Thursday, June 2, 2011

America's Turning Point in the Pacific

Six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the forces of Imperial Japan seemed all but invincible and poised to continue the conquest of Southeast Asia and the former colonial empires of France, Britain and the Dutch East Indies.
Indeed, the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl was only an attempt to prevent the United States from standing in the way of the Japanese empire’s seizure of the rich resources the former colonies would bring.  Adm. Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, gambled that by destroying the bulk of America’s naval power in the Pacific, Japan could buy itself six months to a year for the conquest of these valuable possessions.
America was still reeling from the blow that launched us into the war and was scrambling to prepare industrially and militarily to not only prevent Nazi Germany from conquering Europe, but also to strike back at Japan and bring what was largely viewed as a criminal regime to justice. 
The American people were growing tired of defeat after defeat and wanted to see our armed forces on the offensive.  The table would soon be turned at a point roughly midway between the west coast of the United States and the home islands of Japan.
Considering the large disparity in the forces available to the United States compared to those of the Japanese Empire, the chances were long that America would be able to make much of a dent  in that island nation’s newly acquired fortress.  In May of 1942, the U.S. had lost its forward presence in the Philippines and Guam, leaving only the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, Lexington, Hornet and Saratoga as valid platforms from which to launch strikes at the Japanese.  To make matters worse, Lexington would be lost at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8 and Saratoga, which was torpedoed in early January, was laid up on the west coast for repairs, leaving three of her air groups on Oahu.
But what America lacked in military assets, she made up for in crack communications intelligence and level-headed leadership.  As early as May 15, Adm. Nimitz received solid intelligence from Station Hypo based out of building one at Pearl Harbor that the Japanese intended to occupy Midway atoll, located 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu.
From there, the Japanese would to be able to threaten Oahu and bring out the American carriers for what they hoped to be a final death blow to the Pacific Fleet.  Little did the Japan know that not only did Nimitz have the knowledge that they were coming with four carriers, but when and from what direction.   In essence, he intended to ambush their ambush.
The admiral knew that our carriers were the most valuable military asset available to the United States, and he would not waste them on a guess.  But he trusted his intelligence staff and the commanders, pilots and crews of the two task forces he sent to wait for the unsuspecting invaders. He knew that by concentrating his forces at the right place at the right time he could strike a counter blow to the Japanese that would even the score in the Pacific.
Hiryu burns on June 5
On June 4, 1942, the hammer fell on the Japanese Navy.  Dive bombers from the carriers Yorktown and Enterprise destroyed Japan’s frontline carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi and Kaga.  All four had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor just six months before, and all four now lay at the bottom of the Pacific.
America had won a decisive battle against a seemingly invincible foe but not without scars, as surviving Japanese aircraft from Hiryu, the last Japanese carrier to be sunk that day, found Yorktown and inflicted damage that would eventually lead to her destruction.
Nonetheless, the Battle of Midway would be remembered as a turning point, if not the turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War Two.  As a result of the battle, the United States had crippled Japan’s ability to launch further large-scale mobile strikes against Allied forces, and American forces would soon take the offensive.  The American people now had the decisive victory they had been longing for since December of 1941.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Yorktown's Last Stand

At 1352 on May 27, 1942 the USS Yorktown limped battered and bruised into Pearl Harbor's berth 16.  She had just arrived on her long journey from the Battle of the Coral Sea where she had taken a critical bomb hit on May 8 that had exploded deep witnin her interior.  She was lucky to be arriving in Pearl Harbor at all, but luck was a commodity that would touch America again early in 1942.  Probably no one would have believed that Yorktown would be seeing action anytime soon, most expected some minimum repair work at Pearl and then several months of more extensive repair on the West Coast.  This was not to be the case.

Admiral Nimitz and the Pacific Fleet needed Yorktown , as well as the carriers Enterprise and Hornet right away to counter what his own intelligence office was telling him would be a Japanese attempt to invade and occupy the Midway Atoll within a matter of days.  Yorktown had suffered considerable structural damage which limited her speed a great deal.  Without speed a carrier would be seriously hampered in its ability to launch aircraft and just as importantly to evade attack.  The next day Yorktown was moved to dry dock one where she was flooded with electricians, welders, machinists and every other Pearl Harbor Shipyard worker that could be mustered in oreder to get her "up to speed" immediatley.  They worked through all hours of the day and through out the night and with the first of many miracles that the shpyard would complete in the war, Yorktown pulled out of Pearl Harbor on May 30 on her way to "Point Luck", a spot in the ocean about 300 miles northeast of Midway, from which Admiral Nimitz hoped to spring our own trap on the Imperial Japanese forces coming to do destroy the Pacific Fleet's air forces.

Sadly, this would be Yorktown's last battle, but one in which her aircraft would play a significant role in balancing the odds in the Pacific by joining with aircraft from the Enterprise  on June 4 to sink all four of the Japanese carriers that had been sent to inflict the same decisive blow on the U.S. Navy.  Those four carriers had made up two-thirds of the First Air-Fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbor on arguably America's darkest day.  Unfortunatley, though the Battle of Midway was an overwhelming success for the United States, Yorktown would never return.

It seems all the more fitting that the day that Yorktown pulled out of Pearl Harbor for her last stand an in America's defense was Memorial Day 1942.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Luke Field

No one could question the combat skill of 2nd Lt Frank Luke, earned in the skies of Europe in 1918.  His 18 kills were second only to Eddie Rickenbacker who said of Luke, “He was the most daring aviator and greatest fighter pilot of the entire war.”  But he had a reputation as a renegade, who preferred to fight alone and who was known to frequently disobey orders. 

On the evening of September 29, 1918 Luke left the airfield at Verdun and proceeded to the front to attack three balloons behind the German lines.  He was subsequently wounded and forced to land in a field west of Murvaux.  Luke fell shortly after removing himself from the aircraft and according to eyewitness he crawled almost 250 feet to a nearby creek in an attempt to hide in the underbrush.  The German soldiers who helped bring Luke down pursued him in hopes of capturing the American pilot before he could escape.  Luke, knowing that his wound was fatal raised himself to face his captors and fired his pistol in their direction before collapsing to the ground dead.  He died with the same defiant moxy with which he had lived. 
The Germans buried Luke’s body in the Murvaux cemetery but his remains were later recovered by U.S. forces and reburied in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, located east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon.

As a result of his actions 2nd Lt Frank Luke was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor which was presented to his father, Frank Luke, Sr in Phoenix, Arizona in May 1919.  The citation reads,

After having previously destroyed a number of enemy aircraft within 17 days he voluntarily started on a patrol after German observation balloons. Though pursued by 8 German planes which were protecting the enemy balloon line, he unhesitatingly attacked and shot down in flames 3 German balloons, being himself under heavy fire from ground batteries and the hostile planes. Severely wounded, he descended to within 50 meters of the ground, and flying at this low altitude near the town of Murvaux opened fire upon enemy troops, killing 6 and wounding as many more. Forced to make a landing and surrounded on all sides by the enemy, who called upon him to surrender, he drew his automatic pistol and defended himself gallantly until he fell dead from a wound in the chest
Ford Island in 1925.  Luke Field is in the center of the island with Army air operations to the left and the Naval Air Station to the right.

On April 30, 1919 shortly before the presentation of Luke’s award, he received recognition of another kind when the new airstrip on Ford Island in the territory of Hawaii was named after him.  The War Department purchased the land in 1917 and moved the 6th Aero Squadron there in October of that same year.

Luke Field in the 1930s
Luke Field would remain under Army control through the earliest days of aviation and was home to a good portion of the Army’s air operations until the establishment of Hickam Field in 1939.  At that time all of the Army Air Corps activities formerly at Luke would be moved to Hickam with the exception of the Hawaiian Air Depot which remained on Ford Island until late 1940.

With this transfer the airfield and facilities on Ford Island came under the control the U.S. Navy and Naval Air Station Pearl Harbor, which had already been established on the opposite side of Ford Island in 1923.  With the onset of World War Two the island saw a massive buildup and the airstrip, formerly known as Luke Field became a central hub for the Navy’s Pacific air operations.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I had the distinct pleasure of escorting Captain Gerald Coffee, USN (Ret) on a tour of USS Abraham Lincoln while she was in port this last weekend.  Captain Coffee was a pilot whose aircraft was shot down while flying a mission in Vietnam.  He spent the next seven years as a POW until his release in 1973.
Captain Coffee was given a VIP tour of the Lincoln by Lieutenant Commander Juston Kuch, an F-18 pilot with VFA-34 the “Blue Blasters”.
The experience had a twofold effect on me.  I was grateful to be able to spend time with Captain Coffee and express my appreciation for his sacrifice in person and I was proud to see the hard work of good people like Lieutenant Commander Kuch who are still carrying out the Navy’s mission with professionalism and pride.

Captain Gerald Coffee, USN (Ret) is greeted by Captain John Alexander Commanding Officer, USS Abraham Lincoln.

Captain Coffee and guests are introduced to Lieutenant Commander Juston Kuch.

Posing next to an F-18 of VFA-34 in hangar bay 2.

Describing flight operations on the flight deck.
Lieutenant Commander Kuch and two wide-eyed future recruits.