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This Was the Moment Japan's Imperial Navy Died

January 25, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Pacific TheaterWorld War IIImperial JapanAmericaMilitary History

This Was the Moment Japan's Imperial Navy Died

The naval combat that raged around the Philippines invasion was preceded by a game of reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and planning.

The Japanese superbattleship Musashi was steaming east along with a fleet of other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers on their way toward what was expected to be a climactic battle at Leyte Gulf. At 8:10 am on October 24, 1944, Musashi’s captain ordered the crew to battle stations. An American scout plane had been spotted overhead. The fleet lacked its own air cover, so it had to endure the American plane and expected an attack any time. The fleet commander, Admiral Takeo Kurita, sent a message to his sailors: “Enemy attackers are approaching. Trust in the Gods and give it your best.”

At 9:30 a lookout spotted a trio of what appeared to be more scout planes. Kurita requested air support from land-based fighters, but they never arrived. Less than an hour later the lookouts spotted the first wave of American planes. They were from the U.S. aircraft carriers Intrepid and Cabot, a few dozen torpedo and dive bombers escorted by 21 fighters. Within a few minutes Musashi’s antiaircraft guns were in action, sending rounds skyward at aircraft that plunged down to deliver their deadly payloads. A bomb hit first, but it struck the forward turret, doing no damage. Then a torpedo impacted amidships and four more bombs were near misses; their combined effects were leaks below the ship’s waterline. Musashi developed a list of 51/2 degrees to starboard, but damage control crews were able to reduce that to one degree. The ship still kept pace with the fleet.

Tragically for the crew, however, Musashi’s trials had only just started. Within an hour another attack occurred; a trio of torpedoes struck the port side along with two more bomb hits. The ship now listed five degrees to port and lost the port propeller. She fell behind the fleet, losing the protection of its escorts. When the next strike arrived, even the main guns fired on it, using nine sanshiki-dan, or beehive shells designed for antiaircraft fire. They had no apparent effect on this wave or the next, but more torpedo and bomb hits followed, leaving Musashi stricken. The goal had been to get the fleet within range of the American invasion force in Leyte Gulf and lay waste to it. The Japanese attack force would still arrive, but it would be short one battleship. Musashi sank beneath the waves just after 7:30 PM, a victim of overwhelming American air power.

The Pacific War extended over an immense expanse, most of it water dotted with thousands of islands, making it essentially a conflict of warships and aircraft. In 1944, the American leadership chose to strike next at the Philippines, which would sever Japan’s link to its oil supply and bring the Allies one step closer to ending the war. Japan’s own war leaders knew this was a likely avenue of approach for their enemy and prepared for it, but they were fast running out of ships, aircraft, and resources and had to make do with what remained on hand. Both sides used intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and radio interception to determine what their opponent would do. Deciphering an enemy’s intentions and deciding how to counter them is a complex and difficult process. How both sides tried to do this is well recounted in Storm Over Leyte: The Philippine Invasion and the Destruction of the Japanese Navy (John Prados, NAL Caliber, New York, 2016, 388 pp., maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index, $28.00, hardcover).

There have been many books on the Leyte Gulf fighting and for good reason. The battle is full of tough decision making, extreme courage, and hard-fought actions. What makes this new book stand out is the author’s extensive research into the intelligence and reconnaissance efforts that took place before the fighting. The work does an excellent job showing how both sides tried to figure out what the other would do as well as how the various personalities acted, setting the stage for the Japanese navy’s last major battle. The amount of detail included in the author’s assessments shows the immense amount of research taken from intelligence reports and the amount of work done to correlate all the data.

The result is a thoroughly informative book that retells the prelude to the battle before delving into the fight itself in exciting prose. The author’s extensive knowledge allows him to add background information as needed. It is a complete retelling of one of history’s largest naval engagements.

Palawan Island in the Philippines was the site of a Japanese-run POW camp; in late 1944 that camp held 150 American prisoners. They had endured years of torture, disease, and starvation while working at forced labor. It was a hellish existence. Near the end of the year U.S. forces landed in the Philippines. The Japanese decided to murder the prisoners, herding them into small underground air raid shelters. These dugouts were then doused with gasoline and set ablaze. About 30 Americans were able to escape the flaming pits and ran for the relative safety of some nearby cliffs. As they fled Japanese soldiers turned machine guns and bayonets on them, cutting down many; yet 11 managed to get away. Their ordeal was just beginning, however.

The struggle for survival faced by these 11 men is recounted in dramatic detail in this new volume by an author well known for his works on the Pacific War. Using diaries, letters, court transcripts, and the official statements of the survivors, he has created an exciting, readable story of how these men overcame the odds against them. It is an astonishing tale of human endurance and willpower in the face of extreme adversity.

It was 2 AM on August 16, 1943, and the SS was coming for the Jews in the Bialystok Ghetto. Operatives of the Jewish Underground noticed SS troops surrounding the ghetto and warned their comrades. The Jewish fighters had only a few small arms and hand grenades to resist their foe, which had armored vehicles and artillery in support. As the SS rounded up the civilians, the fighters attacked at 10 AM. They set off a mine under a sewer manhole, forcing the tanks back for a time. Luftwaffe aircraft strafed and bombed; the Jewish warriors had no response to that. The fighting went on for several more days, varying in intensity but gradually turning against the Jewish resistance throughout the burned and blasted ghetto. Mordecai Tenenbaum, a resistance leader, committed suicide in his bunker just before the Germans captured it. He left behind words describing his determination and defiance: “We aspired to only one thing: To sell our lives for the highest possible price.”

This concise but detailed history of Jewish resistance to the SS effectively shows both the danger experienced by the fighters and the boldness they demonstrated in the face of overwhelming attacks and extreme cruelty. Most works on the Holocaust focus on the plights of Jews as victims of Nazi barbarity. This new book shows how they could also be courageous and determined soldiers.

The Battle of Stalingrad is the classic struggle of Nazi Germany versus the Soviet Union, but other nations’ armies were involved. Italy, Romania, and Hungary all contributed forces that guarded the German flanks as the Wehrmacht drove itself into the heart of the city. All of them were crushed under the Russian tide when their counterattack struck. All but one—the Italian Alpine Corps, known as the Alpini. These 60,000 elite mountain troops held out against punishing attacks after they were encircled and even tried to break out, all during a terrible winter. Ultimately, however, they faced capture and imprisonment just like their German allies. Only 10,000 of them would survive the POW camps and get home.

Though they fought for a doomed and wrongful cause, the valor, suffering, and sacrifice of the Alpine Corps is worthy of the retelling they receive in this book. The author sets out to tell the story of the Alpini “from the bottom up” and succeeds, with the experiences of many private soldiers, NCOs, and junior officers included, making it a human story above all. Enough higher information is provided to give the reader a sense of time and place, which blends well with the narrative of bravery and sorrow.

Soon after World War II began, U.S. Army Air Corps commanders realized they lacked enough pilots to carry out the mission of ferrying newly built training aircraft from the factory to the airfields where a new generation of flyers would learn to take warplanes into the air. A woman named Nancy Love gathered a group of 28 female pilots to carry out the duty. Later, a flight school for women trained more pilots to join them in this unglamorous but vital task. After production of trainer aircraft ceased, these women were retrained to fly fighters and began ferrying them to New Jersey so they could be shipped overseas for combat use. In all, more than 100 women served as Ferry Command Pilots, doing what they could to serve their country in its time of need.