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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Makers of Naval Tradition

Carroll Storrs Alden
and Ralph Earle

published by
Ginn & Company, 1942

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p354  Chapter XVI

Makers of Tradition in our Day:
War Once More

The great currents of history, moving along at a snail's pace and then sweeping forward like a torrent, are governed not at all by the calendar. Critical decisions have little or no relation to time. As we look back on certain days that stand out as epochal, none in the memory of living man is more truly a day of destiny for the Americas than Sunday, 7 December, 1941. In the early morning, though conscious that we moved in a warring world, we were at peace with all nations. Our people admittedly were an interested party and realized that we were faced with difficult international problems. But the larger number thought the game was quite in our own hands and were confident of ability to direct it. A very considerable group believed that actual war was most remote — in fact, never would come, so far as the nations of Europe or Asia were concerned, unless we gave deliberate offense and brought it upon ourselves. On this day of destiny the sense of remoteness and security that prevailed throughout our nation and the entire Western Hemisphere was our weakness and folly. At Pearl Harbor we suffered, not a defeat, — for we were not at war, — but a great naval disaster. The lawless attack, causing an appalling loss of lives, ships, and planes, was followed quickly by a declaration of war by the totalitarian powers — first  p355 Japan, then Germany and Italy. The decision no longer was of our choosing. The terrible conflict of Europe and Asia had come to America.

The Japanese attack was a complete surprise, and, being a surprise, it was success­ful. There had been warnings from the State Department, transmitted by the War and Navy Departments. The Office of Naval Intelligence had forwarded news of Japanese ship and troop movements in the Far East that was ominous. But the danger in the Pacific was underestimated, and United States forces in Hawaii thought the warnings applied only to the Philippines and Guam, at least for the time being. The sole precaution taken in the islands at the crossroads of the Pacific was that against sabotage.

Ten months earlier Winston Churchill had said in a broadcast, "Next to cowardice and treachery, overconfidence leading to neglect or slothfulness is the worst of martial crimes." This warning, which he uttered to the British nation and empire, could not have been more direct if spoken to American officers in supreme command in the Hawaiian Islands on the fatal day. They knew the Japanese characteristics — their slight regard for international good faith, their proneness to gain advantage by a surprise attack on a supposedly friendly power. But the defensive strength of American forces in the central Pacific was outstanding, and the danger seemed so remote that no special precautions except those against sabotage were taken. Months before, the army and the navy had carefully worked out a "joint coastal frontier defense plan." Nearly everything of a military nature in the islands being concentrated on Oahu, on which are situated Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, the army was to defend the island against attack and to conduct an inshore aërial patrol extending out twenty  p356 miles; also to operate an aircraft warning system that should have detected any hostile approach within hundreds of miles. The navy was to support the army in the defense of the island and to conduct an air reconnaissance, radiating out from Oahu to a distance of seven or eight hundred miles. Its fleet had task forces operating in various areas off the island, and in connection with the operations carrier and patrol planes conducted reconnaissances in the operating areas.

Although notice had been given by the State Department that the diplomatic negotiations being conducted with Japan might break down, the army and navy, as has been said, did not give serious thought to an attack on Hawaii. Thus Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, in command of the military forces there, and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, failed to confer as they should have on measures to be taken immediately for joint defense. Each assumed that the other was doing his full part and had everything in readiness. Because of the overconfidence and false security, there were, on the day and night previous to 7 December, no inshore aërial patrol by the army and no effective distant air reconnaissance by the navy. The system the army was using worked only intermittently, and on the critical day proved not wholly reliable. The usual week‑end rest and relaxation had been granted to officers and men of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. Early in the morning of 7 December about 60 per cent of the officers and 96 per cent of the men were aboard ship. According to the findings of the Roberts Commission, appointed to make the official investigation and to report on the disaster, the number absent was immaterial.

 p357  As the morning haze began to clear, a few minutes before eight, the men in the navy yard signal tower at Pearl Harbor detected with their glasses what soon proved to be seventy or eighty Japanese fighting, bombing, and torpedo-carrying planes flying at twelve thousand feet, where they had been hidden by the clouds. Warning being given by visual signal, the call to battle stations was sounded aboard the ships, and men rushed to man the anti-aircraft guns. But before a gun had been fired, the enemy planes had descended to lower levels and begun each its appointed task. They had carefully studied the map and they had complete and accurate information of all the vulnerable points. Ford Island, in the harbor, where lay the naval planes, was a target for the enemy's fiercest bombing. At the same time Wheeler Field, near the center of the island, where were the army's fastest fighting planes, and Hickam Field, between Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, where were the army's heavy bombers, were deluged with fragmentation bombs, incendiary bombs, and machine‑gun fire. Hangars were torn to pieces and set on fire. Planes on the ground were punctured with bullets and their gasoline tanks ignited. Power and water supply lines were cut by bomb explosions, so that it was difficult to check the conflagration even when the first attack had spent itself.

The ultimate objective of the attack was the ships of the Pacific Fleet — altogether some seventy-five warships, the strength of the navy, comprising the larger number of our battle­ships, a small number of cruisers, some destroyers, and many auxiliaries. The target ship Utah, a former battle­ship from which the guns had been removed, was smothered with fire and made a victim. She occupied the berth earlier assigned to the airplane-carriers Lexington and Saratoga, and in sinking her the  p358 Japanese thought they were destroying one of our large carriers. This was one of the big achievements they reported. Less than four minutes after the first alarm the guns of the fleet had begun firing. But the advantage which the attacking planes had in those first minutes was enormous as they slipped through the clouds and, even at ten thousand feet, dropped the first bombs with astonishing accuracy. Quickly descending to twenty-five hundred feet they discharged more bombs, and then, diving to lower levels, they released their armor-piercing torpedoes at the ample targets afforded by ships moored alongside of each other.

In addition to the Utah, the battle­ship Arizona was destroyed. A bomb actually passed down through the smokestack and exploded the boiler and then the forward magazine. Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, who from his flagship was directing Battleship Division No. 1, which he commanded, was killed by a bomb that struck the bridge or by the explosion that tore the ship to pieces. Similarly, Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh, commanding officer of the ship, gave his life. The Oklahoma, one of the older battle­ships, was subjected to such punishment that she capsized. According to the report given out by the Secretary of the Navy, however, the damage was not so great but that she could be righted and repaired. Also in the casualty list were the destroyers Cassin and Downes (which were in dry dock), and the destroyer Shaw (in floating dry dock), and the old‑time passenger steamer, converted into a mine-layer during the First World War, Oglala. The Shaw had her bow blown off, but later was provided with a temporary bow so that she could proceed to the West Coast for complete repairs. The other ships at Pearl Harbor sustained damage, but the damage admitted of  p359 repair; for some it required a few days and for some several months.

Only the determined fighting and heroic disregard of personal danger on the part of officers, enlisted men, and civilian employees saved the entire fleet from annihilation. One of the thrilling stories that will go down in history was the holding to duty by Captain Mervyn S. Bennion as he gave his life. In order better to direct the fighting of the West Virginia, he stepped out of the conning tower and onto the signal bridge. There he was struck by a burst of shrapnel that laid open his stomach. He refused to be carried below; and after the pharmacist's mate had given him such first aid as was possible on the bridge, he continued to direct the operations of his ship. He inquired how the battle was proceeding, expressing satisfaction on hearing of the guns that the crews were firing, and giving instructions for the removal of the wounded from the ship. When the bridge became a blazing inferno, two officers attempted to remove him; but he ordered them to abandon him and save themselves. Only by the gallant assistance of a third officer, with disregard of his own safety, was a line passed to the two officers from a battle­ship alongside, enabling them to climb to safety.

Another stirring service recounted by the Secretary of the Navy after he had gone to Honolulu was of a Naval Reserve ensign who volunteered as skipper of a motor launch:

With four men he proceeded across Pearl Harbor's reverberating channel through a hail of enemy machine‑gun fire and shrapnel. They saved almost one hundred men from one battle­ship — men who had been injured or blown overboard into the oil‑fired waters. The attack on this vessel was at its height as these rescue operations proceeded. Suddenly the  p360 launch's propeller jammed. Coolly the ensign directed the work of disengaging the screw as flames licked around the wooden hull, meantime also supervising the picking up of more victims from the harbor.

The attack on the island of Oahu by the Japanese was a combined air raid and submarine attack. A considerable force of their submarines were probably waiting off the harbor entrance and would have caused extensive damage if the harassed fleet had steamed out. One of their midget submarines was surprised and sunk an hour before the first attack. It had been intercepted in the prohibited area off Pearl Harbor by one of our patrol planes and the destroyer Ward. Another was fired upon, depth-bombed, and sunk two hours later in the harbor. A third grounded off Bellows Field and was captured.

The first attack subsided about 9.15. The enemy planes, however, returned at 11.29 and at four other times throughout the day, the last raid occurring at 9.15 in the evening. But all except the first were easily repelled. Three task forces, United States cruisers and airplane-carriers, were at sea several hundred miles south and west of Oahu. They attempted to intercept the three or four Japanese carriers that had brought the planes and apparently had remained one hundred or more miles away to the north and west. But the anti-aircraft warning at Pearl Harbor gave misinformation of their position, and the raiding force escaped. Forty‑two or more Japanese planes, however, did not return to the carriers, twenty-nine being shot down by the army, twelve by the navy, and some having crashed.

The losses of officers and enlisted men in our naval personnel, as disclosed a week later, were more than 2700 killed and 650 wounded. Never had the navy  p361 suffered such disaster before. The nation paid heavily for the lack of preparation, the overconfidence, the false sense of security. But no small comfort was afforded by the manner with which all parts of the country at once rose to meet the challenge. Such a unanimity of feeling our nation had never before experienced.

Everything showed that the Japanese attack was the result of long and most elaborate planning. On the same day as the assault on Pearl Harbor the Japanese forces made aërial attacks on Midway and Wake Islands, Guam, and the Philippines. The first three islands are air stations strategically important because they are on the route to the Philippines and Japan. Wake Island, where the assault was especially heavy, is 2004 miles west of Honolulu.

The radio on the 7th of December had promptly informed the American islands in the Pacific of the bombing of Oahu. The message afforded the small garrison on Wake — which consisted of United States marines (25 officers and 414 enlisted men), Major James P. S. Devereux in command — a few hours to make hurried preparations and go to general quarters. Two minutes before noon, twenty-four twin-engined Japanese land planes, probably from Japan's mandated islands to the south, swept down in a close column of division "V's" and from a height of three thousand feet dropped fragmentation bombs for seven minutes upon the aërodrome, at the same time training their incendiary cannon and machine guns on everything in sight. Twelve planes of Marine Fighting Squadron 211 of Marine Aircraft Group 21, under the command of Major Paul A. Putnam, were at Wake. Four had taken the air; the others were being serviced. Seven were total losses because of the bomb hits and fire; the remaining one was  p362 damaged, but parts were salvageable. The attacking planes set fire to the gasoline supply of the Pan‑American Airways' base, but failed to discover the marine stores and aviation gasoline. Their raid caused the death of twenty-five persons and the wounding of more than that number. At almost the same hour the next day twenty-seven Japanese planes continued their depredations, and this time, with incendiary bombs, destroyed a contractor's hospital, barracks, a machine shop, and a garage. One Japanese plane was shot down.

Wake Island, two square miles in area, forms — with the smaller islands Wilkes and Peale — an atoll which encloses a triangular lagoon four and a half miles long. The group has a fair amount of heavy brush and some hardwood trees, but, rising only a few feet above sea level, affords no protection of a military nature.

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With considerable regularity, for fifteen days the Japanese continued their attack. On the fourth day they attempted to land; and twelve of their ships, including light cruisers, destroyers, gunboats, and two troop or supply ships, stood in toward the atoll. The marines' 5‑inch and 3‑inch guns had a limited range. But the gunners waited until the invaders were within forty-seven hundred yards before opening fire. Then, striking most effectively, they sank two destroyers and one gunboat. At the same time three of the marines' planes had been taking an active part, hitting with 100‑pound bombs a light cruiser, which they sank, and damaging one of the accompanying ships, which was burning as she left the scene of action. The next day one of our planes, while making a reconnaissance patrol, sighted an enemy submarine ten miles south of Wake. Diving to low level, the pilot showered it with 50‑caliber machine‑gun bullets, and as he pulled out of the dive he  p363 loosed two 100‑pound bombs. The bombs reached their target, and the submarine sank at once.

After their surface attack the Japanese became more cautious, and as twenty-seven of their planes resumed the bombing of the islands on the following day they flew at a height of twenty‑two thousand feet, causing little material damage and no casualties. The marines' planes and the anti-aircraft fire repeatedly took toll of the enemy planes. But the four planes of the defenders were soon reduced to three, then two, and then one — and then magically rose to two; for planes were made during the blackout of the nights by salvaging planes that had been wrecked and reassembling the parts. As Major Putnam reported, "Engines have been traded from plane to plane, have been junked, stripped, rebuilt, and all but created."

As officially estimated, the marines' original four planes gave battle during the two weeks of repeated attacks to not fewer than two hundred enemy planes. But as the Japanese returned with constantly increasing numbers, the last of the defenders' planes was finally destroyed. There was soon no protection in the low‑lying islands for the gun crews as the enemy planes passed above. As the Japanese with an overwhelming force closed in, the result was only a question of time. On the 22d of December, by the Western calendar, the fifteenth day of the defense, a radio from Wake, received at Honolulu, told that enemy warships and a transport were moving in; also that two destroyers were aground. Expressive of the strength and calm of deathless heroes is the brief message that Major Devereux sent early that morning to the commander in chief: "Enemy on island. Issue in doubt." The marines had been true to their motto: Semper fidelis.

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James P. S. Devereux

Official United States Marine Corps photograph

 p364  Immediately following the assault on Hawaii, Japanese submarines appeared off the California coast, and German submarines off our east coast, in the Atlantic, from North Carolina to New York. When the extensiveness of Japanese preparations is considered, we have reason for satisfaction that prompt action on our western coast prevented the widespread damage that was planned.

Before the last message had come by radio from Wake in Christmas week, American expeditionary forces in large convoys with heavy escorts were on their way in the Pacific to Australia (more than seven thousand miles), and in the Atlantic (approximately three thousand miles). The distances were immense, and the magnitude of operations was appalling. Meanwhile we were sending great quantities of military and food supplies to our allies. Though the initial reverse had been severe, the officers in supreme command in Washington, General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army, and Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, announced that our country should wage an offensive war. Thorough preparation, however, was first required. The problem was complicated by the "Battle of the Atlantic" and the "Battle of the Pacific" directed against American shipping, especially against tankers. At a time when every craft was needed, it was a matter of great concern to have American tonnage, to be reckoned in hundreds of thousands, sent to the bottom by enemy submarines. Prompt measures were taken to meet the threats in home waters; but they did not divert the army and navy, which were proceeding with their major operations.

Meanwhile encouragement was afforded by two surprise attacks on Japanese islands in the central Pacific  p365 by a force of aircraft-carriers, cruisers, and destroyers commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.

The first, occurring the last of January, was directed against Japanese bases and strongholds in the Marshall Islands. These are mandated islands which Japan for years had not permitted ships of America and of European nations to visit. Under the terms of the mandate when Japan acquired them after the First World War, they were not to be fortified. But the Western powers had long suspected that this provision was being violated. The attack extended also to Makin Island, in the Gilbert group, which the Japanese had taken possession of on 7 December, 1941. The scene of operations covered an area four hundred miles long and three hundred and fifty wide. As surprise was essential, Admiral Halsey had divided his surface and air forces into self-sustaining units, and the arrival of each at its destination was timed with most scrupulous nicety so that the assault might be simultaneous.

First, the planes swarmed in to bomb and to harass the enemy with machine‑gun fire; then surface ships came to shell the coastal batteries, ships, and shore installations; and finally the aërial torpedo bombers, having been informed of the position of enemy ships, followed that they might complete the work of destruction.

The surprise was so complete as to leave little to be desired. Many of the Japanese planes were destroyed on the ground, and others that succeeded in hurriedly taking off fared no better. In one of the air combats ten Japanese fighters were destroyed without the loss of a single American plane. On Roi Island, in the Kwajalein Atoll, a well-equipped air base was discovered; and so systematically did the attacking force work that they destroyed two hangars, an ammunition dump, fuel-storage  p366 plants, warehouses, a radio building, three fighter planes and six scout bombers in the air, and one bomber on the ground. On Kwajalein Island, adjoining, where there was a seaplane base, with ten surface ships and five submarines at the anchorage, the attacking force scored its greatest success. It destroyed a 17,000‑ton aircraft-carrier (before conversion, a Yawata luxury liner), a light cruiser, a destroyer, three large fleet tankers, two submarines, and two large seaplanes, besides severely damaging other enemy vessels.

In Wotje Atoll four cargo vessels of about five thousand tons each and three smaller ships were the toll; also the entire shore installation of hangars, shops and storehouses, aircraft batteries and coastal guns. Similarly on Taroa, Jaluit, and Makin Islands havoc was wrought.

The total losses suffered by the attacking forces were five scout bombers, and a hit of no consequence from a small bomb sustained by a United States cruiser.

This daring raid the same leader, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., duplicated a month later with an attack that reached further into enemy territory, against Wake and Marcus Islands. There was a desire to know what the enemy were doing. Perhaps, too, there was a feeling in our navy, where official etiquette is so strictly adhered to, that a return visit was now required.

On the 24th of February in the early morning an American naval force was steaming toward Wake Island. As in the first gray of dawn the low‑lying atoll became visible, three large enemy planes which had detected the approach of the surface ships came out to meet them. But already the American planes had taken off from the carrier, and they soon began to level the fortifications and air base which the Japanese during the  p367 two months of their occupation had been hurriedly building. The ships, twisting and turning, avoided the Japanese bombs until their anti-aircraft guns had brought down one plane and driven the others away. Their main batteries had already begun to tell on the Japanese batteries and the shore installations. And when they had reduced the enemy fire, the ships edged in and brought their secondary batteries also into action.

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Here is the picture as drawn by a newspaper correspondent who was permitted to accompany the expedition:

More than a dozen distant fires can be seen blazing on the island when, at 8.07 o'clock, comes the first explosion, a bulbous blast of orange that billows out mushroom-like hundreds of feet in the air. Apparently a gasoline storage tank or an ammunition dump has been hit. Five minutes later comes another explosion, and then another and another, until seven are counted. All of the atoll that can be seen, except one small strip where only a gutted white-walled building now stands, now seems to be afire.

In the meantime all the American ships have come within range of the shore batteries, and you suddenly realize that shells are bursting on either side of the ship, not just to starboard. Again the ship is twisting and turning, edging just out of range of the Japanese guns, only three of which can be seen still firing.​1

As the ships fired their final salvos and steamed away, the American planes were still dropping bombs, giving the last touches to this visit of ceremony.

The action had occupied less than an hour. Now the task was to withdraw before planes and submarines from the Marshalls, three hundred miles to the south, should  p368 track them. A Japanese patrol boat of four hundred tons at this point appeared, and as a destroyer engaged her a four-engined Japanese bomber, one of the three that had taken off from the lagoon before the attack, approached in the clouds above. The destroyer had quickly ended the patrol boat, but she herself was now in danger. Suddenly, however, the Japanese plane "came hurtling down, trailing a great sheet of fire" as it fell into the sea. An American dive bomber, which was returning from Wake, flying still higher in the clouds, had ambushed it.

Throughout the day, as the force sped eastward, a big Japanese patrol bomber shadowed them, keeping a distant lookout, in readiness to guide a Japanese pursuing force if any should appear. Meanwhile another Japanese patrol boat came over the horizon, and again a destroyer left the main force to engage it. The patrol boat was quickly shot through, and, bursting into flames, capsized. The Japanese plane was now not far away; but, disregarding this, the destroyer signaled for permission to pick up survivors, which was granted. When the destroyer rejoined the main force, she reported that the Japanese crew were saved. The correspondent who saw it all remarked: "Thinking of the little brown men being dragged dripping from the sea by brawny young American sailors makes you proud to be with the sailors. Real fighting men have compassion as well as ferocity."

Just at sunset two twin-engined Japanese bombers appeared out of the haze and at thirteen thousand feet dropped their deadly missile. But the ships turned hard to port, and the nearest bomb fell one hundred yards to starboard. Then the bombers disappeared in the clouds.

 p369  The force had that day sunk two patrol boats, dredges, and fuel barges. They had shot down one four-engined seaplane. They had destroyed two other four-engined seaplanes, fuel oil and gasoline storages, under­ground hangars, magazines, and storehouses. The only loss sustained was one plane.

The raid eight days later by this force on Marcus Island, which lies nine hundred and ninety miles southeast of Yokohama and in the patrol area of the Japanese Home Fleet, was a project that promised to be full of adventure. This small island, known by the Japanese as Minamitori Shima, has an area of seven hundred acres. Only twice before had it ever been visited by Americans, and that in the nineteenth century. The Pilots' Book of the Pacific had no information whatever to give.

In this operation, surface ships remained in the distance, the attack being made only by planes. Further, after launching the planes, carrier and accompanying ships steamed away at full speed. As the raid took place before dawn, flares were dropped to show the targets. No enemy ships or planes were discovered. But there was an air base, which the attacking planes seriously damaged. And they destroyed a radio station, hangars, storage houses, ammunition, fuel and gasoline stores. Again all except one plane returned in safety.

Success breeds success. The operations just narrated, though only to be classed as raids, had more than a passing value: first, they served to harass the enemy and give information of Japanese outlying bases; and, secondly, they seasoned American bluejackets and assisted in preparing them for the big offensive when all should be ready.

Whatever is said of the Second World War at the time  p370 of this writing (in 1942) is necessarily subject to revision. The Navy Department in the time of conflict must withhold information that would be useful to the enemy. Thus, eager though our people are for news, we have as yet no adequate details of the battle of the Java Sea, in which we lost the noble cruiser Houston and the destroyer Pope; nor of the highly efficient operation of Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, commanding a task force of cruisers and carriers, when in March, aided by land-based planes, he attacked a Japanese concentration at the island of New Guinea and sank or damaged more than twenty Japanese ships, besides wrecking shore installations; nor of the repulse of the Japanese in the Coral Sea as they attempted in May to advance into the Solomon and Louisiade Islands; nor of the overwhelming defeat early in June by joint action of our army, navy, and Marine Corps (fighting in planes or ships) of an armada of Japanese battle­ships, cruisers, airplane carriers, and transports that had set out to occupy Midway Island.

It need hardly be said that no history of these widely extended operations such as will prove tolerably satisfactory and complete can be written until years later, when reports from every quarter — from enemy sources as well as from our own and Allied sources — are available. But even now it is worth while to make a brief review; to face the grave reverses we have met initially; to recognize the challenge of resource­ful and determined enemies in Europe and Asia, working with marvelous coördination; and to consider the great potential strength of our own Service. A stupendous task confronts us. But it is an American tradition that our people are at their best when disaster and great need have freed them from what is small and unworthy. Then it is that they rise in their full power.

The Authors' Note:

1 New York Times, 26 March, 1942.

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