Category Archives: History

Today is Labor Day (U.S.)

Labor Day Postage Stamp (1956)
United States Post Office
Public Domain

Labor Day is a U.S. federal holiday observed on the first Monday in September. It became a federal holiday in 1894 to celebrate workers and their achievements. It has also become the “unofficial” end of summer as by this time schools have reopened and most summer vacations have ended. Both federal and state offices are closed along with schools. It is also a bank holiday as well and the stock markets are closed. However most retail stores stay open while most professionals (doctors,lawyers and others along with their support staff) get the day off.

The Day Pompeii Died

Vesuvius from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby(1734–1797)
Image:Public Domain

On 24 August 79 AD, one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions occurred in ancient history. Located in the Campania region in the Bay of Naples, the ancient city of Pompeii and those who lived around it never saw Mount Vesuvius as a threat. Their knowledge of volcanoes was limited and it had not erupted dangerously in recent memory so its dangerous past was unknown to them. As one expert put it, this volcano is a low frequency high impact one.

Pompeii
In 79 AD Pompeii was not unlike a vacation resort we know today. Wealthy Romans vacationed here and built beautiful houses and villas. Locals benefited as it meant these Romans were willing to spend money on fine foods and all kinds of other luxuries. Shops, cafes, taverns and other places flourished from the tourists who came and stayed a while. With open area squares and marketplaces, it was a busy place. It is estimated by scholars that up to 20,000 people lived here in 79 AD. In 63 AD, Pompeii and Herculaneum were shaken badly by an earthquake that damaged many houses and damaged infrastructure. Excavations have shown that by 79 AD they were still repairing the damage done from that earthquake. And that more recent ones had occurred as well.

The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov (1799–1852)
Google Art Project
Public Domain

The Eruption of 79 AD
It was a normal day like any other. The occasional rumbles from the mountain had not particularly alarmed anyone. Around noon on 24 August 79 things changed forever. Mt.Vesuvius erupted with a massive 10 mile mushroom cloud sent into the stratosphere. All the ash and pumice would rain down over the area for the next twelve hours. At this stage it was still possible for those who could to flee. Those who remained would see it get steadily worse. Night would become day. Hot ash and pumice would fall continuously causing buildings to collapse from its weight. It became terribly difficult to breathe as well. The next morning the dawn would not be seen. And early in the morning of 25 Aug, a pyroclastic surge swept through the area. This superheated poison gas and pulverized rock traveled over 100 miles per hour. Unless you were outside the radius of the surge or deep underground, it would kill you. By the time the volcano subsided the next day, Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered completely by volcanic ash as was another town Stabiae. Those who came back to find relatives or view the scene were startled. The cities were completely buried and would remain so until the first excavations in 1748.

Pliny The Younger, staying west across the Bay of Naples, recorded what he saw in two letters he sent to Tacitus. Sadly his uncle, Pliny the Elder, would perish when he went over in his boats to Stabiae. Pliny wrote the eruption lasted eighteen hours with Pompeii buried under 14-17 feet of ash and pumice.

Vesuvius has erupted many times since. The most catastrophic one was in 1631 where it destroyed many villages under lava flows and 3,000 people died. Its last major eruption was in March 1944 and destroyed several small villages with lava. The eruption was seen from Naples and damaged (thanks to hot ash and other things)or destroyed up to 88 B-25 medium bombers based in Terzigno, Italy. The volcano is kept under constant watch to prevent anything on the scale of the eruption of 79 AD to the people who live under its shadow.

Pompeii, with Vesuvius towering above.(2010)
Author: Qfl247 (Wikimedia Commons)

Significant excavations beginning in 1927 have revealed much of what life must have been like before the destruction. More somber were the finding of some 2,000 bodies. Volcanic ash hardened and preserved the outlines of their bodies. Once the flesh had gone, the outline remained but filled in with plaster revealed those final moments of their lives. Many of the homes that have been excavated display much of how the wealthy lived in Pompeii. Ironically the city was built with materials from the last catastrophic earthquake called Avellino Eruption that occurred during the Bronze Age.


IL Duce Gets The Boot

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

On 25 Jul 1943, the long time Fascist dictator of Italy Benito Mussolini was deposed. He was deposed by his own Grand Council who had come to believe he was no longer able to govern. Italy had suffered a string of military defeats and the war itself was unpopular with large portions of the population. Mussolini himself appeared tired and overwhelmed by the military failures. Power was transferred to the king and Mussolini barely reacted to what was going on. A few tried rallying support on the council for Il Duce (the title he had given himself as fascist leader)but he appeared unable to choose a course of action. When Mussolini attended his routine meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III, he was told that General Pietro Badoglio would become prime minister. He was arrested after leaving the meeting. News of his dismissal was greeted with enthusiasm by most Italians. In public Badoglio said the war would continue but secretly he was negotiating an armistice with the allies which was signed on 3 September 1943. He also dissolved the Fascist Party.

Aftermath
Germany would invade Italy after it signed an armistice with the Allies in September 1943. Mussolini would be freed by German paratroopers, brought to Germany, and then sent back to rule from Lombardy in the newly formed Italian Social Republic. Meanwhile the Badaglio government, which had fled south to Allied controlled Italy, declared war on Germany. Northern Italy would remain under German control until April 1945. Mussolini would later be captured by partisans and executed along with his mistress trying to flee certain Allied capture on 26 April 1945.

History Channel-This Day In History
Bibliography.com-Benito Mussolini


SS Eastland Rolls Over:800-850 People Drown

SS Eastland circa 1911 Photo: public domain (Library of Congress)
SS Eastland circa 1911
Photo: public domain (Library of Congress)

On this date in 1915, the passenger ship SS Eastland rolled over while docked in the Chicago River. 844 passengers and crew were killed making it the largest loss of life from a shipwreck on the Great Lakes.

The SS Eastland was owned by St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and was launched in May 1903 . Problems were discovered from the start. Design flaws made it top heavy and its center of gravity was too high. When lots of passengers congregated on top deck, the ship would list. While some modifications fixed issues, there were still listing problems. SS Eastland also achieved notoriety in August 1903 for a mutiny by the ships firemen. On 14 Aug, while traversing between Chicago to South Haven, Michigan some fireman refused to stoke the fires because they had not received their potatoes. The captain ordered the men arrested. Two firemen who did not participate in the mutiny had to stoke the fires until they docked. The six men were arrested by the police and later the captain was replaced.

Source:The Tacoma Times (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88085187/1915-07-27/ed-1/seq-7/) This image is now in public domain.
Source:The Tacoma Times (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88085187/1915-07-27/ed-1/seq-7/)
This image is now in public domain.

On 24 Jul 1915 the Eastland and two other passenger steamers were chartered to take employees of Western Electric to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. For the workers, it was a major event since many did not take holidays. Boarding began at 0630 and by 0710, the ship had reached its capacity of 2,572. The ship was packed and passengers filled every possible place on the upper decks. The ship had already begun to list to port and the crew tried to balance the ship using the ballast tanks. That did not work. Numerous passengers passengers apparently rushed to the port side making it worse. At 0728, the ship lurched sharply to port and rolled over to rest on the river bottom twenty feet below the surface. Because so many were below decks to keep warm, they were trapped by the sudden rollover. Heavy furniture-pianos, bookcases, tables-crushed many inside.

The Kenosha responded immediately and came aside to allow those stranded on top to jump aboard. But for those trapped below, there was no rescue. The bodies were retrieved and taken to temporary morgues.

The president and three officers of St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company were indicted for manslaughter. The ship’s captain and engineer where charged with criminal carelessness as well. However during an extradition hearing (all six were in Michigan and had to be extradited to Illinois to stand trial) the federal judge believed there was not enough probable cause citing lack of evidence and refused to extradite. He further said the captain and engineer were merely doing their jobs.

Ironically because of the 1915 Seamen’s Act passed after Titanic’s demise, the additional weight of the lifeboats probably worsened the top-heavy issues of the ship.

A historical marker along the Chicago River marks the event. Plans are also underway to construct an outdoor exhibit where Eastland sank.

Eastland Goes Navy
The Eastland was raised and sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and commissioned USS Wilmette . She was reconfigured as a gun boat and primarily used for training. Her only action came after the war when she was tasked with sinking a captured German U-Boat in 1921. Most of her career after that was training naval reservists. In 1941, her training duty was altered to train naval armed crews on merchant ships. Her most prestigious task was to take President Roosevelt and others to Whitefish Bay to plan war strategies in 1943. She was decommissioned in 1945 and sold for scrap in 1946.

Sources:
1. SS Eastland (Wikipedia)
2. Eastland Memorial Society
3.Eastland Disaster Historical Society

Happy Independence Day

A collection of public domain images of the American Revolutionary War, together in a montage.

Each year we celebrate the 4th of July by watching parades, grilling food, and watching baseball. We celebrate it because in 1776 leaders took a brave and radical course of action by declaring independence from the  premiere power of the day—Great Britain.

This was no small thing to do. The British were powerful and would respond by trying to crush the rebellion. Every person who signed the document know their very lives were at stake. And some did pay a price when they were captured. The War for Independence was not easy and faced great obstacles. It was no sure thing at all the rebellion would succeed. It did succeed only because of the determination of those fighting to be free of British rule. They wanted to govern themselves and not serve a country that did not respond to their grievances. The American War for Independence would inspire others to do the same.

But why did they rebel? The Declaration of Independence lays out the case to the world. This is not a snippet but the complete document. Sometime ago young people were asked about it and some thought it was The Communist Manifesto (1848). While that document has had an impact as well, the difference could not be more striking. The American Revolution brought forth a constitutional republic that guarantees citizens many rights. Governments that have been inspired by the Communist Manifesto and its supportive writings has resulted in Communist dictatorships that are hardly friendly to individual rights and regimes that have brutalized their people, and in some cases massacred thousands and even millions of those who did not agree with their policies.

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IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

——

2 Jul 1937: Amelia Earhart Disappeared Never To Be Seen Again

Amelia Earhart circa 1928 Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress digital ID# cph.3a22092)
Amelia Earhart circa 1928
Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress digital ID# cph.3a22092)

On 20 May 1932, five years after Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo nonstop flight from the U.S. to France, Amelia Earhart set out to be the first female aviator to accomplish the same feat. Unlike Lindbergh, Earhart was already well known before this flight. She gained fame in 1928 as part of a three person crew to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. On that trip, she kept the plane’s log.

Early on 20 May 1932, her Lockheed Vega 5B took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. She intended to replicate Lindbergh’s flight but encountered strong northerly winds, mechanical problems, and icy conditions. Instead of landing in France, she landed in a pasture at Culmore(north of Derry)in Northern Ireland. When asked by a farmhand how far she had flown, she famously said “From America.” Her feat received international acclaim. She received the Distinguished Flying Cross in the U.S., Cross of Honor of the Legion of Honor from France, and the Gold Medal from the National Geographic Society. Her fame allowed her develop friendships with many important and influential people such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Earhart would continue to make solo flights and set records. Sadly her next most famous mission would forever be shrouded in mystery. In 1937 she attempted–along with copilot Frederick Noonan–to fly around the world. On 2 Jul 1937, her plane disappeared near Howland Island in the South Pacific. Despite extensive searching by the U.S.Navy and Coast Guard, no trace of the plane or its pilots were ever found. The search was called off on 19 July. Earhart was declared legally dead on 5 Jul 1939 so that her estate could pay bills. Since then numerous theories as to what happened have been put forth. Many believe her plane either crashed and sank or that they landed on an island and perished awaiting rescue. Some intriquing evidence recovered in 2012 off Nikumaroro might be from their plane which supports the crash and sank hypothesis. More speculative theories have her being a spy for FDR or being captured and executed (along with Noonan)by the Japanese on Saipan (the area checked for the pilots bodies revealed nothing). A 1970 book claiming she had survived, moved to New Jersey, and changed her name to Irene Craigmile Bolam. There really was an Irene Bolam who had been a banker in New York in the 1940’s. She sued the publisher and obtained an out-of-court settlement. The book was taken off the market. National Geographic debunked it in 2006 on Undiscovered History.


Happy Father’s Day

Father and son on a Sunday afternoon, 1943.
Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#fsa 8d19170)

Father’s Day is celebrated on the third Sunday of June in the United States. The movement to recognize fathers began in a West Virginia church in 1908. The sermon that day asked to remember 362 men who had perished in a mine explosion the previous December and many of the men were fathers. In 1909 Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington tried to establish an equivalent of Mother’s Day for male parents. She had been raised by a widower and believed the recognition was due. She promoted it so well to local churches, service organizations, and government officials that Washington State celebrated Father’s Day on June 19,1910. The movement to recognize fathers spread slowly but in 1924 President Calvin Coolidge urged state governments to observe Father’s Day. Since then most states now recognize the third Sunday of June as Father’s Day but it is not a public holiday (neither is Mother’s Day).

Father’s Day is also celebrated in many countries. In Europe and most Spanish speaking countries it is celebrated on St. Joseph’s Day on March 19. St. Joseph is the patron saint of fathers.


Remembering D-Day, 6 June 1944

"Into The Jaws of Death" U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944. Photo:Chief Photographer's Mate Robert F. Sargent Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)
“Into The Jaws of Death”
U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944.
Photo:Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)

Today we cannot imagine or fathom the resources and manpower needed for this highly complex operation. It took years of planning, putting together needed resources, and training the men needed. Even then things went wrong right away but despite the terrible odds and the high casualty rate, the Allied forces prevailed. With many junior officers wounded or killed right away, it was the ordinary soldier that won the day.

The world of 6 June 1944 was this: Nazi Germany held total control over Western Europe except for Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland who remained neutral. However its invasion of Russia had collapsed at this point with the German army now forced to retreat. It had already been forced out of North Africa and Allied troops had landed in Sicily in 1943 and by 1944 were in Italy. Mussolini had been deposed in 1943, rescued by German paratroopers, and put in charge of a German supported puppet state in Northern Italy. The Germans knew the allies were planning a major invasion along the coast of France.

Crossing the English Channel was going to be an enormous challenge. Despite what some want to believe, it was easier in concept that actual implementation. While cries of a second front had been going on for years, it required a vast amount of resources to pull off. You not only needed the men, but they all had to be trained, fed, and properly outfitted. Not just the foot soldiers but also the special units. Then you needed ships not only to bring them over to England, but camps to house them and continue their training. The Army Air Corp needed runways and facilities. The list goes on and on. Imagine a list of needed items that stretches, when laid out flat, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you get an idea of how enormous an operation this was going to be. And that is just on the planning and supply side.

Then the problem of getting men over to France was a major hurdle. Landing craft at the start of the war were not very good and unreliable. New ones would have to be devised (they were, the Higgins boats) that would allow troops to be dropped off as close to shore as possible. Then you needed accurate intelligence to tell you what the troops were going to face. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had put up every possible fortification on the beaches and the area around. From mines in the water to barbed wire to turrets filled with guns and German troops. Hitler wanted an Atlantic wall and Rommel was pretty darn close in getting it done.

National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia Photo:Public Domain
National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia
Photo:Public Domain

That is why D-Day is important. This was a massive operation unlike anything in history. A full fledged invasion of Europe on a tricky North Atlantic where weather was hardly ever your friend. It did not go to plan, some parts went hideously wrong (landing at wrong places etc). Yet the Allied forces prevailed because of the determination of the soldiers, mostly noncoms and enlisted, to get it done. It came at great cost in lives yet when it was over began the march to push Germany out of many conquered lands. Today some talk down this military success out of some desire to lessen having to celebrate in any way war or military accomplishment. Yet had this invasion not happened or been unsuccessful, the Third Reich likely would have lasted a lot longer or worse perhaps not fallen at all.

Further Information & Suggested Reading
1)Books
Ambrose, Stephen (1994) [1993]. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gilbert, Martin (1989). The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: H. Holt.
Keegan, John (1994). Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris. New York: Penguin Books.
Ryan, Cornelius (1959). The Longest Day. New York: Simon & Schuster.

2)Websites
The Normandy Invasion (US Army Center of Military History)
NORMANDY LANDINGS, Operation “OVERLORD” (NavalHistory.net)
D-Day Documents (Eisenhower Presidential Library)
Veteran Memories of D-Day(normandy.secondworldwar.nl)



Remembering History: Battle of Midway (June 4-7 1942)

Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941 Public Domain (Official U.S. Navy photo)
Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941
Public Domain (Official U.S. Navy photo)

In June 1942 the Empire of Japan had become the dominant power in Asia and ruled a sizable empire. It acquired Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895, Korea in 1905, and Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo) in 1931. It invaded China in 1937 seizing control of key cities such as Shanghai, Nanking and Peking (Beijing). French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand) were invaded after the fall of France in 1940 to prevent it from being used by the Chinese to funnel arms. A treaty with German backed Vichy France made French Indochina neutral but within the Japanese sphere of power. British Hong Kong fell to the Japanese after 18 days of heavy fighting on Christmas Day in 1941. Fortress Singapore, so-called because it seemed impregnable to attack, would fall to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942. The Japanese avoided a frontal assault by coming through the less protected jungle at its rear. The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was conquered by March 1942 and The Philippines would fall in May. Burma would also be taken over as well. To protect their position in Dutch West Indies they began attacking northern Australia to prevent it from being used as a staging area. With the old imperial powers gone and Japan firmly in charge, nothing seemed to be in the way of Japan. The Battle of Midway changed that.

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941 was considered a success in Japan, the United States was still in the game. The unexpected bombing of Tokyo on 18 April 1942(The Doolittle Raid) and its ability to fight as shown at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942) convinced Japanese leaders they needed to so demolish American morale they would not want to fight any further. They choose a small virtually unknown atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Midway to draw out the American fleet to be destroyed. Midway is aptly named and 1300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor and nearly halfway between Japan and the West Coast of the United States. Its strategic importance meant it was valuable for both sides. A military base was already there and seizing it from the United States would draw out their remaining carriers along with support craft to be destroyed. The plan was to send four carriers and support craft for the initial attack. Then a larger task force comprised of destroyers, support craft and troops commanded by Admiral Yamamoto would follow up to destroy the American ships than came to liberate Midway. A feint of attacking American outposts in the Aleutian Islands was used to distract the U.S. while it attacked Midway.

The Japanese, however, did not know that its code had been broken. A special naval intelligence unit called HYPO had broken it in March resulting in much of the plan becoming known to the U.S. A task force was assembled of three carriers (Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown) seven heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 15 destroyers, and 16 submarines would go out to meet the Japanese fleet. The Yorktown, already in badly need of repair, was patched up and its depleted aircraft and pilots scrounged up from whatever was available. In overall command was to have been Vice Admiral William Halsey but fell sick prior to the mission. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, who headed up the escorts under Halsey, would command Enterprise and Hornet. Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher was in command of Yorktown.

On 4 June 1942, Admiral Nagumo aboard the carrier Akagi launched the initial air attack on Midway comprised of dive and torpedo bombers escorted by Zeroes. PBY’s launched that morning from Midway would sight two Japanese carriers and radar picked up incoming Japanese fighters. Midway sent up unescorted bombers to delay the attack while the fighters remained behind to defend Midway. Midway came under heavy attack and its air interceptors took a heavy beating fighting the Japanese. Anti-aircraft fire from ground personnel proved to be more precise. Midway took a beating but was still functional and could launch planes.

Meanwhile scouting reports flying ahead of the American carriers placed the Japanese carriers at the extreme range for air attack. Making matters more difficult was the fact that Japanese scout planes had sighted the American fleet. Despite the extreme range, Spruance ordered the planes to be launched and increased the speed of the task force to close the distance. The torpedo squadrons left first but due to mechanical problems in launching the dive-bombers, had to fly unescorted. They would reach the Japanese and be quickly shot out of the sky by Japanese Zeroes and anti-aircraft fire. Not one torpedo launched did any serious damage.

Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a Yokosuka B4Y aircraft from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942.  Photo: Public Domain ( U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a Yokosuka B4Y aircraft from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942.
Photo: Public Domain ( U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

Admiral Nagumo had a problem. His planes returned from Midway and were being re-armed for the next bombing run. But he had just gotten a report that the American navy was in the area. Its exact composition was unknown. So he ordered a change in the ordnance for the attack planes. Instead of attacking land-based targets they would arm to destroy ships. The result was there was a lot of ordnance out on the deck on the carriers where this was being done. With the Japanese combat air patrol out of position having dealt with the torpedo squadrons they were not able to intercept the next wave of attack. American dive-bomber squadrons from Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown would seemingly arrive nearly at the same time. It was one of the greatest coincidences in military history. Three Japanese carriers–Akagi,Kaga, and Soryu–would be sunk that day. The surviving carrier Hiryu counter-attacked by sending our air squadrons to attack any American carrier they could find. They found Yorktown and dropped three bombs heavily damaging the ship but not sinking it. Admiral Fletcher moved over to cruiser Astoria while it was being repaired. A second air attack an hour later would further damage Yorktown. She would later sink when being towed on 6 June by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine, which also sank the destroyer Hamman.

The Japanese believed they had turned the tide and would be able to go on with the Midway plan. They knew a huge fleet of destroyers and support craft was on the way. However the Hiryu was found late in the afternoon. An air attack by Enterprise and Yorktown bombers resulted in four or possibly five bombs seriously crippling her. The fires prevented any planes taking off or landing. The crew would evacuate and later Hiryu would sink. Spruance, not wanting to risk exposure to Japanese forces and wanting to protect Midway would retire to the west. Admiral Yamamoto still wanted to invade Midway and proceeded on course. Had Spruance not changed course, the remaining two carriers of the American fleet would have been exposed to Yamamoto’s destroyers. Spruance would go after the stragglers. Yamamoto ultimately ordered the fleet back to Japan not knowing the full composition of the American forces that might be pursuing.

The U.S. Navy lost 1 carrier, 1 destroyer, 150 aircraft and 307 killed. Many of those killed were from the torpedo squadrons that lost 80% or more of their pilots. The Japanese lost 4 carriers, 1 heavy cruiser, 248 aircraft and 3,057 killed. It was a major victory for the U.S. but most Japanese would never learn the full details until after the war was over. The survivors of the sunken carriers and those aboard the ships that survived would be quarantined or sent on duty assignments far away from home. None of the senior officers would face any serious repercussions. Only those at the very top were informed as to what really happened. Only the Emperor and the top naval officers knew the full details. The public was told it was a great victory and the Imperial Japanese Army believed the navy was in good condition. However Admiral Yamamoto and the other senior leaders of the Japanese Navy knew the truth. The United States would soon come out stronger than it had been before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the United States it would prove the value of intelligence gathering and code-breaking. It would continue to be an important part of the war effort and would yield even more useful information down the road with dire consequences for Admiral Yamamoto. The code breaking led directly to his plane being shot down in 1943 as payback for Pearl Harbor.

(Please note this is a very condensed description of the Battle of Midway and had a lot more stages in it than reflected in this writing).

Sources:
Books
1. Lord, Walter (1967). Incredible Victory. New York: Harper and Row.
2. Prange, Gordon W.; Goldstein, DonaldM.; Dillon, Katherine V. (1982). Miracle at Midway. New York: McGraw-Hill

Websites
1.Naval Warfare History-Battle of Midway, U.S Navy
2. Battle of Midway (History.com)
3. USS Enterprise:Battle of Midway


Images Of Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who gave all to serve this country. At national cemeteries and smaller ones around the country, flags and flowers have been placed to remember them. We also remind ourselves that freedom is not easily granted, often requires great sacrifice. President Lincoln made note of this in his famous 1863 Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery decorated by U.S. flags on Memorial Day weekend.
Photo:Public domain
Arlington National Cemetery, Memorial Day, 1924
Photo: U.S. Library of Congress, digital id npcc 11495
Boy Touching Gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery(2012)