January 25, 2009

The Sole Survivor.

On December 7th, 1941, the strongest navy in the world was undoubtably the Nihon Kaigun of Japan.  Foremost in this powerhouse were the fleet's 10 aircraft carriers.  Carrying the best, most experienced pilots, flying the best fighter and torpedo bomber and a dive bomber that was very nearly the equal of the best, this striking force ran roughshod over the Pacific Ocean.

By the end of the war, however, all of the carriers in the fleet at the beginning had been sent to the bottom of the ocean by the "Big Blue Blanket" of the US Navy.  All, that is, except for one... the Sole Survivor.  Ironically, it was the smallest, slowest, oldest, least capable of Japan's flattops, the Hosho.

The Hosho was also the first ship ever built from the keel up as an aircraft carrier, commissioned on December 27th, 1922, 13 months before the HMS Hermes, the first ship designed as a CV, took to the water.

As the first carrier in the Japanese navy, it was influential in many ways, serving as a testbed for experimental methods that later became standard operational procedures for the fleet.  Experience gained from the Hosho's construction and service influenced the conversion of the Kaga and Akagi, and led directly to the design of the Ryujo

By the time of Pearl Harbor, however, the Hosho was only just barely able to operate with the rest of the fleet.  She was too small and slow to be able to handle the modern Zero, Kate and Val planes, and was only just able to fly the A5M Claude off her deck in the best of situations (fresh headwinds with a relatively calm sea).  As this combination was rare at best, and the Claude was obsolete as a whole and rapidly retired, this quickly left the Hosho without a fighter it could carry.  During the Battle of Midway, where she gave the battleships of Yamamoto's Main Body a tiny organic air capability, the Hosho was carrying eight B4Y Jean torpedo bombers.

It was one of these planes that took the famous picture of the burning Hiryu after she had been pummeled by Dauntless bombers at Midway.

After Midway, the Japanese fleet was desperate for carrier decks.  Despite this, the Hosho was removed from active duty as a combatant on June 20th, 1942.  She was then used exclusively for landing exercises and carrier training in the Inland Sea of Japan.  She very nearly escaped the war unharmed.

On March 19th, 1945, while operating near the battleship Yamato in the Inland Sea, the Hosho was attacked by seven planes.  She suffered either a small bomb or a rocket hit that punched a few small holes in her flight deck, losing six crewmen in the process.  The war revisited the Hosho on July 24th, 1945, when she was attacked in harbor on July 24th, 1945, and she reportedly took one hit for scant damage.

After the war ended, she was used as a troop carrier to bring Japanese soldiers home from Wotje and Jaluit.  Struck from the list in 1946, she was finally broken up for scrap on May 1st, 1947.

Hosho, the Sole Survior, was no more.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 10:43 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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January 03, 2009

A Dawn Like Thunder

Readers of The Pond know that I have a thing for the Pacific War, and even moreso for the Battle of Midway.  The study of that period is one of my avid hobbies, and is what lead me to my fondness of Japan in general and eventually anime in particular (though in a fairly roundabout way).  I know quite a bit about the strategies used by both sides in the conflict, and could talk tactics with confidence as well.

With a few exceptions however, the one thing I don't have much knowlege about is the people involved.  Oh, I don't mean the Halseys and Nagumos, but the Chucks and Morts and Joes and Mitsuos and Hidekis... what about them? 

While I was doing my Christmas shopping at a local bookstore, I stumbled on a new release that seemed to have been aimed directly at my bump of curiosity.  A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron 8, by Robert J. Mrazek tells the stories of the men made famous by the Battle of Midway, the only squadron flying off the USS Hornet to make contact with the enemy on that day in June, 1942... and which was almost entirely wiped out as it made its run on the Japanese carriers.  All the squadron's Devastators torpedo bombers were shot down, and only one man, George Gay, survived. 

But that wasn't the whole squadron.  Historians of the battle will remember that the first six Avengers in US Navy service were flying from Midway's single runway after a hurried deployment from Pearl Harbor just before the battle.  They, too, were part of Torpedo 8, a detachment left behind when the Hornet sailed.  Further, another group of VT-8 pilots and crewmen, including the squadron XO, remained behind at Pearl waiting for the rest of the Avengers to arrive. 

Later, VT-8 wound up flying from the USS Saratoga until it was torpedoed.  Many of her squadrons wound up at Espiritu Santo, and some of them wound up going to Guadalcanal as part of the Cactus Air Force.  VT-8 was one of those.  The second half of the book covers that period of time, and the many, many trials the squadron suffered through.  Indeed, VT-8 suffered the highest casualties amongst naval squadrons at both Midway and Guadalcanal.  At Midway, 45 of 48 officers and men serving in Torpedo 8 were killed.  At Guadalcanal, seven of the remaining members were killed and another eight wounded.

It also wound up one of the most decorated squadrons in Navy history, if not the most decorated in US service, period.  It was the only squadron to receive two Presidental Unit Citations from FDR.  Its 35 pilots earned 39 Navy Crosses before it was decommissioned after Guadalcanal.

A Dawn Like Thunder is written almost entirely from interviews conducted with the few members of VT-8 still living, and from letters and memoirs by those who've passed away.  We meet men like Swede Larson, the squadron XO who took command of the squadron after Midway.  We learn that as a leader, he was a martinet who wasn't afraid to belittle his men, issued promotions not on how they performed but if he liked them or not.  Twice, men under his command were pushed so far that they pulled their sidearms on him.  He was also a courageous pilot (though one who refused to admit mistakes).  We meet Bert Earnest, the pilot of the single Avenger to make it back to Midway, though so shot full of holes that it never flew again.  He then went on to survive Guadalcanal, and WWII as a whole.  We meet Chief Petty Officer James Hammond, who won a Silver Star at Guadalcanal in large part because he built three 'Frankenstein Avengers', piecing scraps of many planes together to make one (barely flyable) bomber.  This at a time when the Cactus Air Force was down to a bare handful of planes.  The lineup of pilots and crew goes on, but you never feel like anybody is getting short shrift. The wives and girlfriends of some of the men even get their nods.

Robert Mrazek has done a fine job of tying all his research together and turning it into a coherent and readable story.  The small number of inaccuracies (Midway was described as having two airfields in 1942, when there was only one, for example) are easily overlooked, and don't detract from the superb job he's done telling the human story of Torpedo 8.  Highly recommended!

Mrazek and many of the men he wrote about are members of the Battle of Midway Roundtable, an organization that's been in existence since 1997.   I'm proud to be a member myself.  It's free to join, and if you're interested in the Battle of Midway or the Pacific War, you owe it to yourself to become a member.

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