Thursday, July 16, 2015

THE PERFECT ATTACK - Alternative Pearl Harbor II

The first group of five torpedo bombers crossed south of the submarine base, low and slow, heading along the Southeast Loch, the full formation extending almost entirely across the loch so that, when the turns were required, each plane would have the most room to line up on their target and the least amount to turn. There was no indication of enemy AA fire. The leader eased left, crossed the formation heading for the southernmost mooring, a Tennessee class battleship. Like a ballet perfectly synchronized, each following aircraft made its course adjustment to line up on its target as they had practiced so often together.

“Too low,” mumbled Fuchida, as he watched the last bomber bank right to begin its difficult turn towards the northernmost target. The pilot evidently had been flustered by the aircraft crossing ahead of him closer than they had practiced, and momentarily pulled back on his throttle. Fuchida saw a ripple of wake on the water below the torpedo bomber’s right wing and then, to his horror, saw the wing catch a wave top. Instantly the four tons of aircraft, aircrew and torpedo were spinning a cartwheel like a crazed circus acrobat, flipping over and over above the water, finally settling in a vast spray of water.

Fuchida had a flash of anxiety. Would the other pilots flinch from their attack on the northernmost part of Battleship Row? Before he could be visited by more apprehensive thoughts, the second group of attackers flashed down the loch, fifteen seconds behind the lead formation. The same ballet ensued, aircraft lining up their drops, this time with the clearances as they had practiced. Fuchida locked his eyes on the last aircraft, willing it to stay aloft. The torpedo bomber banked, turned right, seemed to shudder a little in the air, then the wings leveled. Fuchida saw the splash as this aircraft released its weapon. A good attack!

“A hit! Number 1 position!” shouted his pilot and bombardier together. “A hit! Number 2 position! A hit! Number 3 position!”

“Three hits in the first wave,” thought Fuchida, as he pulled out his clipboard with the chart of the harbor. He made pencil tic marks next to each ship that was hit.

Another wave appeared at the end of the loch. Arcs of machine gun fire streamed out from a destroyer moored against the quay at the Navy Yard. Two streams converged on one of the torpedo bombers, releasing a flow of red flame from its wing root. Its torpedo tumbled away, jettisoned. The bomber pulled up, stalled, and like a fluttering cherry blossom hit the ground inside the Navy Yard. A red balloon of fire brightened the sky.

“Damnation,” muttered Fuchida.

Three of the covering A6M Zero fighters rolled over and streaked down, aiming for the offending destroyer. Streams of machine gun bullets lashed up and down the destroyer’s deck. Fuchida could hear the distant deeper, rapid “chug chug chug” sound as the fighter pilots added their 20mm cannon to the fire of their 7.7mm machine guns. The third fighter pulled up. Nothing more came from the destroyer. The next formation of torpedo bombers slipped by, unimpeded.

“A hit! Number 2 position! A hit! Number three position! A hit! Number 5 position!”

In less than ninety seconds 25 torpedo bombers had completed their attack. Fuchida and his crew had counted sixteen hits. Position 2 and 3, the simplest runs, had taken the brunt of the attack, five hits. Both ships looked on the verge of capsizing. Position 1 had taken three hits, and position 5 one. 

Position 4 had taken two hits, but it was difficult to say if the hits were on the repair ship or the battleship. Certainly the repair ship took at least one, as it appeared to be broken in half. Fuchida scribbled notes on his kneeboard, his mind calculating ferociously.

“A hit! Number seventeen position! A hit! Number twenty-one position!”

Fuchida jerked his eyes out of the cockpit and looked out over the harbor. To the north, plumes of cascading water were settling alongside two cruisers. As he watched, another plume climbed skyward.

“A hit! Number seventeen position!” The bombardier’s voice was getting hoarse with excitement. Fuchida could feel his own pulse pounding. Somehow, two miles south of the events, he thought he caught a whiff of raw fuel oil.

As his eyes gazed over the harbor, he saw five poppy seeds arc down from high in the sky and fall around the number-two position battleship. They exploded and kicked up huge columns of water seventy feet high. The level bombers were attacking. Five water columns—five misses. He sent his prayers to will the hand of providence to guide the bombs of his compatriots—Genda-san would never let him live it down if his level bombers failed.

Another set of water columns rose up. Four columns and one dull flash. A hit.

Fuchida looked down to his clipboard to record the information, marking the AP bomb hit, searching the chart for Number Seventeen position to record the torpedo hits. Suddenly the cockpit lit up—his skin almost seemed to peel from the radiance of the white flash of light, impossibly bright for a second, then two—and he looked up to see the most incredible explosion envelope the northern part of Battleship Row.

“The Heavens have struck number four position,” Fuchida heard Ohno intone as he watched smoke and flying, burning pieces of debris cast up 500 meters into the sky. While a part of his mind was dumb-founded at the power of the explosion, another part said that he would not need to worry about striking the battleship berthed next to the repair ship. Were any of his bombers caught in the blast?
He shook his head to bring himself back to reality. Speed was needed, quickness. Looking down at his chart, he circled the positions of ships needing more attention. He snapped an order to Ohno, who put more power to the engine and edged over to where the reserve torpedo bombers were flying their racetrack, waiting expectantly. He pulled alongside one, and Fuchida pulled out his prepared cardboard sheets with large numbers printed on them, one for each mooring position in the harbor. He showed the number to the aircrew of the first B5N Kate. The pilot nodded, saluted, and dropped back in formation. One by one he gave the reserves their assignments. It was now perhaps five minutes since the first torpedo had hit, and ugly black puffs of AA fire were beginning to soil the sky.

He gave out the last of the assignments, ticking off the last circled numbers as he did. When all the circles were checked, he still had three torpedo bombers left. He had assigned attackers to the outlying cruisers, the cruiser moored next to 1010 Dock, the cruisers at the carrier moorings, the battleships that could use another hole or two. What to do with this last three? He sent two against the cruisers at the Navy Yard piers—even if the targets were foreshortened into slivers by the angle of approach, they would be bound to hit something valuable if the torpedo survived the launch. The last torpedo? His friend Lt. Suzuki grinned at him across the gulf between the two aircraft. He had told him back on the Akagi that he wanted a challenge. Let him have a go at the drydock caisson.

He fired a Black Dragon flare. The reserve torpedo bombers broke formation to attack their targets as nearly simultaneously as possible.

He watched them swoop into position. Black puffs of AA fire seemed dark and ugly compared to the white water splashed up as the torpedoes fell into the harbor.

“A hit! Number 14 position!” New hits were announced. Fuchida continued to record damage. Eventually, the last of the torpedoes were launched, the last hits recorded. Fuchida glanced at his watch. It seemed impossible, but it was a bare fifteen minutes from when the attack had started.

Fuchida fired a Red Dragon flare. In doing so he released his escort fighters and SEAD support. They banked away, heading for their assigned airfields. They would strafe the air bases, and then the fighters would fly top cover to ensure that no American aircraft got aloft. They would remain as guards until the second wave arrived to relieve them.

He watched as Suzuki’s plane descended to attack altitude.

He heard Ohno say, “Our turn, sir?” It interrupted his concentration, but Fuchida assented, and directed the pilot towards the Navy Yard piers. They climbed to 2,000 meters—good level bombing altitude against a fixed target, low enough for accuracy, high enough to be out of machine gun range.
Fuchida was inspecting the cruisers with his binoculars when he felt the bomber suddenly lift. 

“Bombs released!” shouted the bombardier, who kept his eyes pressed to his bombsight. Fuchida could not resist—he went down on his knees and looked out the observer’s sight in the floor of the bomber. At this altitude the details on the ground were in sharp focus, he could even see small figures of men rushing along the piers heading for the ships. He spotted their two 250kg bombs gracefully descending, becoming smaller and smaller, and saw the shipyard piers far, far ahead of them, he could not see how the bombs could possibly get there—then, in a rush, bombs and targets merged. There was a red flash along the line where the pier and a class “A” cruiser met, and further along a huge splash in the turning basin.

“One hit!” Fuchida called out.

“What did we get?” Ohno asked.

Fuchida paused to heighten the pilot’s anxiety.

“A garbage scow, I think,” he said tonelessly. Ohno seemed to slump in his seat. Fuchida reached forward and patted him on the side of the head. “Ohno-san, the Yankees have 10,000-ton garbage scows with gun turrets, it appears.” The pilot laughed.

Fuchida had now about 30 minutes to consider the next necessary decisions. Egusa would be arriving with the second-wave dive-bombers. He ordered his pilot to climb to 3,000 meters to meet them while he inspected the harbor. His crew had counted 30 hits of the 50 torpedoes, not as many as expected but the distribution was good. Five of the battleships along Ford Island were finished, two capsized, two with water over their main decks, and one blasted apart and sending up a tremendous cloud of smoke that obscured most of Battleship Row. All the torpedo-accessible cruisers had taken one or two torpedo hits, one class “B” cruiser was capsized, another obviously sinking. It was impossible to tell what the torpedoes had done to the ships at the Navy Yard piers, but something had happened from the amount of smoke.

“Did you see Suzuki-san?” he called to the bombardier. The man pointed to a column of smoke and burning debris. The Yankees were awake and shooting. He would meet Suzuki-san at the Yasukuni Shrine when he, too, gave his life for the Emperor.

Fuchida saw a large tanker backing out of its berth at Ford Island. Centered in the channel, the froth at its stern meant the captain was trying to twist the ship to line up to go hide in the loch beyond the Navy Yard.

“Good, we’ll sink you right there,” he thought.

The dive-bombers appeared on the horizon—they were 15 minutes early, excellent timing. Fuchida made his last decisions, and his pilot turned the plane to join up with the dive-bombers’ command elements. There was no time to give individual assignments, so Fuchida pulled up to each of the nine chutai leaders and flashed the number of their target assignment to them. Two chutai would put the tanker on the bottom. Four chutai would hit the four cruisers at the Navy Yard Piers. The remaining three would hit the surviving cruisers anchored north of Ford Island or put some bombs in the nests of destroyers.

The dive-bombing conditions were horrible, with smoke obscuring the targets and a layer of 70% cloud cover at 1,500 meters altitude over parts of the harbor that threw off all chances of bombing as the crews had been trained. The American AA fire was suddenly tremendous—far better than what would come from a Japanese fleet under similar circumstances; but then again, AA fire was defensive, and the Japanese did not honor the defensive.

But through it all the dive-bombers attacked bravely.

The two chutai attacking the oiler put six hits into the huge hull, and it lit up like a Chinese fireworks fountain, gushing red flames and oily black smoke. But sinking that oiler, with all her separate storage tanks only partially filled with a cargo that was lighter than water, proved to be more difficult than expected. The bombs missed the relatively small engineering spaces, so the oiler remained under way. Her captain put her aground off Hospital Point, well out of the channel. Later, the current twisted her off the shore, but Navy tugs got lines across her at the extreme bow and stern and, with the help of her engines, put her firmly aground on the other side of the channel. Burning fuel streamed down the channel, halting all movement out of the harbor.

Otherwise, the performance of the dive-bombers was less than what was expected, but good under the circumstances. Egusa had expected half the bombs to hit, but the actual score appeared to be well short of that. The smoke, the clouds, the brisk wind and the even brisker AA fire seemed to take away the favor of providence from the dive-bombers. But attacking targets further away from the smoke clouds around Ford Island was a good decision, and so while the hit percentage was down, many useful hits were scored.

Finally, the dive-bombers completed their attacks, and after a last flurry of strafing, they abandoned the harbor to their new enemies.

Fuchida directed his pilot to take a last tour of the harbor. His bombardier took photographs to help with the battle damage assessment.

Four battleships sunk by torpedoes, five or six hits apiece. There would be very little left of them to salvage, particularly the two that capsized. One battleship was blown apart by the mighty 800kg bombs, a point that Fuchida would report with particular pride. It, too, would never float again. There were several AP bomb hits on the other inboard battleships which hopefully detonated in their engineering spaces, crippling them for six months to a year. It appeared that only one battleship escaped heavy damage, the ship in the drydock, but the gods do not favor the greedy, it would have been unreasonable to expect more and that ship was not vulnerable enough to warrant expending limited ammunition on it.

They had exceeded Yamamoto’s goal of one battleship sunk and a total of four battleships crippled—they had achieved five battleships sunk, and crippled two more. Yamamoto would be pleased.

Damage to lower priority targets was also excellent. Of the eight cruisers in port, the four anchored scattered around the harbor were all put down by a combination of torpedoes and bombs. The smoke over the Navy Yard piers made damage assessment difficult, but where there is smoke there is fire, and it looked to Fuchida’s eye that two of the four cruisers there were burning fiercely, and another one leaning against the pier, half-sunk. Smoke also came out of five of the nests of destroyers, indicating that the dive-bombers had some successes there. The photographs later would show another four destroyers sunk, one destroyer-minelayer sunk, and six destroyers damaged.

Five battleships sunk, seven cruisers sunk or destroyed, eleven destroyer-class vessels sunk or heavily damaged, a huge oiler grounded and melting. As Fuchida tallied the results, he could not see how they could have been better. Perhaps better dive-bombing could have added to the margins with a few more of the smaller warships, but it was nearly a clean sweep of the most important targets.
As he departed the Pearl Harbor area for a quick tour of Ewa and Wheeler fields before heading back to the carrier, Fuchida’s eyes were drawn to the huge oil storage tanks lined up like soldiers marching up the hills on the periphery of the harbor.

“How foolish are the Americans,” he thought. “They make all this effort to bring out millions of liters of fuel for their fleet, and then do not protect the fleet. Of what use is oil without warships? The Americans make war like accountants. They have no Yamato damashii, no kesshitai. Clearly providence favors we Japanese. We will take the southern resource areas, the Philippines and Singapore, and the Americans and British accountants will see that war is too costly to defend places that they can hardly spell. They will be pleased to have done with it all and bow to us across a negotiating table. Then they will give all this oil to us as war reparations.”

With this thought his plane turned away from the white fuel tanks, and Fuchida’s heart was glad that he did not have to bother with such dishonorable targets.

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