Lessons from the Last War at Sea Pt 2
Yesterday, when we left this week’s study of the Battle of Okinawa and its lessons for today, the US Fleet, specifically Task Force 58 was undergoing its greatest trial by fire ever. In a desperate gamble to weaken Allied resolve and stave off defeat, the Japanese launched their last hope, the Kamikaze suicide planes against the invasion fleet off Okinawa. Though no major naval units were sunk, numerous vessels including several carriers were damaged or forced out of action.
Desperate measures were taken by the Fleet Admiral Raymond Spruance , including greatly reinforcing the Combat Air Patrol. Strikes were also made against enemy air bases on Kyushu and Formosa, to little avail. The Japanese on these islands dispersed and camouflaged their planes well to blunt the overwhelming American air superiority. With the attacks ongoing, soon “there is a trail of limping cripples all the way across the Pacific”. Fortunately for the battered forces off Okinawa, replacements were readily available. According to Hanson W. Baldwin in Battles Lost and Won:
But the traffic across the Pacific is two-way.The cripples steam home; replacements of flesh and steel move steadily westward; destroyer divisions from the Central Pacific, the North Pacific, the Atlantic are ordered to Okinawa to take up their stations in the battered picket line.
Still, by the end of April, 20 ships had been sunk from all causes and 104 of the casualties are from suicide planes.
On May 3, another of the “small boys” experienced a miracle. The light mine layer Aaron Ward was attacked by 25 enemy planes and survived, though just barely. By now the climax was reached with the attacks gradually receding. The war on land now took center stage. The USN lost 34 small ships with 300 damaged. Of these 26 were sunk and 164 damaged by kamikazes. Thanks to the tiny but essential picket ships, no US carriers, battleships, cruisers, or large troop transports were lost, though Enterprise, Franklin, and Maryland were out of the war.
The number of suicide planes totaled 1900 in 10 major attacks from the Japanese Army and Navy. The largest was the first, on April 6/7 with 355 aircraft attacking the US Fleet. The Kamikazes were well hid on their island bases among the civilian population to ensure survival, as mentioned above. Imagine a future foe armed with anti-ship missiles performing basically the same tactic to safeguard their own formidable weapons.
A post war study also revealed nearly one-third of all Kamikazes hit their target, despite the often rudimentary training of their pilots. The only limiting factor was the human one, with the operators often hitting the first target they saw as with the picket destroyers, instead of the larger, high-value ships. In a future missile war, where the pilot is a pre-programed computer brain, such limitations will be non-existent. Under the cold, relentless purpose of the machine there will be no such diversions.
The planned invasion of Japan would likely have seen an even more horrendous death toll of ships and men. It was later learned the Japanese had withheld 10,000 aircraft prepared for the American onslaught. Half of these were geared for the suicide role. It would be a mistake then to assume the Battle of Okinawa as the last battle of the Pacific War with Japan, but rather the first shot in the future missile war at sea, which the Navy has consistently planned for ever since.
Tomorrow-Lessons not learned.