Thursday, February 08, 2007

Today's Must Read

Here is a piece penned by Eric McErlain of Off Wing Opinion fame way back in 2001 on his old site The Route 7 Dispatch (sorry I can't get a link to the old site to work - so Eric is letting me repost the piece in its entirety). Eric wrote the piece after visiting the USS Yorktown in Charlestown and after he had read Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (a book that has been on my reading list for too long now). Anyway - here is your lost bit of history for the day:
The Price Of Preparedness

Are we all dimwits? We just sit there with goofy looks on our faces while the economy sputters and the president blows what remains of the budget surplus on a tax giveaway to the rich. With nary a peep as the "what me worry?" kid has the gall to make stealing funds from Social Security and Medicare -- to pay for a military buildup to fight an enemy that doesn't exist -- sound like fiscal responsibility.

Robert Scheer
August 28, 2001

On June 4, 1942, all that stood between the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States were the ships, sailors and naval airman of Task Forces 17 and 18 -- two carrier battle groups centered around the carriers USS Enterprise, USS Yorktown and USS Hornet. Alerted by Navy Intelligence, the carriers had been dispatched there to lie in wait for an immense Japanese fleet that meant to support the invasion of Midway Island, a small outpost guarding the approaches to Hawaii.

The senior commanders of the IJN had chosen Midway to be the site of what they hoped would be the decisive battle of the Pacific War. Their grand strategists believed that if they invaded Midway, a mere 1,100 miles from Hawaii, they could draw out the main strength of the US Navy -- it's fleet carriers -- force them into battle and destroy them.

The fleet carriers, which had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor almost six months before, represented the only near-term threat to the IJN in the entire Pacific theater. With the American carriers out of the way, the Japanese could isolate Australia, cutting it's long and tenuous lines of supply and communication to the U.S. In turn, the Japanese could the fortify their conquests in what they called, "The Southern Area," the groups of South Pacific islands they had taken over the last six months to gain unfettered access to resources and raw materials to fuel their war machine.

That morning, aboard USS Hornet, waiting in the aircraft ready room, was Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron of Pierre, South Dakota. Waldron was commander of Torpedo 8, a squadron of Devestator torpedo bombers. These days, even in a time when the American public seems to be rediscovering the exploits of those we now call, "The Greatest Generation," Waldron's is a name that is seldom heard outside detailed descriptions of the battle. In any case, for Tom Brokaw to write an essay about you for his book, you had to manage to survive the war.

The sunrise on June 4, 1942 would be the last Lieutenant Commander Waldron ever saw. A look at the historical record suggests that he knew it too.

The Devestator, an ungainly airplane, was a slow-moving deathtrap. The Navy already knew that, and had a new plane, the Avenger, waiting to take its place. Unfortunately, production of the Avenger didn't proceed fast enough to supply more than a token force for the battle -- and none of those were aboard any of the American carriers.

The torpedoes the planes carried were virtually useless as well. During the first months of the Pacific War, American submarine commanders reported that while the torpedoes they fired at the enemy would strike the target, more often than not, they would fail to detonate. The aerial torpedoes the Americans carried had similar problems, and in fact were years behind in development and sophistication compared with the ones carried by their Japanese counterparts.

Finally, and perhaps most tragically, there was one last thing that all the torpedo pilots flying off the Hornet that day had in common: the torpedoes they dropped at Midway would be the first they would ever drop. Waldron, described by Admiral Marc Mitscher of the Hornet after the battle as an "aggressive commander", had trained his men, mostly from the Naval Reserve, as hard as he could. Despite this, none had ever dropped a torpedo, either in combat, or in training.

One the eve of the battle, Waldron had urged his men to write one last letter home to their families, lest they never get another chance. He was right to.

At 8:00 a.m., the carrier task forces turned into the wind, and launched their planes. All morning long, land-based planes from Midway Island had engaged the Japanese fleet, but to no affect.

At around 9:30 a.m., Waldron andd Torpedo 8 became the first American carrier-based planes to attack the Japanese. Ironically, the Hornet's other two squadrons, Scouting 8 and Bombing 8, never managed to find the Japanese fleet that morning. But Waldron and Torpedo 8 did.

The planes went in without any fighter cover, leaving them horribly vulnerable to attack from the Japanese fighter screen. As the Americans pressed home their attack, "low and slow" through anti-aircraft fire, they were jumped by swarms of Zero fighter planes who didn't need to worry about tangling with any American fighters. Torpedo 8 never had a chance.

One by one, the American planes burst into flame and tumbled into the Pacific. In the end, all 15 planes in Waldron's squadron were shot down. Of the 30 naval airman in Waldron's unit, only one, a pilot, Ensign George Gay, survived the battle. After being rescued, Gay reported that while the torpedo he dropped had struck the Japanese carrier Kaga, it failed to explode.

Minutes later, another 26 torpedo bombers from the Yorktown and the Enterprise would attack. The result was much the same. Of those 26 planes, only 5 returned home, all without scoring one hit. 36 planes were gone, and seventy-one American naval aviators were dead.

But unlike the men of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, or the brave ANZACs clinging to the beaches at Gallipoli, the airmen of the Hornet, Yorktown and Enterprise did not die in vain. Because while the Japanese were fighting off the desperate yet doomed attack, the rest of the strike aircraft from the American carriers appeared in the skies over the Japanese fleet.

The pilots of those planes, squadrons of dive bombers from USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown, were the most experienced in the US Pacific Fleet. Before the war, the US Navy, under sharp attack by many critics, had stoutly defended the use of dive bombers to attack enemy ships.

As a result, Navy dive bomber crews went through a strenuous training regimen -- with units regularly competing against one another to hone their skills. The men of the Enterprise were the most experienced pilots in the U.S. Navy, having spent the better part of the first six months of the war performing hit and run attacks on Japanese bases throughout the Pacific. In addition, the dive bomber crews flew the SBD Dauntless, an aircraft far superior in both speed and maneuverability to the Devestator. There was never any question about whether or not their aerial bombs would detonate when they struck home.

This incredible combination of experience, solid weaponry, and luck would prove to be the difference that day. In only five minutes, the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, the heart of the Japanese fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbor, were ablaze as American bombs crashed through flight decks crowded with planes, bombs and aviation fuel. The tide of the Pacific War had turned for good.

The aviators lost that day wouldn't be the last Americans to die. In the confusion of the initial torpedo attack, one Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, was able to slip away. Before another American strike could sink her, the Hiryu was able to launch two attacks on USS Yorktown, and disable her. Later, Yorktown, dead in the water and with a heavy list, was sunk by a Japanese submarine. After all, the Japanese had torpedoes that worked. A similar attack by an American submarine, the USS Nautilus, resulted in several hits, but no explosions.

With lessons like this one from American history, one has to wonder out loud why we seem doomed to repeat the same debate about military spending. Troops that are well trained and equipped, like our forces in the Gulf War, perform splendidly. Forces that are neglected, both in terms of training and weaponry, like the brave souls of Torpedo 8, wind up as martyrs.

After almost a decade of neglect by the Clinton Administration, our military has been seriously gutted. Budget cuts have drained money once used for training, and often times American pilots can't train at all because they don't have enough spare parts to keep their aircraft flying. Meanwhile, many of our forces are still relying on weapons that first came to life on the drawing board beginning in the Nixon Administration, and dollars for new weapons development continues to go wanting.

Some critics respond, like Robert Scheer above, that we simply have no enemies to fight. Of course, during the crucial years when America could have been developing the weapons that could have given John Waldron and his men a chance to survive, the nation was withdrawing into an isolationist shell, hoping the world would just leave America alone.

Few remember that during World War I, Japan was actually out ally. Despite this, the historical record shows that senior Japanese military officials had determined by 1918, before World War I had even ended, that the U.S. was Japan's number one enemy and that war between the two countries was inevitable.

If we had seen the danger earlier, might it have made a difference on that day in 1942? Undoubtedly it would have. Remember, the Avenger, a plane far superior to Waldron's Devestator was only weeks away from joining the Pacific Fleet in significant numbers. That, and a stronger commitment to weapons development might have actually produced a torpedo that would explode after hitting a target.

Today, the debate in Washington is relatively mute on this point. After promising that help was on the way, the Bush Administration seems content to keep the Pentagon's budget on a flat line, while some Democrats look to cut even more savings out of defense programs in order to balance the budget.

Of course, today we have a Congress where few members ever served in the military, and more than a few who view it as either a massive social experiment, or something to be loathed. To expect politicians such as these to understand that their neglect will eventually wind up costing American lives is perhaps too much to ask for.
That's a very nice piece of writing.

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