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Stephen Ambrose on 1942: Doolittle Raid and Midway

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 19, 2023 3:01 am

Stephen Ambrose on 1942: Doolittle Raid and Midway

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 19, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here’s Stephen Ambrose telling the story of America’s payback for Pearl Harbor—Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo—and the Japanese response, the Battle of Midway.

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Don't forget to follow the show so you never miss an episode. This is our American Stories, and we love to tell stories about our nation's history. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading historians.

Ambrose passed away in 2002, but his storytelling accounts can now be heard here in our American Stories, thanks to those who run his estate. Here's Ambrose telling the story of America's payback for Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, and the Japanese response, the Battle of Midway. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1942, the Doolittle raid occurred.

The first good news to come to the American people, the first good news produced by the American Armed Forces came on April 18th, 1942, almost five months into the war before there was any kind of an American counter-strike against the Japanese. It came on April 18th, and it came in the form of Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid over Tokyo. It was a very risky operation for the Americans to mount, again using that what was now becoming recognized as the wholly new weapon of war at sea, the aircraft carrier. And the aircraft carriers that we had, the Hornet and the Enterprise and the Lexington and the Yorktown, the only ones we had in the fleet, had escaped Pearl Harbor because they weren't there. They were used to mount this raid, which meant they had to sail pretty close to Tokyo within about 300 miles, which is for them a very high risk operation, in order to carry out a raid that had no meaning to it other than the moral and morale and psychological aspect to it.

What they did was to mount a operation under the command of the Army, the Army Air Force's most famous pilot, General James Doolittle. He'd been training his men for a couple of months for this, how to take B-25s off of the deck of an aircraft carrier. It seemed impossible to get a big two-engine bomber fully loaded with fuel and bombs off of an aircraft carrier.

But they practiced down in Florida and got pretty good at it and then practiced at sea and got so they could do it. And on April 18th, they launched too far away from the target. But the carriers had been spotted by a Japanese fishing boat that had been blown out of the water, but you couldn't be sure they hadn't gotten a radio message off already. So the decision was made to launch Doolittle way too far away and that they were going to have to come over to Tokyo, drop their bombs, and then too far to fly back to the carriers so they'd have to continue on into China to try to get to as far into China as the unoccupied parts and make their landings. Well, it isn't the best way to go into action, to be told go hit your target and then fly on as far as you can and pray God that you can get to friendly territory and then pray God you can find a place to land when you get there.

In fact, it worked out pretty well. The raid itself caused some fires in Tokyo and did some damage, by no means enough to justify even the expenditure of fuel that had gone into this raid. But it had caused some physical damage. Some pilots were shot down over Japan, others were not able to make it to Chiang Kai-shek's China, they came down and occupied China. These pilots were put on trial by the Japanese and executed which infuriated the American people as much as the Bataan Death March did.

A majority of the pilots, however, did get into unoccupied China and eventually got back into the war, including Doolittle himself, who was on the raid. But for all that the raid was terribly expensive and a big diversion of resources and a major portion of the resources available in the Pacific at the time and did so little damage as to be just negligible, they were able to get into the Pacific at the time and did so little damage as to be just negligible. Oh, it was a great triumph. It lifted spirits in the United States as nothing else could do. It was the perfect time and it was the perfect act to help American morale at a time when it desperately needed some kind of a lift.

We struck back. It also had a terrific psychological effect on Yamamoto and the Japanese leadership in general because Yamamoto had promised the emperor that no American bombs would ever fall in Japan. And it had a big effect, this little pinprick raid, had a big effect on the strategy of the war because it was in response to the disgrace of American planes having bombed Tokyo that Yamamoto and his staff began working on the plans for what was to become the Battle of Midway, a battle that Yamamoto sought in order to drive the Americans further east in the Pacific so that they could never again launch a carrier-based raid against Tokyo. And let's take a look at the Japanese Empire at its peak at the beginning of May of 1942. Most of Burma was in Japanese hands. Thailand was a neutral but supporting Japan and somewhat the same relationship to Japan as Franco and Spain were to Hitler. Indochina, of course, had been occupied by the Japanese. The eastern two-fifths of China was in Japanese hands, as was Manchuria, as was Korea. To the south, the Dutch East Indies, today's Indonesia, British Malaya, the great fortress of Singapore, all of the Philippines, most of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and out here to the Gilberts and the Marshals and the Carolines had all been taken by the Japanese.

The Americans had managed to hold on to Wake Island through to Christmas time of 1941 and then had lost this tiny island called Wake. So that the Japanese line extended all the way to Midway Island, which is a pretty grand sounding name for what's actually a very small little island without much in the way of capacity at all. And eventually the Japanese were to take some American territory up here at the westernmost tip of Alaska in the Aleutian Islands, Attu, and Kiska. So this is an enormous area that Japan had overrun. It was more than Japan was capable of defending.

And at about the same time it happened with Hitler, who in 1942 launched another offensive into the Soviet Union. They had conquered more than they could defend. But they had caught, in both cases, the victory disease. That is, having won a long string of victories, they figured these would go on until they had taken the whole world. The Japanese also had the problem of every time they would take a new position, say the Gilberts, for example, or Wake Island, then they would think, well, we ought to go just a little bit further east and take that next island group out there in order to defend this one. And they had taken that one in the first place in order to defend this one. So that the whole logic of events kept them expanding at a time when they should have been contracting and digging their trenches.

So it was, what they didn't have was peace with the United States. And they had the United States very angry, very determined to press on with this war. So the Japanese thought, we've got to take the rest of New Guinea. We've got to take Port Moresby and then we've got to go down and take Australia.

And once we've got Australia, the Americans are going to be so far away in such distances to get to any part of our empire that they're going to have to give up the war. So they began to gather another task force to come down here between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and to come on down into Australia and take Australia. The naval forces that were preceding this invasion force came through on May 5th of 1942 into the Coral Sea. And on May 8th were found by American carrier-based planes in the battle of the Coral Sea that ensued. The first battle in history in which no one in the opposing fleet saw each other. It was entirely an aircraft battle between carrier-based planes from the Japanese and from the Americans.

The battle was tactically a draw. The Japanese sank the Lexington, which was 25% of America's carrier strength in the Pacific. And they very badly damaged the Yorktown. But the Japanese lost a carrier themselves. More important, they lost their momentum. They had been checked. And you're listening to the great Stephen Ambrose and now you know why I call him great. This is Our American Stories.

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That's code LulusFan20 to save 20%. And we continue with Our American Stories. And with Stephen Ambrose, we just heard how the Doolittle raid on Tokyo checked the Japanese and forced them into, let's face it, some unforced errors. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1942, the Doolittle raid occurred.

Let's continue with Stephen Ambrose. The Japanese who had up until this time looked as much like supermen in Asia as the Germans that looked like supermen in Europe until the Battle of Moscow in December of 1941, the Japanese now suddenly looked vulnerable, human, people who made mistakes, people who overreached themselves. And this all leads us up to the Battle of Midway. Yamamoto, as I said, was a man who had lost face because of the Doolittle raid. He was determined to make that up.

I wouldn't want to make it quite that personal. This Battle of Midway is one that the two fleets of Japanese and American had been planning really since 1919. This great naval battle was going to take place in the Central Pacific. It was going to decide the fate of the Pacific. Yamamoto decided, and this was a pretty good thing on his part, to draw the Americans out into this all-out battle before the Americans could repair the damage done at Pearl Harbor, and certainly before the Americans, who were now in a feverish building program in the States, could produce a new fleet. The Americans would never be weaker. Japan would never be stronger. It was Yamamoto's attitude. If we can draw them into this great climactic battle now, we'll win it.

And then we can take Hawaii, and then we can take Australia and New Zealand, and we can dare the Americans to try to come back. The plan that he came up with was exceedingly complex and called for the whole of the Japanese fleet to be involved in it. He called Japanese cruisers and destroyers and aircraft carriers back from Japan's far-flung frontier to gather together in the home islands to get ready for the movement out to Midway Island. He sent one part of his, and then he divided his fleet up.

He's been much criticized for this, and maybe rightly so. There's so many little things went wrong for Yamamoto in this battle, you really have to give him a lot of credit for what he was able to accomplish and wonder if maybe God, I mean, just keep this in mind as I talk about this battle, that maybe God doesn't sometime really does take sides. Because this American victory at Midway, in some ways, was just dumb luck. Anyway, Yamamoto's been much criticized for way too complex a plan. He had one group with destroyers and an aircraft carrier going up here to the Aleutians to carry out a bombing attack on Dutch Harbor up here at Unalaska, and to actually occupy the islands of Attu and Kiska.

This was a diversionary attack designed to make the Americans think that there was a serious threat to Alaska, or the possibility that this was a staging operation for an attack into Siberia. Meanwhile, three different task forces would come out of the home islands headed for Midway. The first would be the main carrier task force.

Four carriers strong. Then would come a battleship aircraft carrier mixed task force, with one full size and two small aircraft carriers in it. And then finally, the main battle fleet. And that second task force would carry, I don't know, a dozen or more transports, a few thousand men who were going to occupy Midway Island, army troops. And then the main task force under Yamamoto himself, which would have the most of the battleships and yet another aircraft carrier following along behind. And submarines spread all across the Pacific to watch for the American fleet spread out between Midway and Honolulu in a semi-circle, so that these submarines, and also flying reconnaissance missions from the aircraft carriers in this area, to watch the American fleet, which Yamamoto assumed was in Hawaii, and on receiving news that an attack under Midway was underway, which Yamamoto thought they would never get until the attack actually started. The Americans would have to come out to defend Midway, and he could have his whole fleet there to meet him. Battleships with 14-inch guns, six aircraft carriers, all of these cruisers and destroyers to meet this American fleet that was really down to three aircraft carriers and a few destroyers.

And American CPOPs would be gone at the conclusion of the day. Wasn't a bad plan, but things began to go wrong even before it got started. The first thing that went wrong goes back to this business of the Japanese that conquered more than was good for them.

Their empire had become so large that it was very hard to communicate between Tokyo and the outermost fringes of their empire's frontier. That meant, for example, a very practical, very small thing. Nations in the period of the radio, of the wireless transmission, have learned to make codes. Because obviously you send out a message over the radio, anybody can pick it up. So you put it in code so that anybody who picks it up can't read it. But anybody can break code. I mean, if you can make a code, you can break a code.

There's never been a code yet that can't be broken. Germans thought they had one. Turned out they didn't.

Japanese thought they had one. Their so-called purple code, they thought was unbreakable. Especially if you take proper precautions, one part of which is you take proper precautions. If you take proper precautions, one part of which is you change the code every month.

Change your settings. So the cryptoanalysis teams that are looking at this stuff have to start as almost brand new each month. The Japanese empire had gotten so big, they couldn't get the new code books out to the units out on the edge of the empire in time so that the code change that should have come on April 1, 1942, was not put into effect. And that meant that all the work that the American code breakers in Hawaii had been putting in on the Japanese code in March didn't just come to an end. At the end of March they could go right on into April because the Japanese were still using the same code. Now it was obvious from the flow of traffic after the Coral Sea battle that the Japanese fleet was concentrating. The Yamamoto was bringing them in from everywhere and putting the whole of his fleet together and it was much bigger than anything the Americans had in the Pacific.

The question was where are they going to attack? The code breakers were reading, it depended. In some cases you could read even half of a message. In other cases all you could make out was that a message had been sent.

Very, very seldom that you could read as much as 90% in a message. But you put the whole thing together. This is extremely difficult work. You put it all together and you can come up with some patterns and some hard information. The patterns and hard information they came up with were, as I've said, that the fleet is gathering.

Now where is it going to strike? They even knew what the target was. XY was the Japanese designation of the target.

They just didn't know where XY was. The man in charge of code breaking in Hawaii, a naval officer named Rochefort, said I think it's Midway that they're after. But his superiors said it can't be Midway. They can't be bringing their whole fleet together for so small an objective as that.

It's got to be something bigger. They must be after Hawaii itself. And therefore we ought to prepare the defenses in Hawaii and forget about Midway.

And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose tell one heck of a story, one of the great naval battles in history, certainly the turning point in World War II. Now we're hearing the stories of these remarkable code breakers and what a job that was. What a responsibility. Without that information, how do we act?

How do we know what to do? And to have our best and brightest going to work every day to try and outsmart their best and brightest. It does not get better than this. The great Stephen Ambrose taking us home after these commercial messages.

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That's Lulu' code Lulu's Fan 20 to save 20%. And we continue with our American stories and when we last left off Stephen Ambrose was telling the story of Naval Commander Joseph Rochefort's code breaking prediction that Japan's next attack would be on a small Pacific island called Midway. His superiors thought the Japanese would try to invade the Hawaiian Islands.

Let's return to Ambrose. Rochefort was certain that he was right and he came up with an ingenious way of proving it. He persuaded his bosses to have the garrison on Midway Island send out a low-level coded message saying that they were out of fresh water and their desalination plant had broken down and they needed fresh water. And then sure enough doesn't Rochefort pick up a message three or four days later from Tokyo to Yamamoto's fleet saying xy is out of fresh water you'd better put some more water on those transports.

And he had them. So the Americans had an advantage that the defensive almost never has in battle. The side on the offense always has this great advantage. They know where and when the battle is going to be fought. But this time we knew too. Even better Admiral Nimitz knew and Yamamoto didn't know that he knew. So Yamamoto and the Japanese admirals proceeded with their plans on the assumption that surprise was going to be achieved and after all they had done it so well at Pearl Harbor.

They were the experts at this. Bull Halsey was commander of the American aircraft carriers. He was one of the legendary heroes of the war. But he came down with a severe attack of shingles at this time and so Admiral Nimitz had to replace him with Admiral Spruance who took command then for the Battle of Midway. Spruance had three aircraft carriers or really two and a half. He had the Enterprise, the Hornet, and the Yorktown. Now the Yorktown had been so badly damaged in Coral Sea that the Japanese had listed it as sunk. And in fact it had been towed back to Honolulu and arrived in Honolulu at the very end of May. The naval officers who went on board to look at the damage to the Yorktown, which was put into dry dock, estimated that we could have this baby fixed up and ready to go to sea again in 90 days. Spruance said you got three.

You got three days. For the next three days and they worked 24 hours a day through all precautions to the winds, turned on the flood lights at night, the welders worked 24 hours a day. Three days later the Yorktown sailed on the 3rd of June with still a lot of carpenters and welders and civilians on board who were not at all happy to be going into a middle of a battle.

But they got the Yorktown there and got her out in time. The American fleet, the three carriers, got up to the north and a little to the west of Midway. When the Japanese began the attack on Midway on the morning of June 4th with their dive bombers and their fighter aircraft, they did considerable damage to the facilities at Midway but they didn't put the airfield out of operation and they took some pretty heavy losses themselves. Through the rest of the morning and on into the afternoon, the various airplanes on Midway undertook strikes against this Japanese carrier fleet that, as I said, was out in front. The B-17s went after them, B-24s went after them, Marine fighter planes went after them, Marine dive bombers went after them, and not a single hit was scored.

Not one. This was primarily because the Japanese had a very effective air cover over their carriers. And the Zero was just a much better plane than anything the United States had.

It was faster and more maneuverable and could attain higher altitudes. So the attempt on the part of the people on Midway to defend themselves failed utterly. However, the pilots came back and said we need to hit Midway again. That airfield is still usable. They still got strength on Midway.

We need to hit it again. Now the Japanese admirals were worried about where are the American carriers? That was always their biggest worry. Where are the American carriers? They had sent scout planes out towards Hawaii to watch the American carriers, expecting them to come out.

It never occurred to them the American carriers were laying out there north of Midway Island. Although they were cautious enough to have sent planes in every direction, the plane that was going in this direction, which would have taken them right over the top of the American carrier fleet, developed engine trouble and was an hour late getting off. So that the Japanese didn't know the American carriers were in the area.

Now the call came for let's hit Midway again. Japanese planes had landed. The lead pilot had gone up onto the deck of the carrier and talked to the admirals up there and said we need to hit them again. Now at this time the Japanese were reloading their planes with torpedoes for the torpedo planes and putting iron bombs on their bombers, their light one-engine bombers, putting on armor-piercing bombs, thinking now we've hit Midway.

We've knocked it out. Now the Americans are going to attack us sooner or later, probably sooner. When they do they'll have revealed their positions or we'll find them and we're going after those carriers and we're going to go after those carriers with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs.

Now they change their mind. We're going to go back and hit Midway again. So it was unload all those torpedoes and unload all those armor-piercing bombs and load them up with bombs that are appropriate to hit the airfield at Midway. This process took about an hour and it left the Japanese for some period of time without any fighter air cover, which Yamamoto quickly made up for by getting some zeros down and gassed up and new loads of ammunition and got those zeros up for fighter cover again. Meanwhile Admiral Spruance now had word as to where the Japanese were and although he was at the extreme limits of the range of his fighters he ordered everyone that could fly into the air and go out after that Japanese fleet and put it in the bottom of the ocean. Some planes never did find the Japanese fleet. The torpedo planes did and they came in, two squadrons of them, and they took the first squad and 100 percent losses the next 90 percent losses and were unable to score any hits at all. Probably that was because those torpedoes ran too deep. That is there were pilots who did everything right and then had to walk helplessly as the torpedoes just went underneath the Japanese aircraft carriers. A squadron from the Yorktown carrying bombs, dive bombers, the last in the air that had any chance at all of inflicting any damage whatsoever in the Japanese fleet was just about at the absolute limit of its range. We're going to have to turn around and fly back to the aircraft carriers if there's going to be any hope at all of recovery that day.

McCluskey was the guy's name. He was half Indian, the squadron leader, and Lieutenant McCluskey was just about to give the order when there was a break in the closet and he looked down and here were the four Japanese carriers. All of them at this time intact. Now the United States had thrown everything it had at them from Midway and from the other carriers and hadn't done the slightest damage and here they were, the four carriers down there. Let's go, he said, and these dive bombers began coming down on them. The Japanese zeros were all down at water level fighting off torpedo bombers. Unmolested, these dive bombers came in and dropped their bombs right down the stacks of the Japanese carriers and within five minutes the Japanese fleet was gone.

Not quite literally. One aircraft carrier was still afloat. But in those five minutes the history of the Pacific was changed forever. That was the great battle of the Pacific.

That for 50 years people had been on both sides been anticipating and looking forward to and it was it just went that quick. Three carriers to the bottom. That fourth carrier, the plane that had gone out on the search mission for Yorktown and Hornet and Enterprise finally did get off, finally found him sent backward, that he had found him, gave the coordinates to the Japanese off their last remaining carrier, were able to get a flight out that went out and sank Yorktown. That carrier itself was caught the next day by American planes and was sunk. So that the end score was four Japanese carriers gone, one American carrier gone. And the Japanese had been turned back. This was the end of the Japanese offensive in World War II. They were never again to undertake a serious offensive by sea. The Japanese Navy hadn't quite ceased to exist. But boy it was nothing like what it had been five minutes before McCluskey broke through that cloud barrier. And you've been listening to Stephen Ambrose tell the story of Midway, the back story, the whole story.

And a special thanks to Greg Hengler and a special thanks to the Ambrose estate for allowing us to keep these stories coming. Regrettably they're not taught in school anymore and they should because my goodness would young boys and girls be riveted to this story. People close to their age if they're in high school were doing these things. They were running these missions. They were going into battle. What a time to be young and old, to be living through something like this for better and for worse.

The Doolittle raid which occurred on this day in 1942 here on Our American Stories. I'm Malcolm Gladwell. I live way out in the country. I drive everywhere.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-19 04:18:07 / 2023-04-19 04:30:59 / 13

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