Victory at Sea

Recent movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line have vividly depicted the face of land battle in the Second World War, but the story of the American war is incomplete without the sweep and strategic stakes of the war at sea, in which 104,985 American sailors and Marines were wounded, 56,683 were killed, and more than 500 U.S. naval vessels were sunk. Lest we forget
mahan picture
     Alfred Thayer Mahan
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

Hitler here missed an opportunity to work incalculable mischief with the American commitment to give precedence to the European war. If Der Führer had not now obligingly declared war on the United States, Roosevelt, given the apparent willingness of both sides to acquiesce in protracted and undeclared naval war in the Atlantic, would have had difficulty finding a politically usable occasion for declaring war against Germany. In the absence of such a declaration Roosevelt might well have found it impossible to resist demands to undertake the maximum U.S. effort in the Pacific, against the formally recognized Japanese enemy, rather than in the Atlantic, in an undeclared war against the Germans. This was precisely Churchill's worry, and it was not easily laid to rest. Well after the German declaration of war Roosevelt came under stubborn pressure to give priority to the fight against Japan. Pressure came from the Navy, which always took the Pacific war to be its special province, and from public opinion, infected by a legacy of racial animosity and inflamed by the humiliation of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The string of relatively easy Japanese victories in the first four months of the war provoked a heated debate among Japanese military planners about what their next step should be. The success and momentum of the Southern Operation seemed to dictate one answer: consolidation and buildup of the bases tenuously established in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, followed by further advances into New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, and perhaps eventually Australia. But Yamamoto put the full weight of his authority behind a contrary plan. Finish the job begun at Pearl Harbor, he urged, by seizing Midway Island, some 1,100 miles west of Hawaii. Politically, Midway in Japanese hands would menace Hawaii with the threat of invasion, providing a potent bargaining chip with which to force the Americans to negotiate a settlement. Militarily, a Japanese presence on Midway would lure forth the remaining elements of the U.S. Pacific Fleet for the "decisive battle." Toward the waging of that battle Yamamoto's career and the training and preparation of the entire Imperial Japanese Navy had long been consecrated.

The doctrine of the decisive battle was distilled from decades of Japanese planning about how to wage war against the United States in the Pacific. That planning derived in turn, ironically, from the theories of the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. A U.S. naval officer and the president of the Naval War College, Mahan argued in his influential work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) that command of the sea was the key to success in war, and that the way to secure the sea was to engage the enemy's main force and destroy it. As Japanese planners adopted this thinking for possible war against the United States, they envisioned the swift capture of the Philippines and Guam, thus forcing the U.S. fleet to battle. As the U.S. Navy transited the Pacific, Japanese submarines would harass it in the eastern Pacific, and land-based aircraft would strike as it passed through the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. When the weakened fleet approached the Marianas or the Carolines, or perhaps the Philippines, it would confront a fresh, overpowering Japanese naval force and be decisively defeated.

Yamamoto had argued in 1941 that rather than lie in wait for the U.S. fleet in the western Pacific, the Japanese navy should employ the First Air Fleet, embarking some 500 high-performance aircraft, flown by magnificently trained pilots, to mount an attack directly in mid-ocean, at the U.S. base in Pearl Harbor. That task Japan had only partly accomplished on December 7, Yamamoto insisted. Now was the time to hit the Americans again at a place they would be compelled to defend with their full strength—Midway—and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet once and for all. With the Pacific cleansed of American ships, Japan would have an unchallenged defensive perimeter, stretching from the North Pacific through mid-ocean to the South Pacific. The Southern Operation would be impregnably secure. Within its perimeter Japan would hold Guam and the Philippines as hostages, and perhaps Hawaii and Australia as well. Safe behind this barrier, Japan could easily sustain a strategically defensive posture, and sue for a negotiated peace on terms it dictated. These were heady notions. In May of 1942 they intoxicated even such a calculating pragmatist as Yamamoto. The faint prospect of victory that had earlier swum mistily at the outermost rim of his imagination, the military historian John Keegan has written, now "seemed to lie only one battle away."

AMERICAN strategic doctrine for war against Japan was virtually the mirror image of this Japanese thinking. Code-named the "Orange Plan," it had first been formulated early in the century, and also reflected Mahan's influence. The Orange Plan assumed an early Japanese capture of the Philippines, and made relief of the Philippines the main U.S. objective. The American garrison there was supposed to hold out for three or four months while the U.S. fleet crossed the Pacific, engaged the main body of the Japanese fleet, destroyed it, and thereby ended the war. Always unrealistic, the plan was revised in 1935 to provide for the capture of the Marshall and Caroline Islands as staging areas for the main engagement with the Japanese fleet—a tacit admission that the war would last years, not months, and an admission as well of the cynicism that had always underlain expectations about the sacrificial role of the Philippine garrison. Yet whatever its flaws, the Orange Plan constituted the foundation of the U.S. Pacific war strategy in 1942, and would in many ways continue to do so right down to 1945. In the two interwar decades war games were fought at the Naval War College on these assumptions no fewer than 127 times, planting the Orange Plan's premises deep in the American strategic mind.

In early 1942, however, the United States could not possibly muster a naval force that would even begin to make Orange operational. The only event that had conformed to the plan's predictions was the loss of the Philippines, and it would take not three months but more than three years to retrieve them. As a partial and weak substitute for the great fleet action envisioned by Orange, small strike forces engaged in hit-and-run raids on scattered Japanese island outposts.

doolittle picture
   James H. Doolittle
(Photo courtesy of
   The Naval Historical Center)

By far the most daring and consequential of these raids struck not against outlying military stations in the far Pacific but against the Japanese home islands themselves. Probing carefully westward past Midway Island to within 650 miles of Tokyo, the USS Hornet on April 18 launched sixteen cumbersome B-25 bombers never designed to be flown from a carrier deck. Wobbling up over the violently churning sea, the planes sidled into formation behind their leader, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle. They bombed Tokyo and a handful of other Japanese cities and then, at the extreme limit of their flying range, crash-landed in China. Japanese occupation troops captured some of the airmen. One died in prison, and three were executed after facing charges at a show trial that they had bombed civilian buildings and machine-gunned a school. Not incidentally, these events further fed the appetites of both sides for a war of vengeance.

The Doolittle raid did little material damage. The Japanese government made no official acknowledgment of the attack, even to its own citizens, to whom the scattered and mostly harmless explosions of April 18 remained somewhat mysterious. But Doolittle's B-25s packed a momentous psychological wallop. They vividly demonstrated to Japanese military leaders the vulnerability of their home islands through the Midway slot in Japan's defensive perimeter. To all of Yamamoto's already weighty arguments about the attractions of an attack on Midway, the necessity of sealing that slot was now added. Debate ceased in the Japanese high command about the relative priority of the South or Central Pacific. Both operations would now go forward, straining to the utmost the already stretched resources of the imperial navy.

Summoning Nagumo, the hero of Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto began to fit the First Air Fleet for an offensive operation against Midway Island. Nagumo's orders this time were to land an occupation force on Midway and begin its outfitting as a forward base, which would lure the Americans to the decisive battle, and which might serve in time as a launching ground for the invasion of Hawaii. It was Yamamoto's most ambitious plan ever, overshadowing even the audacity of the December 7 attack, and it demonstrated that not even this prudent planner was immune to the recklessness induced by "victory disease."

Nagumo believed that his failure to find the American carriers in port on December 7 had been handsomely redressed in May of 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, where Japanese pilots had reported sinking two American carriers. Though two Japanese carriers, the Shokaku and the Zuikaku, were sufficiently damaged or had their air squadrons so shredded at Coral Sea that they could not take part in the assault on Midway, the First Air Fleet retained the Akagi, the Kaga, the Hiryu, and the Soryu, a still-potent quartet of fleet-class carriers that embarked more than 270 warplanes. Nagumo also trusted in the complicated battle plan for the Midway operation, which called for a diversionary raid on Alaska's Aleutian Island chain, to draw off American naval strength. And of course Yamamoto and Nagumo both took comfort from the reflection that they held again, as they had so triumphantly at Pearl Harbor, the hole card of secrecy. Anticipating the decisive battle that would crown his career and seal his nation's dream of empire, amid lavish pomp and ceremony on May 27, the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima Strait, Nagumo sortied the First Air Fleet through the Bungo Strait from Japan's Inland Sea—and into the jaws of a trap.

While Yamamoto and Nagumo had gathered the nearly 200 ships of the Midway strike force from over the far horizons that bounded Japan's immense area of conquest, American cryptanalysts had feverishly studied their transcripts of the swelling volume of encoded Japanese radio traffic, trying to determine where Japan would strike next. The collective effort to crack the Japanese codes was known as "Magic," and in the upcoming Battle of Midway, Magic would demonstrate its military value along with the aptness of its name.

roche picture
     Joseph J. Rochefort
(Photo courtesy of
     The U.S. Navy)

Working without sleep amid spine-cracking tension in a windowless basement room at Pearl Harbor, Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, the chief of the Combat Intelligence Unit colloquially known as "Station Hypo," pored over the maddeningly fragmentary intercepts piled atop his makeshift worktable of planks and sawhorses. Rochefort had adapted to this molelike existence by working in slippers and a red smoking jacket. In the spit-and-polish Navy, he and his equally unkempt colleagues were regarded as eccentric. But their knowledge of the Japanese language, in a Navy that had only about forty competent Japanese-speakers, was indispensable, as was their mastery of the arcana of cryptanalysis—the sorcerer's art of deciphering the enemy's most carefully guarded communications codes.

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