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 Chapter 27

Sendai's Strike

En route to the American fleet, 0720, June 4.

Commander Sendai felt relief when he finally took off, and he still felt it as he pursued the strike force far above him. It was odd to be at the tail-end of the formation instead of leading it. The plane also bothered him a little. While it was theoretically identical to the one he usually flew, it had an uncomfortable seat cushion and it felt a tiny but sluggish. Still, it would do. He would shortly have more important things to worry about.

By the time he had climbed to 3000 meters, Sendai had reached the fighter formation, which was held back by the slower dive bombers and torpedo bombers. He was now able to see the cloud formations more clearly. At no altitude was there anything like unbroken cover, except way off to the northwest. At about 1000 meters there were scattered rain squalls which was a bit of luck for the scouting aircraft on both sides. Apparently they had been able to duck around them, and into them, whenever the opposition fighters approached them. However, these clouds were of little use to an attack force. Too small and isolated to hide large formations, they could be a serious impediment to dive bombing if the enemy fleet got under one of them at the wrong time.

In addition to these low clouds casting their clear outlines on the sunlit ocean, there were many billowing white masses, dark gray only on at their bases, at about 3700 meters. These were much too broken to obscure the sun to any extent, but they would render it difficult to spot aircraft above them. The weather conditions were ideal for a training exercise. The commanders of both the "attacking" and "defending" forces could exploit any number of variables. Part of a force could be placed above the clouds, and part below it. One part of a force could entice the enemy into an ambush underneath a cloud formation above which others were hidden. Sendai wasn't particularly pleased. Whatever dispositions he made, there would be people who blamed him for not doing something else. Furthermore, conditions like this favored the defense. Not only that, they introduced random factors which favored the weaker force, that is the American one.

In order to get a clearer picture of things, Sendai guided his fighter up through one of many large gaps between clouds. They were all at near enough the same altitude so that, as soon as he got just above the nearest one, the tops of all spread out in every direction, as if there were no gaps in between. It gave the sensation of a new world, blindingly bright above, with a limitless expanse of white mountains, slightly shaded valleys, and twisting peaks. There were even a few roughly shaped cylinders thrust up, as if to allow eruptions from the world below to escape.

Sendai decided not to leave this higher realm unoccupied. It would be too easy for enemy fighters with advance warning of their approach to hide up there, and then come screaming down through one of the gaps to attack them. Indeed, the American Grummans were a match for the Zeroes only when they had accumulated speed from a dive. He couldn't allow that.

The next question was who to put up there. Under some circumstances Sendai would have taken his own squadron and Kaga's experienced squadron up. It was the point at which combat was most likely to occur first, and it presented the best opportunities for the best pilots. On the other hand, if they did encounter heavy fighter opposition, those same pilots would be needed close to the bombers to fight them through to the ships.

Dropping around the edge of a cloud, Sendai took his ship alongside the leader of the Ziukaku squadron. Opening his canopy, he signalled to the leader to patrol above the clouds. The man, whom Sendai hardly knew, acknowledged the command and immediately begain to climb. The best pilots wouldn't be up on top but twenty one zeros, even indifferently flown, would cause an American fighter force problems.

Waggling his wings, Sendai signalled for the remaining squadrons to come up to meet him. When they did so, he led them up until they were skimming the bottom of the higher cloud formation. They were close enough to the clouds so that any enemy force diving through would be past them before it could react. His own fighters, if they were quick, could jump on to the tails of the attackers. Lastly, Sendai throttled back enough so that the bombers below him edged slightly out in front. They could catch up in a few seconds in an emergency, but they would be better placed to deal with attacks on the sides or the rear of the bomber formations.

Nothing much happened for the next half hour except for a slight change of course signalled by the scout which was still shadowing the enemy fleet. Once, Sendai left his formation to climb up to check on the position of the Ziukaku squadron. To his mild surprise, they were exactly where he wanted them, at 4700 meters a few kilometers ahead of his own formation.

With about 80 kilometers to go, Sendai signalled for two fighters to go ahead as scouts. It was understood that they would break radio silence if they had anything to report. Then, if they did, he could ask them if enemy bombers were in the air.

As they flew under some large gaps in the clouds, it seemed to Sendai that he had spent half his adult life trying to look into the sun. Yet again, it lay in the enemy's quarter. He knew that their fighters would be there, and that they could see him at ten times the distance he could see them. But there were some palliatives, even if, as was likely, the enemy got through the Ziukaku fighters up above.

Sendai had spread his own formation widely enough so that the pilots on either wing could look, not into the sun, but across it. They were still at a disadvantage, but, at any rate, the enemy roaring down on them would be seen before they opened fire. The aircraft attacked would take evasive action while the others turned on the enemy and followed him down. Some of his fighters at the brunt of the attack might be lost, but they would come out ahead as they always had. And that would be the worst case.

A much more favorable one would be where they circled around the enemy fleet and attacked from the sun themselves. That, however, depended on two factors. First, it was accepted tactics that the torpedo bombers should attack from a position ahead of the enemy fleet. It's last reported course was ENE, which would do very nicely. But the fleet could change course at any time. Indeed, an air-minded admiral would make sure he wasn't steaming into the sun when a torpedo attack was likely. On the other hand, most admirals weren't air-minded, and had no notion of making things easier for their own fighters. They might run into some luck there.

The other factor was, of course, the behavior of the enemy fighter force. A competent leader wouldn't be content to orbit over his fleet while the attackers circled and got up-sun on him. If Sendai were in his position, he would attack out of the sun while he still had it, even if he had to move most of his force 30 or 40 kilometers from his fleet to do it. But, then, you never knew. Many admirals felt naked if they couldn't see their fighters directly overhead. Admiral Nagumo was a bit like that. The enemy fighter leader might be shackled in that way by his own commander. The competence of the enemy should never be assumed.

Shortly after 0800 sighting reports were coming in from all directions. The enemy fleet, still heading ENE, was on a parallel course 25 kilometers off to starboard. The fighter umbrella was, the reports seemed to agree, orbiting more or less over it. Sendai himself could see some of their fighters in the distance, well to the right of the sun. Each plane appeared as a black speck against the blue, but each of those specks was paired with a bright pinprick of reflected sunlight. No matter how carefully you painted an aircraft, there was always something, perhaps the canopy, that reflected light. Then, even as he watched, some of the specks sprouted gossamer wings like insects as they banked and the light caught them. It was obvious that there was a great swarm of them.

Sendai still had his fighters slightly behind his bombers with the enemy ships and planes bearing about 30 degrees to starboard. There was a temptation to move up and interpose his fighters between their charges and the enemy. An inexperienced leader would have done just that. It would allow the enemy to start forward, slip off to the side, and then come in on the bombers from the side. Just then, the report came in from the two scouts, for once when it was most needed.

"Large fighter force orbiting over the fleet. More than a hundred. Two bomber formations 30 kilometers beyond fleet to east. 1700 meters and climbing."

It was precisely as Genda had predicted. There was a horde of fighters over the fleet with the bombers hidden safely behind them. Now under a cloud, Sendai called to the fighters above to be sure that they were still in position. He also warned them to watch for even more enemy fighters high in the sun. Then he signalled a combat disposition to his own group.

The enemy would soon dive down to intercept the bombers. Sendai's force would split into two. His own half would attack right through the enemy as they dove, and then turn and dive after them. The other half would move off to the right, make a big turn, and dive on a slowly converging course with the enemy. This would allow them to open fire just as the enemy pilots were trying to line up the bombers in their sights. It was a standard manoever which they had practised many times, and which had always worked in combat. It waited only for the enemy to begin his dive and Sendai to give his "go" signal. Then came another message.

"Enemy fighter force withdrawing slowly."

This was absolutely unexpected. Another few minutes and the dive bombers would be over the fleet, in position to begin their attacks. Surely the enemy fighter leader wasn't going to let them attack unopposed. Sendai moved ahead of his group slightly and banked, so that he could see down. Egusa's dive bombers had already changed course, and were now headed directly for the fleet. Sendai mentally approved. It was better to take what looked like a good opportunity than to try to be fancy and outguess the enemy.

He then banked the other way to get a good look at the enemy fleet. Partly obscured by many trails of black smoke being trailed against the dark blue of the ocean, the fleet appeared to be much more concentrated than their own. There were four columns of heavy ships packed tightly together, and then a screen of a great many escorts, also surprisingly close. He could just see what looked to be a number of flight decks. Egusa, lower and closer, would be able to see better. Probably the real carriers would be in the two inside columns and the tankers outside them.

Looking back at the enemy fighter force, it didn't seem to be much, if any, nearer. It was still way out of range. The enemy leader might be concerned to protect his own bombers. But surely not at the cost of sacrificing his ships!

Again, Sendai looked over his own forces. Up above, between clouds, he caught a glimpse of the Ziukaku fighters, still a kilometer or two ahead. His own group was spread sideways by section, over more than a kilometer. Below, and now somewhat off to the right, Egusa's bombers looked like geese, flying in their slightly undulating large vees. Far below them, and somewhat behind, Murata's torpedo bombers were silhouetted black against the ocean, like a flock of low-flying waterfowl. They now had only about 16 kilometers to go.

Sendai called his scouts again. The enemy fighters were now doing a weave, still drifting away. They had reached a point some 5 kilometers behind their fleet. If they meant to intervene, they would have to do it very quickly.

The next voice to come over the radio was Egusa's as he gave the order for attack formation. The leading bombers accelerated, with the others forming up behind them in several straight lines. The wakes of the ships below were now clearly visible, almost like arrows pointing to the targets. Since the enemy had as yet made no move, Egusa would have time to look over the ships and pick the right ones.

At that moment Sendai recalled something that Genda had once said to him in a slightly different connection.

"Saburo, you're a very rare bird. A combat leader who has the patience to do nothing when nothing is the right thing to do."

This was such a moment. Even their present course happened to be correct. It would take them well off to the side of the enemy fleet, but still close enough to turn and protect the dive bombers. If those were unmolested, which Sendai could still not quite believe, his own course would eventually put him at least as near the sun as the enemy. The important thing was not to initiate any action which might trigger a response until the enemy himself took some action.

Murata now called Sendai. Murata wanted to know if the fighters could protect a two-pronged attack. Almost at that instant, the enemy anti-aircraft fire opened up. It was a little heavier than usual, but AA fire was very seldom effective. Most pilots simply ignored it. Sendai concentrated hard on Murata's question as black puffs blossomed here and there.

While it was already awfully late for the enemy to stop Egusa, the torpedo attack was another story. To get ahead of the fleet, the torpedo bombers would have to fly almost directly under the enemy fighters, in the most vulnerable possible position. As if, with their slow speed and light armament, they weren't vulnerable enough as it was.

A two-pronged torpedo attack was the most effective. One force attacked the starboard bow while the other attacked the port. Whichever way the target ships turned, their broadsides were exposed to one attack or the other. But a two-pronged attack was more difficult for the fighters to cover, a coverage that would be difficult in any case.

As he was about to reply negatively, Sendai noticed that the enemy fighters were now headed north, off to the left, on something like an interception course with his own group. Either they were trying to block him off from the sun or they expected an attack from that direction. In any case, that would leave the southern flank unprotected.

Sendai then made his decision. First, he replied affirmatively to Murata. Then he called to the Ziukaku fighters. They were meeting no opposition up above, so he ordered them down to cover the right prong of the torpedo attack. They should encounter only light opposition. Then he quickly reorganized his own force. The bulk would go down to cover the attack of the left prong with Hiroaki Fujita in command. He was keeping the rest up with him to cover the dive bombers in the remainder of their run. From there he would be able to follow the action and make decisions.

Things then began to happen quickly. The Ziukaku fighters dropped down through the cloud cover, emerging in a scattered formation. Fortunately, they came out nearly above the torpedo bombers they were to cover. Sendai watched them close up as they dove down to 1600 meters.

At almost the same time, the immense enemy fighter formation split into two. To Sendai's continuing amazement, neither half showed signs of intervening. One group accelerated further off to the left, climbing slightly for the cloud base. That was a little disquieting, since they could circle back and get between the Japanese force and its route of retreat. Still, it was his primary duty to get the bombers through to their target. If half the enemy force took itself out of the picture, he could hardly object. The remaining enemy fighter force continued to weave away in a northeasterly direction, allowing him to approach it only slowly.

The time to act had now come. Sendai gave the signal and pushed his throttle forward. As the major part of his group peeled off to the left, he took his remaining squadron forward, and down some 800 meters. He wanted to absolutely block off the enemy from the point at which the dive bombers would begin their dives.

By the time he got half way to that point, it was obvious that the enemy was much too far away to intervene against the dive bombers. Sendai throttled back to watch.

The Yamato, 0825.

For the last hour or so there had been a series of American attacks which had puzzled everyone. Badly coordinated, and involving odd combinations of aircraft, they had dribbled in almost haphazardly. They had scored only one meaningless hit. Most of the attackers had been shot down by the fighter patrol before they could even release their bombs and torpedoes.

In Commander Tanaka's view, Minoru Genda had been much luckier than he deserved to be. To leave the whole fleet with only one squadron of fighters to protect it was an act of criminal folly. Even the enemy's unescorted bombers would have overwhelmed the defense if they had arrived all at once. But they had appeared at intervals which might almost have been calculated to give the defending fighters a chance to rearm and refuel. Each fighter, as it ran low on fuel, would land on the nearest carrier, and then be off again in a few minutes.

In the midst of counting the number of enemy aircraft splashed into the sea, the only untoward event had occurred when a bomb from an obsolete Vought Vindicator had hit the Yamato's bridge structure near the base. While it had caused negligible damage, Tanaka, standing near Admiral Yamamoto, had been knocked sprawling by the shock transmitted through the massive steel structure. The admiral, seated on his padded bench, had been lifted a short distance, but had come down in precisely his original position. It was almost comical, although, of course, no one laughed. The admiral, for his part, hadn't deigned to take any notice of the hit.

The staff discussions had continued during this period, both on the bridge and in the chart room. It was universally agreed that none of the attacks had come from carrier planes. Captain Kuroshima, seemingly unmindful of his earlier predictions of doom, remarked,

"When they saw our attack on Midway coming, they must have gotten every ragtag bomber they had into the air. It's surprising that most of them even got to us."

Miwa, waving vaguely in the direction of the enemy, had replied,

"Many of these fliers have attempted to press home their attacks bravely enough, if not very skillfully. It's probably not even their fault that they haven't done better. Just a matter of poor training. No carrier air force could be so badly organized."

Indeed, the American commanders at Midway seemed to have made a double mistake. They had sent bombers out without fighter protection to be shot down almost at will. The idea had apparently been to hold the fighters back for the defense of the island. However, according to reports coming back from Tomonaga's force, the American fighters had failed miserably. Indeed, almost all of them had been destroyed. They had thus been sacrificed for nothing when their presence would certainly have at least alleviated the plight of the bombers attacking the Japanese fleet.

The oddest thing, it seemed to Hiroshi, was the anti- climactic atmosphere. After all, in common with almost everyone on the ship, this was his first experience of warfare. He had anticipated it for many years. So, he was sure, had everyone else.

However, the only moments of real excitement had occurred, not in the short periods of combat, but when sighting reports of enemy ships and planes had come in. Eventually, even reports of approaching enemy aircraft came to be taken less seriously. They presaged only the arrival of yet another handful of Midway bombers to be shot down. After the first couple of attacks, there weren't even any shouts of joy when the attackers burst into flame or hit the water. It was reaching a point where some members of the staff were laughing at the futility of the American attackers.

The most interesting development had been, not the bomb hit, but the appearance of the American B-17 four-engined bombers. They were quite formidable in their own way. Flying high, they were almost as fast as the Zero fighters. Moreover, they were so heavily armed that a fighter that did get up to intercept them was likely to regret it. Hiroshi, watching them, had realized that they would be able to devastate cities much more thoroughly than had so far occurred in Europe. But they were designed for an entirely different war.

The bombs dropped from that height had virtually no chance of hitting a moving ship. Even the Yamato must have been only a tiny blob on the ocean far below. Some of the bombs missed, literally, by as much as a kilometer. In fact, it was often impossible to guess which ship was being bombed. "If this is war," someone remarked, "we might as well take up fencing instead."

In this atmosphere, the earlier flap that attended the discovery of the enemy carrier force was almost forgotten. Since then, everything had gone according to plan. Except that they had somewhat overestimated the enemy.

It was tacitly accepted that an attack from the enemy carriers would eventually materialize, but even that no longer seemed so very threatening. Admiral Yamamoto had spotted the fake carriers for what they were, and the carrier pilots might, after all, turn out not to be so much more skillful than the land-based ones. Hiroshi was almost certain that he was the only member of the staff who, at this moment, remembered what had happened to the Shokaku.

Stepping down to the chart room, Hiroshi caught an unfriendly glance from Admiral Ugaki. He knew why. That suggestion to Admiral Yamamoto about the enemy tankers disguised as carriers should, in Ugaki's opinion, have been put to himself. There was now no point in trying to explain to Ugaki that it would have been impossible for himself, Tanaka, to have made himself heard in the prevailing panic. Anything he now said would either be insulting, or would sound like the lamest of excuses. Hiroshi fully realized that Ugaki must regard him as he himself regarded Genda. The only difference was that Genda was thought to be a genius. Hiroshi, for his part, could expect an extremely obscure assignment when they got back. Unless, of course, it happened to occur to Admiral Yamamoto to take an interest in his case.

There was a new message up on the board. It was from Commander Sendai, and stated that enemy bombers were in the air, still well over 300 kilometers away. It further stated that an attempt would be made to attack them.

Hiroshi was surprised to notice Captain Miwa at his elbow, commenting on the message. It was the first time Hiroshi could recall Miwa ever making a point of speaking to him. Evidently his stock was going up in some quarters as it went down with Ugaki. It wouldn't matter in the end, but it was pleasant to be taken seriously by such an influential staff officer. Occupied by these thoughts, Hiroshi almost lost what Miwa was saying. He tuned in just in time.

"They probably aren't yet on their way to attack us. If I were they, I'd get my bombers in the air before the attack on the ships, just to reduce the risk of fire and induced explosions. Then, if enough carriers survive, they can land and refuel. If the carriers are sunk, their bombers will immediately set out to attack us. It won't then matter that they won't have fuel to get back again."

"Would they be able to attack us, and then land on Midway, captain?"

"Not most of them. Their torpedo bombers certainly wouldn't have the range."

Just as Hiroshi and Miwa were agreeing that they couldn't be attacked for at least another hour, another sighting report came in from one of the destroyers in the screen.

"Enemy torpedo planes approaching low on port bow. Appear to be a carrier squadron."


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