By Jim Dietz
LIFE Magazine is happy to provide our readers with the following excerpt from Dr. Jason L. Whitney’s history of the Pacific War of 1934. His complete work is part of the Time-Life series of books covering the tumultuous events of that year and the events leading up to it. For interested subscribers, an order form is enclosed at the back of the magazine at a reduced subscriber’s price.
0911, December 7, 1934, North of Hawaii
Admiral Towers’ conclusion on naval air power became obvious over the course of multiple Fleet Problem exercises and this explained his choice to launch a surprise attack rather than protect Pearl Harbor. At his inquest, Towers explained, “Our world has changed. With airpower involved, it is kill or be killed. We showed there is no defense against a determined attacker. If you achieve surprise, that is your opportunity for a decisive victory.”
Kill or be killed. Japan’s carrier air arm struck Pearl Harbor at 0750, eliminating the American surface threat before it could weigh anchor and threaten Japan’s Pacific interests. But, as noted in Commander Genda’s memoirs, the Imperial Japanese Navy never considered the possibility of a successful American air mission. They only realized it when Falcons and Helldivers suddenly appeared in the sky over the Combined Fleet. Kill or be killed.
The Ranger, Lexington, and Saratoga launched 160 aircraft, hurling 54 Falcons and 106 Helldivers westward, hoping to find the Japanese carriers where the downed P2Y piloted by Amelia Earhart and her Navy co-pilots reported them. The launch was chaos. Rather than circle to assemble, flying en masse, planes headed west in small groups, afraid of decreasing their limited operational range. Planes from the various carrier squadrons became intermingled, and with takeoffs coming with irregular timing, groups lost sight of one another because of distance and the increasing cloud cover across all altitudes.
Because of pilot radio silence, Admiral Towers and the other senior officers were unaware that their strike plan was already a failure. The ability to coordinate such a massive strike was impossible given the range of the Falcon and the state of flight operations and command and control in 1934. Thus, it speaks to the credit of the pilots’ training that all 160 of the launched aircraft pressed on to the target.
The attacking aircraft wound up in five groups. The first consisted of six Falcons and a dozen Helldivers. The second included 20 Falcons from the Ranger and 15 Helldivers from all three carriers. The third consisted of four Falcons from the Lexington escorting 31 Helldivers (25 from the Saratoga). The fourth was 12 Falcons and 11 Helldivers, and the final group was a dozen Falcons flying with 37 Helldivers.
Four groups eventually found the Combined Fleet. The third, primarily the Saratoga’s strike group, never found the Japanese. As they approached what they thought was the correct location, a rain squall reduced visibility. Thinking they flew too far west or southwest, they reversed course, heading northeast and missing the Combined Fleet which was 50 miles to the south. It is obvious the American attack was improvised in contrast with the Japanese attack on Pearl.
At 0911, the first flight spotted the Combined Fleet sailing south. Lt. Gaylord George, commanding the Lexington’s Helldivers, waggled wings, banked and headed towards the Japanese fleet. Multiple Japanese lookouts spotted the inbound attackers and two flights of Type-90 fighters started climbing to intercept; these six fighters were the entire combat air patrol (CAP) for the Combined Fleet. The Kaga immediately reversed course and the six A2N2s waiting on its flight deck began launching.
Five minutes later, American and Japanese planes engaged in the first air-to-air combat between great powers since the Russian Civil War 15 years prior. Ensign Lance Pederson dropped his ordnance, freeing it from the bombload’s unwieldy extra weight, and immediately moved to confront the Japanese Type-90s. The other five Falcons immediately followed suit.
It was an unfair fight. The Japanese planes’ superior speed and mobility combined with their pilots’ previous combat experience put the Americans at a disadvantage. Within three minutes, every Falcon was shot down. Their loss bought time for the Helldivers, but not enough. The Type-90s caught up with the bombers as they began diving toward their targets below. Two were shot down while six others dropped their loads early, seeking to escape rather than press the attack. The four remaining attackers pressed on, two at the Ryūjō, one at the brand-new heavy cruiser, the IJN Mogami, and one at a different cruiser, the IJN Chōkai. All three targets avoided being struck, although the Mogami’s starboard side took some damage from the concussive force of the near-miss.
As the first wave’s Helldivers finished their runs, the second wave arrived. The time was 0919. The Type-90 fighters climbed again towards the American planes. Caught at low altitude, the fighters had no chance of stopping the American planes’ attack.
Miles Browning, commander of the Ranger’s Fighting 3B, made a command decision, unsure of the status of other planes from the strike force. He wanted to keep the Japanese fighters away from the Helldivers at all costs. He ordered 11 other Falcons to drop their loads and engage the Type-90s, doing likewise himself. Eight Falcons and 15 Helldivers remained to press the attack.
It was impossible for me to know what went on over the next ten minutes. I was too busy engaging the CAP. I’d counted eight, Ensign Smolders reported an even dozen, but we know from the records, we engaged six—the tricks the mind plays in times of stress!
What we learned, we learned fast. Combat is the best instructor, but its lessons are the harshest. One mistake and you are shot down. Of the twelve planes, seven fell, seven good men we never recovered and whom I will never forget: Lts.(j.g.) Franklin and Jackson and Ensigns Townes, Hatt, Paper, Hammerer, and Blackstone. Their deaths were not in vain. We took our enemy back down to the deck and shot two down.
When I got word the bombers were empty, we headed northeast, away from the Combined Fleet. My group came in with 35 planes, we left with 20. Forty percent casualties for little direct result. We learned something though about airstrikes, something borne out within the hour by following waves even as we retreated on our way back to our own fleet.
Nearly two dozen planes dropped bombs, but because they attacked singly rather than in coordinated fashion, anti-aircraft fire could concentrate on each in turn. If we dove in waves I think we would’ve had success. Three planes from the Lex did just that, but they went after a battleship, what wound up being the Kirishima. Coordinating their dives, they put two bombs in her and a near-miss that put a hole in the battlewagon’s waterline. The big thing from those hits—it meant they weren’t invincible. We just didn’t have the right tactics developed yet.
Browning was right (though his memoir offers historical hindsights, which are always 20/20). When the second wave departed it was nearly 0930 and what they did not see as they peeled away to the northeast was the next wave (the fourth, since the third was lost en route) coming from above the cloud cover to the south. This wave was another hodgepodge of 12 Falcons and 11 Helldivers, but they had two advantages Browning’s group did not.
The first was that the Combined Fleet’s combat air patrol was again at low altitude and, having already fought two dogfights, was low on fuel and unable to climb to intercept the latest American wave two miles up and on the far side of the fleet. Thus the Americans maintained formation and cohesion as they approached. Related to this, with two waves already having attacked, the Japanese commanders relaxed, assuming the attacks were beaten off in American failure. Few eyes looked to the south and its heavy cloud cover.
The second advantage caused by Browning’s group was that it had forced the Combined Fleet into unsynchronized evasive maneuvers, and in the case of the Mogami and the light cruiser Kinu, nearly caused a collision at high speed. The Ryūjō and its escorts were now separated from the remainder of the fleet by more than three kilometers while a destroyer and a light cruiser remained with the slowed Kirishima. This left the Akagi and Kaga with the two hybrid battlecruiser-battleships (Haruna and Hiei), eight heavy cruisers, ten light cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. The Japanese were now three groups, each responsible for their own protection; their previous interlocking anti-aircraft fire during the first half-hour of the air attacks no longer possible.
Thus, at 0932, the next wave arrived over the Combined Fleet and began their attack and only three minutes later, the final and largest group of American planes arrived overhead. Though the fourth wave was the second-smallest, the wave was more effective than the larger ones because of its coordination.
None of the 23 aircraft were shot down. Four were damaged, with two jettisoning their bombs before finishing their runs. Eight of the aircraft, all Falcons from the Saratoga, peeled off for the Ryūjō and its four escorting cruisers. The remaining fifteen (which accounted for all of the damaged aircraft) headed for the Kaga and Akagi. The eight Falcons attacking the Ryūjō dove in pairs, approaching the carrier from its portside. The Ryūjō was turning north, attempting to launch its last six fighters. The pilots ignored the escorts, focusing their strike on the smallest of Japan’s three fleet carriers. Ensign Walter Ambrose’s bomb was the first, striking the Ryūjō’s deck amidships, damaging the flight deck. This was minor and could have been repaired before the Pearl Harbor strike force returned.
The second hit on the Ryūjō is credited to Lt.(j.g.) Dan ‘Buzz’ Riggle. His bomb struck the flight deck above the carrier’s horizontal smokestack, knocking a chunk of the deck off completely while smashing the stack. Black smoke now engulfed the rear of the carrier. The attacking pilots believed Riggle’s hit was what sank the carrier. It was not. Post-war analysis shows credit belongs to Ensign Jimmy Lund. Lund’s bomb hit the water on the Ryūjō’s portside as it turned. This ripped a gaping hole open in the carrier’s side causing immediate flooding.
With most ships, the flooding would have meant a temporary loss of speed. Counter-flooding would balance the ship until the hole was repaired and then the bilges would pump out the remaining water. The Ryūjō, however, was built to circumvent the Washington Naval Treaty’s restrictions. Because of this, its design proved to be top-heavy and unstable in heavy seas. Riggle’s bomb caused an immediate list and once this started, gravity did the rest, pulling the Ryūjō onto its side. It sank with the loss of all but 19 of its crew (not including the carrier’s pilots inbound from Pearl Harbor). Japan now had two carriers.
The other 15 planes dove at the two remaining carriers and their escort of capital ships. The U.S. Navy indoctrinated its personnel just as Japan did. Pilots were told of the battleship’s primacy, even as they took part in the first large-scale attack launched from a force far beyond gunnery range (showing the new apex-predator of the seas). Because of this indoctrination, only six planes targeted the Kaga while two adjusted to target the Akagi after the others dove for the Kaga. The remainder headed for the battlecruiser-battleship hybrids. The Haruna and Hiei attackers scored no hits but still provided a vital service. The two ships’ anti-aircraft guns focused on self-defense rather than on protecting the carriers.
The two planes that went after the Akagi came in from an angle, making hitting the carrier substantially more difficult. Nevertheless, both Ensigns Russ Bonds and ‘Mo’ Morris scored hits. The Akagi (like its sister ship, Kaga) was an odd design, built with three separate flight decks to speed takeoffs and landings. Bonds’ bomb hit the portside support for the second flight deck, collapsing the deck like a roof covered in too much snow. Morris’ bomb hit further aft on the carrier’s second level, striking the starboard eight-inch gun turret, destroying it and starting a fire in its vicinity which sent black smoke billowing skyward. This damage would take weeks to repair in port, but with the primary flight deck untouched, the Akagi was not yet hors de combat.
Two Falcons and four Helldivers went for the Kaga. Later, Lt.(j.g.) Al Lincoln, part of the USS Lexington’s VS-2 Squadron wrote:
We didn’t have an order to things. The other five guys, they were from the other carriers. Somehow I was the Lady Lex’s only Helldiver here. (We were fortunate, but we got much better coordinating strikes—taking off, assembling, navigating to a target, once everyone realized what a disaster our strike was and how lucky we got.) It meant, for better or worse, I wound up as Tail End Charlie.
Looking back, that’s a good thing. The ships concentrated all their fire on those first planes. I don’t really recall tracers or explosions around me. Honestly, I don’t remember anything other than me breathing. Being left alone, that let me focus on my run. The back of the carrier [Kaga] had paint strips marking the runway’s edge and I headed at those, my plane in a 45-degree dive—it couldn’t handle more than that and still pull out, not at full speed. I was under 1,000 feet and pulled back on the stick, letting the bomb go, and felt the plane jerk up as it lost a quarter-ton of deadweight.
I pulled out at 100 feet over the carrier, flew low over the deck figuring that was a safe place—the other ships weren’t going to fire at anything where they could miss and hit their own ship. Must have been right since I got out untouched….
Three of the six planes’ bombs struck the Kaga. The first hit the carrier’s starboard side armor as she juked the diving bombers. This bomb took out two heavy anti-aircraft batteries and opened a large hole in the carrier’s side, although this was above the waterline. The second bomb hit on the bow, twisting and devastating the Kaga’s tertiary flight deck, rendering it unusable without repairs in port. Serious damage, but still not enough to prevent the ship from continuing combat operations. And then Lincoln’s bomb hit. His bomb smashed through the top flight deck without exploding immediately. A split-second later, it detonated, an airburst between the top flight deck and the second one below it; this was where it did its greatest damage, killing the entire bridge crew, leaving the carrier command-less at a key moment.
Thus, the ‘fourth wave,’ the smallest of the five American groups, punched far above its weight, sinking one of the three Japanese fleet carriers while damaging the other two for the price of one plane ditching beside the Saratoga on its return, but even with this success, the fourth wave’s success was nothing compared to the final massive group of American planes, which now began their own attack runs on the Japanese ships.
The fifth wave had it even easier than the fourth did, as the maneuvers of the Haruna and Hiei took them and their own escorts away from the two surviving carriers, while the carriers’ evasive maneuvers increased the distance between them as well, so that any chance of a coordinated air defense was now utterly impossible. Just as important, four of the surviving ten fighters were ditching in the ocean at this point (joined a few minutes later by two others) having run out of fuel and with no decks to land on due to the ongoing combat.
The late-arriving planes began their runs at 0935. With no need for radio silence between planes, the fifth group divided themselves into groups. The Falcons went for the Haruna, the nine Saratoga Helldivers headed for the Hiei, the Lexington’s would hit the escorts while the remaining Helldivers, all from the Ranger, aimed for the two IJN carriers [Note: These last planes made no mention of a third carrier, meaning that the Ryūjō had already rolled over and sunk or was in such a predicament that there was no need to mention it in reports.]
There was no hesitation from the American pilots. They were aware of their fuel limit and the need to attack fast so they could get home. No one wanted to ditch in the rough December seas north of Hawaii.
The Falcons came down on the Haruna from multiple directions making it impossible for the light battleship to avoid all 12. The battleship and its cruiser escort shot down two of the Falcons and two others jettisoned loads early because of the fire, leaving eight undeterred. The Haruna was hit by four bombs, two struck the forecastle, though somehow the bridge (and attending officers and crew) was miraculously unscathed. This hit started multiple fires, though these were eventually brought under control. A third bomb hit the forward B-turret’s mount but did not penetrate the magazines. The only real damage was the destruction of the elevator for raising ammunition to the guns, meaning that if the turret was to be used, manually shifting shells and powder bags would be necessary. The fourth bomb took off a portion of the bow, meaning that with every dip into a swell, water entered the forward section. Maneuvering at high speeds exacerbated this, so the Haruna found itself limited to an effective speed of 14 knots. The battlewagon suffered one more hit when its anti-aircraft gunners hit the Falcon of Lt.(j.g.) Bill Apple before he released his bomb. Apple’s Falcon crashed into the ship’s port side aft of the smokestack, cartwheeling as its bomb payload detonated. Fires from Apple’s plane took several hours to put out.
The other massive warship, the Hiei, was attacked by Helldivers. It was more fortunate that the Haruna, suffering only two hits. The first struck the rear C-turret, exploding harmlessly against the turret’s front armor, leaving the guns usable, though the crew manning the turret were killed or injured from the concussive force passing into the confined space within the turret. The other hit struck the mast’s front base, toppling it, and preventing the ship from using radio communications. It also destroyed the battlewagon’s two small launches. In the end, the Hiei became the de facto flagship of the Combined Fleet.
The planes targeting the escorts did their job of keeping anti-aircraft gunners from protecting the carriers. They also hit their targets. Two bombs damaged the heavy cruiser, Atago, one hit the Mikasa, while the Sendai sank from a bomb penetrating to the forward five-inch turrets’ magazine. The explosion tore open the entire bow and the cruiser flooded and sank, bow first, within ten minutes, its four shafts cranking furiously as they disappeared under the waves.
The planes attacking the carriers in the final wave created the American victory. Until their attack, the exchange of damage and sunk ships between Japan and the United States had gone in favor of Japan (we will ignore the elephant in the room—American industrial might over the long-term). This equal exchange was swept away in less than five minutes as eight Helldivers banked into their dives towards the surviving carriers.
The Kaga steered in a tight circle to the right, unable to change course quickly due to the death of the bridge crew, so that as the Helldivers headed for the carrier, it took no evasive maneuvers. Seven of the eight planes’ bombs hit home with two of the bombs doing critical damage, puncturing the top flight deck and exploding beneath it in the aircraft hangers where they set off aviation fuel fires. These quickly spread out of control, racing forward until smoke billowed from every open space possible under the deck. Warrant Officer Ienaga Soburu, wrote later:
We knew the damage was serious. We knew it even as we fought the fires because they spread even as we did our utmost. If we could get help from a cruiser pulling next to us, it was a matter of time—we would conquer the fire!
When we felt the first shudder of an explosion below us, that changed everything. The fires had reached magazines or armament storage, which we did not know, but we did know that there was no saving the ship now. Still, it was our duty to the Emperor to try, and we continued until Lieutenant Akimano ordered us to the boats and abandon ship. It was my duty to obey and I did so though I know all of the ship’s senior officers chose to go down with the ship. [Note: Ienaga was not aware of the bridge’s destruction when he wrote these words.]
The Kaga did not sink immediately. She burned until early afternoon, at which point the light cruiser Furutaka scuttled her with two torpedoes.
The remaining carrier, the Akagi, was the Combined Fleet’s flagship. It is a fanciful historical dream to wonder at Admiral Suetsugu’s thoughts—only an hour prior, he permitted a cry of ‘Banzai!’ because of the great victory at Pearl Harbor and now in front of his eyes, two-thirds of the Empire’s carrier force was sunk or sinking from wave after wave of American planes. Did he regret sending so many planes to protect his bombers? Did he wonder where the planes came from or why the Combined Fleet’s scout seaplanes spotted nothing?
In any event, eight Helldivers came at the Akagi. She was unable to dodge them all and the response time for maneuvering now lagged from obscured visibility from the thick oily smoke drifting towards the stern from the destroyed turret and the deck collapsed at the front of the carrier. The bombers came from two directions, four from starboard and four from the carrier’s stern. This made evasion even more difficult; if the carrier turned to make targeting more difficult for one set of attackers, the maneuver made it easier for the others.
So the Akagi sailed directly to its fate, struck by three bombs on its top flight deck rendering it unusable. The third of these took off the carrier’s rear exhaust in addition to the flight deck damage. With the Ryūjō sunk and Kaga burning and crippled, the loss of the Akagi’s upper flight deck meant it was now impossible to recover any of the returning planes from the Pearl Harbor strike. This alone would have made the American strikes a decisive victory. Even if nothing else happened, Japan’s carrier power was crippled. This was not the end, however. The last Japanese carrier took four more hits. It was the first of the last batch, dropped by Ensign Cal Stevens, that mattered the most.
Approaching from the rear, Stevens’ bomb struck near the waterline, opened the hull to the ocean and flooded the Akagi’s steering compartment and jammed the rudder in a 25-degree port turn, making it impossible to tow the carrier. When the raid ended, divers were sent overboard to assess the damage. It was irreparable. The carrier could be towed—possibly—but would be unable to make more than five knots, making it and any escorts sitting ducks for further American air attacks. At 1325 after most of the crew was evacuated from the carrier, the light cruiser Tatsuta put four torpedoes into the last Japanese fleet carrier. It sank before the clock struck the hour, taking with it Rear Admiral Takahashi, commander of the 1st Fleet (Japan’s carriers), and the Combined Fleet’s commander, Admiral Suetsugu. Suetsugu performed seppuku, ritual disembowelment, seconded by Takahashi. Takahashi went down with the ship.
In the first hours of morning, it seemed Japan had won a great naval victory to rival Trafalgar or Tsushima Straits. Yet three hours later, it was clear that the victory belonged to the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Force. The U.S. Navy paid a heavy price with the loss of most of its battleships anchored at Ford Island, but by sinking all of Japan’s fleet carriers in the space of minutes, the United States became the sole dominant naval power in the entire Pacific Ocean.
That evening in Washington, D.C. (local time), President Garner walked into the Capitol to address Congress and the American people regarding the day’s events. Most were aware of the attack on Pearl Harbor already but not the remaining news. It is important to note how President Garner shaped events in his narrative, what he includes and what is omitted:
Speaker Rainey and gentlemen of Congress, thank you for permitting me to speak to you here this evening and thank you, Speaker, for permitting this to be broadcast to our nation. There are some in this chamber who already know the full details of today’s events though many are only aware of some, most likely the sad and tragic.
Today, a little more than eight hours ago, without provocation, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise aerial assault against our fleet at anchor in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. This attack was unexpected, and the damage wrought was, I will not hide it, severe. Four battleships have been sunk and six damaged, all active ships, save the Nevada which was on a separate mission at the time. At this point, the casualty total has exceeded 1,000 and I have asked the Navy Secretary, Claude Swanson, to ascertain all of these noble victims so that families may be informed at the soonest possible date.
The Japanese raid, de facto, put us at war, even before I seek your permission as required for me to fully assume my role as commander-in-chief, so that we may prosecute events to their fullest. The question of whether we were at war then is important for what comes next . Though I was unaware and did not countenance actions, as president, I am responsible for the actions of members of the executive branch as well as our armed forces. Congress will need to determine if I have been negligent, but I get ahead of myself.
Because of the rising dispute with the Empire of Japan, as a sign of our seriousness, we transferred our battleship squadrons to Hawaii. Recently, and secretly, I authorized a similar action for our aircraft carriers. They were due to anchor at Pearl Harbor this afternoon. Having heard of the attack and knowing what a grave situation the loss of our battle fleet would mean in this coming conflict, Admiral John Towers, commanding Carrier Squadron One, of his own initiative— and I will add that I support his decisions and that initiative as I believe his instant decision is a great moment in the annals of American naval history—of his own initiative, Admiral Towers launched a retaliatory strike against the Japanese Combined Fleet.
This strike was unexpected. The skulking, immoral leadership of Japan presumed we would not act, could not act. They underestimate the skill and initiative of our officers and our servicemen. We have received word from Carrier Squadron One that our retribution was swift. It was also full and total. Our naval aviators, today, in what is the first naval battle ever fought between fleets who never saw one another, have struck a blow to rival Britain’s in Egypt or at Trafalgar. We have confirmation that all three of Japan’s aircraft carriers now rest at the bottom of the Pacific. Unable to defend themselves from a second strike, the Japanese Combined Fleet is retreating headlong to their Home Islands.
The Japanese ambassador, who says he was unaware of any attack planning, has, within the past hour, contacted our Secretary of State, Mr. Hull, to see about facilitating an end to ‘unfortunate circumstances.’ Gentlemen, I know Speaker Rainey has asked for Congress to sit in session tomorrow to discuss this. I will await the proper vote and I look forward to hearing from our august senators, performing their due diligence to advise and consent in forming a full response to today’s events.
To the American people, I stand here before your representatives, your Congress. None of you voted for me to be president, but you did vote for these men. They are here because you believe in them whether they are Democrat or Republican. I see them and know they are not thinking of politics today. Today, we are all Americans, sworn to protect this nation. God bless you this evening and may He bless these United States of America.
Jim Dietz is a graduate of Iowa State University. He is the former CEO of Jolly Roger Games and is now CEO of the non-profit Dietz Foundation. When not managing the foundation, he is the volleyball coach at Lincoln Land Community College and an author of multiple books, blogs, articles, and stories.
Featured Image: “Pearl Harbor” by Sebastian Hue (via Artstation)