Friday, June 8, 2012

My apologies to the heros of the battle of Midway for missing the anniversary

June 4, 1942.  Midway is just that, a barren island halfway across the Pacific.  And as such, it was of immense strategic value to fighting forces looking at each other from both the East and the West.  Chester Nimitz was put in charge of cleaning up the disaster at Pearl Harbor by Roosevelt himself.  It was well known that the strategy (developed before WWII even broke out) was to play for time with the Japanese, win in Europe and then take care of Asia.  When Roosevelt looked around for the right guy to fight a controlled, delaying action, maybe the President was fooled by Nimitz's calm, Texas demeanor.  However, he picked a true warrior.  So when faced with the prospect of loosing the strategic outpost, Nimitz did not opt for the conservative course of letting the island fall while the US re-established its Pacific naval forces to try to take it back in the future.  He seized the opportunity to put a big dent in the Japanese naval capabilities.  Bear in mind, theirs was better than ours at the time.  We were down to two carriers that were functional in the theater, maybe three if the Yorktown could be patched up with some spit, bailing wire and American know-how.  And the Rising Sun had the edge in their air power too, with their zero's far outperforming our old F4F Wildcats.  But that didn't stop old Chester (or actually young Chester who was only 56 years old).  In the great tradition of his Texas home boys, he saddled up and took his posse after the bad guys who messed up Pearl Harbor.  Carrying the Texas Ranger analogy forward, his top deputy got shot next.  Bull Halsey, who he would've sent in charge of the fleet, was waylaid in a Pearl hospital with a bad bout of debilitating psoriasis.  So Nimitz picked another young gun, Admiral Spruance at a mere 55 years old to head up the group.  And off they went.  With the Yorktown a bit late to the fight, but deemed battle worthy (enough), Spruance ordered Task Force 16 to proceed toward contact with the enemy fleet with understanding that the Yorktown group would be coming along.  The air group on the Enterprise was lead by Wade McCluskey, who had only turned 40 a few days before.  Per his orders, he got his group in motion, armored and up in the air.  However, delays beset all of the other groups.  Finally, with half their fuel burned while waiting around, they were given the order to proceed alone by a frustrated Spruance.  One look at the gauges told the men it was not going to be a round trip.  As it turned out, McCluskey ended up with 32 dive bombers--and nothing else.  Like his commanders, McCluskey was not a man of hesitation, so he and his group took off to the anticipated position of the Japanese fleet.  Only when the fly boys got there, they were alone.  As they started a search grid, two the bombers ran out of fuel and had to ditch in the water.  McCluskey was just about to be forced by low fuel into breaking off the search when he spotted a lone vessel traveling as fast as it could.  He correctly surmised that it was a straggler that was racing to catch up with the rest of the Japanese fleet.  He used the "V" of the ships white wake as an arrow and pressed forward in search of the enemy.  Sure enough, the entire Kido Butai came into view.  The airmen knew their high value targets well.  They wanted the Japanese fleet's largest carrier Kaga and also the flagship carrier Akagi.  McCluskey had tasked his two best squad leaders to lead the parallel attacks, Lieutenants Ed Gallaher and Dick Best (another young whippersnapper at only 32 years old who still got carded buying a beer).  Unfortunately, McCluskey did not come up through ranks as a bomber pilot, but rather as a fighter jockey.  Bomber doctrine would differentiate the target as near and far and not right and left.  Tactics called for Gallaher's lead squadron to fly past the closer carrier and attack the far carrier and then Best would swoop down on the the near one. McClusky made a potentially disastrous error when he finally broke radio silence and ordered Gallaher to take the carrier "on the left" and Best to take the one "on the right".  To add to the confusion, Best never even heard that order.  Post battle speculation was that he radioed to McCluskey with his target at the exact moment McCluskey radioed to him.  In any event, he had just lined his boys up to dive onto the target he thought was his, the Kaga, when Gallaher, McCluskey and the whole other squadron went screaming past him, jumping his target.  Best desperately tried to signal his squad to hold off, but all but his two wing men, Ed Kroeger and Fred Weber had already committed to the dive.  So 27 of the remaining 30 planes dove on the unsuspecting Kaga.  She was plastered with a whole lot of Pearl payback and left a smoldering, barely floating wreck.  In the best tradition of American airmen before and since, Dick Best gathered his wing men and pointed his nose toward the flagship Akagi in what he thought was a pointless and likely fatal attempt to inflict some harm on his targeted enemy.  Each of the three planes carried single 1,000 pound bombs, which sounds like a decent ordnance, but was more like a mosquito bite on a buffalo considering the size of the carrier.  Only sometimes mosquitoes carry deadly diseases.  Just as they had been taught, all three American pilots sited their bombs dead center of the flight deck, just forward of the bridge.  They pulled up at a mere 1,500 feet and skimmed the water in their attempt to pull out of the dive.  Best's 1,000 pounder did a decent of amount of damage to the flight deck as it punched through.  But that damage was nothing compared to the secondary effects.  The Akagi's flight hanger below the deck was crammed with 18 big "Kate" torpedo bombers, which were all armed with Type 91 torpedoes and fueled up.  Better still, there were carts of ordnance beside the planes and more stacked along the walls.  As the av fuel caught and started to pop off the ordnance, the Akagi was doomed.  That was when the straggling and still limping Yorktown finally caught up to the fray.  It launched all it could muster against the carrier Soryu.  In less than half an hour's time, three quarters of the Kido Butai was destroyed, Pearl was avenged and any thoughts of fighting a staying action in the Pacific were banished.

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