Appreciating our war time history


A name of a Belgian town, and New Zealand’s bloodiest battle in World War One.

In a country where so much was given in two world wars, the Battle of Passchendaele was more than another dreadful, relatively static battle in World War 1. It was about a little nation half a world away from New Zealand and a battle in 1917 that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

We never said Gallipoli was great and just campaign for New Zealanders to be involved in – it was not, and many lives were lost. It was not and yet all of these years later there is a substantial and long lasting respect between Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. Not only that but Turks, New Zealanders and Australians show a general respect for each other’s forces many could learn from.

Today is history from another war, and I think it is appropriate that it be announced.

There is much to be annoyed about with America on the world stage these days. But two naval battles in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea and June 1942 at the Battle of Midway, were the difference between Australia being invaded and New Zealand being put in bomber range.

It started with a surprise American bombing raid on Japan in April 1942 where U.S.S. Yorktown sailed 16 B-25’s within bomber range of Japan. The Japanese Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was sufficiently by the raid as to figure out how to put Japan beyond bomber range. That meant attacking Midway.

At Coral Sea a Japanese task force was made to turn back from attacking Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, where a staging area for an attack on Australia would have been established. The day before the carrier I.J.N. Shoho was sunk, as was U.S.S. Lexington. Another carrier U.S.S. Yorktown was damaged. Although the honours were not quite even, it was an American victory and a chance to hone their skills at naval warfare involving the use of aircraft carriers. Admiral Yamamoto was not deterred. He had said:

“I shall run wild for six month’s to a year after which I can guarantee nothing”.

75 years ago today 4 June 2017, Admiral Yamamoto’s stunning foresight became reality.

An air raid on the island of Midway was meant to knock out anti aircraft batteries, enemy installations and support facilities in preparation for attack. The air raid failed, and the Japanese pilot in command requested a second strike (more on that later) 5,000 troops in troop carriers had been sent to Midway. This was going to be their chance to participate in history.

Whilst the Japanese were attacking Midway, a squabble had broken out between the key Japanese commanders at two levels. At the top, Admiral Yamamoto’s Chief of Staff Captain Kuroshima knew of a cancelled Japanese reconnaissance mission to Pearl Harbor, but never passed news of the cancellation on. He refused to lift secrecy and tell the commander of the attacking task force the reconnaissance mission had been scrubbed. The second squabble was in the fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, responsible for attacking Midway. His chief of air operations Commander Genda believed the American fleet  was in the area, but Vice Admiral Nagumo’s Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Kusaka did not. Commander Genda wanted to bring a second wave of planes on deck with torpedoes in case the Americans did were spotted by reconnaissance. Admiral Kusaka believed faulty intelligence that had first said the Americans were still in the Coral Sea where they had defeated the Japanese a month earlier, and also believed that even if the Japanese had left that there was no way they could have gotten to Midway.

Admiral Nagumo initially ordered the second wave to brought on deck, then halted. When it resumed precious time had been lost. The aircraft that had bombed Midway were returning and the decks needed to be cleared for them to land, so more time was lost.

The squabble was to prove disastrous for Japan. But the squabble was also about whether or not America even knew what was happening. They did. Everything. They were not fooled by a diversion attack on the Aleutian Islands on 3 June 1942. It was also about American naval brilliance, and how America transited the crippled U.S.S. Yorktown in from the Coral Sea, did as much repair work in as they could in 72 and managed to send her to Midway.

U.S.S. Enterprise and Hornet had set off under Admiral Jack Fletcher heading for Midway. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance followed in the U.S.S. Yorktown a few days later.

So, imagine the shock on Nagumo’s face when the air raid alarm pointed to an American attack on 04 June 1942. American torpedo bombers had found the four Japanese fleet carriers supporting the attack on Midway. It was shot down completely and only one American pilot survived. But less than an hour later another attack happened. Same result, but with a massive difference. The attack had drawn the Japanese fighter cover down to sea level. High off in the distance with no enemy fighters between them and the four Japanese carriers were squadrons of dive bombers. And their flight decks were stacked with bombs and torpedoes.

In the space of 15 minutes on 04 June 1942, the Japanese went from being only a couple of months away from potentially doing what Yamamoto did not think was possible, and winning the war, to a decisive American victory from which there was no Japanese recovery possible. In those 15 minutes three Japanese fleet carriers I.J.N. Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were crippled beyond repair and either sank or were scuttled. I.J.N. Hiryu was crippled later the same day and was scuttled.

U.S.S. Yorktown was attacked twice. After the first attack the Americans managed to get her underway again. After the second attack there was no hope and she had to be abandoned. A Japanese submarine finished her off two days later.

Today is the 75th Anniversary of that.

You can say all you want about America. But on this day, 75 years later, with a copy of the the Japanese invasion plans for New Zealand understood to be in Te Papa, I would like you to join me in saying three words and three words only:


I will come back to Passchendaele in late July.

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