By Vaughn Greene
The appropriately named Battle of Midway (June 4-5, 1942) was the turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II. Before Midway, Japan was on the offensive, quickly taking Hong Kong, Wake, Guam, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Burma and Indonesia. After Midway, the Japanese empire was forced onto the defensive and was finally crushed. This catastrophe for Japan was in large part the responsibility of one man: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
Had Isoroku Yamamato been in the U.S. Navy, Yamamoto would have been immediately relieved of command and court-martialed. Instead, he was glorified by the military dictatorship, until the admiral was killed in an ambush by 18 P-38 fighters almost one year later.
The Japanese navy’s chief admiral was considered a sort of boy wonder and an object of worship to many. He had been an ensign in the Battle of Tsu shima Straits, in 1905. This loss by the Russian navy was the first defeat of white, European men by Asiatic mongoloids in recent history and caused the white race to “lose face” worldwide.
Yamamoto later attended college at Harvard, and he was, naturally, regarded as somewhat of an expert on the United States. He planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet knew this was insanity. He was aware that America had twice the population and 10 times the area of Japan. It was the world leader in production of cars, trucks, steel, and airliners. All these civilian factories could quickly turn to wartime production.
To give just one example: In 1942, Japan produced 8,800 planes, while the United States turned out over 49,000. America was totally self-sufficient in oil, food, iron and wood, while Japan had to import most of these goods by ship. The admiral’s muddled thinking cost Japan the war. Since he was never brought up on charges, this author would like to conduct a sort of post mortem court-martial and present six “indictments”:
1. Wrong target.
2. Wrong disposition of the combined fleet.
3. Wrong attack strategy.
4. Wrong intelligence gathering.
5. Wrong training, officers and equipment.
6. Wrong philosophy.
Charge No. 1: Picking the Wrong TargetWhen 16 B-25 U.S. Army bombers flew over Japan on April 18, 1942 the Japanese high command was flabbergasted. Not only could the planes have bombed the emperor’s palace, the B-25s got clean away. Due to a strange coincidence, April 18 had been chosen as air raid drill day for the country. As a result, no one paid any attention to the strange-looking planes flying overhead. This was in spite of the warning sent out by an offshore picket ship. This was a serious mat ter.
Yamamoto agreed to avenge this insult, and came up with a plan that left many senior officers unenthusiastic. Since Midway Island was the closest U.S. air base, the admiral proposed to seize it. By so doing, he reasoned, what was left of the American Navy would counterattack, and he could easily destroy the entire remaining Pacific Fleet.
There was a serious flaw to this strategy: The Americans had let Wake, Guam and the Philippines be taken after they were hit. Therefore, why would they make a life-and-death issue out of a miserable, two-mile-long sand spit, out in the middle of nowhere?
Furthermore, if Japan were to occupy the island, a large part of the Japanese navy would be permanently tied up supplying and protecting the isle. Japanese bombers could not reach Hawaii, but long-range U.S. B-17s could constantly bombard Midway from Hawaii.
The target Yamamoto should have attacked was Hawaii itself. His commander of the six-carrier fleet that hit Pearl Harbor had done a miserable, half-finished job. While sinking or damaging the nine battleships at Pearl, Adm. Chuichi Nagumo had, in a manner of speaking, actually done the Americans a favor (although the next-of-kin of those slain there would not see it that way): Most of these sunken or damaged ships, among the 93 vessels that were at Pearl Harbor that day, were obsolete and ready for the scrap yard.
The timid Nagumo had retreated without hitting the vital dry-docks, repair yards and, above all, the oil tank farms. If these logical targets had been destroyed, American ships could not have gotten oil anywhere between the U.S. mainland and Australia. This would have meant that the three remaining U.S. aircraft carriers could not have conducted operations in the Pacific for many months. In consequence, peace terms might come: With the United States also fighting Germany and Italy, the Pacific war might have been quietly settled and forgotten.
Charge No. 2: Wrong Disposition Of the Japanese FleetYamamoto was given the largest fleet in history to attain the Midway victory. He had at his disposal nearly 300 ships and a year’s supply of oil. With such a massive force, he could not possibly have failed to defeat the Yankees. In spite of this, the chief admiral managed to seize defeat from the jaws of victory by splitting up his battle fleet into nine different parts. He had ships scattered from Alaska to the Marianas, so as to “confuse” the enemy.
This was an old, outdated strategy, going back to samurai times, when deception was more important than strength. Time after time, Japanese forces had used this same, worn-out theory, and had been defeated. In contrast, MacArthur’s chief of air operations, Gen. George C. Kenney, scraped up every last possible airplane and put them into battle, dealing the enemy one hammer blow after another.
Thus Guadalcanal and New Guinea were lost to smaller forces. Yamamoto had 10 carriers at his disposal, versus the American three, one of which was damaged. He had the largest battleship in the world, the Yamato, whose nine 18-inch guns could each hurl a 3,000-pound shell over 23 miles. He had the best heavy cruisers of the war, and the most experienced crews. His pilots had years of combat flying over China. They had trained for months for the upcoming am bush.
Charge No. 3: Wrong Attack StrategyThis was the worst mistake, and the most inexplicable. The admiral sat in comfort aboard the Yamato while he sent his four aircraft carriers 100 miles ahead, virtually unprotected. The carriers, accompanied by a few cruisers and destroyers, were to alone defeat Midway so that yet a third fleet could bring in invasion troops. Little thought was given to the carriers being attacked by shore-based aircraft, to say nothing of submarines.
The proper thing to do would have the main battle fleet of heavy cruisers and battleships provide a protective shield around the vital carriers. Both Japanese and American carriers had insufficient deck armor plating. Some U.S. carriers had, in fact, wooden decks. None of the carriers had proper antiaircraft guns. At the least, Yamamoto should have been 100 miles in front of the carriers. His 18-inch guns could have quickly reduced Midway Island to sea level, without losing a single airplane.
The reasoning behind this bizarre action was based on a contradiction. Yamamoto wanted total secrecy so that his carriers could seize the island. Yet, he also wanted the Americans to know he was coming, so as to lure out the remaining carriers and finish them off. Most of the enemy battleships, of course, had already been destroyed or put out of action.
The admiral should have learned from his own successes. Aircraft had destroyed these Yankee battleships. Japanese air power also had destroyed England’s main hopes in the Pacific. Within a few minutes, “obsolete” Japanese torpedo bombers had sunk the heavy British cruiser Repulse and the brand-new battleship Prince of Wales. With almost 1,000 lives being lost, they both went down on December 10.
Churchill later said it was the worst day of the war for him. Before Pearl Harbor, he bragged about how the two British warships, plus the American fleet, would frighten the Japanese government into not declaring war. But Japanese carriers had sunk a British carrier at the Battle of Ceylon and an American carrier at Coral Sea. This should have alerted the Japanese admiral to the folly of attacking an unknown enemy without carrier protection. It should have also told him that battleships were a thing of the past.
Charge No. 4: Wrong Intelligence GatheringTo put it mildly, Yamamoto took a lackadaisical approach to gathering intelligence. After the Pearl Harbor attack, he had no idea what was going on in Hawaii. He did not know the world’s largest salvage operation was under way, and many supposedly lost ships were rebuilt better than new. He did not know the Americans had a third carrier, the hastily repaired Yorktown. Contrary to many misinformed people, none of the Americans of Japanese ancestry were involved in spy activity. (This did not prevent one Filipino-American Hawaiian from murdering 10 of his Japanese-American neighbors.)
In point of fact, the 442nd regimental combat team, composed of Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) earned more medals than any other unit in the U.S. Army’s history.
The imperial government did have several white undercover agents, but they provided little help. Yamamoto should have sent ashore, during the Pearl Harbor attack, a team of spies. Certainly later he could have landed one or more by submarine. Instead, he sent flying boats over Hawaii twice, at night in March.
Since it was dark, there was little to see. One of the “Emily” flying boats dropped bombs, which hit a golf course. (It wasn’t until months later, when bomb fragments were analyzed, that the groundskeepers realized they had not been hit by American practice bombers.)
The admiral sent in a fleet of subs to monitor Hawaii, but they arrived late, on June first. Two carriers had already left on the 28th, and theYorktown, still being repaired, went to sea on the 30th. Thus Yamamoto had no inkling that three (not two) enemy carriers were heading for Midway.
In addition, he planned to have an “Emily” refueled at French Frigate Shoals, about 500 miles west from Hawaii, by submarine. It was to have gathered last-minute data above Pearl. Unfortunately, the Americans had stationed a repair ship at the reefs, and the operation was canceled. Why wasn’t the refueling simply done at sea? Yamamoto also sent in a cordon of 12 submarines to survey Midway, but they arrived too late and did little. The Americans had already placed a fleet of 26 submarines and 30 PBY patrol planes on constant long-distance patrol for almost a month.
There was an equally severe problem in the admiral’s intelligence gathering. The Japanese army and navy were fiercely competitive, and rarely exchanged intelligence information. If the admiral had had closer ties with the army warlords in Tokyo, he might well have learned vital news that would have caused him to change his plans. This fault went back to the late 1800s during the so-called “Meiji Revolution” when the samurai warrior class was disbanded, and a modern army, based on European lines, was formed.
As a result, many naval officers came from well-to-do, well-educated former samurai families. Most army officers were former peasants. The navy had seen much of the world and was quite sophisticated. The crude army officers were more narrow minded, having been fooled by their own Shinto propaganda, which proclaimed them sons of the sun god. As a result, the army got bogged down in 1937 with a no-win war in China, just as the Americans did in Vietnam, decades later. The army was humiliated, and seethed that they were considered second best to the navy. While army tanks, artillery and equipment were obsolete, the navy always got the best and newest. The army wanted to expand operations to Burma and completely shut off supplies reaching China. For this reason, they decried the navy’s lack of support, due to the impending Midway operation.
Charge No. 5: Wrong Training and Officers and EquipmentWhile the Japanese navy in 1942 was the best trained and equipped in the world, there were serious shortcomings. The shipboard fire fighting teams had poor training. As a result, all four carriers that were bombed burned out of control and had to be abandoned. In contrast, when the USS Yorktown was hit twice, damage control teams quickly put out fires and got the ship under way.
Furthermore, the observation planes were obsolete biplanes, with inferior pilots. As a result of sloppy observations, Yamamoto and his chief of carriers, Nagumo, had no idea of the American battle force until it was too late. Even after the two-day battle was over, Yamamoto was getting reports there were as many as seven American carriers in the area.
And while the combat pilots were superbly experienced, only 125 per year were trained. Many of the pilots Yamamoto prized were aggressive, but were also drunkards and womanizers. They tended to be unpredictable. Like most of the military, his pilots were trained in bushido.
Bushido was the code of ethics the medieval Japanese knights, known as samurai, followed. Often, when in a seemingly impossible situation, a samurai would commit suicide, an ancient Japanese way of “saving face.” During the Battle of Guadalcanal, shot-down Japanese pilots would sometimes deliberately unfasten their parachutes and fall to their death. It is a fact that three of the four Midway carrier commanders committed suicide. Yamamoto should have forcefully forbidden such useless and counterproductive behavior.
Furthermore, Yamamoto often disregarded the advice of talented officers who offered criticism. He would sometimes ignore the advice of his seniors in Tokyo. Twice he threatened to resign when the chief of the Naval General Staff, Adm. Osami Nagano, differed with him. [Faced with such a reply, the Naval General Staff officers capitulated, and the Battle of Midway was on.—Ed.]
The admiral made a major mistake in keeping the overcautious Nagumo on as head of carriers after the Pearl Harbor blundering. When the morning Battle of Midway began, Nagumo became totally confused as he was attacked by PBY patrol planes, Army B-26s, three different kinds of torpedo bombers, two kinds of fighters, two kinds of light bombers and Army B-17s. As a result, Nagumo kept dithering around, switching back and forth between bombs and torpedoes, until the flight decks were awash with them. At this most critical moment, the American dive bombers appeared.
What Nagumo should have done, once he learned U.S. carriers were in the area, was to have immediately headed for the protection of the main Japanese battle force, 100 miles to the west. There he could have safely refueled and rearmed at leisure. In stead, Nagumo lost three carriers within a space of five minutes.
Yamamoto should, then and there, have relieved Nagumo of command. Rather than doing that, however, he waited until 2200 hours (10 P.M.) to do this. (Ironically, the most capable commander at Midway, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi of the undamaged fourth carrier Hiryu, had sent a message to Nagumo, criticizing his lack of drive. This was a most courageous and unusual thing for an officer of lower rank to do. Had Yamaguchi been in charge, the battle would, almost un doubtedly, have been won by the Jap anese.)
Charge No. 6: Wrong PhilosophyYamamoto was of the old school, trained in battleship clashes during the Russo-Nipponese war of 1905. He was also trained in bushido, and he had learned poker while at Harvard. All of these factors produced a dangerous philosophy of taking great chances but being cautious at the same time.
When Nagumo’s three carriers were hit, Yamamoto should have immediately radioed the remaining carrier Hiryu to retreat west, while he brought up the main battle force at full speed. As it was, Yamamoto did not consider using his battle force until after midnight.
Yamamoto had not notified Nagumo the occupation-force fleet had been hit by aircraft the evening before. This was to maintain radio silence but left Nagumo in the dark. The admiral disregarded the Americans’ new weapon: radar. Japanese divers had salvaged radar gear from the sunken Prince of Wales, but Yamamoto felt his highly trained visual observers were superior.
After this terrible defeat, in which half of Japan’s carriers were sunk, Yamamoto had the survivors isolated and announced Midway had been a great victory. It took the army over four months to find out what really happened.
This desire to “save face” was to dog Japan all through the war. Time after time, senior commanders were given false information, which resulted in unnecessary defeats. Tokyo military dictators did not want the general population, brainwashed with ancient Shinto propaganda, to hear of defeats. It would have been far better for Japan if the admiral had told the truth, and thus prepared all for the harder days to come.
Yamamoto was further negligent in, surprisingly, not realizing that the carrier warfare he himself had invented made battleships untenable. His insistence on bushido bravery, instead of common sense, doomed the carriers. When the main Midway battle began, all overhead patrol fighters came down to sea level. There the pathetic American suicide torpedo pilots were plodding along at the mandatory release speed of 110 mph. (The Japanese “long lance” torpedo could be released at a higher altitude and at 260 mph. Also, the American torpedoes did not explode 50 percent of the time.) The undisciplined Zero pilots were gleefully zipping around at sea level, slaughtering the outmoded U.S. planes. Squadron leaders, who surely must have known better, joined in. Meanwhile, the sky above the carriers was totally ignored. Then the American dive bombers arrived unseen.
It was Yamamoto’s arrogance which finally doomed the Japanese Midway operation. With eight carriers, 22 heavy cruisers, and 11 battleships, he should have wiped out the puny, inexperienced American task force. Instead, despite his interest in the use of deception, he did not even consider the first axiom of war: The enemy might know your secret plans. The American code breakers did. The admiral didn’t expect they could play cat-and-mouse as well as he could.
U.S. Adm. Raymond Spruance and Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher proved him wrong. Yamamoto did not think Americans were as brave as his bushido-trained warriors. The 41 U.S. torpedo planes that flew into certain death disproved that. So too did Marine Capt. Richard Fleming.
While Fleming was attacking the heavy cruiser Mikuma on the battle’s last day, his engine was hit. He then deliberately crashed onto the after turret. Gasoline fumes from the obsolete Vindicator (called “wind indicators” by their crews) were sucked into the Mikuma’s engine and exploded, killing the entire engine room crew. TheMikuma shortly thereafter went under.
It is a final irony that the only American carrier that was sunk (theYorktown), was sunk not by Yamamoto’s vaunted aerial samurai, but by the lowly submarine 1-168.