surface vessels, Jinei Maru was guarded by escorts, and they immediately responded to the threat.  The subs separated and the Salmon received a severe depth-charging, which crippled her.  Quoting NavSource.org, “This case of damage can be considered one of the most serious to have been survived by any U.S. submarine during World War II.  Pressure hull deformation was extensive in way of both engine rooms.”  She began taking on water, slipping deeper into the darkness and closer to her doom.  The crew probably watched in growing horror as the needle on the big depth-o-meter drooped past 300 feet (the typical test depth for which WWII-era subs were rated), then 350, then 400.  It wasn’t until a hull-crushing 500 feet that the dive was finally checked.

With his sub damaged and buoyancy compromised, the captain had no choice but to surface and take his chances, badly outgunned and wounded.  They opened their hatches at the surface and found themselves undetected in the darkness, but with the nearest enemy vessel little more than four miles away.  For several hours they feverishly worked to make repairs, but then their time was up…the enemy had found them and was closing fast.

The captain of the Salmon, possibly taking a lesson from Commander Evans just a couple of days before, turned his sub toward the enemy and attacked…on the surface…at full speed.  Passing within a couple of hundred feet of the Japanese escort CD-22, she let loose with everything she had, which amounted to some machine guns and the deck-mounted 3-incher.  They raked the escort’s structure and kept right on going at maximum speed, finding an ever-so-friendly rain squall waiting to mask their escape.

And escape they did…all the way to Saipan, where clean clothes and repair facilities awaited the fortunate crew.  The USS Salmon wouldn’t take to the water again until the war had ended, but her final encounter at sea had been perilous, and one from which most submarines didn’t survive.

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It’s a quick one this evening, but it’s two days in a row that I’ve been able to get here, and that’s saying something in light of my recent (and prolonged) absences.

Operation Iceberg (the Battle of Okinawa) needs no introduction to those who study the Second World War.  This famous “last battle” of the Pacific campaign was extremely costly, both in lives lost and in what it ultimately led to…atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We’ve also mentioned a couple of small “sub-operations” in the Kerama Islands, specifically Tokashiki and Kerama Retto.

So for today, let’s visit Keise Shima.

Situated just five miles northwest of the Okinawan city of Naha, the three tiny islets don’t even show up Google’s mapping system…they’re that small.  But their proximity to the Okinawa’s coast (and to the eventual landing beaches) made them nice targets for occupation.  The plan was to land two battalions of the 532nd Field Artillery on-shore, where they would set up a couple dozen 155mm cannon.  These cannon would support the “Love Day” landings set for April 1.

The men landed on March 28, 1945, after struggling to actually make it to shore.  Their landing craft got hung up in the reefs, which left most of the men floundering in shallow water.  Fortunately, the Japanese had temporarily left the area – though they would appear the following night to offer up a bit of resistance – so the soggy landings were unopposed and the men were able to establish their positions.

The “Long Toms” (as the artillery pieces were called) were the largest land-based guns in the inventory, and they were perfectly suited to this duty.  And they would be put to good use.  As you may recall, the main landings on Okinawa were totally battle-free and almost completely free of any kind of enemy fire.

Such was not the case on Keise Shima.  Their primary target was a communications tower in the city of Naha and, as soon they began firing, they were answered by enemy fire.  The 532nd’s HQ, located in one of the gun pits (which I believe is shown in the picture above), took a direct hit from heavy Japanese artillery, killing everyone there (including several officers).  Another gun emplacement took a direct hit as well, but the shell was a dud that failed to explode.

So while Operation Iceberg got off to a very quiet start for the Marines that walked onto Okinawa’s beaches (so quiet, in fact, that some inexperience men believed the Japanese had left Okinawa), that certainly wasn’t the case for everyone involved.

Recommended Reading: The Ultimate Battle

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Los Negros Island is another one of those places that probably doesn’t ring a bell with too many people.  I’ve never been there, but part of its obscurity might have to do with its location – far, far away from the United States and pretty close to Australia.  Or maybe it’s the island’s size – pretty small.  Or maybe because it’s somewhat misnamed – according to Google’s maps (and depending on the tides), it’s not really an island at all.

Los Negros is part of the U-shaped hook off the eastern end of Manus Island, the largest of the Admiralty Islands that lie northeast of Australia.  And on February 27, 1944, it was the scene of the first Alamo Scouts mission.

We mentioned the Alamo Scouts in our discussion of the Los Banos rescue mission, but didn’t really go into much detail.  Officially called the U.S. 6th Army Special Reconnaissance Unit, they operated in the Pacific Theater and served as deep-penetration reconaissance units and did a bit of raiding and rescue on the side.  They were nicknamed Alamo Scouts because they fell, ultimately, under the command of General William Kreuger, who hailed from Texas and greatly admired the men who died defending the Alamo.

Formed in November of 1943, the first teams of this all-volunteer force finished their grueling training in early February of 1944.  This worked out well with Douglas MacArthur’s timetable, as he was preparing to complete the isolation of the huge Japanese airbase at Rabaul.  This could only be done with the retaking of the Bismarck Archipelago, accompanied with Kreuger’s capture of the Admiralty Islands.

Reconaissance aircraft seemed to indicate that Los Negros didn’t have any Japanese soldiers on the ground.  But aircraft could only see so much, so the job of the Scout team, led by Lt. John McGowen (and whose team was selected by a flip of the coin), was to get in there and determine the truth of the matter without stirring up a hornet’s nest should the enemy be discovered.

The mission lasted just two days, and the Alamo Scouts found that Los Negros was, as McGowen reported, “lousy with Japs.”  They extracted and reported back.  Though MacArthur initially poo-pooed the McGowen’s findings, Kreuger fully trusted his charges.  And good thing he did.  Operation Brewer, which began two days later, eventually ran into heavy Japanese resistance.  The fact that General Kreuger allocated reserve forces to the assault (based on the Alamo Scout report) made the difference between victory and a much different outcome.

The small mission was the first of more than 100 missions that Alamo Scout teams would conduct over the next 20 months, and it’s a small miracle that, in all those missions, not a single Scout was killed in action.

Los Negros Island (as well as Manus Island) were captured by the Americans.  That U-shaped area in between the two islands became Seeadler Harbor, one of the finest harbors in all the Pacific…and site of the Mount Hood’s titanic demise several months later.

This won’t be the last time we visit the Alamo Scouts.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

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In the early months of 1945, Douglas MacArthur’s forces worked to reclaim Philippino territory from the Japanese that they had captured back in those “dark” months of 1941 and early 1942.  And as the Japanese retreated, their death-before-capture philosophy took a more sinister turn.  News filtered back to Allied lines that the Japanese were killing POWs and captured civilians being held in prison camps all throughout Luzon.

Allied leadership, starting with MacArthur, realized that something should be done to try to save as many prisoners as possible, so numerous missions were carried out in an effort to prevent a potential slaughter.

One of the larger internment camps was located near Los Banos, roughly 40 miles south of Manila, at what is today the University of the Philippines at Los Banos.  It mid-February of 1945, it sat about 25 miles behind enemy lines, which meant two things.  First, any rescue mission would require stealth, daring, and intricate planning.  Second, with the Americans advancing every day, a possible liquidation of the camp (and the death of more than 2,100 occupants) might not be far away.

A rather complex 4-phase plan was laid out and handed to the 1st Battalion, 511th Airborne Regimental Combat Team tasked with ultimately entering the camp and conducting the rescue.  It involved reconaissance by Alamo Scout teams with local guerrilla forces and a drop of paratroops to link up with the guerrillas to assault the camp.  Another group of soldiers driving the rescue vehicles were tasked with carrying the prisoners out and transporting them to Amtracs.  And finally, additional forces would move along Highway 1 to act as a diversion and protect the flanks of the main operation.

The mission was carried out on February 23, 1945, and was a stunning success.  Despite the prediction of heavy casualties, the liberators suffered just 6 killed and 4 wounded from a force of nearly 950 men.  The assualt lasted mere minutes before the Japanese defenders were either killed or run off.

As quickly as possible, the internees were loaded into the rescue vehicles.  When some delayed, wanting to go back and grab their possessions, Lt. Hettlinger ordered the huts torched to speed the evacuation.  They exited the smouldering camp and hurried down the road.  They met the Amtracs, who had not only arrived right on time, but hadn’t alerted the local Japanese to their presence.

A total of 2,147 men, women, and children (including Lois Kathleen McCoy, just 3 days old) boarded the Amtracs and crossed Laguna de Bay to safety.

It’s rather sad that this fantastic rescue garnered so little print space in the newspapers.  As one of the most daring rescue mission of the war (and one that was so tremendously successful), it deserved a better publicity fate than it received.  But February 23, 1945 was the day that 5 Marines and a Navy corpsman raised that immortal flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.  And AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s immortal photo so captivated the public that all other stories faded in its presence.

But the Los Banos rescue mission stands as an incredible achievement of planning, execution, and mercy.

Mission Accomplished.

Recommended Reading:  Shadows in the Jungle – More detail on Los Banos, and a great book about the Alamo Scouts, relatively unknown heroes of WWII.

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On February 21, 1945, the fight for the small island of Iwo Jima was entering its third day.  Featuring less than 10 square miles of black volcanic residue, Iwo’s main lookout point consisted of Mount Suribachi, from where enemy artillery pieces could shell just about any point on the island.  The task of taking Suribachi fell to Col. Harry Liversedge’s 28th Marines, and his assualt got underway shortly after 8:00am.  But before they jumped off, the 550′ peak was treated to a pounding from naval gunfire as well as bombs and cannon fire from the fleet’s carrier-based aircraft.

The U.S. Navy did a lot of grunt work during the month-long battle.  And while the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions had the toughest job (capturing the island and its three vital airfields), the Navy played a tremendous supporting role in the successful completion of the mission.

But like the Marines, the Navy paid a price for its work.

As we well know, the Japanese kamikaze squadrons were an ever-present threat.  Having been formed in late 1944, these one-way suicide missions featuring one pilot, one plane, and one bomb, sought to wreak havoc among the advancing American vanguard.  And while they never achieved the “one man, one ship” success their mantra sought, they were a deadly foe nonetheless.

And on the day the conquest of Suribachi began, the kamikazes came out to fight and die.  As the afternoon headed towards evening, attacks from Hachijo Jima succeeded in breaking through the pickets and hitting the USS Saratoga.  The long-lived carrier, one of the very first battlecruiser conversions, nearly met her end on this day, as she was hit by four kamikazes.  Two hours later, as crews fought to save the ship, five more enemy planes bored in, and one planted a bomb on the forward flight deck.  The fact that she was saved from sinking was a testament to the ability of the crews to successfully overcome the fires and damage that should have sunk her.  But the attacks cost more than 300 casualties, including 123 killed.

The Bismarck Sea was not so fortunate.  The Casablanca-class carrier was hit by just two kamikazes, but both were hit critical sections of the 10,000-ton escort carrier.  The first penetrated the hangar deck and exploded in the ammunition magazines, causing extensive damage and powerful fires.  The second, which struck just as crews were getting a handle on the situation, destroyed the fire fighting water distribution system, which meant it was impossible to put out the remaining fires.  Three hours later, the Bismarck Sea slipped beneath the waves, taking 318 men with her.

The Bismarck Sea has the unfortunate distinction of being the last carrier of any kind sunk by a kamikaze during the War.  The power of Japan’s kamikazes was not in their effectiveness – while they sank numerous vessels, they wasted thousands of lives and thousands of aircraft in a completely futile attempt to stave off inevitable defeat – but rather in their terrifying randomness.

Recommended Reading:  The War in the Pacific

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The weather outside is frightful for us this evening.  It’s been a year since we’ve had a winter storm as nasty as this one, and here in the middle of Iowa, we’ve got it way better than many.  It’s a quickie tonight…

We’ve haven’t talked about Peleliu for some time, though we’ve visited it several times in the past.  As regulars know, history has viewed this engagement through the lens of controversy.  But more than that, this battle is seen as, pound-for-pound, the bloodiest and most vicious encounter of the war.  For many of the Marines who landed and launched the fight, and for the Army soldiers who followed up and mopped up, it was indescribably horrific.  I’ve quoted Marine PFC Arthur Jackson before, but it’s worthy of a reprise.  He said, “…only a Marine who was on the scene at Peleliu can understand what took place during that period of time.  It was a nightmare…

The island was declared “secure” as October ended, but that wasn’t even close to accurate.  The U.S. Navy made that call (and this is strictly my opinion, though others may share it) largely for two reasons.  One, General MacArthur’s coming ashore in the Philippines needed to the be the headline-du-jour.  Two, military leadership wanted to shield the public from the truth of just how terrible the fight was on Peleliu.  Marine General William Rupertus had predicted a 3-day battle, but no one could have guessed just how wrong that estimate would be.

It wasn’t until late November that fighting, and dying,  on this 13-square mile chunk of coral ended.  And even after that there was sporadic gunplay as Japanese soldiers, in ones and twos, picked their moment to die.  Handfuls of Japanese soldiers surrendered, but they were few and far between.  On February 1, 1945, more than two months later, five Japanese soldiers did the unthinkable (at least as far as their training was concerned) by dropping their weapons and raising their hands.  They were five of just a couple hundred that did so, and some of the very last.

But they would not be the last, and at some point, we’ll make mention of it.

Recommended Reading: Brotherhood of Heroes

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Niitakayama Nobore.

I don’t really know how to pronounce it properly, but the English translation is one of the more famous coded messages in American history…and the subject of this evening’s very brief lesson.

When Admiral Nagumo left Kyushu in late November of 1941, he did so with what was, at that time, the largest fleet (named the Kido Butai) in the world.  He also left with a bit of unfinished business.  The fleet was headed for a spot a couple of hundred miles northwest of Hawai’i, from where it would launch attacks against Pearl Harbor.  The actual attack orders comprised the unfinished business.

The Japanese government pretty much knew that it was going to war, but still held out a bit of hope that diplomacy would win the day.  The problem was that Japan wasn’t really interested in making any serious concessions, so “diplomacy” basically came down to the United States giving Japan whatever she wanted in the Pacific.  And that wasn’t going to happen.

So on December 2, 1941, the coded message, Niitakayama Nobore (“Climb Mount Niitaka“), arrived on Nagumo’s flagship.  The Admiral then opened a set of top secret documents which confirmed that Japan would be going to war with the United States, Britain, and Holland.  It also gave a date for the opening of hostilities…December 8th (the 7th on the Pearl Harbor side of the International Date Line).

The stage was set…unless the U.S. discovered Kido Butai, Pearl Harbor was squarely centered in the Japanese bullseye.

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The dark, early-morning hours of October 25, 1944 were punctuated by the bright light of the explosions.  Rather than sleeping (as most people do at this hour), the men of the USS Tang were having a field day.  But for this Balao-class submarine, “incredible success” would have been the catchphrase for entire patrol.  Since departing from Midway and taking up station in the Formosa Strait, the officers and men had one Japanese target after another.

There were a pair of cargo ships in early October, and then a quiet period.  But the last 48 hours…wow!  The lone sub had discovered a large convoy on the 23rd.  As darkness fell, she closed in for the kill, sinking 3 freighters and a transport before making her escape.

But now, as October 24th wrapped into the 25th, the Tang’s radar screen was again lit up, this time with so many blips that it was practically impossible to read.  At periscope depth, the view was one of more transports (with aircraft on the decks, making them most inviting), tankers, and destroyer escorts.

The Tang planted at least one torpedo in the large transport, the tanker exploded, and a destroyer (which was now bearing down on them) exploded as well.  It was shaping up to be another banner day.  After doing a check and finding themselves clear of immediate pursuit, turned to finish off the tanker, still afloat but dead in the water.  And with but two torpedoes left (of 24 they carried), these would be the final shots before returning home.

With the firing solution obtained, the 23rd torpedo was off, running (in Navy parlance) “hot, straight, and normal.”  The 24th torpedo was then fired, and while it was “hot”, it was anything but “straight and normal.”  It began turning in a wide circle, almost as though it was targeting the ship that shot it.  The Tang quickly moved to escape the torpedo’s circle, but with only half a minute, there wasn’t enough time.  And at 2:30 in the morning, the torpedo hit the Tang, coincidentally, in the torpedo room.

A handful of men, including Lt. Commander Richard O’Kane, managed to escape the sinking vessel, but they were quickly picked by a (surviving) Japanese destroyer.  And as it was also carrying survivors of the vessels O’Kane and his men had just sunk, it’s safe to say that they didn’t receive a very warm welcome.  The nine survivors would remain POWs until the war ended.

Recommended Reading:  The Bravest Man

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In all of our time together, we’ve spent plenty of time on and around the island of Guadalcanal.  It’s no secret that the battle for this large chunk of rock and trees was absolutely pivotal in wresting the initiative from the Japanese in the Pacific War.  But in all of our time spent concerning this largest of the Solomon Islands, we’ve talked very little about Admiral William Halsey.

Let’s do that for a couple minutes this evening.

At the time the Battle of Guadalcanal was being fought, Bull Halsey was a man on the mend.  The 60-year-old had been debilitated by an extremely irritating skin disease, so much so that he had been forced to give up his command just before the Battle of Midway in June of 1942.  Fortunately, as we well know, Admiral Raymond Spruance was more than adequate as his replacement.  Now with October passing, Halsey was ready for command again.

It’s just a shame that, this time, he was called on to replace Admiral Robert Ghormley.  Halsey and Ghormley had been friends for nearly 40 years, and there was a bit of discomfort for both men.  But it was clear that, for the South Pacific Fleet, change was needed.

Richard Frank gives his thoughts in Guadalcanal, his terrific one-volume account of the battle.  “However sympathetically Ghormley’s situation is viewed, his relief was amply justified.  Contemporary explanations for Ghormley’s replacement share the common theme that he lacked aggressiveness, but this was really a symptom of defeatism, a disease that had become rampant at his headquarters.”  Frank continues on that the Admiral had become a workaholic, denying himself recreation and exercise, which led to exhaustion and a general malaise.

With a nickname like “Bull”, it’s easy to picture Halsey as a the proverbial “bull in the china shop”, displaying a certain amount of recklessness and ram-rodding impetuousness.  Frank sets the record straight.  “He was not so impulsive as the nickname ‘Bull’ (which was not used by his friends) suggests, but he always displayed a certain indifference to detail that looked like carelessness.”

And whatever indifference to detail Halsey displayed was quickly forgotten on October 20, 1942.  It was then, just two days after Halsey had taken command, that the Japanese sub I-176 put a torpedo smack dab in the middle of the USS Chester’s starboard side.  The Northampton-class heavy, cruiser was rocked, but not sunk, and casualties were relatively light (11 killed and a dozen more wounded).

It’s probably no small coincidence that, also on this day, Halsey gave the order that all naval officers in the South Pacific would dispense with wearing ties with their tropical uniforms.  Frank continues, “Halsey said he gave this order to conform to Army practice and for comfort, but to his command it viscerally evoked the image of a brawler stripping for action and symbolized a casting off of effete elegance no more appropriate to the tropics than to war.”

For Admiral Halsey, the gloves were coming off at Guadalcanal.  Round 1?…The Battle of Santa Cruz.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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It’s another brief one this evening.

On this day in 1789, the U.S. Department of the Treasury was created.  But we’ve already talked about that, and no fair repeating topics.  So let’s tackle something else.

Just minutes after 9:00am on September 2, 1945, the Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.  The Emperor had announced the surrender to the people of Japan a couple of weeks earlier, but this signing made it official.  The ceremony was held on board the USS Missouri (one of the Iowa-class battleships we’ve talked about on occasion) in Tokyo Bay.

And when it was complete, World War II had ended.  VJ-Day had begun.  History’s bloodiest conflict, which had seen 70,000,000 people killed, cities levelled, oceans filled with the hulls of ships and men, and two atomic bombs, was over.

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The Marine landings on Guadalcanal may have caught the Japanese military by surprise, but it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that they, at this stage of the Pacific War, responded rather quickly.  We’ve already talked a bit about the Japanese “response from the air”, but their surface vessels weren’t far behind.

In addition to all the aircraft stationed at Rabaul, the newly-formed Japanese 8th Fleet had also dropped anchor there.  This force of cruisers and destroyers was commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, a steady and rational leader.  When messages of invasion began coming in from Tulagi on the 7th of August, he immediately gathered his men, hoisted the anchors, and made for the Solomons.

Mikawa’s plan for a night attack during the evening of August 8/9 gave his immediate superiors pause, and for good reasons.  There was precious little information coming from Guadalcanal concerning the size of the enemy forces.  Were there carriers?…battleships?  It was assumed that the transports would be well-protected, and Mikawa’s fleet, while powerful, might be signficantly smaller than that of the U.S. Navy.  And while the Japanese were excellent naval night-fighters, fighting an unknown enemy at night was fraught with peril.  But Isoroku Yamamoto, knowing Mikawa to be a cautious fighter with a good head on his shoulders, gave his blessing.  Mikawa was off…reaching Bougainville at dawn on the 8th, where they were spotted by Australian reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, on the other side…

As the night of August 8th was ending, the U.S. leaders were meeting.  General Vandegrift (in charge of the Marines on Guadalcanal) met with Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Turner (Fletcher’s boss).  Turner informed Vandegrift that Fletcher was moving his carriers to the south due to reports of Japanese forces coming from the north.  Vandegrift was livid…there were still tons of supplies to be unloaded for his troops on the island, and leaving them now would put them in a terribly vulnerable position.  But Fletcher had already made up his mind and Turner backed him.  Vandegrift would have to get settled in, at least for the moment, on his own.

Savo Island is small and conical-shaped, sitting about 10 miles off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal.  And from the north, Mikawa’s forces were closing in for the kill.  Now General Vandegrift hadn’t been left totally alone.  British Admiral Victor Crutchley’s fleet of cruisers and destroyers were operating near Savo as a screening force, and it was they who were punished by the Japanese.

I say “punished”, because that’s precisely what Mikawa’s smaller force did in the early morning hours of August 9, 1942.  Crutchley’s forces didn’t spot the enemy first, and when they did, they were concerned about firing on their own ships.  The Japanese Eighth Fleet used this small window to tremendous advantage.

When the sun rose on Savo the following morning, four heavy cruisers had been sunk, with another badly damaged.  Nearly 1,100 sailors had perished.  And Mikawa’s forces were long gone, have suffered little damage and 58 killed.

Much has been made of Mikawa’s decision to withdraw.  His opposition had been plastered, and there was nothing between him and the largely exposed (and mostly helpless) 1st Marine Division just forty or fifty miles away.  He polishes off the enemy ships, moves a bit south, lays waste to the Marines with heavy gunfire, and the Guadalcanal operation is an unmitigated U.S. disaster two days after it starts.  The U.S. campaign in the Pacific would have been set back indefinitely.

But Mikawa was operating at night with only the information he had.  He knew there were enemy carriers out there, he just didn’t know where.  It never entered his mind that Fletcher had moved (or even would move) them south, and reconaissance couldn’t locate them.  The Admiral also knew he had no carrier support with him, and against enemy carriers he would have been at a colossal disadvantage.  So while it was a terrible mistake on his part to pull back, his decision (made at 2:20 in the morning) was the right one.

The landings on Guadalcanal and the capture of its airfield were a real boon to U.S. military morale…the first time U.S. forces had taken the fight to Japanese-controlled soil.  The Battle of Savo Island was a sobering reminder of just how tough and resourceful the enemy was gonig to be.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Starvation Island

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It’s been a few days since anything has come from this keyboard.  For some odd reason, there’s a “topic gap” in the first week of August.  I’m sure that historical things have happened during those days, but nothing that grabbed my attention.  So either I need to read some more, or widen my circle of interests.  Anyway, the spreadsheet has stuff on it for today, so let’s chat for a few minutes.

When the U.S. Navy began shelling Guadalcanal in the early-morning hours of August 7, 1942, it caught the Japanese garrison stationed there completely by surprise.  The same held true for the small nearby island of Tulagi and the twins of Gavutu-Tanambogo (I call them “twins” because they were small islands joined by a man-made causeway).  Frantic messages from the defenders (many of them in uncoded, plain-language text) were sent up the equally-surprised Japanese chain of command.

The Japanese had a bunch of planes at their main base at Rabaul that were being prepared for attacks on U.S. air bases in New Guinea, but were quickly retasked (and re-armed with torpedoes) to support their brothers-in-arms in the Solomon Islands.  Among the attackers were 18 planes of the elite Tainan Air Group, and one of its premier aces was Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai.  Boarding his Zero and taking off in the morning, he and his fellow pilots joined the fray over the Guadalcanal early that afternoon.

After downing a Wildcat and a Dauntless dive-bomber, he turned to attack another group of Wildcats, only to discover too late that they were also Dauntlesses.  The SBD featured a rear tailgunner that could give an attacking pilot grief.  But Sakai was attacking several of them with only a wingman, so nearly all the return fire was concentrated on him.  The barrage of gunfire shattered his plane’s canopy and a bullet hit him in the head.  Recovering a bit, he found himself blinded by blood, paralyzed on his left side, and hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean.

He pulled from the dive and got out of the action enough to take stock of his situation, which was grim to say the least.  His left side was truly paralyzed (the bullet had punctured his brain), and his right eye was also blind, even after removing the blood.  Saburo Sakai now faced a nearly-impossible 565-mile return flight to his base.  Blood loss threatened a fall into unconciousness, but he kept himself semi-alert with the help of the searing pain caused by slapping his own head wound.  And in one of the more remarkable flights of the entire War, Sakai (with only one eye, one arm, and one leg functioning) nursed his crippled plane (and his more crippled body) the entire way home…a five-hour flight.

The young pilot endured a long surgery (without any anesthesia) and made a partial recovery (the vision in his right eye never fully returned).  He convinced his superiors to let him fly again, and survived a kamikaze mission late in the War (when he was unable to locate enemy ships).  And in a testament to the Japanese military’s reluctance for advancement, this talented and tough pilot (a fighter ace a dozen times over) would not be promoted to Ensign (the next level above Petty Officer First Class) until two years later.

Sakai survived the War.  And after being surrounded by death for years, and experiencing his own incredible escape from its clutches on that day over Guadalcanal, he vowed to not so much as kill an insect.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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When I was in college, I took a two-part course in Military History…History 389 & 390.  In the first course, I was required to write a paper, and I chose to focus on advances made in aviation during the Second World War.  As I recall, I did reasonably well on the paper (though thinking back, I’m not sure it was all that good).

But if my writing was worth a grain of sand (it’s hard to recall almost 20 years down the road), hopefully I spent a little time talking about the rapid advances made just by Grumman just during the war’s first couple of years.  The F3F, introduced in the mid-1930’s, was the last biplane flown the U.S. Navy.  But by the time the bombs and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor were bringing America into the war, it had been relegated to trainer status.  It was followed by Grumman’s F4F Wildcat, a fairly capable monoplane design that borrowed heavily from the F3F.  But even the Wildcat’s successor was on the drawing board before America entered the war.

For Navy pilots, however, Wildcats were the best available aircraft, so Wildcats were what they used.  While it was a good aircraft, it quickly became apparent that it had distinct disadvantages in a fight with Japan’s primary fighter, the Mistubishi A6M Zero.  It couldn’t turn as quickly as a Zero (very few aircraft could), and it couldn’t climb as quickly (Zero’s were relatively light).  But a Wildcat could dive faster (it was heavier), and a Zero didn’t have anywhere nearly the Wildcat’s armor protection for the pilot.

And since the Navy was discovering all this good information while designing and building a new airplane, it was the perfect time to try and address the shortcomings.  The single biggest fix was more power (it’s the answer to all car problems, too).  The Wildcat’s 1,200-horsepower engine was replaced with a 1,700-horsepower beast.  These were air-cooled radial engines, as liquid-cooled engines were a bit more complicated to service in a carrier environment, to say nothing of how all that radiator ducting added numerous points of failure out over the water.

And by the time the first F6F Hellcat (as the replacement was designated) took to the skies on June 26, 1942, another upgrade was already in the works.  The engine had been upgraded yet again to 2,000 horsepower.  The airplane was significantly larger than the Wildcat it replaced, but the cool part (for the Navy anyways) was that two planes looked remarkably similar.  So when Japanese pilots used their “Wildcat tactics” against the new mark, they got a nasty surprise.

With a 380mph top speed, the Hellcat was 50mph faster than the Wildcat, climbed 50% faster, featured better range and much heavier armament.  With the larger Double Wasp engine, it was better than the Zero in almost every aspect.  And that was made abundantly clear when it entered service later in 1943.  Extensively used from September of 1943 until the end of the war, it was responsible for shooting down more than 5,000 enemy aircraft for a loss of fewer than 300 of its own.  It bears pointing out that, by this time, most of Japan’s better pilots were already dead, with poorly-trained pilots as their replacements.  But even assuming equal talent behind the stick, the Hellcat was the superior plane…and it wasn’t really close.

The F6F Hellcat would remain the U.S. Navy’s primary fighter until the war ended, and it’s successor, the lightweight super-fast F8F Bearcat, would only see a handful built.  And then Grumman’s jet-powered aircraft were on the scene.  In little more than 7 years, Grumman had advanced from biplanes to jets.  And right in the middle was the best known of all of them.  The F6F Hellcat.

Recommended Reading:  Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

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