First, it didn’t sink or damage any of the American aircraft carriers. And second, it didn’t flame up the large gasoline and oil reserves in Hawaii. Japan neglected to set fire to the big oil tanks up on the hillsides over Pearl Harbor. H’mmm.
In early 1942, the Japanese Navy was on a roll, after Pearl Harbor and many other strong successes. It was headed for Midway to smash it, and we were headed there to foil Japan, not having much of an idea what we’d actually do.
But we had broken the Japanese JN-25 naval codes, and we knew almost as much about their battle plans as they did—and they had no idea what we were doing. Or where we were. (We were tiptoeing in from the direction of Pearl Harbor.)
As the battle began to engage, our three carriers were preparing to attack Japan’s four carriers. Our long-range scouts started to make contact. The Japanese carriers sent in, from the northwest, some heavy raids on the ground forces in Midway and went back to re-arm for a second attack. No surprise.
We sent in some torpedo bombers and bracketted the Japanese carriers, using bombers similar to the one that G.H.W. Bush flew, except all of our bombers were shot down, and the one last torpedo failed to detonate. Scratch that attack. Ouch.
Japan was getting ready to smash the U.S. carriers. Everything was ready, but the planes that were being re-armed to attack the island had to re-re-arm to attack the U.S. carriers.
And then? It was like the cavalry to the rescue. In came a dozen Dauntless dive bombers, and they attacked and lit Japanese carriers on fire, gas and bombs on their decks, burning and exploding everywhere. This story is well known. Some of the carriers took hours to sink, or scuttle, but there was no question of the result. Japan lost a lot. Almost everything.
What is not well known? The Japanese carriers did have radar, but it wasn’t much good. But the Imperial Navy knew how to do many things well, with or without radar.
But the Japanese forgot to put up close, medium, and wide patrol planes. They coulda, and they shoulda, but they didn’t. And that was their doom. When our SBD-3 dive-bombers showed up, unmolested, with no warning, they had a clean shot, and they took their shots, and the carriers went up in flames—and then, down—and the admirals with them.
And also many of their pretty good planes, and their better pilots, and many skilled seamen—enough to man four aircraft carriers. The Imperial Navy had to quarantine the survivors to prevent this horrible story from getting back to Japan.
Who screwed up and forgot to send out the patrol planes—the pickets? Was it bad planning? I don’t know, but it was a serious error, and it hastened the end of the war by at least a year. I’d hate to be the Japanese officer who neglected to send out patrol planes. Was his attempt to send out those scout planes overruled by officers who wanted to just get the next attack going? Who knows? They’re all dead.
As for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, did he go down with the carriers? Nope. He was back on his battleship Yamato, miles away. Very unhappy. Fit to be tied.
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In early 1943, the U.S. Navy decoded a message that Yamamoto was going to make a ceremonial visit to an air base on Ballalae near Bougainville. Now this was at the extreme range of our longest-legged planes, P-38s with wing tanks.
But we knew that the admiral was very punctual, so we set up a rendezvous with his planes. The P-38s showed up. Two Bettys came along and were attacked, and Yamamoto went down in flames, April 18, 1943. The U.S. Navy ran P-38 patrols out there for many days so the Japanese would not likely guess we had broken their codes.
Lucky Lindy to the rescue
How did we know those P-38’s could get there and back with no losses? Captain Charles Lindbergh took a P-38 on a routine four-hour patrol, early in the war. When he didn’t come back after four and a half hours, everybody was scared that we’d lost him. After five hours, they gave him up for dead.
At t = 5:40, Lindbergh came in to land, coughing and with a dead stick. He had figured out how to lean out the engines and increase the pitch and stretch out the P-38’s cruise capability. H’mmm. Valuable Mr. Lindbergh.
In early 1942, President Roosevelt’s administration sent 110,000 loyal Japanese-American citizens to detention camps at Manzanar and other very difficult inland places far from the Pacific Ocean. Why? Because we thought they were disloyal? Well, it was a rotten thing we did to them.
But as we had broken the Japanese Naval Code and their diplomatic codes, we knew there was a small number of Japanese working as spies or agents of Japan. If we would have arrested only the bad guys, the Japanese would have changed their codes, and this would have severely harmed our war effort. So, the U.S. military took extreme efforts to avoid any clue that we’d broken the codes. Got the picture?
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