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 Chapter 25

The Eve of Battle

The Battleship Yamato, 550 kilometers WNW of Midway, 2300, June 3, 1942

The fuss that broke out was unusually impassioned. Commander Tanaka, playing chess with Admiral Yamamoto on the other side of the large chart room, couldn't fail to be aware of it. The admiral nevertheless plowed ahead with his attack. He seemed, incredibly, not to hear the raised voices. Admiral Ugaki would certainly have silenced anything so unseemly, but he was on the bridge. Captain Kuroshima, as senior staff officer, should then have stepped in and stopped something which sounded as if it might lead to an exchange of blows. Unfortunately, it was his suggestion, more than an hour previously, that started the trouble. He then watched the argument get under way, at which point he departed for parts unknown.

The background of the argument was familiar to Hiroshi. Nagumo's striking force had made a practice of searching for the enemy, not with carrier planes, but with float planes catapulted from accompanying battleships and cruisers. Each plane flew out 480 kilometers, made a right-angled turn, flew for 80 kilometers, and then returned. The proposed pattern for the next day used seven aircraft and covered almost 180 degrees. The pattern looked like half a pie, with the thin wedge-shaped pieces each representing the route of a single plane. All the pieces were uniform except for the southern- most one, which was shorter than the others. That corresponded to the route of the #7 plane, from the battleship Haruna. It had a shorter range than the others, but its sector was most likely to be empty.

Since the search planes would, in practice, not all be in corresponding positions in their patterns at any given time, an enemy ship could, with luck, cross the entire area without being seen. Moreover, the search plan didn't allow for errors of navigation, patches of fog, or mechanical difficulties. There was also the possibility that an early search, launched in darkness, might fly over a nearby enemy fleet without seeing it.

In response to these dangers, it was planned to launch a second search at dawn. However, such a search might well be too late, discovering an enemy carrier force only after it had launched a massive strike, thus losing any opportunity of hitting the enemy with his planes still on his flight decks.

Hiroshi had himself taken the matter up with Kuroshima at least two weeks previously. The point was simple. The battle might well be won on the first strike. The Americans ordinarily used whole carrier squadrons for scouting. It seemed ludicrous for the Japanese air and sea armada to rely entirely for its scouting on a handful of float planes. At the time, Kuroshima had only grumbled and walked away. Hiroshi, having tried with the superior with whom he felt most comfortable, had said no more. Neither had enyone else until this evening.

Kuroshima, a half hour ago, had suggested using float planes from the Yamato and her consorts to supplement the planned searches. These additional scouts would be launched early, before the first regular search, so that the aircraft would be most of the way out on their first legs at first light.

It was a sensible suggestion. Catain Miwa, the Combined Fleet Air Officer, embraced it immediately. In Hiroshi's opinion, Miwa should have thought of it himself long ago. He had simply accepted Nagumo's usual search plan, which, of course, didn't include the planes of the Yamato force. It seemed to Hiroshi that a negative act of imagination was required in order not to think of adding the Yamato's aircraft to the search pattern when the ship herself was incorporated into the formation. Perhaps Miwa did feel badly about it, and was now trying to make up for his lapse.

The trouble was the lateness of Kuroshima's suggestion. The search planes would have to take off in a few hours. The planes were always kept ready, and the crews could be roused. But most of the staff was constitutionally opposed to any late change of plan that wasn't absolutely dictated by the actions of the enemy.

As Hiroshi took a pawn he heard Watanabe way, semingly for the tenth time,

"We can't break radio silence to inform the other ships of an added search."

Someone else broke in,

"We won't know our own exact position until we get a fix at daybreak. We can't launch planes unless we can tell them where they'll be recovered."

This was nonsense. It was true that they had been steaming through fog for some hours, and that their calculated position might be off by a mile or more. However, if there was any visibility at all later on, the search planes would still be able to find anything as huge as the Yamato.

Then, if they did launch an extra search, and couldn't get the message across to Nagumo's flagship, Akagi, the pilots of the scheduled search might be surprised to find more compatriots than they had expected. But what of that? A type 97 float plane could hardly be mistaken for an enemy fighter.

Even if Kuroshima had thought that Ugaki might veto his suggestion, he could still have put it directly to Admiral Yamamoto when Hiroshi had first brought the matter up. But it was typical of Kuroshima to make a suggestion which almost everyone would ordinarily have accepted at the worst possible time.

As Admiral Yamamoto kept his tunnel vision on the game, Hiroshi realized that Ugaki might return at any moment. If so, he would put Miwa in his place, and shut everyone up. There would be no search from the Yamato.

The ship herself was vibrating more than usual as she increased speed on her way to battle. The evening before, the fog had hid them from any patrol planes that might have ventured that far from Midway. But, according to weather reports from one of their own submarines, they would break into the clear shortly before dawn. At this speed, they would be within easy range of Midway, and could immediately launch their strike at the island.

At that moment, the steel door to the chartroom was thrown open with a crash. Captain Kuroshima staggered in, drunk. Hiroshi could see that the admiral's concentration was finally broken. His eyes moved to Kuroshima, stayed there a moment, and then returned to the game. Evidently he thought it best to ignore the spectacle of his senior staff officer, drunk on the eve of battle. It seemed certain, however, that something would finally be done about Kuroshima after the battle.

Even Kuroshima seemed to realize that he had gone too far, and he quieted quickly after his raucous entry. Still, Hiroshi could hear what he was saying.

"There'll be an American carrier force to the northeast, within three hundred kilometers of us at dawn. They'll hit us with everything they have."

It sounded as if the speaker had succombed, not only to drink, but to panic. The senior staff officer had never been popular, but Hiroshi felt sure that every man on the staff, with the exception of himself, at this moment hated Kuroshima. Most unfortunate, Miwa, who had taken up Kuroshima's suggestion, was now silent. He couldn't be blamed. No one would want to be identified with the lunatic. That removed from the pro-search party the only voice, sufficiently senior and responsible, which had a chance of being heard at this late hour. If only Admiral Yamamoto would stop playing chess and discuss the matter with Miwa!

Almost immediately thereafter, Hiroshi made the worst move ever in the long series of chess games, moving his rook so that it could be forked against his queen. Admiral Yamamoto grunted and moved Hiroshi's rook back where it had started with the words,

"You can do better than that, Tanaka."

Indeed he could. Apologizing for his foolishness, Hiroshi embarked on a series of much better moves, all the while watching the door in the hope that Admiral Ugaki wouldn't appear.

It was surprising to see how quickly the admiral's game fell apart under determined attack. It took only a few minutes to force a checkmate. The admiral seemed pleased, and went so far as to congratulate Hiroshi. He ended with the words,

"You see what you can do, Tanaka, when you give up being so cautious. It's the same in war."

The admiral hadn't risen, and Hiroshi was dreadfully afraid that he was about to propose another game. He, the junior officer who had been impudent enough to win, could hardly refuse to give satisfaction. He then cast a desperate glance at Miwa. The latter was still discussing the search plan with Watanabe, albeit rather guardedly. In the split second before the admiral spoke, Hiroshi took the second great risk of his professional career.

"I think, sir, that Captain Miwa has been putting forward some suggestions that you should hear before the night is over."

As Hiroshi apologized for being so presumptuous, the admiral cut him short.

"I see that you can both play chess and listen to the staff discussion. I don't have your gifts."

Admiral Yamamoto paused, and then smiled as he continued.

"Was it because you wanted me to talk with Captain Miwa that you won so quickly?"

Hiroshi found himself admitting as much. The admiral replied,

"Then it must be important. I have always respected your judgment, Tanaka, and would wish only that you expressed yourself more often. What suggestions has Captain Miwa been making?"

Hiroshi hadn't expected this outcome, but found himself able to put the points clearly enough. When he had finished, he was asked,

"Does Captain Kuroshima also take this view?"

"He thinks we may be ambushed at dawn, sir."

"That is an exaggeration. The enemy has no way of knowing our exact position. Even if a carrier force is out there waiting, they'll have to find us before they can attack. However, it's true that we should search more thoroughly, and it's most logical to use our own float planes. When do you think we should launch them?"

"Captain Miwa wished to launch at 0210, sir. That would put them out 500 kilometers, at the ends of their first legs at first light. They would then fly their short second legs, and come back as the regular search goes out."

"I didn't ask you what Captain Miwa thought, Tanaka. I asked for your own opinion."

"I would be concerned, sir, that a search launched so early might fly over an enemy force without seeing it. I would send it out at 0240."

"Is that, then, your official recommendation to me, as a staff officer to the officer in command of the Combined Fleet?"

The admiral was smiling, and Hiroshi knew that he was being teased. His fear of taking responsibility had evidently been noticed. Only one reply was now possible.

"Yes sir."

"I accept your view. Please see that those arrangements are carried out."


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