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
The Battle of the Atlantic

AMERICA'S war against Germany, like its war against Japan, began at sea, and began just as badly for the poorly prepared United States. The Battle of the Atlantic, which had pitted Britain against Germany since 1939, was a contest for supremacy on the ocean highway across which all American supplies and troops must flow to Europe. Everything depended on keeping that highway open. Dwight Eisenhower, newly promoted to brigadier general and freshly installed as chief of the Army's War Plans Division, submitted a penetrating assessment of the importance of the North Atlantic sea-lanes to George Marshall on February 28, 1942. "Maximum safety of these lines of communication is a 'must' in our military effort, no matter what else we attempt to do," Eisenhower emphasized. Shipping, he presciently added, "will remain the bottleneck of our effective effort," a statement that echoed repeated pronouncements by both Churchill and Roosevelt that the struggle with Hitler would be won or lost at sea.

donitz picture
     Karl Dönitz
(Photo courtesy of
     The National Archives)

It looked at first more likely to be lost. When he declared war on the United States, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Hitler untethered the German submarine service from the restraints against which it had long chafed. Karl Dönitz, the chief of the German submarine fleet, could now loose his U-boats (from the German word for "submarine," Unterseeboot) as far westward as America's Atlantic shoreline, cutting the Allied supply lines at their source and avenging the insults of America's increasingly open support of Britain, especially the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. Dönitz determined "to strike a blow at the American coast" with a Paukenschlag, a word usually translated as "drumbeat" but also connoting "thunderbolt." German submariners themselves described the campaign against U.S. coastal shipping as the "Happy Time," or even the "American Turkey Shoot." By whatever name, the naval blitzkrieg that Dönitz launched in early 1942 threatened to shut down America's war against Hitler almost before it could get started.

As early as mid-January, 1942, Dönitz had dispatched five U-boats, each packing fourteen to twenty-two torpedoes, to the eastern coastal waters of the United States. Additional boats soon followed, their operational range and ability to remain on battle station enhanced by submarine tankers, or Milchkuhen (milk cows), that refueled the U-boats at sea. Within just two weeks Dönitz's undersea raiders sank thirty-five ships in the waters between Newfoundland and Bermuda—a loss of more than 200,000 tons. The prize targets were tankers lumbering up from Caribbean and Gulf Coast oil ports to northeastern refineries and storage depots. "By attacking the supply traffic—particularly the oil—in the U.S. zone," Dönitz said, "I am striking at the root of the evil, for here the sinking of each ship is not only a loss to the enemy but also deals a blow at the source of his shipbuilding and war production. Without shipping the [English] sally-port cannot be used for an attack on Europe."

king picture
     Ernest J. King
(Photo courtesy of
     The National Archives)

Still imagining the war to be far away, and fearing to cramp the tourist trade, seaboard cities like New York, Atlantic City, and Miami refused to enforce blackouts. The backdrop of their bright lights, visible up to ten miles from shore, created a neon shooting gallery in which the U-boats nightly lay in wait on the seaward side of the shipping lanes and picked off their sharply silhouetted victims at will. U-boats prowling the Atlantic coast in January sank eight ships, including three tankers, in just twelve hours. On February 28 a German submarine torpedoed and sank the American destroyer Jacob Jones in sight of the New Jersey coast. Only eleven of its crew members survived. On the evening of April 10 a surfaced U-boat used its deck gun to scuttle the Gulfamerica off Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The flaming tanker went down so close to shore that the departing U-boat commander gazed in fascination through his binoculars as thousands of tourists, their faces bathed in the red glow of the ship's fire, poured out of their hotels and restaurants to gape at the spectacle. "All the vacationers had seen an impressive special performance at Roosevelt's expense," Commander Reinhard Hardegen gleefully recorded in his log. "A burning tanker, artillery fire, the silhouette of a U-boat—how often had all of that been seen in America?" In broad daylight on June 15 a U-boat torpedoed two American freighters within full view of thousands of horrified vacationers at Virginia Beach, Virginia. By July of 1942, 4.7 million tons of Allied shipping had gone to the bottom, the majority in the operational area of American coastal waters that the Navy called the Eastern Sea Frontier. Tanker sinkings were consuming 3.5 percent of available oil-carrying capacity every month—a rate of loss so ominous that Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King had recently confined all tankers to port for two weeks.

To counter the U-boat menace King could at first do little. In Roosevelt's quaint phrase, there was simply a "lack of naval butter to cover the bread." The U.S. Atlantic Fleet was already hard pressed to shoulder its modest share of the burden of escorting North Atlantic convoys, and the sudden flaring of the Pacific war consumed virtually all new naval construction. The entire anti-submarine force available to the Eastern Sea Frontier command when the German sub offensive began consisted of three 110-foot wooden sub-chasers, two 173-foot patrol craft, a handful of First World War-vintage picket ships and Coast Guard cutters, and 103 antiquated short-range aircraft, almost none of them equipped with submarine-seeking radar. For a time this puny fleet was supplemented by the Coastal Picket Patrol, or "Hooligan Navy," a motley flotilla organized by private yachtsmen (including a pistol-and-grenade-toting Ernest Hemingway at the helm of his sport-fishing boat Pilar). They formed a swashbuckling but decidedly amateurish patrol line some fifty miles offshore, reporting countless false submarine sightings that caused further dissipation of the Eastern Sea Frontier's desperately scant resources.

In an ironic reversal of the Lend-Lease help that America had extended to Britain a year earlier, the Royal Navy transferred ten escort vessels and two dozen anti-submarine trawlers to the Americans for coastal defense, along with two squadrons of aircraft. In a compound irony, the planes had originally been built in the United States. But even as the Eastern Sea Frontier began to accumulate the rudiments of an anti-submarine force, King persisted in deploying it badly. Contrary to all the hard-won lessons of the North Atlantic naval war, King clung to the belief that inadequately escorted convoys were worse than none, because they made for concentrated targets, only thinly protected. In consequence, merchant ships continued to sail independently, making easy prey for single submarines, while the handful of vessels that the Eastern Sea Frontier could muster to protect coastal shipping were dispatched together in futile pursuit of frequently phantom sightings. King's stubbornness infuriated his colleagues. King was "the antithesis of cooperation, a deliberately rude person ... a mental bully," Eisenhower noted in his diary. "One thing that might help win this war is to get someone to shoot King."

When King finally relented and in May organized a convoy system along the Atlantic coast, the results were dramatic. Just fourteen ships went down in the Eastern Sea Frontier that month, a sharp decline from the winter's disastrous rates of loss. Dönitz's boats continued to prey on Caribbean shipping for another two months, but by the summer of 1942 the Interlocking Convoy System protected coastwise sailings from Brazil to Newfoundland. At the end of July, Dönitz withdrew his last two U-boats from North American waters. Paukenschlag was ended. It had dealt a grievous blow to American shipping and measurably slowed American mobilization, not to mention wounding the pride of the U.S. Navy, but it had been stopped short of catastrophe. The Eastern Sea Frontier was secure.

If Dönitz had retired from the American coastline, it was merely to concentrate his forces in the mid-ocean zone where the Battle of the Atlantic was now most fiercely joined. After re-allocating the last of the U-boats from the Paukenschlag, Dönitz had well over 200 submarines available for deployment in the broad Atlantic. German boatyards were adding at least fifteen new submarines to his fleet every month. Against those growing numbers Dönitz tallied his estimates of Allied carrying capacity and replacement rates. If he could sink 700,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping a month, he calculated, victory would be his: Britain would face starvation, Russia defeat, and America permanent isolation on the far side of the Atlantic. By mid-1942 success seemed to be at hand, as worldwide Allied shipping losses exceeded 800,000 tons a month. Despite frantic round-the-clock construction in both British and American shipyards, new Allied shipbuilding could not offset deficits on that scale. For 1942 as a whole, the Germans sank more than eight million tons of U.S. and British shipping, a loss that threatened to rob the Allies of their war-making power if not soon reversed. "The U-boat attack was our worst evil," Churchill later wrote, "the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war."

Cruising in packs of a dozen or more, the U-boats inflicted damage that only grew more costly as 1942 unfolded. The Allied convoys were typically composed of ten columns totaling about sixty vessels, mostly American merchantmen carrying mostly American cargoes. They slogged eastward at eight or nine knots, loosely jacketed by as many as a dozen warships, almost all of them British or Canadian, weaving warily around their flanks. (The U.S. Navy provided just two percent of the escorts in the North Atlantic.) When aided by aerial reconnaissance, the escorts had a fighting chance of harassing the U-boats away from the convoy's path. But once a submerged wolf pack had closed undetected to torpedo range, it could wreak wholesale destruction on convoy and escorts alike. The U-boats naturally concentrated, therefore, in those ocean areas out of range of Allied aircraft. There they could steam with impunity on the surface, diving only for the final attack. They especially favored two locations: the Norwegian Sea, the far northern passage to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel; and the "air gap" southeast of Greenland, through which all convoys to both Britain and Russia had to pass. One combined surface, undersea, and air attack on the Russia-bound convoy PQ17 in the Norwegian Sea in July forced the escorting warships to separate from the convoy, and then scattered and sank twenty-two of the thirty-three merchantmen, an especially large loss. In August and September, U-boats attacked seven convoys in the Greenland air gap and sank forty-three ships. In November total Allied losses again topped 800,000 tons, 729,000 of which fell to the U-boats.

Nature added to the Allies' woes in the man-and-ship-eating North Atlantic. Blast-force winds, towering green seas, snow squalls, and ice storms claimed nearly a hundred ships during the winter of 1942-1943. In March of 1943 a screaming gale slammed two convoys together, chaotically scrambling their sailing columns and wreaking wild confusion among their escorts. Dönitz capitalized on the disruption by dispatching several wolf packs to feed on the havoc. At a cost of just one U-boat lost, twenty-two merchantmen were sunk out of the ninety that had set sail from New York a few days earlier, along with one of the escort vessels.

At these rates of loss the Atlantic lifeline might soon have been permanently severed. In fact, the disaster of PQ17 contributed to the Western Allies' decision to suspend all North Atlantic convoys to the Russians for the remainder of 1942, triggering bitter complaints from Stalin. (The alternate but much-lower-capacity supply route to Russia, through the Persian Gulf and overland from Iran, remained open.) As for Britain, the sinkings in the Atlantic had by year's end cut its civilian oil reserves to a three-month supply, and imports of all kinds had withered to two thirds of pre-war levels.

The Tide Turns in the Atlantic

WHEN Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca in mid-January of 1943 to discuss the war's progress, they were given a spectacular reminder of the continuing importance and unrelieved vulnerability of the Atlantic lifeline. Just days before the two statesmen greeted each other in the Moroccan city, U-boats off the West African coast had attacked a special convoy ferrying precious oil from Trinidad to support the North African campaign. Just as the Casablanca conference opened, the convoy's few survivors reached Gibraltar, directly across the mouth of the Mediterranean from Morocco, telling harrowing tales of the shattering losses they had witnessed: seven of nine tankers sunk, 55,000 tons of shipping and more than 100,000 tons of fuel gone. It was one of the most devastating U-boat attacks of the war. That sorry spectacle surely reinforced Churchill's and Roosevelt's determination to gain the upper hand in the Atlantic.

But though even greater losses lay ahead, in fact the Battle of the Atlantic was already turning in the Allies' favor, and with astonishing swiftness. British scientists had in December of 1942 finally broken the Triton cipher, the German code through which Dönitz communicated with his subs. Most important, the arrival from American shipyards of additional escort vessels—particularly the new escort carriers, or "baby flat-tops," that were built on merchant hulls, carried about two dozen aircraft, and were designed principally for ferrying aircraft, anti-submarine patrol, and close-in tactical air support for beach assaults—at last gave the Allies an insuperable advantage.

The U-boats of this era were in fact not true submarines at all but submersible torpedo boats that could dive for brief periods before, during, and after an attack. They were unable to remain submerged for long, and were not designed for high-speed running under water. To reach their attack stations, to overtake prey, or to replenish their air supply, they were obliged to steam on the surface, where they were especially vulnerable to being sighted and assaulted from the air. When Roosevelt in March of 1943 compelled King to transfer sixty very-long-range B-24 "Liberator" aircraft from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Allies at last closed the mid-ocean air gap in which Dönitz's submarines had done their worst damage.

Now it was the German submariners' turn to quail. Aided by aerial reconnaissance along with improved shipborne radar and sonar, the naval escorts began to scour the submarines from the sea. Forty-three died in May of 1943 alone—nearly twice the rate at which they could be replaced. When Dönitz radioed to one U-boat commander after another, "Report position and situation," he more and more often waited in vain for a reply. In the Happy Time of 1942 a U-boat had enjoyed an operational life of more than a year. Now the average U-boat survived less than three months. Dönitz's orders to sail had become virtual death sentences. Overall, the German submarine service lost more than 25,000 crew members to death and another 5,000 to capture: a 75 percent casualty rate that exceeded the losses of any other service arm in any nation. Faced with such relentless winnowing of his ranks, Dönitz ordered all but a handful of his U-boats out of the North Atlantic on May 24, 1943. "We had lost the Battle of the Atlantic," he later wrote. In the next four months sixty-two convoys comprising 3,546 merchant vessels crossed the Atlantic without the loss of a single ship.

Leyte Gulf: The Largest Naval Battle in History

BY 1944 the enormous productive apparatus of the U.S. economy was pouring out war munitions in overwhelming volume. The abundance of resources made possible not only the invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, but two distinct offensives against Japan: an assault by MacArthur in the southwestern Pacific, up the northern New Guinea shore toward the Philippines, and a thrust by Nimitz across the Central Pacific, through the Gilberts, the Marshalls, the Carolines, and the Marianas.

Underlying the Central Pacific drive was the Navy's old Orange Plan, which had envisioned a decisive battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the western Pacific. To that end the Navy assembled a stupendous flotilla whose fighting heart was composed of fourteen or more "Essex-class" carriers, each of them a nearly 900-foot-long floating airfield with a 3,000-man crew and embarking up to a hundred aircraft. Somewhat confusingly designated Task Force 38, or Third Fleet, when commanded by the impulsive, charismatic Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey, and Task Force 58, or Fifth Fleet, when commanded by the methodical, self-effacing Admiral Spruance, this armada wielded several times the striking power of Nagumo's force that had attacked Pearl Harbor.

kinkaid picture
     Thomas C. Kinkaid
(Photo courtesy of
     The National Archives)

On June 19, 1944, Spruance led Task Force 58 to a stunning victory in the Philippine Sea, southwest of the Mariana Islands, over a Japanese carrier force led by Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Known to American fliers and sailors as "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," the battle cost the Japanese three fleet carriers, nearly 500 aircraft, and hundreds of irreplaceable pilots.

Nevertheless, some senior U.S. Navy commanders criticized Spruance for letting Ozawa escape with as many ships as he did, denying Spruance the right to claim that he had indeed fought the legendary decisive battle. The unsated yearning of both navies to fight that battle would have telling consequences four months later, as the Southwest Pacific and Central Pacific campaigns converged for the invasion of the Philippine Islands.

On October 20, 1944, the invasion convoys began unloading on the lightly defended beach at Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines. In a carefully arranged ritual, MacArthur walked down the ramp of a landing craft and waded ashore through the shallow surf, a moment captured in one of the war's most famous photographs. "People of the Philippines," MacArthur intoned into a waiting microphone, "I have returned.... The hour of your redemption is here.... Rally to me."

U.S. submarines had by now cut Japan's oil supply to a trickle. What little there was reached Japan from the Dutch East Indies behind a screen of islands that ran from the Philippines through Formosa and the Ryukyus. Japan had to defend the Philippines or risk seeing its lifeline to the south completely severed.

To conserve precious fuel, the Japanese navy had been forced to base nearly half its battle fleet at Lingga Roads, near Singapore and close to the East Indian oil fields. From there, and from two other fleet anchorages, three Japanese naval formations steamed toward Leyte to check the American landing. Vice-Admiral Shoji Nishimura's force left Brunei and Vice-Admiral Kiyohide Shima's column came down from the Ryukyus. The plan was to rendezvous in the Mindanao Sea and proceed together through Surigao Strait into Leyte Gulf. Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita headed from Lingga Roads across the Palawan Passage and the Sibuyan Sea. He was to pass through San Bernardino Strait and descend on Leyte from the north just as the Nishimura-Shima force emerged out of Surigao from the west. To this already dauntingly intricate plan the Japanese added a further complication: Ozawa, his air strength reduced to just a handful of warplanes after the catastrophe in the Philippine Sea, would steam southward from Japan with his remaining aircraft carriers, using the largely planeless ships as sacrificial decoys to lure away at least part of the American force.

ozawa picture
     Jisaburo Ozawa
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

The Americans meanwhile brought two fleets of their own to Leyte. The Seventh Fleet, under Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, was composed of several big gunships and eighteen escort carriers. The battleships and cruisers took up station off the eastern end of Surigao Strait. Kinkaid deployed his escort carriers in three groups of six, code-named Taffy 1, 2, and 3, off Samar Island on the east side of Leyte. Halsey's Third Fleet meanwhile held his big carriers off San Bernardino Strait to the north.

Six naval forces, four Japanese and two American, were converging on Leyte Gulf to fight the largest naval battle in history, a titanic clash spread over three days and 100,000 square miles of sea, engaging 282 ships and 200,000 sailors and airmen.

Nishimura's two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers arrived in the Mindanao Sea on October 24. Not finding Shima, Nishimura proceeded on his own into Surigao Strait, through waters that Ferdinand Magellan had sailed in 1521. As darkness fell, American PT (patrol torpedo) boats harassed the Japanese column while it ploughed eastward, disrupting Nishimura's formation but inflicting little damage. Then five U.S. destroyers, withholding gunfire that would disclose their positions, raced down either side of the strait and loosed several volleys of torpedoes that knocked out one of the battleships and three of the destroyers. There followed a maneuver whose classic naval geometry Magellan himself would have appreciated. Arrayed in a battle line across the neck of the strait were Kinkaid's six battleships, five of them survivors of Pearl Harbor, together with four heavy and four light cruisers. Kinkaid had effortlessly "crossed the T"—the dream of every sea commander since the dawn of gun-bearing ships. Perpendicular to Kinkaid's six-, eight-, fourteen-, and sixteen-inch guns, Nishimura's truncated column lay all but naked under round after round of thundering American broadsides, while the forward-facing Japanese could bring to bear only a fraction of their ships' firepower. Firing by radar direction from a range of a dozen miles, the American battle line laid down a fearsome barrage. The Japanese formation disintegrated. The second battleship went down, the cruiser was crippled, and the lone surviving destroyer reversed course and withdrew. When the late-arriving Shima sailed into this chaotic melee and collided with Nishimura's wallowing cruiser, he, too, decided to withdraw, but pursuing U.S. warships and planes sank three of his ships. All told, the Battle of Surigao Strait cost the Imperial Japanese Navy two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers. The Americans lost one PT boat, along with thirty-nine sailors killed and 114 wounded, most of them on the U.S. destroyer Albert W. Grant, which was caught in a murderous crossfire from both Japanese and American guns during the bedlam of the night battle.

nishimur picture
     Shoji Nishimura
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

In the pewter morning light U.S. rescue vessels crept into the strait to pick up the thousands of Japanese survivors. Most of the swimmers submerged themselves below the oil-stained surface as the Americans approached, choosing death by drowning over the shame of capture.

To the north, meanwhile, U.S. submarines had intercepted Kurita's formidable group of more than two dozen warships as they made their way across Palawan Passage on October 23. Several well-placed torpedo volleys damaged one cruiser and sank two others, including Kurita's flagship. Fished from the sea, Kurita transferred his flag to the Yamato. The Yamato and its sister ship, the Musashi, the biggest battleships in the world, mounted eighteen-inch guns that fired one-and-a-half-ton projectiles, far larger than anything any gun in the U.S. Navy could throw. Halsey's fliers caught Kurita again in the Sibuyan Sea on the following day and sank the supposedly impregnable Musashi. Land-based Japanese aircraft meanwhile attacked the Third Fleet and sent the carrier Princeton to the bottom.

The Americans had mauled Kurita but had not yet stopped him. Halsey was spoiling for a finish-fight. He drafted a contingency battle plan, signaling to Nimitz at Pearl Harbor that he intended to detach several ships to form a new "Task Force 34" that would stop Kurita at the mouth of San Bernardino Strait. But there was one thing wrong: Kurita's force was composed entirely of surface gunships. Where were the Japanese carriers, the great prize for which Halsey thirsted?

The answer was that they were to Halsey's north, doing their best to be discovered and tempt Halsey away from San Bernardino. When some of the Third Fleet's fliers reported at midday on October 24 that they had engaged planes with tailhooks, unmistakably identifying them as carrier-based aircraft, Halsey was off like a greyhound after a hare. Faced with the choice of protection or pursuit, and believing erroneously that he may have already inflicted enough damage on Kurita to stop him, Halsey scarcely hesitated. He scrapped the plan to create Task Force 34 and steamed away with his entire fleet to chase the Japanese carriers. He had swallowed Ozawa's bait, leaving the door of San Bernardino Strait wide open for Kurita.

shima picture
     Kiyohide Shima
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

Kurita steamed through San Bernardino unopposed shortly after midnight on October 25. His depleted but still powerful force bore down on the most northerly of Kinkaid's escort-carrier squadrons, Taffy 3. A colossal mismatch ensued—the Yamato and three other battleships, along with several heavy and light cruisers, against a handful of destroyers and six escort carriers never designed for full-scale battle at sea. Slow, thinly armored, undergunned, and mostly munitioned with ordnance for tactical air support, the baby flat-tops were sitting ducks. Great green, purple, and yellow geysers erupted among them, as Japanese shells, with their telltale dye-marked bursts, scattered the surprised American ships. Taffy 3's little carriers made smoke and dove into a rain squall for further concealment, while the U.S. destroyers brazenly charged the larger and more numerous Japanese ships. The destroyer Johnston took so many hits from the Japanese gun batteries that one crewman compared it to "a puppy being smacked by a truck." Eventually, he said, "we were in a position where all the gallantry and guts in the world could not save us," and the order "Abandon ship" came. A swimming survivor saw a Japanese officer salute as the Johnston slipped beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, Kinkaid and Nimitz were frantically signaling to Halsey for help. At 10:00 A.M. on October 25 a signalman handed Halsey a message from Nimitz that was destined to become notorious: "Where Is, Repeat, Where Is Task Force 34, The World Wonders?" The last phrase, "The World Wonders," was padding, the kind of verbiage, frequently nonsensical, that was routinely inserted in encrypted messages to foil enemy cryptographers. But the decoding officer on Halsey's flagship apparently believed that the end padding in Nimitz's signal was part of the message. He typed it onto the page that was handed to the admiral. The presumed insult unnerved Halsey. He threw his hat to the deck and began to sob. An aide shook him by the shoulders and said, "What the hell's the matter with you? Pull yourself together!"

The Third Fleet's carriers continued to press the attack on Ozawa, all four of whose carriers eventually went down, including the Zuikaku, the last survivor from the force that had lofted the planes that opened the war at Pearl Harbor. Halsey, however, headed back to Samar with his battleship group. He was too late to relieve Kinkaid, but it scarcely mattered. Kurita, perhaps rattled by his unplanned swim in Palawan Passage, had incredibly concluded that the little scratch force of baby flat-tops desperately trying to evade him off Samar was Halsey's powerful big-carrier Task Force 38. Ironically, at about the time that Halsey was reading Nimitz's radiogram, Kurita decided to break off the attack and head back to Lingga Roads.

kurita picture
     Takeo Kurita
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

The epic battle of Leyte Gulf was not quite over. Even as Kurita was withdrawing, the Japanese launched a fearsome new weapon against the Taffy groups: suicide attacks by land-based kamikaze warplanes. Kamikaze means "Divine Wind," in a reference to the typhoon that scattered Kublai Khan's invasion fleet as it headed for Japan in the thirteenth century. Kamikaze pilots prepared for their missions with elaborate ceremonials, including ritual prayer, the composition of farewell poems, and the presentation to each flier of a "thousand-stitch belt," a strip of cloth into which a thousand women had each sewn a stitch, symbolically uniting themselves with the pilot's ultimate sacrifice. Late in the morning of October 25 the first wave of kamikazes lashed out of the sky over Taffy 3. One headed straight for the escort carrier St. Lô. Disbelieving anti-aircraft gunners tried desperately to knock it down, to no avail. The plane crashed into the St. Lô's flight deck and disgorged a bomb deep in the ship's interior. As sailors on nearby ships watched in horrified fascination, the St. Lô exploded, heeled over on its side, and sank with 114 men aboard. It was a grisly demonstration of the kind of resistance Japan was still prepared to offer.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf ended an era, but it did not end the war. The encounters at Surigao and Samar were the last of their kind. They closed an epoch of ship-to-ship gunnery duels, the standard form of naval warfare for centuries before 1944. No nation would ever again build a battleship; aircraft carriers had proved themselves the final arbiters of battle at sea. At Leyte Gulf the Japanese navy had suffered a crushing defeat, losing four carriers, three battleships, nine cruisers, a dozen destroyers, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of sailors and pilots. But as the kamikaze raids spectacularly illustrated, Japan had not lost its will to fight.

The War's End

NOR had the United States. After brutal battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the first half of 1945, battles that consumed the lives of almost 19,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and Marines, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6. Eight days later the war was over.

The atomic bomb was of course the war's most revolutionary scientific invention. As it unlatched from its bomb bay on that fateful August morning, it was on its way to ending the Second World War even as it was opening a new chapter in the history of warfare. But the great nuclear blast that obliterated Hiroshima hardly represented a moral novelty by this date in the conflict. The moral rules that had long stayed warriors' hands from taking up weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations had long since been violently breached—in the Allied aerial attacks on European cities, and even more wantonly in the systematic firebombing of Japan.

On January 7, 1945, Air Force General Curtis LeMay had arrived on Guam to take charge of the 21st Bomber Command. He was a gruff, stocky man, one of the youngest generals in the Army. LeMay had led several "precision" bombing raids against military targets in Germany, but had by this time abandoned the idea of precision bombing in favor of terror attacks on civilians. "I'll tell you what war is about," he once said. "You've got to kill people, and when you've killed enough, they stop fighting."

LeMay deployed two intimidating new technologies against Japan's highly flammable cities, where most people lived in wooden houses. The first was a fiendishly efficient six-pound incendiary bomblet developed by Standard Oil chemists—the M-69 projectile, which spewed burning gelatinized gasoline that stuck to its targets and was virtually unextinguishable by conventional means. The second was the B-29 "Superfortress," an awesome specimen of American engineering prowess and mass-production techniques. LeMay had some 350 B-29s in the Marianas in January of 1945, and more were arriving constantly. They were nearly a hundred feet in length, with a 141-foot wingspan and a three-story-high tail section. They were powered by four 2,200-horsepower Wright eighteen-cylinder radial air-cooled magnesium-alloy engines, each fitted with two General Electric exhaust-driven turbo-superchargers. The B-29 carried a crew of eleven in its pressurized cabin and a bomb load of up to 20,000 pounds. It had an operational ceiling over 35,000 feet and a combat range of more than 4,000 miles. An onboard computerized central control system allowed for remote firing from its five defensive gun turrets.

LeMay set out at once to perfect the 21st Bomber Command's firebombing techniques. To enlarge bomb loads, he stripped all but the tail-turret guns from his B-29s. To avoid the recently discovered jet stream, which foiled some of his earliest raids on Japan, he trained his pilots in low-altitude attacks. He experimented with bombing patterns and with mixes of explosive and incendiary bomb loads. His goal was to create firestorms like the ones that had consumed Hamburg and Dresden, conflagrations so vast and intense that nothing could survive them—not mere fires but thermal hurricanes that killed by suffocation as well as by heat, as the flames sucked all available oxygen out of the atmosphere.

After practice runs on Kobe and on a section of Tokyo in February, LeMay launched 334 Superfortresses from the Marianas on the night of March 9. A few minutes after midnight they began to lay their clusters of M-69s over Tokyo, methodically crisscrossing the target zone to create concentric rings of fire that soon merged into a sea of flame. Rising thermal currents buffeted the mile-high B-29s and knocked them about like paper airplanes. When the raiders flew away, shortly before 4:00 A.M., they left behind them a million homeless Japanese and nearly 90,000 dead. The victims died from fire, asphyxiation, and falling buildings. Some boiled to death in superheated canals and ponds where they had sought refuge from the flames. In the next five months LeMay's bombers attacked sixty-six of Japan's largest cities, destroying 43 percent of their built-up areas. They demolished the homes of more than eight million people, killed as many as 700,000, and injured perhaps one million more. Hiroshima and Nagasaki survived to be atomic-bombed only because LeMay's superiors removed them from his target list.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus