Sunday, April 08, 2018
GETTYSBURG VS MIDWAY: YAMAMOTO VS LEE
GETTYSBURG VS MIDWAY: YAMAMOTO VS LEE
Gettysburg (July 1863) and Midway (June 1942) are historic battles that have so much in common that it is eerie.
Both battle sites were strategic locations in their wars. If the Union army were defeated at Gettysburg, the road to Washington would be opened to the Confederates. If the Midway Islands were occupied by Japan, and if the American navy’s aircraft carriers were destroyed in the process, Hawaii and even the west coast seemed to be vulnerable.
Thus, both are considered by historians to be “turning points” of their wars, although neither really was. After each battle, there still were to be many more years of war; many thousands of lives lost. But in each case, the losers were so damaged that they were forced to the defensive from then on until the final bitter defeat.
Coincidentally, both battles were fought over three tense days, but turned on just a few violent minutes when the issue was in doubt, teetered, and was unalterably determined.
THE LOSING COMMANDERS
The most glaring and interesting fact is how similar General Robert E. Lee and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commanders of the losing forces, were to each other.
Up until Gettysburg, General R. E. Lee had won a string of victories over the Union army. He had outsmarted every general Lincoln had appointed to face him.
Up until Midway, Admiral Yamamoto had made his navy the dominant force in the Pacific. He had devised the raid on Pearl Harbor that crippled the US Navy. His forces had destroyed all of the capital ships the British Navy had in the Pacific.
Both leaders were idolized by their subordinates, feared and respected by their enemies, and are admired by historians for their character traits as much as for their military brilliance. Both were reputed to be dignified gentlemen, decent human beings.
Both had been reluctant to go to war. Lee opposed secession but yielded to his perception of duty to his state. He knew that his army could not defeat the vastly more numerous and better equipped Union forces, especially in a lengthy war of attrition. He knew that the best hope was to force a negotiated peace by audacious victories in battle after battle.
Yamamoto strongly advised Japanese politicians against war versus the US. He foresaw the eventual disaster, famously predicting that he might “run wild” for six months to a year at most before the US geared up its enormous industrial potential to overwhelm Japan. Yet, once the die was cast, he devised the strategy that gave Japan the best chance of forcing the US to the table to at least accept Japan as the dominant power in Asia.
The final stunning similarity is that both brilliant military leaders lost due to the same constellation of factors: both suffered from overconfidence—in themselves, and in the forces they led; both were mythologized as “invincible” and both men began to believe the myths; both finally ran up against opposing commanders who were not intimidated by their reputations; both men were gamblers who ran out of luck, as the element of chance finally turned against them with disastrous effect.
Yet, both commanders were gracious in defeat. Both accepted the blame for it, and both offered to resign. In each case, their superiors (Jefferson Davis and Emperor Hirohito) turned down the offer, seeing that they were the best they had.
Both men would continue fighting for years, never again to gain the initiative, both to lead hopeless defensive struggles from then on.
Of course, there were important differences between the battles, and between the two losing commanders. Lee’s army was numerically inferior to the Union’s; at Midway, Japan outnumbered the US in men, experience, and arms. The technology of war had changed in eighty years, altering the odds and giving secret advantages to Yamamoto’s foe that Lee never had to face.
One of these commanders would die long before the war’s end; the other would survive to accept defeat. History would praise both commanders, even though one of them was a traitor to his country.
Both battles resulted from strategies devised by the losing commanders and both strategies backfired disastrously for the losing forces.
Lee’s desperate strategy was to pressure the Union into negotiations by defeating them decisively on their own turf. He had won many battles against inept Union generals, but they had been fought on Southern fields, when the Union army had “invaded” Virginia. He also wanted to relieve pressure on Vicksburg, which was under siege by Grant. By threatening Washington itself, he hoped to distract the Union and divide their forces, his favorite technique.
A year before, in 1862, Lee “invaded” Maryland, a border state that was still in the Union and just a few miles from the US capitol. The Battle of Antietam in September was an inconclusive bloodbath, although a strategic victory for the Union because Lee was forced to retreat back to Virginia.
(Lee’s setback at Antietam kept Maryland in the Union and allowed Lincoln’s party to keep control of Congress; a year later, the timing of the Gettysburg battle was also significant; the victory allowed Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.)
Yamamoto had a similar experience some eighty years later. In May 1942, Japan intended to invade and occupy Port Moresby, on the island of New Guinea, an action that threatened the shipping lifeline to Australia and New Zealand. In the Battle of The Coral Sea, a US Navy aircraft carrier task force fought a Japanese navy carrier force. It was the first battle in history in which the opposing naval warships fought each other without ever seeing the enemy; it was fought entirely through the air. Each side lost a carrier (the USS Lexington was sunk and the Yorktown damaged).
Just as Antietam, Coral Sea was a strategic defeat for the invading forces, which had to retreat and abandon its planned invasion, even though it was a tactical draw in terms of losses. In both cases, the losers could ill afford trading losses with enemies that had much deeper resources of men and equipment.
After Antietam, Lee resumed his winning ways, outsmarting Union generals at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned every time, Lee had defeated McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker. There seemed a real chance that England might recognize the Confederate States of America as an independent nation.
By July 1863, Lee’s myth of invincibility was at its height. Lee decided to cash in, attacking the North again, this time through Pennsylvania. His march would relieve pressure on the South by forcing the Union army to fight him on grounds he chose.
Even before Coral Sea, Yamamoto had been convinced that he had to force a confrontation with the US Navy’s aircraft carriers. Pearl Harbor’s great success was tempered by failure to catch the American carriers there. The raid on Tokyo in April by Doolittle’s B-25’s taking off from the USS Hornet, just a few hundred miles from Japan, was a serious embarrassment. Although the damage had been slight, bombs fell close to the imperial palace, endangering the emperor; this was intolerable.
In early 1942, Japan had more carriers in the Pacific than the US. Yamamoto knew that this would not last much longer, considering America’s manufacturing power. He was told that two US carriers (Lexington and Yorktown) had been sunk at Coral Sea. That left only two US carriers left (Enterprise and Hornet). He had the six that had attacked Pearl Harbor, though two were docked for repairs.
To lure the US carriers to their destruction, his planners decided to invade the US held Midway Islands. The US would be forced to defend or retake the islands because of the threat to Hawaii. Once the island’s defenses were overwhelmed and Japanese planes had landed there, the US carriers would be entrapped by vastly superior forces. Four aircraft carriers, supported by a huge fleet of battleships and cruisers; hundreds of superior Japanese flyers would destroy the far less experienced US forces.
INTELLIGENCE AND SURVEILLANCE
In 1863, the Union army knew that Lee was moving, although they were unsure precisely what route he would be taking. Lee didn’t know exactly where the Union army was, either, as his massive army marched north.
In 1942, the US had a secret weapon that gave them a huge advantage; Navy cryptanalysts in Hawaii (led by Joseph Rochefort) had broken the Japanese naval code to the extent that they could predict where and when Japan would next attack with amazing precision. The navy dockyard workers also secretly repaired the Yorktown, and thus Admiral Nimitz, the US commander, had three carriers (in addition to the reinforced air power on Midway), somewhat shortening the odds, though, in the eyes of all including the brass in Washington, they still favored the Japanese.
Intel problems of another sort were also common elements to these battles. In 1863, the cavalry were the eyes of the army. Units were sent galloping away to probe for the enemy and to report back to the commander. In the Pacific in 1942, scouting the enemy was done by submarines and planes designed or adapted for long-range flights. The Pacific is vast and spotting and identifying ships from high altitudes was chancey.
(The US had another secret advantage in 1942: shipboard radar would forewarn of attacking formations of bombers, allowing time to prepare defenses and damage control, but planes were not then equipped with radar and thus were limited to the naked eyes of pilots and observers).
General Lee was blinded by his cavalry commander’s failure to locate the Union Army. General J.E.B. Stuart was the culprit there. At Midway, Yamamoto was stationed in his flagship, a battleship that was steaming many miles behind the vanguard of his aircraft carriers (commanded locally by Admiral Nagumo).
In 1942, Japanese surveillance failed to locate the American carriers for several reasons: first, the US, knowing the details of the Japanese plan, had occupied the islets of Frigate Shoals before Japanese subs could get there to refuel. Thus, the subs were unable to complete their mission. Then luck took part: a Japanese scout plane’s takeoff was delayed, and another had engine trouble. They just happened to be assigned the sector of ocean where the US fleet was lying in wait. (The location was appropriately designated, “Point Luck.”)
US scout planes from Midway were luckier. Intel had correctly predicted that the Japanese would be attacking from the northwest of Midway. That narrowed the scope of their search. They spotted the carriers and sent back the urgent message, “many planes headed Midway.”
FATE AND CHANCE
In 1863, the town of Gettysburg was not expecting to be at the center of a huge battle, although it was strategically located at the junction of several important roads. Neither side planned to do battle there, and it began as a shock to both. Rebel units arrived in town looking for shoes and ran up against US cavalry units that happened to arrive there. A skirmish became a battle as more units arrived on each side. The Rebels outnumbered the Union forces but the Union barely held their ground until reinforcements arrived. The opposing armies gravitated to the site as if magnetically drawn.
By the time Lee arrived, it was apparent that the Union forces held strong defensive positions on the high ground. Lee’s subordinates, especially General Longstreet, advised against fighting a huge battle there. (By then it was clear that frontal assaults on strongly defended positions were futile; artillery and massed gunfire time after time had inflicted unspeakably high casualties on the attackers.)
Longstreet advised moving the army between Gettysburg and Washington, thus forcing the Union army to attack them. But Lee stubbornly insisted that this is where he would make his stand. Do or die. Now.
Some in the navy and many in the army had opposed Yamamoto’s Midway plan. Some navy men thought his plan too complex, depended on too many assumptions as to the US intentions and capabilities, relied too heavily on tenuous intel and lacked sufficient resources allocated for surveillance. Overall, the plan was too rigid; it didn’t allow for improvisation. These objections were cast aside in the “victory fever” but proved to be correct.
Japanese Army generals (who dominated the government) had other objections. They wanted the navy to support its plans for more invasions and occupations in the South Pacific, including New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. (Yamamoto agreed to planned operation to invade Port Moresby, New Guinea in May in order to placate the army brass).
All opposition to the Midway operation was dropped after the Doolittle Tokyo raid and the Battle of Coral Sea proved Yamamoto’s point about the threat of US carriers. As with Lee, the opposition faded in response to Yamamoto’s reputation for success and his forceful personality.
THE RAZOR’S EDGE
On day two of Gettysburg, the Confederates came close to routing the Union army. Desperate fights led to near victories: at the Devil’s Den, at the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Cemetary Ridge, and most critically, at Little Round Top. In each pitched battle, the Union forces were bent just short of the breaking point, but barely held on. At the end of the day, Lee thought he needed one more great push to break the enemy’s back. On day three he bet all his chips on a frontal assault that would be known to history as Pickett’s Charge.
At Midway, the full fury of the battle was released on the very first day; in fact, by the end of the morning, the entire battle was all but decided. By the end of the day, it was virtually over, although it went on for two more days until the two forces finally recognized its end.
Although eighty years of technology had permitted the compression of action into minutes instead of hours and days, there was still enough delay for the issue to be doubted by either side. The agonizing and deadly minutes must have seemed to the participants as hours, days, or more.
The American attack on the carriers began ineptitude and suicidal but ineffectual courage.
Early in the morning of June 4, planes from Midway attacked the Japanese carriers with complete futility. B-17’s bombed from 20,000 feet and hit nothing; B-25’s swooped low and were shot down. Dive bombers and torpedo planes from the island’s marine squadron hit nothing and were shot down. Marine fighter pilots were decimated by Japanese fighters while their bombers severely damaged the island’s defenses.
Planes from the three US carriers did even worse. Carrier planes were of three types: torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters. Optimal tactics required a combined attack: torpedo planes at sea level attacking from different directions while dive bombers dropped from above. Fighters should be there to ward off enemy combat air patrol fighters.
But at this time, the US naval flyers were amateurs by comparison to the Japanese who had perfected the technique. Lack of navigation skills even kept whole squadrons away from the target completely (all the Hornet dive bombers got lost). Dive bombers from the other two carriers lost their slower torpedo squadrons and they all were separated from the fighters who were supposed to protect them.
Added to the skill and experience deficiency, the US planes were at or near their expiration date. The “Devastator” torpedo planes were suicidally slow and their torpedoes were often defective and failed to explode even if the pilot was lucky enough to survive the Japanese Zeros and anti-aircraft fire and get close enough to the carriers release them. Whole squadrons from Enterprise and Yorktown went down without scoring any hits.
There is an old saw that goes, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Or maybe it is vice versa. Either way, fate, chance, luck all decided to favor the US.
Earlier, the Japanese pilots returned to their carriers from their attack on Midway and urgently asked for a second attack to finish the job. As the planes landed, crews began to re-arm them with bombs. At that moment, word arrived from scout planes that a US carrier had been sighted; then a second carrier was sighted. Admiral Nagumo ordered that the planes now must be armed with torpedoes and aerial bombs suitable for striking warships (the detonations were delayed to pierce the ship’s decks and armor and explode deep within, rather than on contact with land.)
When the ineffectual US torpedo attacks were over, the carriers prepared to launch planes. At that moment the US “Dauntless” dive bombers began their assault. Even though few US fighters were there to protect them, the Japanese fighters were not in position to attack them because they had been drawn to sea level to fight the low flying torpedo planes.
The carrier decks were filled with airplanes loaded with fuel and bombs of all types were still on the decks. In just a few minutes, the dive bombers dropped 500 lb and 1000 lb bombs on three of the Japanese carriers, sinking all three.
The fourth Japanese carrier launched its planes in desperation. They might still salvage the day. Earlier, the Yorktown had been hit by bombs and torpedos. It had been set aflame and the Japanese pilots reported it as sinking. Now, they were ordered to attack the other US carriers. If they could sink one or both, the battle could be seen as a draw.
They arrived over the US carriers, looking for one that was not in flames. They found one and attacked it with deadly accuracy, leaving it mortally wounded. They thought they had sunk a second carrier.
In fact, they had hit the Yorktown again. Miraculously, frantic fire suppression teams had quelled all the fires of the morning assault. The ship had regained power. Now, it was struck again. (Yorktown had survived the Coral Sea damage, been repaired at Pearl in three days, and joined the Midway battle. Its pilots had inflicted much of the damage that day. Now it was pounded again and again. Still, it survived, was to be towed back to Pearl. Its luck ran out the next day when a Japanese submarine finally finished it.)
The Japanese pilots from the fourth carrier would have no home to return to. Pilots from the remaining US carriers found it and destroyed it with a rain of bombs.
In the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese navy was the dominant force in the Pacific, poised to extend their power to America’s doorstep. By the late afternoon, their fleet was staggering back, having suffered a disastrous defeat.
In the morning of July 3 1863, it still seemed possible that the South would win the battle, and then the war, and would achieve its goal of independence. By the afternoon, that hope was shattered. General Lee ordered George Pickett to attack the center of the Union line. Lee believed that the center would be weak due to the need to strengthen the flanks. But his complex plan to force the result was fatally flawed. Stuart’s cavalry was stalled by Union opposition; Longstreet’s reluctant attack on the other wing was too little too late. Pickett’s force was decimated, few reaching the Union line before being slaughtered.
The remains of Lee’s army were able to escape to the South and to go on for another two years, but never to regain the initiative. The Union grew stronger; manpower, the blockade, generals who now saw through Lee’s myth of invincibility. In April 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant.
Admiral Yamamoto continued to lead the navy in its desperate struggle to hang on to its island possessions and to forestall the American juggernaut. He tried to regain the initiative and some of the “face” he lost at Midway by making a stand at Guadalcanal. But after months of back and forth brutal fighting, the island was lost.
A few months later, in April, 1943, American fighter planes caught the admiral’s plane and shot it down, killing him. There was a final irony: he was doomed by the same American codebreaking team that had made the difference at Coral Sea and Midway; now they told the P-38 pilots exactly where to find him in order to finish him.
If Yamamoto had survived to the end of the war, it is unlikely that he would have been condemned as a war criminal. The Japanese armies were guilty of many unforgivable atrocities, but the navy and Yamamoto in particular didn’t have that reputation. It is possible that he would have raised his voice long before the end to argue for surrender, although it would have been a bitter pill. By the end, the vaunted Japanese Navy had been utterly destroyed and the nation, as he had warned, was in ruins.
Robert E. Lee lived until 1870, his dignity intact. Southern historians, who dominated the academic field for many years, exalted his reputation, as they glorified the “lost cause.”
Later historians have corrected the record, noting that when Lee’s army entered Pennsylvania, officers rounded up freed blacks and returned them to slavery in the South. Lee tacitly approved of the policy by his silence, just as he never protested the atrocities committed after the end of the war by the Ku Klux Klan, which was headed by former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The fact is that Robert E. Lee was a traitor to his country, the USA. He had been a career officer in this country’s army, having sworn allegiance to its flag and its constitution, not to his state of Virginia. Although it might be understandable that he turned down command of the Union Army on grounds that he couldn’t raise arms against his home and family, that did not justify his taking arms against his country. He could have sat out the war rather than lead the fight the nation he betrayed.
There is a statue and memorial museum dedicated to Isoroku Yamamoto’s memory in his home town of Nagaoka-Nigata, Japan. Robert E. Lee has many things named after him; his statues have recently been removed from public places.