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The Decisive Moments
Over the American Fleet, 0825
Just before the dive bombers began their attack, Sendai banked and took his squadron down again, partly to cover the bombers on their way down, and partly to confuse the enemy anti-aircraft fire. He then saw the ships more clearly. The carriers in the two central files were quite wide for their length, the unmistakeable characteristic of a converted battleship. In fact, their hulls had the same outline as the uncoverted battleships steaming near them.
The carriers in the outer columns could now be seen to be, not only narrower, but shorter. They also had no bridge or island structures at all. Those would be the tankers. A few planes could be seen on their decks, but a small carrier with no elevators and no hangar deck wouldn't be able to accomodate very much. Of great interest was the fact that the biggest American carrier, the Saratoga, was nowhere to be seen. A sister of the Lexington, such a huge ship would be unmistakeable. She must have been sunk, along with the Lexington, at the Battle of the Coral Sea.
As Sendai radioed his observations back to the Akagi, the dive bombers came barrelling past him in a nearly vertical dive. Almost immediately, the fleet below began a turn to starboard. Packed in tightly, they couldn't manoever freely under attack the way Japanese ships could. A big slow turn wasn't likely to cause Egusa much difficulty. Indeed, he could now be seen to twist his dive slightly to anticipate the movement which, once begun, couldn't easily be terminated.
Sendai was surprised to see how heavy the anti-aircraft fire was as the dive bombers got lower. He had never seen such a barrage. As nearly as he could judge, they were getting every fourth or fifth bomber on its way down. Sendai wondered if Egusa was still alive, and then heard his voice over the radio as he neared release point.
Soon, the bombs started kicking up huge geysers of water, and it was impossible to see anything clearly. There was also black oily smoke coming up. Something had been hit. It could have been either a battleship or a carrier but it was unlikely that Egusa's men would waste bombs on a battleship at this stage.
The torpedo attack was being slightly disrupted by the American turn to starboard. The right prong had wound up, no longer amidships, but already in the correct attack position on the starboard bow. However, if they attacked immediately, they would launch long before the other prong. They thus had to detour away in a big circle. It was left to Kikuchi, leading this group, to coordinate his attack with that of the other group. In practice, that meant solving a complex time, rate, and distance problem in his head. The left prong, under Murata himself, now had further to go because of the American starboard turn. When Murata reached the correct position, he would give the order for both groups to attack.
Fujita's fighters escorting Murata were now getting closer to the remaining large enemy fighter group. Sendai watched anxiously. This was the moment for the enemy attack. They still had both the sun and an altitude advantage. They could probably swoop through the Japanese fighter force, and then on to Murata. They were, indeed, forming up for just such an attack. Sendai found himself gripping his stick unusually tightly. He was tempted to take his own force down to help. But he just managed to hold back. He would probably get there too late anyhow, and it would be foolish to commit his only reserve so quickly. Not to mention the fact that, once he got in prolonged combat himself, he would lose control of his force.
As the enemy began to dive, Fujita accelerated and took his force up in a climbing turn. That way they could intercept without having to look directly into the sun. Then the enemy leader replied. He broke off his dive and turned left, so as to again put himself between the sun and Fujita. The relative positions of the two forces were now much the same, except that they were closer. Fujita was between Murata and the enemy, but closer to the latter. Murata, coaxing all the speed he could out of his heavily laden bombers, was getting closer to his attack point.
The enemy leader next repeated his previous manoever, and began his dive again. In that instant, Sendai saw what was happening. The enemy would lead Fujita gradually higher and further from Murata. Then the enemy would again split his force. Half, still with the sun and some altitude advantage, would engage Fujita. The other half would dive past and come in on Murata. Just as Fujita put his force into another climbing turn, Sendai pushed his throttle forward and headed for a point just above Murata. It would take the enemy at least one more feint to get Fujita out of position, and he would be there to fill the vacuum.
Sendai had no chance to look at the enemy fleet, but he began hearing reports over his radio from the dive bomber pilots. One carrier was burning from stem to stern, and had dropped out of formation. Another was smoking, but was still steaming in column. And there were still dive bombers waiting to attack.
The enemy leader again broke off his dive, as Sendai had expected, and was again climbing for the sun. Sendai, quickly losing altitude, was getting a worse angle on the sun all the time. A few seconds later, he could hardly see most of the enemy formation. It was time for Fujita, who had a better angle, to intervene. Sendai quickly called to him.
"Am coming down behind you to cover Murata. Engage enemy."
Sendai was aware how often orders given in the heat of action tended to be wrong, even disastrously wrong. He generally believed in letting subordinate squadron commanders make their own decisions. They were, after all, on the spot. Fujita, in particular, had been around almost as long as he himself. On the other hand, Fujita needed to know that Sendai's group would be, not seven kilometers away at 3500 meters, but right between him and Murata. Sendai also had the slightest uneasy feeling that Fujita was about to be outmaneuvered. In any case, he was relieved to reach a position, fifteen seconds later, from which he could screen Murata.
Fujita was now racing southeast and climbing, in order to reach the best position to attack. Seeing the enemy more clearly than Sendai could, Fujita reported that they were still no closer to Murata. They would have to intervene almost immediately, if at all. As if the confirm this view, Murata called and said that he needed only another thirty seconds. Sendai, on intuition, took his own group into a left turn and picked up a little altitude. Fujita, with his Zeroes beating the enemy Grummans to the sun, would soon be due south of the enemy, and at the same altitude. Sendai would be just enough to the north so that he wouldn't have to look directly into the sun.
Counting off seconds to himself, he stole a look down to the right just in time to see Murata put his right wing tip almost into the water and head for the fleet. The enemy had, incredibly enough, missed yet another opportunity. And Murata was a more deadly opponent than Egusa.
It was now decision time again. How much of the fighter force should pursue the enemy fighters, and perhaps bombers beyond them, and how much should escort the bombers back home? There was the large enemy force that had split off, and had now disappeared. Given that it hadn't attacked, its only mission could now be to attack the returning Japanese bomber stream. On the other hand, Sendai was conscious of Genda's last words to him.
What decided him was the flash of aerial combat off to his right. Fujita had made contact. There was nothing to keep Sendai from getting to the enemy bombers. They were still reported to be orbiting some 25 kilometers due east. Sendai called to the Ziukaku fighters and ordered them to escort the bombers back. After all, there were 21 of them. They might be outnumbered, and there would be some losses, but the primary mission had already been accomplished. Turning his attention back to the east, he looked at his fuel gage. There was enough. He could give the enemy bomber pilots the biggest, and last, surprise of their lives. He had to wait only another couple of minutes to make sure that the torpedo attack went through undisturbed.
Since the last dive bombers were still coming down, the anti-aircraft barrage didn't switch to the torpedo bombers until they were part way into their run. And then it was split between the two prongs, whose coordination had come out quite well. Sendai again searched the skies and saw nothing close. It was safe to climb, preparatory to going after the enemy bombers. In the meantime, he had a perfect view of the torpedo attack.
There were explosions all over the place. Great puffs of black smoke shot up. As with the dive bombers, it wasn't long before it was impossible to see anything. However, before that happened, Sendai saw one ship actually break in two, its midship section lifting entirely out of the water, and then collapsing. It was remarkable what a torpedo in the soft underbelly could do.
The Akagi, 0840
In the consternation on the bridge Genda moved quickly. It was impossible that they were being attacked by carrier planes, but it was happening. He pointed out quickly to Kusaka that, given the American preference for dive bombing over torpedo attack, there might well be a couple of squadrons of dive bombers high in the sun. While Kusaka explained it to Admiral Nagumo, Genda radioed to Mishima, the leader of the fighters returning from the Midway strike. Afterwards, he spoke to Kusaka.
"He's still got over twenty fighters that are undamaged and have some fuel and ammunition left. He's taking them up to engage anything that comes down at us. Our other fighters are already vectored on to the torpedo attack."
The enemy torpedo planes were now visible from Akagi's bridge. They were almost skimming the waves, and made alterations of course in a tight formation completely different from anything that had been seen earlier that morning. Genda had no doubt of their origin. They have have launched from the enemy carriers well before Sendai had arrived on the scene. Someone remarked,
"At last they have come."
The first handful of Japanese fighters to arrive banked sharply and were almost in the water themselves when they opened fire. One of the enemy planes burst into flame, but held its position. Genda had his binoculars in position just in time to see it waver, and then hit the water.
The enemy planes approached so slowly, and suffered so many passes from the fighters, that it was agonizing to watch, even for men who hoped they would all be dispatched as quickly as possible. Someone had started counting the diminishing numbers of the attackers.
"Fifteen, fourteen, there's two, twelve, eleven ..."
When the count reached eight, Genda saw the enemy leader being attacked. His engine caught fire, and the flames quickly spread to the cockpit. Horrified, but fascinated, he watched the canopy open and the pilot crawl out on to the wing root. Hanging on precariously with the still spinning propellor in front of him, he had one arm in the cockpit, as if he were trying to fly with one hand on the stick. At that moment, the Akagi began a turn which knocked Genda off balance. By the time that he recovered, the enemy leader was nowhere to be seen.
The remaining attackers had now divided, and had picked out different ships. Since the attack was from starboard, the Akagi's violent turn to port had made it difficult for her to be attacked from the bow. Still, Genda saw two planes bank and fly parallel to their course in order to get ahead of them. Perhaps they had recognized the Akagi as the flagship. Unfortunately, too, their own fighters seemed to have missed this development, and were concentrating on the planes attacking the Kaga and Soryu. Even the anti-aircraft fire seemed to be ignoring those two aircraft which, having survived their trial by fighter, were slowly maneuvering for position.
While Genda spoke quickly to the radioman, all eyes were directed to the Kaga. A kilometer off to port, she now turned sharply away from a plane that had just launched its torpedo. The attack, unlike the earlier ones, had been pressed to close range, and looked dangerous. The attacking plane, trailing smoke, seemed almost to hit the Kaga's bridge, but splashed beyond the ship. After another minute, the Kaga swung back to her original course, evidently having evaded the torpedo. There was a great sigh of relief on the Akagi's bridge.
Genda had been keeping his eye on the other two Douglas Devastators throughout. They were now about two kilometers distant, some seventy degrees to starboard. Just then, he heard shouts of jubilation. The man who was counting had just announced the destruction of the last attacker. What was worse was that the ship's commander, Captain Kaku, was joining in the applause.
The two Devastators were still unmolested by fighters. Apparently Genda's radio message had gone unheeded in the excitement. It was now too late to prevent an attack. They could hope only to dodge the torpedoes as the Kaga had done.
The enemy banked sharply, their wing tips almost cutting the water, and worked steadily through their ponderous turns. Captain Kaku, on the other side of the bridge, was staring straight ahead. The lookouts reported nothing.
Genda knew that it was entirely inappropriate for him, as a staff officer, to concern himself with the navigation of the ship. He knew also that he was already considered arrogant and overbearing in many quarters, and that such an act of interference would be remembered, no matter what happened. Still, there was nothing for it. He darted across the bridge and touched Captain Kaku on the sleeve, interrupting him in the act of giving an order. As Kaku turned, already reddening, Genda pointed in the direction of the enemy. The Devastators were now completing their turn, still in perfect echelon, and were headed for a point a few hundred yards ahead of the Akagi's bow.
The minute he had spoken, Genda got out of the way. He then stuck his head out of one of the open ports to watch. The Akagi was steaming at her full speed of some thirty knots, and the great wave of the bow wake crashed out, obliterating the much smaller natural waves. It was only a second or two before the water seemed almost to come up to meet Genda as the ship heeled. Kaku was, he felt, turning the wrong way. The attack had been coming in from about 45 degrees off the bow. Kaku, by turning to port was trying to put the attack on the after quarter. Then, with the torpedos chasing him, and only gaining by 10 or 15 knots, it would be possible to steer away from them.
The only trouble was that there wasn't nearly time to turn through 90 degrees, or anything like it. Genda could tell that at a glance. On the other hand, if they had turned in the other direction, they could have turned almost directly toward the enemy.
While a torpedo should be launched from a point well forward of amidships on the target, one wanted a good angle. The sharp bow of a warship wasn't a good target. Moreover, the great thrusting bow waves might easily deflect a torpedo harmlessly off to the side. Genda gave a sigh of resignation as the roar of the enemy planes became clearly audible. The attack would come in broadside, in a very bad position. It would have been better if he had said nothing.
A moment later, it looked as if the leader might have underestimated the Akagi's speed. With some of the most powerful engines in the world at full emergency power, it seemed that they would beat the torpedo. However, the second pilot held on a little longer and corrected his course slightly. Genda could see the wake of the torpedo all the way in the relatively calm water. Fighters could now be heard belatedly attacking the two Devastators, but no one paid any attention. The torpedo was headed for a point directly below the bridge.
Genda drew his head back and braced himself for the explosion. Everyone heard the loud thunk of the torpedo as it hit the ship's plating. Afterward, it seemed to Genda that it was like a near miss by lightning. If you heard it, you were all right. Except that there was no flash. There was no explosion at all.
Thrusting his head out abruptly, he was just in time to see the blue tail of the torpedo, its little propellor still spinning in the air, bobbing in the ship's wake. He looked around to see everyone else as stunned as he was. Except that he knew, better than anyone else, the cost involved in placing a single torpedo against the side of an enemy capital ship. To go through all that without bothering to eliminate defective torpedoes from the stockpile! The Americans never ceased to amaze him.
Near the American Fleet, 0850
Commander Sendai could never remember being in such a desperate air battle. He had started for the enemy bombers, but they had climbed into a cloud just before he got to them. There had then ensued a chase where the bombers went from cloud to cloud, and the fighters tried to catch them in between. Before any satisfactory result could be be achieved, there was a call for help from Fujita. Sendai had broken off immediately, and, within a few minutes, had come upon a massive dog fight scattered over half the sky. Since then it had seemed that there was always an enemy Grumman fighter either on his tail or shooting at him from the side. It had been all he could do to keep from getting shot down.
At one point there had been a call for help from Egusa, and then one from Murata. Evidently the other enemy fighter group was attacking them on the way home. Sendai didn't even have a chance to reply. There was certainly nothing he could do. He did wonder what had happened to the Zuikaku fighters.
Sendai finally got a chance to look at his fuel guage. It was certainly time to break off the action. There was, as always, a Grumman behind him, but no Grumman could climb with a Zero. Within minutes Sendai was circling a large cloud, sending out repeated radio messages in an attempt to collect his forces. There weren't many replies, and even those were having trouble disengaging. Finally, he ordered all fighters to climb for the clouds regardless of circumstances. That produced some results. Some twenty five fighters gradually emerged from the conflict and climbed toward him. It was high time. Sendai had barely enough fuel to get back himself, and he was sure that the others had been too busy to keep track of their fuel. Some planes would probably run out as they approached their fleet, and the pilots would have to be fished out of the water by destroyers. That was too bad, but it had happened before.
Sendai next attempted to raise Egusa and Murata, but could get no answer. Perhaps they were too far away to receive him over the limited range radio. He hoped so, and recalled his last conversation with Murata just before they took off. The two of them had stood on the bridge with Genda, watching their squadrons take off and orbit. Then something occurred to him.
Sendai was used to being first off. Because of that fact, he knew that no one would have much less fuel than he. In combat, few pilots were able to keep track of their fuel, but, if he called for them to turn back when he got low, the others would also have enough. This time, he was last off! The other fighters had been in the air a good deal longer. He had also been in combat a shorter time than Fujita and his men, and had used less fuel on that account. Almost none of the others would reach their carriers! Some wouldn't even come close.
Commander Sendai had long realized that a veteran combat leader was more likely to make a silly elementary mistake than one of tactics or strategy. The more sophisticated his thinking, the more likely he was to forget some detail. Experienced pilots had even been known to try to take off in flat pitch, or to forget to lower their wheels in landing. Something like that had just happened to him, but with far more serious consequences. The fleet would be left with only the Zuikaku fighters, whatever had happened to some of them, and the ones on the Midway strike. It was an unredeemable mistake.
Commander Sendai made his next decision quickly, this time one that could hardly be mistaken. He called Fujita, put him in command, and told him to keep the fleet informed of his position. Float planes could be sent out to pick up at least some of the pilots who would have to land in the water. Sendai then reversed course, and headed for the enemy fleet.
The sky was now as empty of aircraft as it had been full a few minutes before. Threading his way along the bases of the clouds, he could see the American fleet some 30 kilometers ahead. He knew that, amid all the confused and conflicting reports of damage that inevitably come back during a battle, an accurate account of the present state of the American fleet would be of great value to Admiral Nagumo. So far, he could see only that it was again headed northeast into the light breeze. That suggested that it was engaged in landing aircraft.
Some distance off to port there were two burning ships, and Sendai went over to get a better view of them. When he arrived over the ships, he could see no enemy aircraft. Having plenty of fuel for present purposes, he dove almost to sea level, throttled back, and opened his canopy. It was imperative to make the identification correctly, and there was plenty of time.
The smaller of the two carriers had had her back broken by a torpedo. Bow and stern rode high, but the crumpled flight deck was almost awash amidships. It was unlikely that a converted battleship would break in that fashion. They were too wide for one thing, and too strong for another. Moreover, there was a large pool of burning oil spreading from the starboard side. He flew through part of the choking black mass and came around for another look. This was most certainly a tanker with an added flight deck.
The other ship was down by the bow, and had heeled hard to port with her starboard side lying to the light breeze. She was ablaze almost her full length, but Sendai could still see the large flight deck clearly. Just then, there was a tremendous explosion which rocked his plane as he flew by. That would be an induced explosion of a bomb or torpedo. This was equally clearly a converted battleship which had carried bombers. As he climbed again for the clouds, he carefully radioed in his report.
There were some other signs of wreckage in the wake of the fleet, including rafts and lifeboats with men, but they soon became invisible with increasing altitude. There was still a fighter umbrella over the fleet, and the approach had to be made carefully. Indeed, Sendai made a wide circle around the fleet and placed himself in the sun. It was now high enough so that no one on the ships could possibly see him. In addition, few in the air would have a sufficient angle to make detection likely. It was eventually possible to get within a few kilometers of the fleet at an altitude of no more than 3300 meters.
The hole in the formation left by the burning carrier was evident, and one of the remaining carriers was smoking. But the other two big carriers appeared intact. Even as he watched, planes were landing on them. In the outside columns there were now four flat-topped tankers, as opposed to the original six. In addition to the broken one astern, another must have been sunk altogether. Even at a glance, the destroyer screen was less numerous than it had been. Most of those explosions he had seen during the torpedo attack must have marked the deaths of destroyers. The torpedoes should have been set to run under the destroyers and hit the heavy ships. Another failure to plan properly!
According to Commander Sendai's calculations, it would take about 16 seconds to dive from 3300 meters to sea level. That was not a short time in aerial combat. However, he felt sure that he would be undetected during the first few seconds. That would take him down to about 2500 meters. It would then take a second, perhaps two, for the enemy to react. That would be 2100 meters. The next 2000 meters and 9.6 seconds would be the hard part. If they let him get to 100 meters with control, he would put that last fraction of a second to excellent use.
The rear carrier in the left inside row was landing bombers. Explosives would certainly be below on the hangar deck, ready for loading. The great prize lay in punching through the flight deck and starting a conflagration on the hangar deck. The radial engine of a Zero would act virtually as the tip of a bomb. It would make the hole, and, as the aircraft was compacted inwards, most of it would be pulled through that hole. The fuel might now be a little low to make it home, but there was enough left to start a very nice fire.
The dive began as auspiciously as Sendai had hoped. He was soon exceeding six hundred kilometers an hour. Then the Grummans reacted fast. He was conscious of bursts from every side. But his speed was so great that deflection shots were unlikely to hit. It would take a fighter on his tail to stop him.
As the altimeter wound down to 1600 meters, Sendai thought he hadn't yet been hit. On the other hand, he could now see a Grumman in his rear-view mirror. The one advantage that the Grummans had was a faster diving speed. Once in that position, the enemy wouldn't disappear. And there was still a long way to go.
The temptation was to take evasive action. However, the Zero was now travelling at a much faster speed than it was designed for. There was a great deal of buffeting. Each time the aircraft bounced, Sendai would lose sight of his target, and only find it again with difficulty. If he attempted to deviate from his course at all, he might have to slow down in order to find his target again. That would be fatal. Moreover, the man he kept glimpsing on his tail might not be a good shot. Even if he did set the Zero on fire, so much the better. Sendai was sure he could fly a burning plane straight for six or eight seconds.
The first burst to hit tore into the fuselage and left wing. Rivets from the armored seat-back tore into Sendai's back without disturbing his concentation. More seriously, the left aileron was damaged. It was difficult, but still barely possible, to maintain a more or less straight dive.
A couple of seconds later, the right wing tank caught fire. No matter. The engine was still delivering full power, and the flames were merely images in Sendai's peripheral vision. He now had his eyes glued directly on to the after elevator on the flight deck.
With only about five hundred meters to go, part of the left wing sheared off. The fighter swerved wildly. Sendai couldn't even see the carrier as he was thrown violently one way and then another. In desperation, he yanked the stick and kicked the right rudder. A small ship loomed in front of him, a destroyer. Then there was what looked like water, except that it was dark gray, almost black. It was approaching very fast.
The Yamato, 0855
Captain Miwa was speaking to Rear Admiral Ugaki,
"You know, we should really signal our congratulations over to Genda. It's unprecedented so far as I know. All the attacking torpedo planes shot down, and not one hit."
Ugaki didn't look terribly enthusiastic.
"The congratulations should be directed to Admiral Nagumo, as the officer in command of the First Mobile Striking Force."
"I suppose so. Except that we all know that this is Genda's doing. Isn't that so, Tanaka?"
Commander Tanaka was trying to disappear, but it was too late. Whatever his virtues, Captain Miwa was lacking in tact and sensitivity. Hiroshi was spared the necessity of praising both Nagumo and Genda, the latter something that would have stuck severely in his throat, by the arrival of a message.
"Enemy dive bombers escorted by fighters approaching at 4000 meters, 10 kilometers, bearing 110 degrees. Am intercepting. Mishima."
Everyone looked to Miwa as the senior air staff officer. He wasn't in the least alarmed.
"This would simply be the rest of the air group. As usual, they're badly coordinated. The torpedo bombers got here practically fifteen minutes before the remainder of the group."
"The carriers are still landing Tomonaga's force. A few bomb hits among those planes crowded on the flight decks, and the ships will go up in flames."
"They won't get those hits, any more than the torpedo planes did. As usual, Genda has a defensive force in position, Mishima's fighters. Genda thinks of everything."
Hiroshi stepped outside. He had heard all he could stand about Genda. He also knew that trouble was coming. Mishima's fighters might have vanquished the enemy over Midway, but they had met a considerable force and had fought a prolonged battle. They'd have to be low on fuel and ammunition. Here, they'd be meeting a fresh fighter force, probably a full carrier squadron of eighteen planes. The defenders would be lucky if they shot down two or three dive bombers.
As when the staff of the Combined Fleet had shown signs of coming apart, Hiroshi wasn't entirely displeased. They were going to get bombed, and it was hard to see how Genda could avoid the blame. Of course, the bombs might miss, as had the others with that single exception. On the other hand, an American carrier ordinarily carried 36 dive bombers. They'd be at least as determined and skillful as the torpedo pilots who had pressed their attack so bravely in hopeless planes with no fighter protection.
Knowing that he wouldn't be missed in the chart room, Hiroshi found a position on a wing of the bridge which afforded a good view. He hoped the bombs wouldn't all miss.
The Akagi, 0900
The minute Mishima's report had come in, Commander Genda was extremely concerned. He had sent Mishima upstairs as a precaution, but had hoped that he would find nothing. But it was as he had feared. The whole of a carrier air group, less the torpedo squadron, was up there. The ships were highly vulnerable, and there was only one thing to do. It was something he had once suggested to Kusaka as an expedient in a crisis. He now spoke quietly, but extremely rapidly to the chief of staff. Then Kusaka approached Admiral Nagumo.
Genda wondered, with a sinking heart, whether Admiral Nagumo was capable of taking in a simple, but crucial, concept in the thirty seconds or so that they had to act. Of course, they should have explained it all to him back at Hashirajima, so that he need now only give the order. But the present predicament had seemed so unlikely.
What was frustrating was that it was so simple. Smoke screens had been a standard part of naval tactics for many years, since before the start of the last war. Probably a good deal before that. All it took was for a man in the engine room to pull a lever. Then the thickest imaginable oily black smoke would come pouring out of the stacks. A ship in a smoke screen was invisible to other ships on the surface.
It was true that a smoke screen had never, as far as he knew, been used to foil an air attack on ships. It was also true that the bows, and perhaps whole outlines, of ships would at first be visible from the air. But, in the light wind, the smoke would soon rise and diffuse slightly. Moreover, the carriers could easily steam into the swaths of smoke left by the battleships and cruisers in front of them. Genda was almost certain that it would make dive bombing virtually impossible. After all, it was hard enough to identify ships from a height of three or four thousand meters in clear weather. Besides, since Tomonaga's force was now almost entirely recovered, there was nothing to lose.
Genda, eavesdropping on the conversation between Kusaka and Nagumo, heard the latter object that the manoeuver had never been practised. Genda, knowing that it was better to leave it to Kusaka, bit his lip. Never practised! The ships of the IJN had been laying smoke screens for the last thirty years or more!
For the first time in his career, Genda was sorely tempted to perform an act of clear insubordination, an act that would certainly subject him to a court martial.
If he went unobtrusively to the engine room speaking tube and ordered smoke, they would certainly obey him. They wouldn't worry about the unfamiliar voice on the other end of the tube. Once the flagship started making smoke, the other ships would, as likely as not, conform.
Genda afterward had no idea what he would have done if Admiral Nagumo hadn't, at that moment, sent a message to Admiral Yamamoto requesting a smoke screen. The enemy bombers were now in sight, flying serenely in two big vees with a dogfight going on around them. There was still barely time.
The Yamato, 0902
Hiroshi noticed that most of the staff, including Admiral Ugaki, was now on the bridge. Admiral Yamamoto had never left it. It seemed as if everyone realized that the showdown was at hand.
When the message came from Nagumo, Admiral Yamamoto rose from his bench and conferred quickly with Ugaki and Miwa. Hiroshi was too far away to hear, but it was obvious that Ugaki and Miwa disagreed. Then an extraordinary thing happened. Admiral Yamamoto waved to him. It was a conundrum. If the admiral was summoning him, he would, of course, obey instantly. But, probably, the admiral was really waving to someone else behind him. It would be highly presumptuous to rush to the admiral's side if, in fact, someone else was being summoned. Hiroshi looked behind to see if someone more senior, say Captain Kuroshima, was standing there. There was no one behind him.
The suggestion had supposedly come from Admiral Nagumo, but that didn't fool Hiroshi for a minute. It bore the unmistakeable mark of Minoru Genda. When the admiral stopped, and waited for his reply, Hiroshi knew exactly what to say.
"I think, sir, that the Naval General Staff has ruled that we should never attempt, in battle, a manoeuver that hasn't first been practised."
As he bowed and moved back, Hiroshi was surprised to feel a friendly touch on the arm from Admiral Ugaki. Wonders would never cease! Perhaps he wouldn't be sent to Siberia after all.
Returning to the rail, Hiroshi felt a certain satisfaction. At least one of Genda's hare-brained schemes was about to be vetoed.
The Akagi, 0905
Commander Genda watched events unfold with a sense of fatalism. He had done his best. The last of Tomonaga's force was now landing, and frantic efforts were being made to tie the aircraft down securely. Otherwise, a sharp turn and heel could dump them over the side.
The enemy dive bombers were clearly visible in the same two vees, only a few kilometers distant, at about 3000 meters. The dogfight going on around them was now lessening, but a good many fighters had gone down in flames. Genda was afraid that most of them had been Zeroes, operating, as they were, at such a great disadvantage. Although he had a sharp view of the Dauntless dive bombers through his binoculars, and could even see the bombs slung underneath their fuselages, it was difficult to count them without counting some planes twice. In any case, there appeared to be two squadrons totalling well over thirty aircraft. It was quite possible that none had been shot down.
As Genda was trying to count, yet again, a Zero suddenly flashed into his field of vision and collided with a bomber. The collision took the tail right off the Dauntless, and it dropped, without burning, like a stone. The Zero, now distinguishable only as a ball of fire, shot toward the sea with a long graceful arc. Well, there was one, anyway. In the Japanese naval air force there would always be pilots who, their ammunition exhausted, would resolve matters in that way. In fact, Genda wondered if the Zero pilot hadn't been Mishima himself. It was certainly what one would have expected of him.
The bombers seemed in no hurry, and circled lazily to approach the fleet from the stern. Mishima's squadron was now all gone. There was the original combat air patrol of twenty one, now apparently reduced to fifteen or so, which had refuelled and rearmed for what seemed like the twentieth time. It had just left the Ziukaku, and was climbing at the maximum rate. However, there was a squadron of American Grummans waiting for it at 2000 meters. Genda had no hope that this last group of Zeros could intervene effectively. Nothing less than the return of Sendai's group could rescue the situation. And Sendai was, at last report, some 300 kilometers away.
There was at least one thing to be thankful for. The Americans were finally forming up, and it would soon be over, one way or another. They had split their force into five sections, evidently one for each carrier. Each of the sections consisted of six or seven planes, in line astern.
It was impossible to see directly overhead without putting his head out a porthole and twisting it at an absurd angle, so Genda, like most of the others, watched the attack on the Kaga, some 800 meters to port.
The bedlam and vibration of the Akagi's anti-aircraft fire made it difficult to use binoculars, but they weren't necessary. The line of seven specks dropping toward the Kaga sprouted wings and tails as they came down, untouched by the defensive fire. When the bombers released and pulled out in perfect parabolas, it was possible to see the black dots of the bombs as they fell freely, surprisingly close to one another. Then, a second later, the Kaga completely disappeared in tremendous columns of white water. It was as if a giant whirlpool had risen and snatched her down into its vortex. At that same moment, the Akagi started a maximum turn to starboard and heeled alarmingly toward the Kaga. By the time the men on the Akagi's bridge had collected themselves, there was the Kaga, steaming unscathed with quantities of water landing on her decks. A cheer broke out.
Just as Genda started to clap his hands and shout, he was knocked flat. When he regained his feet, nothing much seemed to be wrong. They were steaming as before. The huge columns of water, like those which had just enveloped the Kaga, were now subsiding. Perhaps he had been knocked down by the concussion of near misses. Captain Kaku, however, seemed concerned. Looking down at the flight deck, Genda could see a small hole right opposite the bridge. A little white smoke was drifting harmlessly out of it.
It was only by degrees that Genda came to understand that there was a holocaust on the hangar deck. It seemed that two bombs, catching the ship despite her turn, had penetrated the flight deck. They had then exploded among the bombers which had just been taken down to be rearmed. He was finally convinced of the seriousness of the situation only when he happened to look astern, and saw the volume of smoke they were leaving behind. Then he was again knocked off his feet, colliding with Admiral Nagumo on his way down. Hardly had he helped the admiral up, and begun to apologize, when they were both knocked sprawling again.
There was now no denying what had happened. The fire had reached the Akagi's own bomb and torpedo storage areas. There were probably fifty bombs there, and as many torpedoes. With each explosion, the great ship would be torn apart a little more. Only the rising level of sea water would put out the spreading fire.
The Yamato, 0940
The sight of the Akagi in her present condition was a profound shock for the whole staff. She wasn't just another carrier. Together with the Kaga, she had been the mainstay of the carrier forces since the beginning. Admiral Yamamoto had himself once been her captain. It had been aboard Akagi that he had first formulated the concepts of carrier warfare that had brought them so far. It now looked as if she might burn endlessly, not sinking, but with great flames leaping high. Admiral Nagumo and his staff had been evacuated to the light cruiser Nagara. Only Captain Kaku and a few men remained aboard, and they only for reasons of sentiment.
Indeed, the whole staff of the Combined Fleet had given way to a certain amount of sentimentality. Captain Kuroshima wept openly. He also suggested detaching the battleship Kirisima to tow the Akagi back to Japan. For once, there was some sympathy for his suggestion. But it wasn't really practicable. Even if Akagi didn't sink on the long way home, her burned out and tortured hull would be of no use for anything but a memorial shrine.
In the midst of the gloom, Admiral Yamamoto spoke to the staff, and sounded a positive note. True, Akagi was gone and Soryu, in like condition, would have to be written off. But the other three carriers were intact. The Americans, according to Sendai's report, had lost one out of their four carriers, and many of their screening ships.
The admiral also drew attention to a report recently received from Commander Murata. It said that it would be necessary only to set the torpedoes to run deeper in order to wipe out the enemy. That was already being done. Then, too, the Japanese forces retained their great advantage in battleships. This would make itself felt before the battle ended. The admiral concluded by ordering the staff to draw up a plan for a night action. It would take advantage of Murata's almost unique ability to conduct an aerial torpedo attack in the light of flares dropped into the ocean.
Admiral Yamamoto also pointed out that the distance between the two
fleets was constantly diminishing. It looked as if the Japanese fleet could
use its greatly superior speed to close the enemy some time during the
night. The guns of the Yamato would speak before the next sunrise.
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