Monday, May 26, 2014

Yamamoto's Midway Strategy

Yamamoto chose Midway

There’s much for Japan to cheer about going into the spring of 1942.  Several battleships of the American Pacific Fleet are resting their ruptured hulls on Pearl Harbor’s muddy bed.  The Europeans have had all their Asian colonies taken from them and Japan has acquired for herself the oil, rubber and mineral riches of Southeast Asia – enough to cover her needs.  There is good reason to give thanks in Japan.  Phase One of the Pacific War is completed and the Japanese military has succeeded beyond anyone’s imaginings.  The question before Tokyo’s decision-makers is what next to do, now that it’s clear the war won’t soon be over.

Shokaku was missed at Midway

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was deeply frustrated the American aircraft carriers weren’t lying with the Arizona and other ships sunk on December 7th.  Instead they kept popping up in hit-and-run raids on lightly defended Japanese installations.  Damage resulting from these strikes was of little consequence.  They were regarded as a mere nuisance until April when Colonel Doolittle led a raid of carrier-launched B-25 bombers on Tokyo.  The following month a Japanese task force was thwarted from taking Port Mosby in New Guinea.  The carrier Shokaku was badly damaged and the air fleet from her sister carrier, Zuikaku, suffered significant loses.  The American carrier Lexington was sunk in this Battle of the Coral Sea but the carriers Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown remained at large. 

Lexington sunk at Coral Sea

Yamamoto’s first priority was to destroy what remained of America’s naval power in the Pacific – its carriers.  Without the air power provided by aircraft carriers the U.S. would not be able to strike Japan’s large defense perimeter of fortified islands.  Without carriers the United States would not be able to protect Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia in the South Seas.  Were these islands to fall then Japan would be sitting astride the one remaining Pacific route America had with Australia.  With Australia cut off there could be no hope for a U.S. strategy of puncturing Japan’s southern flank and penetrating north through the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and into the Caroline and Mariana Islands.  Without carriers Americans could find their military forces pushed all the way back to California.  This is why destroying the carriers of the Pacific Fleet was so important to Yamamoto.  Their destruction could rid the Pacific of American influence.

Midway would be the bait

Given the stakes involved and the Pacific Fleet’s humiliating defeat at Pearl it was only natural Admiral Yamamoto would assume American reluctance in once again having to face the Imperial Navy.  The critical problem as Yamamoto saw it was to draw the enemy out from their shell.  He would need to provoke them with an intolerable situation and for this Midway Island would be the key.  Thirteen hundred miles from Pearl, Midway was the farthest American reach into the Japanese waters of the central Pacific.  Passing the island to Japan would be an unacceptable threat to America’s control of Hawaii.  Given this line of reasoning Yamamoto was certain an invasion of Midway would provoke America’s carriers to come to its aid.  The carriers of the Imperial Navy would be waiting to ambush the U.S. ships, bringing to a close the unfinished business of Pearl Harbor.  With America’s carriers destroyed Japan would have free reign of the Pacific through the remainder of 1942.

Nimitz designed his own ambush

Yamamoto’s strategic outlook was not widely shared by Japan’s military leaders.  Other approaches were proposed but given Yamamoto’s status as hero of Pearl Harbor it was unlikely other views would prevail over his.  But his success would not be repeated.  Months of easy victories over Allied forces had dulled Japan’s blade.  The careful calculations and meticulous planning of the Pearl Harbor raid was not evident in Yamamoto’s Midway plan.  Hubris would enable Admiral Nimitz and his carriers to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

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