In war great events are the results of small causes.
History is replete with examples of Caesar’s observation. While inspecting General Banks’ army at Carrollton 04 September 1863 General Grant was given a large, nervous horse to ride for the pass in review ceremony. In his Personal Memoirs Grant recounts, “The horse I rode was vicious and but little used, and on my return to New Orleans ran away and, shying at a locomotive, fell, probably on me.” Grant lay insensible in a nearby hotel for over a week and was on crutches for two months afterward. Imagine the American Civil War fought without Ulysses S. Grant, thrown from his horse and killed two months after the fall of Vicksburg. Consider the case of Premier Canovas of Spain, a strong man whose policies might have suppressed the growing insurrection in Cuba. Assassinated in 1897 by Miguel Angiolillo, an obscure Italian anarchist long since forgotten to history, the Cuban rebellion escalated into the Spanish – American war one year later. San Juan Hill launched the career of Teddy Roosevelt who succeeded to the Presidency when yet another anarchist assassinated William McKinley. No Miguel Angiolillo, no Spanish – American war, no San Juan Hill, no Teddy Roosevelt Presidency, no Bull Moose Party to split the Republican Party and, consequently, Woodrow Wilson loses in 1912, altering the course of World War I. The possibilities are fascinating. Given the scope of World War II such incidents are especially numerous, the ramifications particularly noteworthy and the implications exceptionally intriguing.
“I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year,
but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.”
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
Imperial Japanese Navy
Admiral Yamamoto’s prediction proved remarkably prescient. Three days short of six months after Japan’s incomplete but nonetheless stunning victory at Pearl Harbor the American navy decisively defeated the Imperial fleet at Midway. Phase One of the Pacific War, the Japanese Blitzkrieg, ended and Phase Two, the build up for an Allied counter offensive, began. At this point, when the fortunes of war turned, this paper will examine two seemingly insignificant incidents, which greatly influenced the war’s outcome.
Pearl Harbor, 07 December 1941:
Fleet exercises conducted in 1928, 1932 and 1938 thoroughly demonstrated the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor to attack by carrier borne aircraft. Ignoring the results of those war games, disregarding repeated (if conflicting and confusing) warnings from Washington D. C. and displaying a remarkable lack of caution for a senior naval officer, Admiral Kimmel, Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) did nothing to ensure the security of the American Pacific fleet moored at Pearl Harbor. Misplacing his confidence in Lieutenant General Short, Commander Hawaiian Department, charged with the land and air defense of Hawaii and abrogating his responsibilities to Rear Admiral Bloch, Commandant of the 14th Naval District, tasked with the naval defense of Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel invited disaster upon the Pacific fleet. As a result of his inaction, as enemy planes approached, American sailors were complacently enjoying Condition Four, holiday routine on that notorious Sunday morning. He did, however, take steps to reinforce the garrisons at Wake Island and Midway.
On 01 December Admiral Kimmel ordered a squadron of Marine fighters transported to Wake Island via USS Enterprise. These were followed on 05 December by another squadron embarked upon USS Lexington bound for Midway. By chance USS Saratoga was in port on the West Coast as that infamous day dawned. Accordingly these three warships with their cruiser and destroyer escorts were spared the carnage visited upon the remainder of the Pacific fleet by Admiral Nagumo’s first wave of 140 bombers and 50 fighters and second wave of 132 bombers and 81 fighters. The consequences of Admiral Kimmel’s inaction are well documented. The results of his move to protect Wake Island and Midway are three fold:
- Concerned with the location of the American carriers Admiral Nagumo adamantly disapproved the third strike ardently requested by Commanders Fuchida and Genda. Such a strike against the fuel tank farms, repair facilities, sub pens and remaining surface ships would have truly crippled the American fleet setting back any counter offensive for at least a year or more. Given additional time to prepare, the bloody island hopping campaigns of 1942 – 1944 would have been even more costly in time, manpower and materiel. It is ironic Admiral Nagumo did not display the same concern for American carriers at Midway six months later.
- Prior to World War II many of America’s senior admirals stubbornly clung to the unfulfilled promise of Jutland – decisive battle at sea whose outcome hung on weight of shell and depth of armor plate. The loss of America’s battleships forced even her most hidebound Admirals to accept and utilize the aircraft carrier as the dominant surface warship it truly was.
- War Plan Orange and its successor Rainbow 3 called for immediate relief of the Philippines by the navy. Charging into the guns of the Imperial fleet reinforced by carrier assets and supplemented by land based air support invited disaster worse than Pearl Harbor. The loss of America’s battleships forced a revision of those war plans to suit remaining assets, namely the carriers Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga. The resultant strategy was not only more prudent but also took advantage of America’s overwhelming industrial superiority and proved more effective in the long term.
Midway, 04 June 1942:
The Japanese were quick to exploit their tactical success at Pearl Harbor. Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Burma rapidly fell to combined army and navy forces in a Japanese blitzkrieg. At this point most Japanese admirals argued for a concerted push toward Port Moresby, Papua to complete the conquest of New Guinea, combined with a continued drive to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands to seize control of the Coral Sea region. Capture of these critical areas would isolate Australia and, quite possibly, lure the remnants of the American navy to its destruction leaving Hawaii, Midway and the Aleutian Islands vulnerable.
On 18 April 1942 American audacity changed everything. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo humiliated the Imperial Army and Navy causing grave loss of face. While tactically insignificant those sixteen B-25 twin engine bombers flown from the aptly named carrier Hornet stung the Japanese psyche, and radically altering Japanese strategy, focused complete attention on Midway, the perceived weak link in the Empire’s defensive perimeter.
Overriding all opposition with his tremendous prestige, Admiral Yamamoto pushed forward a convoluted plan calculated to finish the destruction of the American fleet begun at Pearl Harbor. Practically every unit in the Imperial surface fleet (sixteen submarines, seven aircraft carriers, eleven battleships, ten cruisers, sixty destroyers, eighteen troop transports, five seaplane carriers and four minesweepers) played a part in Yamamoto’s master stratagem. Designed to deceive and confuse the Americans, luring her carriers into an enormous trap, Yamamoto’s plan took into account every contingency except American capabilities and intentions and the element of chance, what Clausewitz called the “friction” of war and others term the fortunes of war. The primary objective, destruction of the American carriers, got lost as the grandiose scheme evolved. Disregarding the basic principles of war Yamamoto divided his enormous fleet into five separate forces. The Midway Occupation Force was further subdivided in five distinct groups. Sailing independently none of these forces or groups could support the others. J. F. C. Fuller aptly describes Yamamoto’s strategic concept with this analysis, “This plan was radically unsound and the distribution of forces was deplorable. Both were complex; the aim was confused and the principle of concentration ignored.”
Even so, even taking into account the intelligence gathered through cryptographic analysis, Yamamoto’s Carrier Striking Force consisting of four aircraft carriers, two battleships, two cruisers and twelve destroyers under the command of Admiral Nagumo should have been more than a match for the American fleet lurking northwest of Midway. The United States could muster only three carriers, seven cruisers and fourteen destroyers for this crucial battle.
Nagumo’s Carrier Striking Force turned into the wind, launching the first wave of fighters and bombers against Midway at 0430. Search planes from the carriers Akagi and Kaga as well as seaplanes from the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma immediately followed seeking the American fleet. Completed in 1938 and 1939 respectively, Tone and Chikuma were Japan’s latest, most modern cruiser design. Measuring 650 X 61 X 21 feet and displacing 15,200 tons, they carried eight 8-inch guns in four turrets forward, eight 5-inch guns in secondary batteries amidships, up to fifty-seven 25mm antiaircraft guns and twelve 24-inch torpedo tubes. Purpose built for scouting operations, the after decks were fitted catapults, cranes and facilities for five seaplanes. Ideal reconnaissance platforms Tone and Chikuma were given the center lanes of the planned search pattern.
As it had a Pearl Harbor however, fate intervened once again. The catapult aboard Tone malfunctioned delaying the launch of its aircraft until 0500. Engine trouble also prevented the Chikuma from launching her seaplane as scheduled. Its flight path would have taken it directly over the American carriers a scant 215 miles away but further engine trouble caused it to turn back early. Consequently it was not until 0820 that Nagumo received confirmation of the presence and location of the American carriers from Tone’s aircraft. By then it was too late. American torpedo planes and dive-bombers were already inbound.
Although the torpedo planes were ineffective, their near suicidal attack prevented the Japanese carriers from launching additional planes and drew the fighter cover down to sea level setting up the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu for the follow on dive bombers. Poor operational planning by Yamamoto, engine trouble on the Chikuma’s aircraft, a catapult malfunction onboard the Tone and a series of poor tactical decisions by Nagumo doomed the Japanese Carrier Strike Force. Decks crowded with planes, fuel and ordnance the pride of the Imperial Fleet were soon flaming wrecks. 300 miles astern with the main body consisting of three battleships, one carrier, two seaplane carriers and twelve destroyers Yamamoto could do nothing to avert disaster.
In exchange for the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann American forces sank all four carriers of Nagumo’s Striking force as well as the heavy cruiser Mikuma. Badly damaged, the cruiser Mogami spent the next year in Truk undergoing repairs. More importantly the Japanese lost their best naval pilots and most experienced aircrews. This was a loss from which they would never recover. Midway ended the Japanese threat to Hawaii and Australia. The initiative in the Pacific now passed to the Allies and was never seriously challenged again.
Six months after Pearl Harbor the United States Navy devastated the Imperial Fleet at Midway halting Japanese expansion and restoring the balance of power in the Pacific. To drive the fanatical and tenacious Japanese back to the Home Islands required another three years of bloody combat under some of the worst conditions in military history but after Midway the issue was never really in doubt. Even with a third strike at Pearl Harbor or a Japanese victory at Midway American industrial potential was overwhelming. During the period 07 December 1941 to 14 August 1945 the United States produced 274,941 aircraft, 87,620 warships, 88,430 tanks and equally impressive numbers of artillery pieces, trucks, jeeps and related war materiel out producing the Japanese 4 to 1 in aircraft and 16 to 1 in capital ships. Whereas the Japanese launched an additional eight aircraft carriers before wars end, the United States commissioned fourteen fleet carriers, nine light carriers and sixty-six escort carriers. American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines proved just as fervent and even more determined than their foe. The government and the people of the United States were focused and unified as never before or since.
Ninety-six years before Midway Lord Alfred Tennyson depicted future war with these words:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be…
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew,
From the nations’ airy navies, grappling in the central blue.
At Midway the potential of America’s first aircraft carrier, a converted collier, relic of a bygone era, the USS Langley, was realized.