- Historic Sites
The Biggest Theater
Revisiting the seas where American carriers turned the course of history, a Navy man re-creates a time of frightful odds and brilliant gambles.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
At Jutland the fighting was of the old school: two columns of huge steel fortresses, ponderously trying to swing into parallel lines so that their guns could blast each other. Midway, twenty-six years later, was different because of naval aviation. Here, only three weeks after the very first carrier battle, the same entirely new and unprecedented forces changed permanently the course of the greatest sea war ever fought. Yet the real differences between Jutland and Midway were only two: aircraft extended the main battery range from twenties of miles to hundreds of miles, while greatly increasing accuracy as well, and timely intelligence was intelligently applied.
The Battle of Midway was the only time that otherwise undistinguished island achieved national importance, and nearly all the fighting took place far away from it at that. During the remainder of the war it was used for a submarine halfway point, between patrols, and heartily disliked because it was by no means the equal of Honolulu. I visited it many times between 1942 and 1945 and returned now to find the atoll even less active and less interesting than it had been during the war. Not a vestige of the installations of the war years remains. The submarine-base paraphernalia has vanished or is overgrown; the piers and repair shops have disappeared. The aircraft hangars damaged during the battle have long since been repaired or removed. The airfield that saw our slow-flying patrol planes off for their long daily searches, and from which Marine fighter planes staged desperate sorties against the Japanese fleet, has been rebuilt into a fine modern landing strip; but planes use it only once a week. Only the original inhabitants of Midway Island are still there in force—the gooney birds. They have not changed a bit.
After Midway the feeling of jubilation obscured the reality that there remained a very serious threat to Australia. Japanese troops were still on the northeastern slope of New Guinea’s tail, slowly hacking their way across the mountainous spine. Nimitz and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reviewing the same sets of facts and obligations, came up nearly simultaneously with the identical answer: We did not have sufficient carrier strength to repeat the Coral Sea business even one more time. For the protection of Australia, it was essential that an island base be created, an unsinkable aircraft carrier, through which the growing strength of Rabaul could be countered and the Japanese thrust across New Guinea put under air attack.
The Santa Cruz Islands were selected for the new base, and the initial landing was set for August 1—when suddenly came a patrol-plane report that Japan was building an airstrip on Guadalcanal! Despite the defeat at Midway, Japan obviously had not given up the idea of coming in on Port Moresby’s seaward flanks. Guadalcanal was ideally located for this strategy, and an airfield there would double or triple the threat to Australia’s mainland. Our decision was instant: Instead of going into the Santa Cruz Islands, we would take over the nascent Japanese air base on Guadalcanal and make that our land-based carrier and staging area. Sixteen thousand Marines were told to forget about Santa Cruz, and given the job. They barely had time to digest the fact that they had a new target.
An armada of transports escorted by cruisers and destroyers brought them to Guadalcanal Island under air cover provided by three carriers (again, all there were available) on August 7, 1942, two months almost to the day after Midway. They were still being off-loaded against only token enemy resistance when Admiral Fletcher, in a highly questionable move, took his carriers away for a refueling rendezvous. This left the Marines, their transports, and the escorting ships without air cover. Shortly after midnight on the morning of August 9, unspotted by anyone, unreported by search planes because there were none, seven Japanese cruisers entered what became known from that day as Ironbottom Sound, between Guadalcanal and tiny Savo Island just to the north. Five cruisers (an Australian and four American), unsuccessfully attempting to maintain day and night alertness while guarding the landing area, were caught flat-footed. The actual fighting lasted only a few minutes; four cruisers were sunk, and the fifth, minus her bow, was put out of commission for months.
Only one thing lessened the disaster, and that was the Japanese admiral’s decision, made because he could not conceive that the U.S. carriers were absent, not to proceed into the landing area. The undefended transports would have been at his mercy. As it was, more than a thousand American and Australian sailors lost their lives: an expensive lesson, but not nearly as costly as it would have been had Adm. Gunichi Mikawa gone on as planned.