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Tragedy to Triumph: From Pearl Harbor to Midway

From the first moments of horrible realization by the Americans on Dec. 7, 1941, there was an almost obsessive motivation to fight back, hit the Japanese wherever they could be found, and regain the initiative. What became the Pacific War was perhaps the most brutal and personal of military campaigns ever fought by the United States. The Yankee willingness to sacrifice to the last full measure was something unexpected by the Japanese, who wrongly assumed Americans were a soft and materialistic race. As such, they became one of the many opponents who did not appreciate the American character, nor understand American motivations and desires as a people. It was a misinterpretation that would cost them their own dreams of manifest destiny and empire, and help create the modern world we know today. However, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the situation looked anything but promising for the United States.

By attacking the United States and its allies, Japan had taken the initiative and struck the first blow in what was going to be the largest (geographically at least) military confrontation in the history of warfare. Throughout the Pacific Basin, Japanese forces attacked dozens of targets belonging to the United States, Great Britain, and The Netherlands, with forces as small as a pair of destroyers bombarding Midway Atoll, to the massive assaults on the Philippines and Kra Peninsula.

Such an offensive posture was necessary for Japan, which had far too few resources to sustain a war taking years to resolve. Japan’s strategy for the Pacific campaign required victory within 12 to 18 months maximum, or America’s vast industrial potential would provide a lethal advantage. Such had been the logic of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, when he had laid out the Imperial Navy’s war plans in mid-1941. Conversely, America’s key goal in the months following Pearl Harbor was simple survival: Retain the critical bases and supply lines to Hawaii and Australia while the shipyards and schools back home created the forces to defeat Japan.

There was one group of people unwilling to wait for American industry to deliver the tools to decisively defeat Japan: the professional corps of American naval officers.

While these opposing war plans were obvious to everyone with any strategic vision in late 1941, there was one group of people unwilling to wait for American industry to deliver the tools to decisively defeat Japan: the professional corps of American naval officers. Prideful and filled with vengeful rage following Pearl Harbor, these men were not content to merely “hold the line” for a year or two while Japan ran wild in the Pacific. They wanted to take back the initiative, fight battles of their own choosing, and take the fight into Japan’s front yard as soon as their superiors would let them. The leader of this rush to battle was the new Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who took over command on Dec. 17.

Before he could start the march back, there would be many bad days and defeats ahead, some of which occurred before he even took command. In the leadership vacuum between Adm. Husband Kimmel’s departure and Nimitz’s arrival, an expedition to relieve the Marines at Wake Island turned back to Pearl Harbor, mostly due to a lack of positive leadership on the part of the interim CINCPAC, Vice Adm. W.S. Pye. For almost two weeks following Pearl Harbor, the Marine garrison on Wake held off Japanese invasion assaults and air attack, sinking several warships in the process, before succumbing to overwhelming force on Dec. 23. Then in January, the carrier Saratoga (CV 3) was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and put out of action for six months while patrolling off of the Hawaiian Islands. The good news was that Kimmel left Nimitz an extraordinary group of staff officers, many of who served with him until the war was won in 1945. There also were promising officers like Vice Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey and Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance who would lead his fleets to victory in the years to come. In the winter of 1941-42 though, there was no joy to be had at CINCPAC Headquarters.

 

The Death of the Asiatic Fleet

Of all the trials endured by Allied naval forces, none was more brutal than that of the men and ships assigned to duty in the Far East. Already a skeleton force, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet and British Far Eastern Fleet were numerically small forces, just starting to be reinforced as the peace was broken. Almost immediately, both fleets suffered terrible losses. The United States took the first blow, when the Japanese bombed and wrecked the Cavite Naval Base on Dec. 10. This forced Adm. Thomas Hart, the commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, to move his handful of cruisers and destroyers to the south, leaving only a few submarines and PT boats to defend the Philippines. Even worse came when Japanese land-based level and torpedo bombers attacked and sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse on the same day. Force Z, composed of the two big-gun warships and four destroyers, had been trying to intercept the Japanese invasion force headed for the Kra Peninsula when it was overwhelmed north of Singapore. This meant that not one Allied capital ship was left in the Far East to defend against the Japanese onslaught. Within weeks, every Crown possession in East Asia, including Hong Kong and Singapore, was in Japanese hands.

USS Marblehead (CL 12)

The Asiatic Fleet fought hard and valiantly with what it had. The old light cruiser USS Marblehead (CL 12), damaged by Japanese bombers, steamed back to the states for repairs, escaping the fate of most of the Asiatic Fleet. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

The next four months were spent in a running retreat to the Java-New Guinea chain of islands, with almost every Allied ship engaged sunk. A multinational Australian-British- Dutch-American naval command, dubbed ABDAFloat, was formed, and pulled together the various ships available to defend what became known as “the Java Barrier,” but this effort was a fiasco. The only bright spot for the ABDA command came on Jan. 24, when four American destroyers sank a few Japanese transports at Balikpapan. Through several vicious surface engagements and many air attacks, the ABDAFLOAT force was gradually worn down and eventually wiped out. The climax of ABDAFLOAT’s short history came between Feb. 27 and March 1, with the Battle of the Java Sea. One of just a handful of surface engagements to take place primarily in daylight, Java Sea was a triumph for the Japanese and their devastating Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes.

Famous ships like the heavy cruiser Houston (CA 30) and America’s first aircraft carrier, Langley (AV 3, converted to an aircraft transport), were lost in a series of running battles. By the end of the Java campaign, only a handful of World War I-era destroyers and a few PBY Catalina patrol planes had survived the terrible trip down from the Philippines. These survivors joined up with the small Allied naval force forming to defend Australia, and stood by to repel the Japanese invasion that was expected in the spring. Composed of Australian, New Zealand, and U.S. (ANZUS) warships and aircraft, it would be placed under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had just escaped from the Philippines. Before that happened, however, circumstances elsewhere began to change Allied fortunes in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

In April 1942, when the Japanese sent their striking force of aircraft carriers, commanded by Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, into the Indian Ocean, British Adm. Sir James Somerville managed to evade them. Despite being outnumbered and overmatched, Somerville skillfully preserved his small force of battleships and aircraft carriers. Despite the loss of the light carrier Hermes, two cruisers, and a handful of destroyers and merchant ships, the British position in South Asia was safe for the time being. Attention would now turn to the Americans and Australians, who would take up the battle.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...