How To Lose A Battle




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Admiral Yamamoto’s Failures at Midway
Pacific Ocean, June 1942


For six months, they had been utterly unstoppable.
Arrayed against the greatest powers of the Western world-with
industrialized Britain and the United States at the top of the
list—the armed forces of the Empire of Japan ran rampant across the
Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. The Imperial Japanese Army
seized the vast, resource-rich colonies of the embattled European
powers, while the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) surged
across the South Seas, snatching outposts of American, British,
and Dutch power, landing and occupying the lightly garrisoned
holdings north of Australia. India, Hawaii, and the continent
Down Under felt the shadow of potential invasion.
The Japanese offensives had been met by courageous, but ultimately
futile, resistance. In places as diverse as Malaya, Bataan,
Rangoon, and Wake Island, Allied soldiers were outmaneuvered
and ultimately overwhelmed. At Singapore and on Bataan, huge
armies surrendered, dooming tens of thousands of men to a hellish
captivity that, for the survivors, would last the duration of the
war. Sure, the Japanese had suffered a small setback in May of
1942, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, when a naval landing force
intending to take the last Allied base on New Guinea was forced
to turn back following an inconclusive carrier battle. But even
that had been a victory, in a sense, since the IJN had only lost a
small escort carrier, while the U.S. Navy had sacrificed the Lexington,
one of only four precious f leet carriers in the Pacific. Furthermore,
the USS Yorktown had been badly damaged—the
Japanese were certain that she would be out of action for many
The key to most of these successes had been the First Carrier
Strike Force, the Kido Butai, commanded by Admiral Chuichi
Nagumo. Centered around six fast, modern aircraft carriers, each
with a complement of some sixty aircraft, the Kido Butai had
launched the attack on Pearl Harbor, struck ports on the Australian
mainland, defeated a British task force in the Indian
Ocean, and returned triumphantly to the homeland. Not only
had the strike force not lost a ship, it had not so much as been
hit by an enemy shell or bomb! Well might this f leet, and Admiral
Nagumo, be considered master of the seas.
In truth, the only real setback to Japanese plans, operations,
and self-confidence had been almost purely symbolic on America’s
part. In April, General Jimmy Doolittle had led a f light of
sixteen B-25 bombers on an air raid over the Japanese homeland.
Launching these traditionally land-based aircraft from the aircraft
carrier Hornet, Doolittle and the planes of his little f light
carried a total of only sixty-four 500-pound bombs. Yet their
presence over Japan caused consternation and dismay, and
brought shame to the Japanese military, as they dropped those
bombs on targets in Tokyo and several other cities. While no
real damage was done by the raid, the very fact of a sea-launched
air attack over the emperor’s homeland was enough to humiliate
the navy, and provoke a determination to strike a counterblow.
The mastermind of this counterblow was the same admiral
who had conceived and ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor in
December of 1941, and who had overseen the complicated and
successful operations across the whole of the vast Pacific during
the subsequent months: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Admiral
Yamamoto knew that the American carrier force was the only
real threat to IJN mastery of the Pacific, and he set about to create
a plan that would compel those carriers to battle, and to
annihilation, at the hands of the veteran pilots and air groups of
Kido Butai.
Yamamoto knew that in order to force the Americans to risk
their precious carriers, he would have to threaten an objective
that his enemy could not afford to sacrifice. To this end, he
chose Midway Atoll, a base consisting of two small islands, Sand
and Eastern, and a lagoon, all surrounded by a coral reef. Some
thousand miles west and north of Hawaii, Midway was the only
American installation within reasonable striking distance of the
Japanese. The loss of the atoll would result in a grave threat to
Hawaii itself, a threat that the U.S. Navy could not allow.
At his disposal, Yamamoto had plenty of force with which to
accomplish this mission. He could bring special naval landing
forces—elite assault troops—on transports from the Mariana
Islands, and gain air superiority over the objective with the fighters
and bombers of Kido Butai. He had a f leet of fast battleships,
including the world’s largest—the Yamato—that would allow him
to pummel the island’s defenses into coral dust before the landing.
Skilled at air, land, and sea combat, the IJN could form a juggernaut
wherever it desired to go.
Instead of gathering all of these forces into an unstoppable
battle f leet, a hammer of naval power that could inevitably crush
any and all American opposition, however, Yamamoto proceeded
to draw up a plan that would separate his naval assets
into smaller f leets scattered across a huge swath of the North
Pacific Ocean. For the first time, Kido Butai would be sent into
battle at less than full strength. Two carriers, Shokaku and Zuikako,
would return to Japan for refitting, repair of battle damage, and
replenishment of air groups that had suffered losses at Coral Sea.
Furthermore, Yamamoto had allowed a dangerous complacency
about American capabilities to inf luence his planning.
With the unbroken string of victories behind him, he seems to
have gone about the preparations for Midway as if he was
attempting to create a work of art, like an elaborate dance,
instead of a sound military operation. In fact, his plan would
require elaborate choreography, and involved some seven task
forces spread across the whole of the North Pacific Ocean.
Yamamoto authorized a purely diversionary attack against the
Aleutian Islands of Alaska to seize Kiska and Attu, fog-shrouded
lumps of tundra between the Pacific and the stormy Bering Sea.
Although these islands were American possessions, they had little
or no strategic value toward the furtherance of the war effort
by either side.
As to surface ships, with the American battleship fleet having
yet to recover from Pearl Harbor, the Japanese held a clear
advantage. Kido Butai, despite its emphasis on aircraft carriers,
included an escort of two fast battleships—by themselves, more
dreadnaught power than the United States could put to sea. Several
heavy cruisers were also included in the fleet, and each of
these ships packed more punch than any Allied cruiser afloat.
Yamamoto had many more battleships at his disposal, but he
decided to hold his great dreadnaught fleet, with Yamato as its
flagship, back from the main area of action. Although he wanted
the gunnery of these powerful ships to plaster any American vessels
that came within range, his deployment of the fleet virtually
insured that they would never even catch a whiff of the battle
that would be fought hundreds of miles to the east. While many
of the battlewagons were too slow to keep up with the carriers,
several—including Yamato herself—could have sailed with the
First Carrier Strike Force without slowing down the flattops.
But a dance requires coordination among every dancer on
the stage. Underlying Yamamoto’s far-f lung deployments and
intricately timed maneuvers were the key f law in his plan: for
the operation to work as designed, the enemy was required to
behave exactly as the admiral expected him to behave. If the
American fleet had followed the steps in the assigned dance of
battle, the IJN would surely have smashed it at Midway. If the
Americans did anything other than what Yamamoto expected,
his widespread dispersal of force contained the kernels of
unprecedented disaster.
Later during, and after, the war, the Japanese began to understand
the mind-set that had led them to disaster beginning in the
summer of 1942. They called it the Victory Disease, and it represented
a sense of sublime overconfidence, based on the unbroken
string of victories, but also on a careless underestimation of
their foes. In the end, it was a disease that would prove fatal.
The United States, meanwhile, had been learning about war.
The aircraft carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown had raided
Japanese outposts, while their screening vessels had gained
experience in fleet operations, and in protecting the vital flattops.
At the same time, intelligence drawn from the Japanese
naval code had been progressing amazingly well. Under the leadership
of Commander Joseph Rochefort, USN, American code
breakers had been working diligently to crack the complex cryptography
employed by the Japanese navy. By the summer of 1942,
they had succeeded in gleaning enough information to decipher
the gist of many important messages. A little creativity was often
enough to put the information gatherers over the top.
When it became clear that the next Japanese objective was
code-named AF, Rochefort’s staff had Midway broadcast a message
“in the clear” (that is, uncoded) reporting that the island’s
seawater condenser had broken down. When, a short time later,
the Japanese listening station in the Marianas radioed a coded
report that AF was short of fresh water, Rochefort had his confirmation:
AF was Midway, and Midway was the target of the
upcoming, and major, Japanese offensive.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific
Fleet (CINCPAC), knew that he would inevitably be overmatched
in numbers of ships, especially battleships. But he knew this
would be a carrier battle, and he did everything in his power to
muster every carrier in the fleet to the vicinity of Midway Island.
Foremost among these were the Enterprise and Hornet, recently out
of the Coral Sea engagement. Nimitz ordered them to steam
north at flank speed. The Yorktown was a tougher problem—she
had been badly damaged during the battle. Initial estimates suggested
at least six weeks of necessary repairs.
In the event, under CINCPAC’s forceful urging, the ship was
rendered seaworthy—and capable of air operations—after a
two-day stop at Pearl Harbor. Under the command of Admiral
Frank Jack Fletcher, the Yorktown sailed to a rendezvous at “Point
Luck,” joining the other two American carriers (commanded by
Admiral Ray Spruance). All these ships gathered northeast of
Midway before the Japanese submarines assigned to watch Pearl Harbor
had even arrived on station to form a picket line. At the
same time, Nimitz had packed tiny Midway with as many troops
and land-based planes as he could. Coastal batteries were
installed, barbed wire strung, and mines set around the entire
Thus, as Kido Butai sailed within air range of the island, the
partners in Yamamoto’s dance were already out of sync with the
choreography. The events of the early morning of June 4 should
have done nothing to enhance his confidence—and perhaps the
admiral might have made some changes. But here was another
key f law in the great admiral’s plan: he and his headquarters
were aboard Yamato, hundreds of miles from the carriers, and
both fleets needed to observe strict radio silence for secrecy. So
Yamamoto had no way to control events once they started to
develop! The conduct of the battle was now in the hands of the
stolid and unimaginative Nagumo.
By dawn, Kido Butai had been sighted by American observers
in a lumbering PBY scout plane. Thanks to intermittent cloud
cover, the aircraft was able to avoid the Japanese fighters, and
provide fairly steady and accurate location reports on the
Japanese carriers. The first land-based bombers from Midway
launched at about the same time as Kido Butai’s first attacks
against the island took to the air. In fact, the two bomber
forces passed each other on the way to their respective targets.
The good fortune that had marked almost all Japanese operations
throughout the war held firm for the first hours of that
fateful day. American bombers based on Midway included army
B-17s and B-26s, and old SB2U Vindicator dive bombers (derisively
called Wind Indicators by their pilots), as well as some of
the more modern SBD Dauntless dive bombers and TBF torpedo
planes, flown by marine pilots. They made as many as seven separate
attacks on the IJN carrier fleet. Their pilots displayed
incredible courage, and many of them did not return, yet they
failed to score a single hit against the enemy fleet.
In the meantime, the planes of Nagumo’s first wave savaged
both Eastern and Sand Islands, the two small specks of land holding
the Midway installations. They were met by marine fighters,
the pilots every bit as courageous as their comrades in the
bombers. But the Japanese Zeroes brushed aside the obsolete
Brewster Buffaloes and inflicted heavy losses. Fierce antiaircraft
fire took a toll on the bombers, however, and after the Japanese
had dropped their bombs and turned back to their carriers, flight
leader Tomonaga radioed Nagumo to report the need for a second
attack on the island’s installations. The planes for this second
wave were already armed and on deck of the four Japanese
fleet carriers, but they carried torpedoes and armor-piercing
bombs, weaponry intended to be used against the American carriers
whenever they appeared.
It was here that Lady Luck began to turn her favor upon the
U.S. Navy. After dithering rather longer than was helpful,
Nagumo decided to have his second-strike planes reloaded with
bombs for a ground attack. His crews went to work in a frenzy,
interrupted now and then as the carriers maneuvered to avoid
the valiant but futile attacks of the Midway-based planes. Meanwhile,
Admirals Spruance and Fletcher, lurking undiscovered to
the northeast of Kido Butai, took the step that would reduce
Yamamoto’s elaborate dance to the battle equivalent of a pratfall.
Though the range was long and the risk was great, they ordered
the American air groups from Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet to
take off, fly to the Japanese fleet, and attack. Because of the distance
involved, a coordinated attack was impossible—the planes
that launched first would have wasted too much fuel as they circled their
carriers waiting for subsequent groups to join up—so they would go in separately.
The American carriers included air groups of three types of
planes: dive bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters. Some
fighters were held back as combat air patrol (CAP) to protect the
fleet, while the rest were dispatched toward the First Carrier
Strike Force. The torpedo and dive bombers were armed and
sent, flying in separate groups. Some got lost; the dive bombers
from the Hornet would eventually land on Midway Island without
ever seeing the enemy. Some got through, only to make a
doomed attack, an aerial “Charge of the Light Brigade.” These
were the torpedo bombers, who got there first and attacked at
sea level. They suffered horrendous losses—all fifteen of the Hornet’s
torpedo planes were shot down, with the other two
squadrons decimated as well—and, like the land-based bombers,
failed to score a hit. But their sacrifice unwittingly accomplished
a crucial objective: they drew all the deadly Zeroes down almost
to sea level.
By 10:20 in the morning, Nagumo’s force had avoided some
ten attacks without suffering a hit. In the meantime, his own
scouts had spotted the American carriers, and his crews were
busy re-rearming the planes, making ready for an urgent attack
on that highest of high-priority targets. Although his defending
fighters were at low altitude, they had fuel and ammunition
remaining, and were climbing again toward their usual defensive
position above the f leet. It is almost certain that he did not even
imagine how much his f leet, and the whole balance of power in
the Pacific Ocean, was about to change.
The American dive bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown
arrived over the enemy carriers at the same time, approaching
from different directions. The two squadrons split up and dove
to the attack. In five minutes, they dropped bombs through the
crowded f light decks of three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers.
The ships, packed with fuel hoses, bomb carts, and fully
loaded planes, ignited like tinderboxes. It soon became obvious
that Akagi, Soryu, and Kaga—all fully engulfed in f lame—were lost.
Admiral Nimitz’s gamble had disrupted Admiral Yamamoto’s choreography
beyond repair.
To be sure, the IJN was not finished. The one remaining carrier,
Hiryu, would launch several strikes, enough to cripple the
battle-scarred Yorktown with bombs and torpedoes. Here again,
however, American damage control proved decisive. After the
first strike left Yorktown burning and listing, she was repaired
and under way—though not capable of f light operations—when
the planes of the second strike came over. So certain were the
Japanese that this was a different ship that they again attacked
the impotent aircraft carrier, rather than seeking out the
undamaged Enterprise and Hornet just over the horizon. Those
ships, meanwhile, dispatched the strikes that found, hit, and
sank the Hiryu.
By the time the sun set on that fateful June 4, all four Japanese
carriers had been sunk or mortally damaged. Yamamoto hurried
eastward with his great battleships, but he was much too far away
to have an impact on this battle. The invasion was called off, the
transport fleet retiring to the Marianas, while the remnants of
Kido Butai—a carrier strike force without any carriers—withdrew
in shock and shame. Perhaps Yamamoto already understood that,
in those five minutes, the momentum of the Pacific war had
reversed itself for once and for all.

Written By: Douglas Niles

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