By Tommy Hough
Seventy-five years ago this week, the United States was in a fight for its life.
While the Battle of Midway in June 1942 resulted in a thundering defeat for Japan as four of its front-line carriers were sunk, the Japanese fleet remained an immediate threat throughout the Guadalcanal and Solomons campaign into early 1943. It wasn't until the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944 that the air arm of the Imperial Japanese Navy was fully destroyed, and even with that loss Japan continued to fight on for another year, with the bloody campaigns in the the Palau Islands, the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa to follow.
All of this was far off and unimaginable in early 1942. The U.S. had declared war on Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan in December 1941, but only Japan had actually attacked the United States – infamously, as President Roosevelt said in his declaration of war – in the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy and overall commander of the Kito Butai battle group that carried out the attack on Hawaii, was opposed to the idea of war with the U.S., but hoped the strike on Pearl Harbor would deliver such a knockout blow the U.S. would have no choice but to sue for peace.
While the Japanese attack was indeed devastating, the one target Yamamoto had prioritized for destruction above all else had the good fortune of not being at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. As it turned out, the aircraft carriers Lexington, Saratoga and Enterprise were all at sea looking for the Japanese fleet the morning of the attack.
Adolf Hitler declared war on the U.S. four days after Pearl Harbor and the U.S. responded in kind, but it was the nation's seething desire for revenge and retribution against Japan that fueled the American public's attention in early 1942. Even as America's new Soviet allies were stopping the German Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow, and the British were chasing German forces across North Africa, U.S. focus was solely on the Pacific.
At first, things did not go well. In fact, by the spring of 1942, the American public was reeling from a string of bitter disasters and humiliations.
In February the Ellwood Oil Field north of Santa Barbara was shelled by a Japanese submarine, which led to the phantom "Battle of Los Angeles" in the skies over L.A. days several nights later, as trigger-happy anti-aircraft gunners shot away for hours at what they thought were Japanese planes. There were none, but panicked drivers caused dozens of traffic accidents around the city as spent shells fell out of the sky.
Sadly, this only increased the paranoia that led to President Roosevelt signing of the notorious Executive Order 9066, which committed Japanese-American citizens on the west coast to internment for the remainder of the war, even though a Roosevelt administration study from the previous fall advised against such a move in the event of war with Japan.
In the war zone, things went from bad to worse.
The U.S. territory of Guam in the Mariana Islands was overrun by the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor, and a planned task force mission to rescue besieged Wake Island was cancelled at the last minute by nervous commanders in Hawaii who feared a Japanese invasion – thereby sealing the fate of Wake Island's U.S. marine and civilian contractor defenders, many of whom were murdered in captivity by the Japanese 18 months later.
The Japanese seized Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, then moved south to capture Singapore in what became a humiliating rout for the British. The Royal Navy's Repulse and Prince of Wales, two of the world's newest and technologically superior warships, were sunk within minutes of each other by the air arm of Japan's Kito Butai, demonstrating once and for all that capable and well-deployed air power would readily overcome sea power, no matter the size of the dreadnoughts.
The USS Houston, one of FDR's favorite ships and the pride of the U.S. Pacific fleet, was sunk with a dozen obsolete cruisers and destroyers of a combined task force of U.S., British, Australian and Dutch warships in defense of the Dutch East Indies in the calamitous Battle of the Java Sea.
Japanese forces landed at New Guinea, and despite being at the end of a long supply line into the South Pacific, were soon threatening sea routes to Australia. The Kito Butai raided British ships and bases in the Indian Ocean, then shifted eastward to support the bombing of mainland Australia at Darwin in February 1942. It seemed as though nothing could stop the Japanese advance.
With decades of hubris fueling defensive measures, all of the British heavy guns at Singapore faced seaward in order to hold off an expected amphibious invasion. No one in the British Far East command ever considered an attack on Singapore would come from the rear, through the "impassable" jungles of Malaysia. So the Japanese did just that, attacking by way of the landward route down the Malayan peninsula, and deafeating the massive British garrison in just seven days.
The defeat at Singapore, in which British forces far outnumbered the Japanese at the time of surrender, remains one of the United Kingdom's most ignominous defeats, as over 130,000 troops were taken prisoner in the largest surrender of British-led forces in history.
U.S. forces in the Philippines held out in a desperate rearguard action until May 1942, following a well-executed retreat from the mainland of Luzon to the Bataan peninsula shortly after the Japanese landings. While the American defense of Bataan slowed the overall Japanese offensive in the Pacific, there was no meaningful way a relief effort could reach the Philippines, now far behind enemy lines. Bataan fell in April, and the fortified island of Corregidor – which blocked access into Manila Bay – fell in May. Over 100,000 U.S. and Filippino troops surrendered in the the largest mass capitulation in U.S. history. It remains America's worst military disaster.
Even as the bad news unfolded throughout the Pacific, U.S. carrier forces quickly regrouped after the shock of Pearl Harbor and stayed at sea as repairs got underway on Oahu. The Yorktown and Enterprise battle groups led hit-and-run raids on Japanese bases in the Gilbert and Marshall islands at the end of January 1942, and while the raids themselves had little military impact, it gave U.S. carrier pilots and fleet operations valuable combat experience that would serve them well later in the year.
Then, in April 1942, in one of the most audacious attacks in the history of warfare, the USS Hornet, recalled from U-Boat patrol duty in the Atlantic, launched land-based Army B-25 bombers from its deck 650 miles from Japan to attack the Japanese mainland in the Doolittle Raid. Planning for the operation had begun shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the feat of launching large, land-based bombers from an aircraft carrier was never repeated again in the war – in part because the carriers could barely launch the bombers to begin with, and definitely could not retrieve them.
Most of the bomber crews, including the mission's namesake commander James Doolitle, crash-landed in China, with one aircraft landing in the Soviet Union. Several crews were captured by the Japanese in occupied China, and several Doolittle raiders were put to death by the Japanese as war criminals. While the raid barely scratched Japanese industry, it did have the desired effect of shocking the Japanese populace into realizing their nation could be attacked. The Doolittle Raid was also a desperately needed shot in the arm for U.S. morale, coming days after the fall of Bataan.
Admiral Yamamoto was keenly aware that he had missed the U.S. carriers at Pearl Harbor, and as the raids on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands and the Doolittle Raid made clear, the Americans were making effective use of their carriers along the edge of Japan's new strategic perimeter. Yamamoto knew that Japan's newly-conquered island territories, stretching far out into the Pacific, were too far apart to offer mutual support. The admiral also knew he would be facing the might of U.S. industrial output by early 1943 as new ships, materiel and men arrived in the theater at a rate the Japanese could never hope to match.
As Yamamoto concluded another try at a knockout blow was necessary, the Battle of the Coral Sea unfolded in the waters off Australia in May 1942. Here, in the first major carrier battle of the Pacific War, the Japanese advance was at last checked as carrier-based aircraft, rather than battleships and cruisers, carried the fight to the enemy. The Lexington was lost in the battle, but the fight compelled Yamomoto to act quickly. He needed an operation that would compel U.S. forces to respond, and draw them out into what he and other Japanese naval officers felt would be the penultimate naval battle between the two fleets, in which Japan would deliver the decisive blow.
Curiously, this strategy was based upon the theories of U.S. Admiral Alfred Mahan, America's leading naval strategist of the late 19th century. Mahan's teachings were considered gospel by the officer corps of the Imperial Japanese Navy, even though they had been largely abandoned by U.S. commanders, having been developed nearly 50 years before and never fully realized in real, wartime scenarios.
To Yamamoto, an invasion of the island of Midway seemed to be the best option to draw the Americans out to fight. A stopover for Pan American commercial traffic heading to Asia ("midway" from San Francisco to destinations in China), Midway had grown into a major U.S. Army outpost, and was technically part of the Hawaiian Islands chain, albeit to the extreme northwest. Yamamoto felt the Americans would be obliged to defend it.
As it turned out, the Americans were listening.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.