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Posts Tagged ‘Midway’

As the end of May loomed in 1942, the vaunted Imperial Japanese Navy was bending all of its thought, and much of its military power, toward the small central Pacific atoll of Midway.  Island AF (as they called it) was important to the Japanese, not so much because of what it offered (an airfield, some decent fishing, and not much else), but because of what else it offered.

A chance to wipe out the remnants of the United States Navy.

Admiral Yamamota knew without a doubt that the only way to defeat the Americans was to convince them to cease hostilities before their superior war machine could become fully engaged.  So that meant sneak attacks and ruses.

The sneak attack had been pretty successful at Pearl Harbor the previous December.  The ruse?  Well, that was still to play out.  A Japanese attack force had left for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s coast.  The hope was that the remaining US Fleet would make for Alaska.  En route, they would be intercepted by a much larger, much more powerful Japanese fleet…and destroyed.

Pearl Harbor would be largely unguarded, all of Hawaii threatened, and the United States’ presence in the Pacific would be over.  That was the plan.

The problem was that the US Navy knew way too much about the Japanese plans.  Enough of the Japanese Navy’s coding system had been broken to see the light on the Japanese operations, so as May ended and the Japanese were focused on Midway, the US was focused there as well.

Of course, the Japanese had no clue that the US knew their secrets, so they continued to play their games, attempting to confuse their enemy.

As night fell on May 30, 1942, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack at, of all places, Diego Suarez…on the northern tip of Madagascar.

Yep…Madagascar, that big island off the southeast coast of Africa.  I bet some of you had no idea that Madagascar was involved in the Second World War.  Well, you’re not alone.  For most of my life, I didn’t know it, either.

But we come by our ignorance honestly, because relatively speaking, it wasn’t much of an attack.  A couple of midget submarines (like the ones used so unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor) were launched and entered the harbor, where they managed to sink the tanker HMS British Loyalty and seriously damage the HMS Ramillies (shown above), a WWI-era battleship.

The Japanese hoped that this minor operation (along with another like it at Sydney, Australia), coupled with the larger forces steaming toward not-yet-a-state Alaska, would give the US Navy further pause and maybe divide their forces a little more.

The US Navy wasn’t buying it.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

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The Battle of Dutch Harbor has generally occupied little more than a postscript in the affairs of the Second World War.  It’s pretty much an “oh-by-the-way” engagement when weighed against what was building around Midway.  And truth be told, it is a relatively minor encounter as they go.

Begun in the early morning of June 3, 1942, it involved a small Imperial Japanese fleet with a couple of light carriers (Ryujo and Junyo) and a handful of cruisers and destroyers…a pittance compared to the massive Midway armada.  Their job was to shoot stuff and blow stuff up and create enough havoc to cover for the invasion force that was making for Attu and Kiska, a pair islands farther down the Aleutian chain.

Facing the Japanese was an amalgamation of forces, including an Army regiment, some anti-aircraft batteries, and a handful of aircraft.  Of course, U.S. intelligence was aware that an attack might be coming, but no one was sure of exactly when or where it would fall.  So while the men had been on alert, the sounds of bombs falling and explosions at 4:30 in the morning was still a bit of a surprise.

The Japanese attacks were kind of on-again, off-again affairs throughout the day, but usually involved strafing runs at very low altitude, low enough that some soldiers claimed they could see the faces of the pilots at whom they were shooting.  Japanese fighters succeded in not doing much damage, though they did manage to bomb the barracks at Fort Mears, killing 25 servicemen.  As defenders, U.S. forces managed to keep the Japanese dodging enough that it prevented any serious damage, other than the attack at Fort Mears, and U.S. planes dispatched a couple of reconnaissance planes that got a little too close to the action.

So the first day of the battle saw a flurry of activity and a whole bunch of ammunition expended for not a ton of results.  But the Japanese were doing their job…keeping the American forces occupied as an invasion force made its way north.

Like I said, the Battle of Dutch Harbor sounds kind of ho-hum.  But it was very important for what happened on June 4th.  That action would provide the most memorable results and a huge windfall to American Navy pilots.

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For a good number of you, the Battle of Midway needs no special mention.  And that’s especially true of regular visitors of this site.  While not discussing the battle in minute detail, we’ve looked at numerous events surrounding this pivotal engagement.  But while it may not require an introduction, the introduction of the battle is our subject for today.

On May 28, 1942, the invasion force left Ominato, Japan.  And that’s it…almost.  The force that left on this day was not Nagumo’s Striking Force – the one with all the carriers destined for catastrophe the following week.  It had departed the day before.  Nor was it Admiral Kurita’s supporting group of heavy cruisers (though it also left on the 28th).  It wasn’t Admiral Kondo’s force of battleships, cruisers, and a light carrier, tasked with reinforcing the invasion of Midway.  Neither was it Yamamoto’s Main Force itself, comprised of seven battleships (including the mighty Yamato), yet another carrier, and its screen of support ships…it left on the 29th.

Do you get the idea that the Japanese were really serious about taking Midway?

Anyways, the force in question was yet another invasion force, and it was bound for the Aleutian Islands.  The Japanese plans for Midway also involved Alaska.  It has long been believed that this particular force was merely diversionary, an attempt to draw off forces from the main battle.  When I was in the 7th grade, I gave a speech about Midway in my English class, and that’s what I said about it, too.  And while I got an A for the speech, the fact is that the Japanese were serious in having a presence in the northern Pacific region.  The empire Japan was building in the Pacific would need its northern flanks guarded, and it was thought that bases at Attu and Kiska (islands in the Aleutians) would provide that.

And so at 5:00pm, a dozen transports and their supporting vessels left their berths and glided from the harbor.  Destination:  Alaska.

Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway

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Two Kawanishi H8K Emily flying boats may not seem like a lot of firepower in our day of jet power, stealth, and super-cruise capability.  But back in 1942…well…it wasn’t much firepower then, either.

But that’s what the Japanese could spare, and it’s what they used to carry out “Operation K”, their second attack on Pearl Harbor, executed March 4, 1942.  The two flying boats had stopped in the French Frigate Shoals to refuel the night before, then took off again, heading for their targets.

When they arrived, they found that they hadn’t achieved anywhere near the surprise of the December operation.  The U.S. Navy was on a hair-trigger state of readiness to begin with.  But cryptologists had also gotten wind of potential attacks through intercepted messages from the Japanese they had decoded.  Furthermore, Hawaii radars picked up the incoming planes early and P-40 Warhawks had been sent aloft to engage.

Fortunately for the attackers, cloudy skies prevented the fighter cover from locating the flying boats as they flew in.  Unfortunately for the attackers, cloudy skies prevented them from finding their targets.  In the end, they dropped their bombs on nothing of consequence and made their escapes.

And while this seems like an insignificant incident, it really had far-reaching consequences.  First off, it further verified that American code-breakers were accurately deciphering enemy messages.  Second (and just as important), it tipped the U.S. Navy off to the fact that the Japanese were using French Frigate Shoals.

A month later, as code-breakers began to clearly see the plans for another major operation against Midway, planners deduced (correctly) that the Japanese Navy might try to make use of the French Frigate Shoals again.  So they parked a seaplane tender out there.

Indeed, the Japanese had designs on the Shoals.  Another plan, also called Operation K, was set up to allow float planes to refuel and then set out for Pearl, this time to report back on which ships left Pearl Harbor to head for Midway.  As we know, this second Operation K was foiled, and its failure was one of the reasons the Battle of Midway was an unmitigated disaster for Japan.

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For the Japanese, the upcoming attacks on the Midway Islands had little to do with the islands themselves and everything to do with a singular goal: luring the remnants of the American fleet into the “loving arms” of the vastly superior Japanese fleet.  All the American battleships were either under repair or under the waters of Pearl Harbor, which left aircraft carriers as the only force projection left to the U.S. Navy.  The mission against Midway was specifically designed to draw out, and defeat, those carriers.

A little-known facet of the Midway mission was designed to allow the Japanese to spy on Pearl Harbor and keep track of the carriers.  Called “Operation K”, it involved parking submarines at the French Frigate Shoals, a crescent-shaped reef in the Hawaiian chain less than 500 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor.  Japanese float planes would fly in from Kwajalein, stop to be refueled by the subs, then fly on to Hawaii.  All in all, a pretty clever plan.

Clever…except for two tiny problems.  First, the Japanese had pulled this trick before in March, and the U.S. Navy now knew about it.  Second, because the Navy was reading Japanese coded ciphers, it was aware of an impending operation against Midway, and realized the French Frigate Shoals might again be useful to the Japanese.  So when the Japanese sub I-121 arrived on May 26th, a U.S. Navy seaplane tender was there to greet it.

Later joined by two more submarines (I-122 & I-123), the trio could do nothing for three days but lurk quietly, avoid detection, and wait.  Communications went back and forth and the rendevouz with the planes was moved back a day, to May 31st.  But late on the 30th, Toshitake Ueno, the commander of I-123 (and overall commander of the subs), raised his periscope again…to see two ships sitting there.

It was hopeless.  Allowing the planes to fly in would be a dead giveaway.  Sinking the U.S. ships, however easy, would also be a dead giveaway.  There was nothing to do but cancel the operation.  And so, just before midnight on May 30, 1942, Operation K was shelved.

But in doing so, the Japanese Navy committed a colossal error.  Desiring radio silence and surprise above all else, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto did not warn Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, head of the First Carrier Striking Force bearing down on Midway, of the change.  So Nagumo could only assume that the U.S. carriers were berthed safely at Pearl Harbor.  In truth, not only had the carriers Enterprise and Hornet already left port, but the Yorktown (thought by the Japanese to have been sunk in the Coral Sea), had been made sea-worthy again and would join the fracas.

Operation K was a small part of the Midway plan, the failure of which would have dire consequences for the Japanese just five days hence.

Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway – There are so many great accounts of this decisive battle, it’s hard to pick one.  Fortunately, you don’t have to.

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