The World Wonders

I mentioned recently that I had picked up a copy of the book The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. I just finished it and would highly recommend it. The author, James Hornfischer does an excellent job of interweaving the fates of the ships and their crews over the course of several chapters. There’s an excellent sense of the fear and sense of duty among the sailors. He also includes several maps to help one orient themselves as they read about the battle unfolding. He appears to have done his research, which includes numerous interviews with the survivors, reading of the ships logs and more. The one area of missing information, and he admits it, is an adequate understanding of the Japanese side of the battle. This appears in part to be due to a lack of access to such logs and I suspect a language barrier and the difficulty of travelling to Japan.

I mention this because it’s important to understand that the story he writes, nearly 60 years after the battle gives a far fuller picture of what happened than any of the participants had that day. But even now that story is missing pieces.

To quickly recap, the Imperial Japanese Navy was given the mission of breaking up MacArthur’s landings on Leyte in order to reclaim the Philippines. Like many Japanese naval plans it was audacious but also required meticulous planning and timing. And it involved a decoy fleet. This is an important element to what precipitated the last stand. At this point in the war (late 1944), the Japanese Navy had few planes and few experienced pilots, so their aircraft carriers were not an effective force. This despite the fact that the Japanese had shown at Pearl Harbor that the future of surface naval warfare was almost exclusively to be done via aircraft. So they decided to use their aircraft carriers as bait for the Third Fleet commanded by Admiral Halsey. A bait he took; hook, line and sinker.

This left the northern edge of the Seventh Fleet, guarding the San Bernardino Strait basically undefended except for 3 task forces, Taffies 1-3, with just a slew of “jeep” carriers and destroyers and destroyer escorts. Taffy 3 was the northernmost of these and the ones directly engaged by the Japanese fleet. They were soon to be met be the IJN Yamato and and the rest of Admiral Kurita’s fleet of battleships and cruisers. By any measure, Taffy 3 was outgunned and outmatched. Yet, by the end of the day, despite the loss of 2 destroyers, 1 destroyer escort, and 2 escort carriers, the Japanese fleet had lost 3 heavy cruisers, 3 more damaged, a destroyer damaged and the loss of 52 aircraft (compared to the US losing 23) and was in full retreat.

At this point, and for the last 77 years one could reasonably ask, “why?” What drove Admiral Kurita’s decision to withdraw. Unfortunately, most of the answers are predicated on guesswork, educated guesswork, but still guesswork all the same. The simple answer appears to be two fold. For one, he didn’t know if Admiral Halsey had taken the bait, and in fact it appears that he didn’t think Halsey had, and that he was in fact attacking the fleet carriers, not escort carriers, and hence a much larger American fleet than was actually present. But despite his erroneous belief about the American Third Fleet’s position, he was most likely correct in his appraisal of the future of the mission: he did not believe he could continue forward and disrupt the landings. Since that was the primary goal of his mission and it most likely would fail, it appears he saw no point in risking the rest of his fleet and withdrew.

One can speculate what would have happened had he continued on with the battle. My personal, and mostly uneducated guess, is that he probably would have succeeded in sinking the other 2 carriers of Taffy 3 and perhaps the rest of the destroyers and destroyer escorts. However, his position was extremely precarious with the growing number of American aircraft starting to make sorties from Taffy 2 and from an improvised airstrip the Army had prepared and the pilots from Taffy 3 had basically taken over. It’s most likely he would have ended up with several more of his own ships on the ocean floor, including the Yamato.

So, he made what he thought was the best decision based on the information he had at the time. As did Halsey when he took the bait of the Northern Force of the basically defanged Japanese carriers.

So why do I recap all of this? Because I think it’s topical to a lot of what we do at times. This past weekend I was upgrading a SQL Server for a customer. Fairly routine work. And I ran into problems. Things I wasn’t expecting. It threw me off. Fortunately I was able to work around the issues, but it got me thinking about other upgrades and projects I’ve done.

The reality is, in IT (as well as life) we make plans to get things done. Sometimes they’re well thought out plans with lots of research done prior to the plan and everything is written down in detail to make sure nothing is forgotten.

And then… something unexpected happens. The local internet glitches. It turns out there’s a patch missing you had been told was there. Or there’s a patch there you didn’t know was there. Or a manager unexpectedly powers down the server during your data center move without telling you (yes, that happened to me once).

When things go majorly wrong, we’ll do a post-mortem. We’ll look back and say “Oh, that’s where things went wrong.” But we have to remind ourselves, at the time, we didn’t know better. We may not have had all the information on hand. When reviewing decisions, one has to separate “what do we know now” from “what did they know then.”

Now we know, “…Halsey acted stupidly” to quote a famous movie. He shouldn’t have taken the bait. We know Kurita probably should have turned back earlier (since the other half of the pincer had been turned back by the Seventh Fleet, putting the Japanese plan in serious jeopardy, or perhaps pressed on a bit longer before turning back (and taking out a few more escort carriers). But we shouldn’t judge their decisions based on what we know, but only on what they knew then.

Finally, I’m going to end with a quote from the battle. Spoken by Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) to his crew over the 1MC “This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.” And that they did. Among other things they launched their torpedoes at the IJN heavy cruiser Chōkai, hitting and disabling it and then took on another Japanese cruiser with their 5″ guns until finally a shell took out their remaining engine room and they ended up dead in the water.

I can’t begin to fathom the heroism and bravery of the men of Taffy 3 that day. If you can, find the time to get a copy of the book and to read it.

P.S. The title of this post has an interesting story of its own, and I know at least one reader will know it all to well.

2 thoughts on “The World Wonders

  1. The lack of Japanese perspective is… a general problem in histories of WWII. As you correctly point out, there’s a variety of valid reasons for this. But there’s also factors you might have missed.

    Starting from right after the war, there’s a strain of what’s best called panegyric literature. It’s not quite not history, but there’s a definite slant (intentional and no) to it… And its purpose is less history than establishing the legend of the Allies and how we won the war through sheer moral superiority over the Axis. The endless books and shows about Hitler’s Vunder Veapons spring from the same impulse. The subtext is that we *still* won the war in the face of such incredible technology.

    More educated folks know better… And the upper percentiles certainly know that raw production capability played a defining role… But we aren’t the target audience for such (panegyric) materials.

    And there’s an additional factor in covering the history of WWII in the Pacific – racism, overt and conscious as well as covert and unconscious. That factor results in an attitude that simply doesn’t *care* about the Japanese perspective. And I stress again, _this is not always intentional_. Racism and bias are so feckin hard to stamp out precisely because it can crop up without the subject being aware of it. I am NOT accusing Hornfischer of being a racist – merely speculating on the presence of unconscious bias simply by being a product of his times. He’s heir to a strain of historical literature that runs back over half a century at the time he wrote Tin Can Sailors.

    And yes, I know the origin of the title. It’s as famous in cryptographic literature as WWII naval literature.

    • You were of course the person I was thinking of that would immediately recognize the title (though I suspect a few other readers might and those who don’t, I encourage to read it.)

      Two thoughts: I think there’s an additional reason we’re missing some of the Japanese perspective: many of them simply didn’t survive. For example, what we know of Admiral Yamamoto we know only from some of his writings and from his contemporaries, and not all were necessarily inclined to give an unbiased portrayal of him. Similarly, we don’t know much of what the soldiers on Iwo Jima and other islands thought because so few survived.

      That said, it’s one reason I appreciated so much the movie Letters from Iwo Jima. It did present “the other side” and much of it was in a sympathetic way. It’s tragic because we know the outcome before the movie begins, but despite the Japanese being “the enemy”, I think one ends up feeling a great deal of respect for General Kuribayashi and his troops. The line that stuck with me (and I don’t know if it was really said and recorded by a survivor or on paper, but I somehow doubt it) was “If our children can live safely for one more day it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island.” He was a man tasked with an impossible task but would see it to the end if it meant another day of safety for his loved ones. We realize the Japanese were as human as the rest of us, and who wouldn’t fight for their family for one more day.

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