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Miracle at Midway
By Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, Katherine V. Dillon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Prange Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"A Breath of Fresh Air"
The success-crowned Japanese carrier task force under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo slashed toward Japan through heavy seas. Their attack upon the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the installations of the Hawaiian Air Force on December 7, 1941, had succeeded beyond all expectations, certainly beyond the expectation of Nagumo himself. He had entertained the liveliest doubts of the operation, and shared the estimate of the planners that he would probably lose one-third of his task force. Instead, he was bringing back to Japan every one of his ships with not so much as a chip in its paint due to enemy action. Seldom can any voyage homeward have been so solidly satisfying, broken only by the detachment of his Second Carrier Division, under Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, to support the Japanese strike on Wake Island, where the U.S. Marines were giving the invaders some unexpected difficulties.
Early on December 23, the task force sailed through Bungo Channel and soon saw the mountains of Shikoku lift over the horizon. Welcoming aircraft from shore-based units hovered overhead like mechanical amoretti in a rococo allegory of victory, and ships of the coastal defense force patrolled proudly on both sides of the returning conquerors. The next morning, Nagumo and some of his officers visited the battleship Nagato, flagship of the Combined Fleet, to pay their respects to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet. Chief of the Naval General Staff Admiral Osami Nagano turned up in person to congratulate the victors.
Diminishing all else to insignificance, Nagumo and his two air commanders, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida and Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki, visited the Imperial Palace by command of Emperor Hirohito himself, so that they might brief him personally on this operation which had shed so much gold dust upon the Imperial banners.
It was all heady stuff, and contributed in no small measure to a smug self-confidence in their invincibility, which Nagumo, his subordinate commanders and their staffs took into their next operations, and for which they would bitterly chastise themselves in the not too distant future.
In contrast, the Americans had received a salutary but exceedingly unpalatable dose of enforced humility. Average Americans might squabble over internal politics and over foreign policy, but they had shared a belief and pride in the United States' power, solidly based on its vast natural resources, humming technology, hard-working people, and its military potential. World War I was only a quarter-century in the rear; memories of the mighty AEF were still green. John Q. Public was especially proud of his Navy, believing that the U.S. and British fleets combined formed an unbeatable combination Japan would never challenge, let alone defeat.
Now, suddenly, that rock of faith had dissolved. "The great shock of this attack upon the United States is not so much that Japan has struck at us ...," wrote the Birmingham (Alabama) News, "but that she should have struck so suddenly and so recklessly at a point like our great naval base at Pearl Harbor ..." The attack might have been, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, "the act of a mad dog," but a mad dog's bite can kill, and the mad dog must be destroyed.
A small newspaper in Meridian, Mississippi, uninhibited by any sense of self-important, big-city dignity, fairly foamed at the mouth: "At last Nippon bares its yellow fangs ... Let America raze Tokyo and other Jap 'tinder' towns ... Blast the 'flowery Kingdom' into nothingness! Blow the pagan Jap and his treacherous 'Son of Heaven' to hell!"
Nothing would have pleased the American public more than to do just that. The question was, how to do it. With what? Thus it came about that the immediate post-Pearl Harbor period was unique in the American experience. A brief echo of it sounded in the 1980 hostage crisis with Iran. But in volume and intensity, that incident cannot truly compare with those few months following Pearl Harbor, when most of the nation's able-bodied young men were pawns in a game wherein the enemy seemingly ruled the board. To the explosion of outrage over Pearl Harbor were soon added furious frustration and impatient shame at the apparent impotence of the U.S. armed forces.
It was not the psychology of despair; nowhere in the press, documents, or memories of the day appears the slightest apprehension that the Axis might triumph in the end. Nevertheless, any jaunty prewar conviction which might have existed that when, as and if the Americans entered the conflict, they would clean up in a hurry, perished with a death rattle of reality. Alan Barth, charged with reporting on public opinion to his superiors in the Treasury Department, summed up the situation neatly:
Press reaction to the Pacific fighting has described a parabola. From a wringing of hands immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, sentiment rose sharply to an expectation of easy victory over the Japanese. It was not until the middle of the past week that the newspapers began to realize that further serious reverses were almost certainly in store for the British and American Far Eastern forces. Now, suddenly, the downswing has set in.
Every active front showed the same grim colors of red and black. Britain seemed to have outlasted the threat of direct invasion, but still lived under the shadow of an almost equally deadly menace. In American waters, German U-boats operated virtually at will, sinking an appalling tonnage of the Allied shipping sustaining Britain's island economy. Prime Minister Winston Churchill later admitted that had Hitler concentrated more effort in the Atlantic, he could have prolonged the war indefinitely and seriously upset all Allied war plans. Of much less moment, but highly irritating and humiliating to the United States, Japanese submarines were operating in the waters between Hawaii and the West Coast.
Contrary to many expectations, the Soviet Union had survived the winter. But Germany still held it locked in mortal combat. If the Russians folded—and Stalin had already shifted his diplomatic capital from Moscow to Kuibyshev—the Germans might push the Russian fighting forces beyond the Urals, out of European Russia, then return against England, or move south to advance through the Middle East and link up with Japan, for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel still dominated the North African scene. By midspring the Japanese had captured Singapore, conquered the Netherlands East Indies and Burma,and who knew what designs they had on India, exceedingly restive under British rule? Above all, Australia feared invasion.
In these first months of war, Pearl Harbor was almost neurotically attack conscious. What else could be expected, while there in Battleship Row lay the hideously grim reminders of what the Japanese could do if they got through in a surprise thrust? Since December 7, the U.S. commanders in Hawaii had looked for the Japanese to return. Surely Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, for whom the American admirals entertained high professional respect, would repent the Japanese sins of omission and send Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's carriers back to blast the docks, the repair shops and, above all, the tank farm! In effect, this would starve the U.S. Navy out of the central Pacific and back to the West Coast. Then what would prevent the Japanese from invading the Hawaiian Islands and establishing their own advance base there?
Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch, commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District, made frantic if belated efforts to improvise antitorpedo nets for drydocks and ships at anchor:
We tore down fences, tore down the fence between Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, took the extruded material that was used for the fence and welded it, lapwelded it to other sections in order to get a sufficient baffle that we could hang in the water at the ends of docks and around ships. And in so doing, of course, we had no knowledge whether that kind of net would be any good at all, but it was the best we had. We also took all of the target rafts we had and hung sections of fence below them and put them in front of the dock caissons and some of the important repair docks.
Morale was low at all levels of the armed forces on Oahu. "Everyone was very apprehensive," recalled Colonel William C. "Cush" Farnum, in charge of supply and engineering at Hickam Field. "The Navy people above all were apprehensive. They were like a defeated football team—really down and out."
The presence on Oahu of, first, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and second, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Owen J. Roberts and his commission appointed to investigate the disaster, did nothing to boost morale. Along with the threat of another Japanese attack, the possibility of professional ruin hung over every man associated in any way with the defense of Pearl Harbor and the ships at moorings there.
On December 16, 1941, the Navy relieved Admiral Husband E. Kimmel as Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet (CinCUS), and as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CinCPAC), temporarily turning the command over to Vice Admiral William S. Pye. During the latter's brief tenure occurred the event which, of all others, seemed to epitomize the ineffectiveness and frustration of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. This was the capture by the Japanese of Wake Island, a saga too long to deal with in detail here.
In brief, had Kimmel remained in command, Wake's story might have been different. The offensive-minded Kimmel hoped to close with the Japanese. He had an excellent plan for the relief of Wake, and dispatched ships for that purpose, but a series of delays held them up. After Pye relieved Kimmel, Washington sent him a message that Wake was "considered a liability ...," which, according to the eminent naval historian Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, gave Pye authority to evacuate Wake at his discretion instead of reinforcing its defenders. While Pye hesitated, on December 20 the Japanese commenced landing.
However, task forces centering around the carriers Saratoga, under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, and Lexington, under Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, were hastening toward the scene and could have engaged the enemy, even if too late to save Wake. Moreover, Task Force Eight, with Vice Admiral William F. Halsey flying his flag from the carrier Enterprise, was steaming near Midway and Pye could have ordered him to assist. Halsey's cruiser commander, Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, for one, would have welcomed a definite assignment. His orders were "to operate in the northern area." These vague directions disgusted the clear-minded Spruance. "Operate, operate!" he said, disdainfully in retrospect. "I wish you could tell me what it meant. We had no specific orders. We were out there as bait for the Japanese subs."
But, like so many others, Pye feared for Hawaii's safety and called off the Wake operation. He reached this decision without benefit of pressure from Washington. "While believing in the principle of the offensive and suffering with those at Wake," he explained, "I could not but decide that the general situation overbalanced the special tactical situation, and that under the conditions the risk of even one task force to damage the enemy at Wake was unjustifiable ..."
Pye would have had a hard time selling that line of reasoning to Saratoga's personnel, some of whom actually wept in their fury and disappointment.
The top brass in Washington were also much disgruntled. Captain Frank E. Beatty, Knox's aide, who had been in the secretary's office when the recall message arrived, went to ask Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark if he would so notify the President. The admiral jibbed at the melancholy assignment. "No, Frank, I wouldn't have the heart, please ask Secretary Knox to do it." When Knox returned from his distasteful errand to the White House, "he said that the President considered this recall a worse blow than Pearl Harbor."
This may seem like an over-reaction, but psychologically it was sound. Morison wrote later, "God knows, America needed a victory before Christmas, 1941." The need was more basic than that; the nation wanted a show of fight. The American people would forgive—even honor—one who lost after putting up a good scrap. "Alamo" conjures up fires which "San Jacinto" does not; Robert E. Lee is more beloved than Ulysses S. Grant. On December 22, 1941, the unofficial log of Enterprise's Fighter Squadron Six (VF-6) summed up the national frustration in two devastating sentences: "Everyone seems to feel that it's the war between the two yellow races. Wake was attacked this morning and probably surrendered with the SARATOGA but 200 miles away and us steaming around in circles east of the 180th." (Capitals in original.)
It would be difficult to imagine a less propitious moment to take over command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. "I'm the new Commander in Chief." Thus baldly did Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz break the news to his wife, Catherine. He was in such obvious distress that she reminded him, "You've wanted this all your life."
"But sweetheart," protested the admiral, "all the ships are at the bottom." Under the circumstances, this was an understandable bit of exaggeration.
The difficult, technical and ultimately amazingly successful task of raising ships from the bottom of Pearl Harbor Nimitz must leave to others. But there was something he could and must salvage—the careers and psyches of the staff officers at Pearl Harbor. Having just left duty as chief, Bureau of Navigation, which at that time handled personnel matters, Nimitz knew well that both Kimmel's staff and Pye's interim one contained able, well-trained and dedicated professional seamen. He blamed neither them nor Kimmel for the disaster at Pearl Harbor, believing that, granted the same conditions, "The same thing could have happened to anybody." Arbitrary replacement of these staffs would be not only an injustice but such a blow to each man's self-confidence that it could mean serious psychological injury to a valuable public servant. "Now all of these staffs," explained Nimitz in retrospect, "were in a state of shellshock, and my biggest problem at the moment was morale. These officers had to be salvaged."
Nimitz assumed command, with the rank of admiral, at 1000 on December 31, 1941, aboard the submarine Grayling—an appropriate setting in view of his long background as a submariner. That same day, he called together the staffs of Kimmel, Pye, and Rear Admiral Milo F. Draemel, the commander of destroyers, whom Nimitz selected as his chief of staff. He assured them of his faith and confidence in their abilities and his intention of keeping them on. He wanted the right officer in the right job, not just a body in a slot. If some officers did not work out in their posts, he would not hesitate to make needed adjustments. However, in that event, he would do whatever he could to assist displaced officers to find jobs suitable to their abilities.
There can be no doubt that by this action Nimitz raised spirits "several hundred per cent," to quote Morison. Commanders at sea also experienced that uplift of the heart. "It was like being in a stuffy room and having someone open a window and let in a breath of fresh air," said Spruance. But Nimitz did not delude himself that the job was done. He stated later that it was about six months before morale at Pearl Harbor returned to normal.
That went for Nimitz himself, who impressed the fleet aviation officer, Commander Arthur C. Davis, as being "scared and cautious" before the Midway crisis. And indeed, results which the U.S. Pacific Fleet produced early in 1942 were so unimpressive that Nimitz wrote to his wife, "I will be lucky to last six months. The public may demand action and results faster than I can produce."
Excerpted from Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, Katherine V. Dillon. Copyright © 1982 Prange Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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