Friday, February 14, 2014

Six Minutes that Changed the Course of a War

I wasn't really sure about a post today.  Then I decided to take a picture of one of my diecast models on my work desk.  Today's model is the Dauntless Dive Bomber.
 The Dauntless was a dive bomber that was manufactured by Douglas Aircraft.  It had its flight on May 1st 1940.  Its designer was Ed Heinemann (who was born in Saginaw, MI), he would later go on to design the A-4 Skyhawk (another pretty bad ass plane).  The plane had a crew of two with a maximum speed of 255 mph.  It could carry a little over 2,000 pounds of bombs.
 But what does that have to do with the title of this post you ask?  Well, I will tell you.  The United States found itself drawn into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Even had the Japanese not attack us, I think we would have been in the war by the end of 1942 anyway.  We were pretty much at war with the Germans as it was.

The Japanese had ambitions to dominant their end of the Pacific Ocean but they realized that goal would be hard to achieve with the US Navy lurking around.  They were hoping that they could strike a devastating enough blow at Pearl Harbor that the US would have no choice but to sue for peace.  In the days after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese ran like a juggernaut through their section of the Pacific Ocean.

For the most part the first part of 1942 was setback after setback for the United States.  They had been kicked out of many of their western Pacific territories.  The news from the European front wasn't much better, so the US devised the Doolittle Raid.  B-25 Bombers were launched from the deck of the USS Hornet and they attacked various targets in Japan.  One of those targets was the Emperor's Palace.  The raid had little tactical effect but it's strategic value was pretty important.  It was one of the reasons why the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto figured he needed to take out the US fleet.

In order to do that, the attack on Midway was planned.  A diversionary attack was mounted against the Aleutians in the hopes that the US Navy would divert its carriers there.  Then they would be forced to engage the Japanese at Midway or the Japanese main force would tackle the American carriers after getting softened up by the Aleutian invasion force.  The Americans had a major advantage, by the time Midway occurred, they had broken the Japanese Naval Code and knew the Japanese plans.  This allowed the Americans to put its fleet in the spot where it could have the maximum effect.
The Japanese were pretty much going into the Battle of Midway blind.  They had no idea they were facing three American carriers.   They thought they sank the USS Yorktown at the Battle of Coral Sea.  Well they did damage her pretty bad but she was able to limp back to Pearl Harbor.  Admiral Nimitz needed an estimate of how long it would take to repair her and he was given the answer of three months.  He told the repair group they had 72 hours.  Amazingly, they were able to get her somewhat functional within that time period but still had some issues to deal with and the civilian repair people were offloaded before the battle.

The Japanese had four veteran carriers to the US three carriers but the US had the advantage of having a pretty good idea of where the Japanese fleet was.  Early in the battle, the Japanese launched a raid on Midway and inflicted pretty heavy damage to the facilities there.  The Midway people were able to mount a counter-attack but it was largely ineffective.

The Americans had a group of PBY Catalina scout planes around Midway and were able to pick up the Japanese strike group.  Almost simultaneously, the Japanese spotted the Yorktown but this led to some indecisiveness on the part of the Japanese.  They ended up switching from high explosive bombs for another raid on Midway to armor piercing bombs for attacking the US fleet.

Upon spotting the fleet, the Americans launched their planes but it was a staggered launch but this proved to be key to the battle of Midway.  The American torpedo bombers attacked the Japanese fleet first but they were pretty much mauled by the Japanese fighter escort.  Orbiting above the fray was the American Dauntless Dive Bombers, within six minutes this group of planes was able to sink three Japanese aircraft carriers.  One of the reasons was because the Japanese attack force was still on the decks of the carriers at the time of the attack.  This meant bombs and fuel were ignitable.  The remaining carrier Hiryu was attacked later. 

The Japanese did manage to sink Yorktown however.  Despite having a pretty formidable fleet, the Japanese decided to withdraw.  Mainly because Spruance didn't decided to press the attack but he stayed in range enough should he have a chance to engage the Japanese again.

This was a major blow to the Japanese Navy.  Not only did they lose four of their carriers but they lost many of their experienced pilots.  They were never really able to recover from this defeat.  If the Japanese had taken Midway, they would have been in position to threaten Pearl Harbor but I think that would have only delayed the end of the war.  Eventually, the American industrial might would have decided Japan's fate.

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