CDR Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D., USN(Ret)
This past week in June was one during which two significant events that helped turn the tide of evil into the light of freedom occurred. No, not this week; rather three-quarters of a century ago at opposite ends of the Earth. In both cases, the events underscored the determination, bravery, and selfless sacrifice of what Tom Brokaw–and now the nation–refer to as The Greatest Generation.
Prelude to Battle (April, 1942)
After the devastation wreaked by Japanese forces during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Admiral Yamamoto had designed to use the momentum to continue expanding the Japanese military sphere of control even father across the Pacific. The next operation was to take control of Midway Island as a base from which to stage Japanese forces to spread control into the Eastern Pacific and–when the time was right–attacks on the West Coast of the United States.
The United States had a few surprises of its own. On April 18, 1942, Army Air Corps B-25 bombers led by [then] LtCol Jimmy Doolittle took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to conduct a surprise strike on the Japanese homeland. The mission was a success–not because it did major damage in Japan but because of the psychological effect of what had been portrayed by the Emperor as an untouchable Japanese homeland being attacked. This was also an psychological boost for Americans, who learned of the raid when President Roosevelt announced that the the attack on Japan had occurred–and quipped that it was launched from our secret base at Shangri-La (Historical note: Later, based on this quip, an aircraft carrier was, indeed, christened USS Shangri-La).
June 4-7, 1942
The Battle of Midway – Pacific Theater of Operations
America was not done yet with its one-two punch… Navy and Army cryptologists had cracked some of the Japanese staff-level code and were piecing together the puzzle. Their work was validated by the Japanese forces participating in the Battle of Coral Sea being those that had been identified in analysis of the Japanese staff code. This was important because that validation played an important part in Admiral Nimitz’s decision to preempt Japan’s assault on Midway Island some weeks later.
Japan changed their staff-level codes after the Doolittle Raid. But Naval Intelligence came up with another plan to trick the Japanese into showing their intent. They sent a message about Midway for the Japanese to intercept that led to Midway Island being validated as the intended target.
USS Yorktown, severely damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea, was made seaworthy and ready for action to set sail only four days after arriving at Pearl Harbor to join naval forces setting the trap northeast of Midway based on intelligence analysis. The Japanese leadership had considered USS Yorktown to essentially be a write-off at best.
As Admiral Yamamoto stated after the attack on Pearl Harbor, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” This fear was about to be realized at the Japanese Fleet’s expense.
This year marked the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway–Turning Point in the Pacific…
The Japanese invasion force was detected and, later, their carriers were spotted as predicted and aircraft from American carriers attacked at maximum range. Attack after attack weakened the Japanese defenses until Japanese air cover was nearly non-existant. In the end, Japanese forces attacked Midway twice and then attacked USS Yorktown twice–but did not sink her. Later, as she was being towed back to Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine torpedoed USS Yorktown and sent her to the bottom of the Pacific.
The Japanese were not so lucky, losing escort ships and having 2 front-line carriers sunk and 2 others severely damaged enough to be put out of action completely. The Japanese fleet retreated back to Japan on June 7, 1942. The American victory was a second psychological victory for the Americans, serving to partially demoralize the Japanese Fleet as well as boosting the resolve of American Forces.
June 6, 1944
“D-Day” Invasion at Normandy – European Theater of Operations
The D-Day invasion, formally called Operation Overlord, was the Allied landing in Europe to drive the Nazi Germans out of occupied territories and bring an end to the War in Europe. Many events took place before the invasion that paved the way for success. Much like the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway, intelligence, deception, and psychology played a major role.
To prepare for the invasion, famed General George Patton was relieved of his command
and brought back to England and American intelligence personnel leaked stories that he was brought back in disgrace and that he may be courts-martialed. While some Nazi leaders refused to believe that the president’s favorite general could be stripped of command and rank, many senior officers welcomed the apparent relief from his tenacity. However, Patton was housed in England across the channel from the Pas de Calais–the narrowest part of the channel and the place from where Nazi leaders assumed the invasion would someday come.
Also happening across from Pas de Calais was a clever operational deception campaign.
A fictitious force of Army Divisions was being built around Patton–and cleverly leaked to the Germans. When photography was taken by the Germans from the air, the Germans saw the Army of invaders being staged–vehicles, tanks, gliders, aircraft, even tents where troops could be staging. Of course, these were carefully devised props, made from woods and cloth, actual non-functional equipment, and even inflatable tanks and heavy equipment. But from the aerial surveillance cameras of the day, they were real enough when viewed back at the photo lab.
Invasion on the beaches was also preceded by operations conducted by troops
airdropped behind enemy lines and units of the French Resistance. They cut communications lines, logistics routes, and other key targets to disrupt the German response to the invasion when it happened. Message traffic around Patton was increased to help the Germans press the I Believe Button confirming that Patton would lead the invasion at the Pas de Calais–the very place where the German high Command expected it would come…but it would not…
Finally, Eisenhower and his Allied Command Staff met to explore alternatives in case the
weather did not cooperate for ideal conditions. The Germans knew that American amphibious assaults were normally conducted at daybreak, at high tide, and with favorable weather. This was another reason the Germans were caught off-guard–Eisenhower made the final decision to stage the invasion the morning of June 6th, despite weather being below what was normally acceptable.
Operation Overload — the D-Day landings and following operations — consisted of the largest armada of ships ever gathered for a single operation, along with the largest ground and air forces. From the days before the landings to the weeks following, this was the largest invasion force in the history of humankind.
In the case of both the Battle of Midway and D-Day, this past week celebrated–and memorialized–two of the key operations that paved the way for allies all over the world to conquer the evils inflicted upon humankind by the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany. From the Great Depression to the devastation at Pearl Harbor to an America with a renewed mission and a strong resolve to band together to defeat evil.
The oldest living World War II American Veteran, Richard Overton, turned 111 years old on May 11, 2017. As published by the National World War II Museum, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now in their late 80s and 90s. It is anticipated that the last of our World War II Veterans will depart the world they helped to save by 2038. They are dying quickly—according to US Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, we are losing 372 World War II veterans per day and only 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2016.
Let us never forget those who willingly rushed headlong into danger–and those who supported them–for the sake of making a better world for millions who they did not know and who they would never meet.
May God Bless our Greatest Generation, our World War II Veterans and their families, and may God Bless the world with peace so that we may never have a world embroiled in all-out war again.
My father served in World War II in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in England and later as part of the occupation forces in Germany. He was a P-47 ground crewman, specializing in airframes and sheet metal work. He left the USAAF in 1947, before it became the United States Air Force, to go to college, where he met my Mother. He continued his lifetime of service–as did many of the members of the Greatest Generation–by getting a degree in social work and working first with the YMCA and later as Director for Corporate Giving for the Crusade of Mercy (later the United Way) of Chicago. He left our world the day after Fathers Day in 2011, but I know he is with us as long as we keep his memory alive and are true to how he raised us. [Photo: My Uncle Paul Shark (L) and my Father (R)]