Friday, June 06, 2008

The Miracle Before the Miracle

Sixty-six years ago today, the Battle of Midway was in its final stages. But the outcome had already been secured; two days earlier, U.S. carrier aircraft sank four Japanese flattops, delivering a devastating blow to the Imperial Navy. The heart of the Japanese carrier fleet—along with its best naval aviators—were lost at Midway, a debacle from which Japan would never recover. While years of bitter fighting still remained, the tide in the Pacific had turned.

Like most epic battles, Midway is filled with subplots and twists that have occupied historians and strategists for the past half-century. What if Commander Joseph Rochefort and his cryptanalysts at Pearl Harbor hadn’t penetrated the JN-25 naval code, giving U.S. admirals keen insight into enemy intentions and force dispositions? What if the Tokyo didn't for a brilliant ruse (devised by Rochefort), prompting Japanese commanders to reveal Midway as their intended target?

And, what if the Americans had staged a coordinated attack on the morning of 4 June, rather than a piecemeal effort? Crews from Torpedo Squadron 8, flying antiquated Douglas Devastators from the USS Hornet, found the enemy first and attacked without fighter support. They were decimated by Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire; only one pilot, Ensign George Gay, survived.

But the legendary sacrifice of Torpedo 8 disrupted Japanese combat air patrols, clearing the way for dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commanders Wade McCluskey and Max Leslie. In five minutes, their planes reduced three Japanese carriers to burning hulks. Despite low fuel, the two squadron commanders decided to press their search for the Japanese.

Moments later, their decision paid off, with the sighting of a Japanese destroyer, the Arashi, which led them to the carriers. Seven decades later, we can only guess what might have happened if McCluskey and Leslie attacked in tandem with the torpedo planes, or never saw that Japanese tin can.

But the list of “what ifs” doesn’t end there. Why didn’t Japan bother to send another carrier—the Zuikaku—to the battle? Would a Japanese force that included five flattops (versus only three for the Americans) have produced a different outcome? What if the Japanese carrier force commander, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had been more aggressive in going after the American fleet on the morning of June 4th, instead of preparing for a second strike on Midway?

It was that kind of battle. Change a handful of these elements—or perhaps only one—and the results might have been very different. No wonder that historian Gordon Prange's titled his book “Miracle at Midway.

Yet, for all the fateful events that occurred during the battle, there was one other “miracle” that occurred before the opposing fleets clashed in the central Pacific. Only a month earlier, one of the American carriers, the USS Yorktown, had been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Some experts believed the ship would need months in drydock to for repairs. Others estimated that fixing the battle damage would require a minimum of two weeks.

The Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, rejected those timetables. With the Japanese heading for Midway, Nimitz needed every flattop he could muster. When the Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942, Nimitz told repair crews they had three days to get the ship back into fighting shape. In an article posted at the AMVETS website, writer Mike McLaughlin describes what happened next:

Overnight, more than 1,400 workers swarmed aboard the stricken ship. Civilian contractors and Navy technicians dragged miles of electrical cable. Other men on scaffolds patched the hull. Carpenters shored up the decks with wooden beams or cut wooden templates of bulkheads. Steel plates were dropped over the holes in the deck and welded down. Indeed, acetylene torches burned everywhere, sending temperatures in the smoke-filled compartments soaring over 120 degrees.

[Machinist’s Mate First Class] John Miller’s machine shop made parts to fix valves, pipes and conduits. “Our crew was busy all the time,” he recalls. “I worked around the clock. They brought a cot in for me and set it in place where it wouldn’t be in the way of the machines.”

The work on the Yorktown had become one of the most intensive repair jobs the Navy had ever undertaken, rivaling its efforts to salvage the ships sunk on December 7. The requirement for electricity alone became so great that districts in Honolulu endured shortages so that the yard could get the extra power it needed. Being in the water for more than two years, the ship’s hull had to be cleaned of an impressive layer of barnacles and slime, then painted. Using only a 3-inch scraper and dangling on a window washer’s rig, Emmett McLaughlin, a signalman first class from White Plains, N.Y., wondered if the Marines hadn’t offered a better deal after all.

On May 30th, Yorktown headed out, to rendezvous with Enterprise and Hornet at Midway. The carrier would be lost during the battle that followed, but not before her planes helped send four Japanese flattops to the bottom. Yorktown’s presence at Midway was nothing short of miraculous, providing another flight deck that Nimitz and his tactical commanders so desperately needed. It was a miracle provided by men like John Miller, who served on the ship, and those resourceful technicians at Pearl Harbor.

Ironically, the loss of the Yorktown provides a final “what if” for Midway. Disabled on the afternoon of June 4th by a Japanese air attack, the carrier began to list badly, prompting her skipper, Captain Elliot Buckmaster, to order “abandon ship.”

But the ship remained afloat and a damage control party returned to the Yorktown the next day. Efforts to tow the carrier proceeded slowly, giving a Japanese submarine time to locate the carrier. Penetrating an escort screen, it fired a salvo of torpedoes that struck the Yorktown and the USS Hammann, an attending destroyer.

The Hammann went down in only four minutes, but the carrier remained defiantly afloat until the morning of June 7th, when it finally sank. While the Yorktown's crew worked valiantly to save their ship, there has been a long debate over whether the carrier could have been saved, through an expedited effort to get her out of the battle zone.

Efforts to tow the Yorktown, by a tug dispatched from Hawaii, didn’t begin until the morning of June 6th, almost two days after the carrier was damaged. An improvised tow, by one of the carrier's escorts, might have pulled her from harm's way before the submarine arrived, and sealed the Yorktown's fate.


LGD said...

For some details on the 'save the Yorktown' controversy, I strongly recommend John Lundstrom's Black Shoe Carrier Admiral.

To save Yorktown required a specialized damage-control/salvage team. No such teams existed in the USN until Admiral Fletcher suggested one after the battle.

To save Yorktown also required a tow ship. The TF 17 ships present were carrying Yorktown personnel and thus not available for towing. They were also responsible for continued AA and anti-surface defense. Admiral Fletcher's after-action report recommended that Pearl Harbor keep tow ships handy at the nearest base when combat was expected. No one had thought of that, either.

Such a tow helped save the Saratoga later on that year.

stackja1945 said...

"It was a miracle provided by men like..." It was all a miracle. Another what if Japan had finished off Pearl Harbor on December 7?

Brian H said...

Half-full or half-empty? You win some, you lose some, and some are rained out (postponed). In direct contributions and major lessons learned at quite moderate cost, the Y. paid for its keep quite handily, IMO.