|First Battle of the North Pacific|
|Part of World War II,|
|United States||Empire of Japan|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Chester Nimitz||Isoroku Yamamoto|
As May of 1942 drew to a close, the Japanese Naval High Command realized that it would only be a matter of time before the Americans tried to retake the Hawaiian Islands. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto saw this as his opportunity for a decisive battle like the Battle of Tsushima, and force the US to sue for peace. At his disposal, were the fleet carriers, Akagi, Shokaku, and Zuikaku. Major Kuro Horikawa of the Army Air Force offered the use of the Army fighters and bombers stationed in Hawaii, effectively converting the islands into a fourth air craft carrier, but Yamamoto turned down this offer, preferring to fight the battle as far forward from the islands as possible. All the high command were aware of the US radar advantage, so in order to combat this disadvantage, the Japanese established a picket line of sampans armed with long range radios in order to detect the incoming fleet. Further efforts were made to employ the float planes of the navy's cruisers and battleships to give extra coverage.
The Battle Begins
As June drew to a close, the Navy was alerted to the US presence by their picket boats and sailed into action. A flying boat spotted the American fleet consisting of three fleet carriers, USS Hornet, Saratoga, and Yorktown. This made the battle an even match. However, it would not be the surprise the Japanese hopped for as the Americans knew they had been spotted. Both sides launched their planes and the battle began.
The Japanese pilots had vast experience in aerial warfare, smashing up everything from Hawaii to Ceylon. The American pilots were unaccustomed to the Japanese but were armed with tactics created by Colonel John Thach which would give them an edge of the Zero's superior manoeuvrability.
Japanese Strike Force
The Japanese Strike force launched first, taking a direct route to the American's who were still launching planes while the Japanese strike force was inbound. The Zero's were ordered to defend the dive bombers and torpedo planes from the US Fleet's combat air patrols (CAP) as they made their attack, and not to go after the American's own strike force, which had been spotted, flying lower than their own.
The US Fleet used their destroyers and cruisers as screening vessels for their carriers, throwing up a wall of flak, but spaced their carriers too close together. This made it easier for the attacking planes to strike their targets. The Wildcats protecting the fleet pounced on the strike force, but far too many chose to engage the Zeroes and not the attack planes. Although the Wildcats managed to confuse the Zeroes with the Thach Weave, it was of to no avail, and many of the Wildcats were shot down, severely depleting the Fleet's air cover. This cleared the way for the attacking planes, who managed to land a devastating blow against the US Fleet, sinking the Saratoga.
The attack on the Yorktown was met with heavy air resistance, but the strike force was helped by the tactics of Minoru Genda. Although crippled with pneumonia, he none the less insisted on being present on the bridge of Akagi, where he advised the planes of the attack force to make a coordinated attack. This was passed on by order from Yamamoto, and resulted in the carrier being sunk.
The remaining attack planes then regrouped and struck for the Hornet. Although their final attack didn't sink her, she was crippled and unable to fight. Their job done, the Japanese strike force headed for home.
US Strike Force
The US strike force, consisting of Wildcat fighters, SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and TBD Devastator torpedo bombers didn't fare as well as their Japanese counter part. The Japanese task force had dispersed their carriers, making them harder targets and forcing the attacking planes to split up. Their torpedo bombers although painfully slow and easy to hit, could withstand a lot of battle damage. They struck at the Japanese fleet but their torpedoes failed to do any damage.
The Japanese Fleet's CAP's were also helped by Genda's tactics. As the Zero's were drawn down to take on the torpedo planes, he warned about the possibility of dive bombers getting through the gap they left high above. Yamamoto also ordered this advice to be passed on, and some zero's were dispatched to a higher patrol.
Although this proved to be a wise choice, a few dive bombers made it through the high altitude screen, damaging Akagi, while crippling Zuikaku. Having done what they could, they headed back to the fleet, all their torpedo bombers had been lost.
The Battle Ends
The battle was over in a matter of hours. The US had lost two carriers and third had been crippled, while two cruisers and a destroyer had been damaged, and well over half their pilots had been lost. The Japanese had one carrier crippled and one damaged along several support vessels also damaged. They had also lost just over one hundred pilots. Without any air power, the US was forced to withdraw back to the West Coast leaving the Japanese triumphant and in charge of Hawaii.
Although it was a major victory for the Japanese, they had lost many veteran pilots in the battle, while the battle itself wasn't the decisive blow that Yamamoto had hoped for. While the battle had forced the US to retreat, it wasn't towards the negotiation table. Radio broadcasts from the mainland made it clear the US had no intention of giving up, meaning that the war in the Pacific would be a war of industrial might which Yamamoto knew Japan had no hope of winning. The differences in US and Japanese tactics were more clear too. While the Japanese Strike Force had hit the US carriers with multiple bombs and torpedoes before finally sinking them, the US Strike force had managed to cripple Zuikaku with just two bomb hits on her flight deck. Also, the Crack Man Policy of the Japanese Navy meant that there were no reserves for the depleted air crews of the Japanese fleet guarding Hawaii. This would mean that one of the major advantages the Zero had over its opponents, the highly skilled pilot, was gone. Although a major victory, it was indeed a hollow one.