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By Walter Lord
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Walter Lord
All rights reserved.
A Single Stroke
PETTY OFFICER HEIJIRO OMI didn't have a word to say in excuse. As the Admiral's chief steward, he was responsible for the food at this party—and that included the tai, a carefully selected sea bream cooked whole. It had been a happy inspiration, for tai broiled in salt meant good luck in Japan. But this time the chef had broiled it in bean paste—miso, to be exact—and as every superstitious Japanese knew, that extra touch meant crowning good luck with bad.
Obviously it was just a slip. The chef hadn't been thinking, and Omi had been off attending to some other detail of the party. Still, even the smallest mistake was humiliating when one had the privilege of personally serving Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the universally worshiped Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Now Omi stood forlorn and silent as Commander Noboru Fukusaki, the Admiral's flag secretary, dressed him down. The Admiral himself hovered in the background; a humorless half-smile flickered across his face.
Well, no time to brood about it. The guests were already swarming aboard the flagship Yamato, riding gracefully at her red buoy in the anchorage of Hashirajima. Some 200 officers soon packed the quarterdeck—dark, scowling Admiral Nagumo of Pearl Harbor fame ... a dozen young destroyer skippers ... the enormously popular Captain Yanagimoto of the carrier Soryu ... promising staff officers like Commander Sasabe, whose Naval Academy Class of '23 seemed to be getting so many good jobs.
Admiral Yamamoto had invited them all this spring evening of May 25, 1942, to help celebrate a very auspicious occasion. A huge Japanese armada was about to set forth across the Pacific, and its goal was in keeping with its size: capture the American base at Midway, lure the U.S. fleet to destruction, and hopefully win the war for Japan at a single stroke.
Cheers and banzais echoed across the water, past the scores of ships that packed the quiet anchorage. If anyone noticed the tai served with miso, it was long since forgotten. Toasts to the nation; toasts to the fleet; toasts to past triumphs and future hopes. The warm sake stirred visions of limitless glory, and even the flowered cups seemed auspicious—they had been presented to Admiral Yamamoto by the Emperor himself.
Victory was in the air ... not just at Hashirajima but throughout Japan. For six months she had enjoyed an unbroken string of triumphs beyond the wildest imagination—Pearl Harbor ... the Repulse and the Prince of Wales ... Hong Kong ... Manila ... Singapore ... Bataan. By April Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's big carriers were ravaging the Indian Ocean, smashing Colombo, sinking two British cruisers, plus the carrier Hermes off Trincomalee. Then Coral Sea and still more glory. Later, men would call it a strategic defeat—it permanently blunted the Japanese thrust toward Australia—but who could see that now? A generously inflated communiqué ticked off a satisfying toll of smashed U.S. carriers, battleships and cruisers.
Heady stuff, making it easy to believe still more. The village radios crackled with bulletins of a demoralized America. Newspapers described U.S. cities "ghostlike" under a new blackout law. Reports told how "unwilling American women are dragged from their homes into munitions factories." (Years later any American would recognize that this referred to the robust "Rosie the Riveter.")
Best of all, the press described how the American people were beginning to waver. One article told how Cordell Hull was desperately trying to rally a war-weary people, but "it is like trying to drive an unwilling horse into a bull fight arena." Another report said that a San Francisco radio announcer stammered when he tried to defend democracy. "DISSATISFACTION WITHIN CAMP OF ALLIES CONTINUES TO MOUNT," happily announced the Japan Times and Advertiser, quoting Father Charles E. Coughlin, "the brave and well-known Catholic missionary in America."
One Japanese who did not buy all this was Admiral Yamamoto. Born in 1884 during the great awakening of the "Meiji Restoration," blooded at Tsushima under the heroic Admiral Togo, and now the leading apostle of naval air power, Yamamoto stood perfectly for all the greatness of new Japan. But he also knew his America. He had studied at Harvard, served as naval attaché in Washington, traveled around the country. Don't take taxis, take the bus, he used to tell new Japanese arrivals.
He knew America's resilience and optimism too. His enemies would later make much of a "boast" that he'd sign peace in the White House. Actually, he said that Japan could never win short of signing peace in the White House.
Above all, he understood American production. He may not have known that in 1940 the United States turned out 4,500,000 automobiles, while Japan made only 48,000; but he wouldn't have been surprised. He knew all too well that Japan was overmatched, and that it was only a matter of time before American production would begin to tell. "If I am told to fight regardless of the consequences," he confided to Premier Konoye in 1941, "I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years of the fighting."
To Yamamoto there was only one solution: a quick, decisive victory before America got rolling. If he could crush the weakened U.S. fleet—especially those carriers missed at Pearl Harbor—he'd control the whole Pacific. Then just possibly Washington might settle for a peace favorable to Japan, rather than face the agony of the long road back.
Admittedly it was a long shot, but what was so wrong with that? He had always been a gambler. In his American days two of his favorite diversions were bridge and poker. "Do you like to gamble?" he once asked an apprentice secretary at the Embassy in Washington. When the young man hesitantly said he hadn't yet tried, Yamamoto shut him off: "People who don't gamble aren't worth talking to."
So the stakes were right. Trouble was, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commanding the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, refused to play along. Well aware that his crippled force was still in no shape to risk an all-out test, Nimitz contented himself for the moment with hit-and-run carrier thrusts and morale-building raids. Yamamoto decided that the only way to draw him out was to take something the Americans couldn't afford to lose. Then when their fleet emerged to meet the challenge, he'd pounce on it with everything he had.
Midway seemed the perfect bait. It was only a small U.S. outpost in the central Pacific, but its capture offered several advantages—it would strengthen the homeland's defenses; it would be a useful patrol plane base—but above all, it would lure the U.S. fleet out. Standing only 1,136 miles from Pearl Harbor, Midway was a place the Americans would just have to defend. They would come; and he would get them.
The idea first began brewing as early as February 1942. Japan was nearing the end of what it called the "first phase" of its conquests, and the problem was what to do next. One school wanted to go west—seize Ceylon, eventually link up with Rommel in the Near East. Another group—the bright desk boys at Naval General Staff—wanted to head south; they'd isolate Australia by taking New Caledonia, Samoa and Fiji.
Midway was the product of Combined Fleet Headquarters, and this fact alone meant a certain amount of jealous sniping from the Naval "General Staff. But apart from the traditional rivalry between deck and desk sailors, the plan seemed open to several objections. Midway was far away—the attack would have no shore-based air support. By the same token, it was well within the range of U.S. planes based in Hawaii. To many it seemed too small and remote to be a good patrol base. Holding it would use shipping badly needed elsewhere. Above all, there wasn't enough time to gather all the supplies and equipment needed for such a long jump—the proposed June deadline was a killer.
Yet Midway had one great advantage that outweighed everything else: Yamamoto was for it. No one would openly stand up against him; so on April 5 the Naval General Staff finally gave the plan a somewhat reluctant blessing. As a conciliatory gesture, Yamamoto tied in the Fiji-Samoan operation as the next step afterward. Then, since the Naval Genera] Staff was worried about possible bombings from the Aleutians, he also added an Aleutian attack to the Midway plan. He had plenty of ships, and it might help confuse the Americans.
But intraservice rivalries die hard, and by mid-April it was clear the Naval General Staff was still dragging its feet. Now they wanted to postpone the attack for a month.
All the squabbling ended on April 18. It was just another spring day when Prime Minister Hideki Tojo took off that morning on a routine inspection trip. Then, as his party headed toward the small port of Mito, suddenly a "most curious" brown plane was seen flying toward them. A moment of puzzling ... then the frantic realization that it was an American bomber. Tojo's plane veered wildly out of the way as the bomber flashed by, intent on its business.
All Japan was just as surprised, as Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle's 16 B-25s swept in on their famous raid. The Japanese had sighted the U.S. task force, indeed expected a visit the following day when the carriers were close enough to launch their regular planes. But nobody dreamed the Americans could launch long-range bombers from a carrier's flight deck. The damage was small, but the shock and wounded pride were enormous.
No one took it harder than Admiral Yamamoto. The Emperor's safety was an obsession with him. After the raid he holed up in his cabin on the Yamato and brooded alone for a day. Chief Steward Omi had never seen him so pale or downhearted.
No more doubts about Midway now. The operation took on new importance as a way to strengthen Japan's defensive perimeter, while Yamamoto was more determined than ever to bring on the battle that would finish off the U.S. fleet. The Naval General Staff stopped their sniping, urged the Admiral to get going.
On the Yamato Senior Operations Officer Captain Kameto Kuroshima went into one of his trance-like periods of contemplation. It was his function to hammer together the operation, and all agreed he was born for the job. He ate, slept, lived only for operations. While working on an idea, he'd disappear into his cabin for days. Sometimes he'd burn incense and ponder in the dark; other times he'd sit at his desk, buried in paper, as the cigarette butts piled up. (He put them in a glass half filled with water because the crew wouldn't trust him with an ashtray.) Lost in thought, he'd forget everything else—people said he even slept in his shoes. The orderlies rather irreverently called him Boke-Sambo— "foggy staff officer"—but Yamamoto knew better. The Admiral put up with any amount of outlandish behavior because the brilliant Kuroshima was, the whole staff agreed, "the God of Operations."
The plan that emerged was worthy of the man. It called for an intricate naval ballet, involving no less than 16 different groups of ships performing with perfect coordination. All was built around "N-Day"—the day scheduled for the landings on Midway. On N-3 Day Admiral Hosogaya would open the show with his attack on the Aleutians. Then on N-2 Day Admiral Nagumo's superb Striking Force of six carriers would hit Midway from the northwest, softening the place up for easy capture. On N-Day itself the Invasion Force would arrive from the west, supported by Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo's Second Fleet. Meanwhile the Main Force—Admiral Yamamoto's great array of battleships—would lie between the two ... lurking about 300 miles in the rear, waiting to jump the U.S. fleet when it rushed out to rescue Midway. To the north, some of Hosogaya's supporting ships would lie near enough to join Yamamoto when he moved in for the kill.
To be on the safe side, Kuroshima also arranged for reconnaissance. Two cordons of submarines would be placed between Hawaii and Midway. They would spot and report the U.S. fleet as it came out, and maybe get a little target practice.
Of course, these were just the bare bones of the plan. Now the scene shifted from the scented gloom of Kuroshima's cabin to the bright linoleum of the operations room, where the staff would contribute its expertise. Commander Yoshiro Wada, the chief signal officer, struggled to work out a feasible communications system ... Commander Yasuji Watanabe labored over tactical problems ... Commander Akira Sasaki projected planes and pilot requirements ... Others took on headaches like fueling, navigation and support for the troop landings.
Admiral Yamamoto often joined them. In the last analysis it was his plan, and he wasn't the kind of leader who used his staff for advice; they were there to carry out his decisions. For large meetings they pulled together the desks in the operations room to form a sort of conference table; for smaller sessions they sat around in a square of brown leather sofas. On a table in the center there was always a box of Sakura cigarettes, some cheese, and that great symbol of their victories—a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky "liberated" from Singapore.
Yamamoto himself didn't drink or smoke, but he was no prig. He could joke with his staff and was always considerate of the enlisted men. Rather formal on the job (no one ever saw him take off his coat), he was disarmingly human off duty. His sweet tooth, his zest for shogi, his weakness for Hechima cologne, all made him so much more a creature of flesh and blood than the national monument he had now become.
Toward the end of April he received his two top commanders, Admirals Nagumo and Kondo, in his red-carpeted office just aft of the operations room. They were back from the Indian Ocean, knew nothing of Midway; now they had come to get the word. Nagumo was indifferent—his carriers could do anything—but Kondo began rattling off some of the old objections. Yamamoto cut him short—all that was settled long ago.
May 1, and the days of planning were over. That morning the various task force commanders swarmed aboard the Yamato for four days of briefing and table-top maneuvers. As they tried out the plan on the game board, Red Team (the U.S. fleet) unexpectedly caught Blue Team (Nagumo's carriers) while their planes were off bombing Midway. Under the rules nine hits were scored, the Akagi and Kaga sunk. Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, Yamamoto's shrewd chief of staff, hastily reversed the umpire; six hits were erased and the Akagi refloated.
Success thus assured, the mimeograph machines began rolling. May 5, Imperial General Headquarters Navy Order No. 18 directed the Combined Fleet to "carry out the occupation of Midway Islands and key points in the western Aleutians in cooperation with the Army." Other orders followed, and finally that ultimate badge that changed any military plan from dream to reality, an official code name. From now on the project would be the "MI Operation," with the Aleutians to be referred to as "AO" and" Midway itself as "AF."
One final touch. Thinking back on those table-top maneuvers, Captain Kuroshima did feel it might be useful to know just a little bit more about what the U.S. fleet was doing. So around May 8 he added an extra precaution: seaplanes refueled from submarines would reconnoiter Pearl Harbor the week before the attack, to give up-to-the-minute information on enemy movements.
Ships began creeping out. Early May several submarines quietly headed south, each carrying a midget sub piggyback. Hopefully they could stage diversionary attacks on Sydney and Madagascar, throwing the enemy even more off guard. Other submarines glided east—they would refuel the seaplanes to reconnoiter Pearl Harbor. Others went to set up the cordons that would alert the fleet when the Americans came out. Still another moved east alone—the clever Lieutenant Commander Yahachi Tanabe was taking the I-168 to the enemy's very doorstep. It would reconnoiter Midway itself and report what was going on.
Commander Yasumi Toyama could use a little good intelligence. He was responsible for working out the actual landings, yet he knew depressingly little about Midway. As he later confessed, "It was just a spot on the ocean." He had no photos; the plane meant to take them had been shot down as it approached. His maps were sketchy and ancient. Idly, he decided to land on the south side where the reef was close to the shore. He never realized that there was a large gap in the reef to the north.
He had no better idea what they'd find when they got there. A Navy estimate suggested 750 U.S. Marines; the Army thought 1,700. Most sources agreed Midway might have 5060 planes, maybe ten antiaircraft guns, about the same number of shore-defense guns. Not much else.
Excerpted from Incredible Victory by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1967 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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