Remembering our past

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Thomas Hensley
  • 315th Training Squadron commander
In my article this time last year, in commemoration of the ". . . date which will live in infamy," I wrote a piece that highlighted the challenges and shortcomings of U.S. intelligence leading up to the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The dawn attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, brought disaster on the United States Pacific Fleet, which resulted in the sinking of 18 major fighting ships, including four out of eight battleships, 188 aircraft destroyed, and 2,403 U.S. personnel killed. The Japanese suffered minimal losses: 29 aircraft, five midget submarines, and 65 personnel. The assault came as an enormous shock to the American people, left U.S. forces in the Pacific theater extremely weak, and allowed the Japanese to roam unfettered throughout the Pacific for important strategic conquests and military expansion.

Despite the devastating losses on Dec. 7 and the intelligence blunders leading up to that attack, American intelligence was the great equalizer for subsequent battles, never more so than the Battle of Midway on 4 - 6 June 1942. The Battle of Midway is the most decisive single naval battle in U.S. history and was a significant turning point for the Pacific theater balance of power during World War II. It humbled the vaunted Japanese Imperial Fleet, leaving it two heavy carriers against four U.S. carriers and cost the Japanese over 200 precious veteran pilots. The victory at Midway enabled the U.S. military to execute a joint counter-offensive, utilizing all of its military power - air, ground, and sea. The Japanese would never regain the initiative.

By March 1942, Japanese military planners were ecstatic with their strategic position in the Pacific. In a mere three months time following the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had become an unstoppable military force, seizing oil and rubber fields that were vital to her war machine. They cast a thousand mile defensive perimeter to secure these objectives. Satisfied with these conquests, all that was left for the Imperial Fleet was to destroy its only remaining threat - the American carriers that escaped the Pearl Harbor attack. For this next phase, the Japanese believed they had to threaten a position which would force the U.S. Pacific Fleet to defend at all costs. The most likely position to attack and force this response? Midway.

Once again, the Japanese Imperial Fleet hatched a plan to ambush U.S. military forces.

Outgunned, outnumbered and battle-stricken, the United States Navy was left trying to organize its remaining forces to counter the next Japanese attack. However, they did not know where or when the Japanese would strike. Under these conditions, the role of intelligence became critical. Unfortunately, many traditional sources of intelligence were not available. In the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean, aerial reconnaissance was not feasible and prisoner interrogations and captured documents were not available. The only remaining viable source of intelligence was communications intelligence, which was used to intercept enemy radio communications, break their codes, translate the text, and furnish the results to commanders.

Through excellent intelligence collection, analysis, and tactical deception, COMINT helped the U.S. Fleet ambush the Imperial Fleet's ambush. First, American military leaders needed to know where the next attack would occur.

While the commanders believed Oahu to be the next target, COMINT personnel teased out and pieced together vital intelligence that indicated Midway as the next objective. Seen as a failure leading up to Pearl Harbor; however, U.S. commanders had very little confidence about its worth. Intelligence specialists had the uphill challenge of convincing senior leaders of the credibility of COMINT sources and their analysis in order to reposition the remaining, weakened forces away from Oahu.

Identifying a Japanese reference to the next target as "AF," intelligence personnel used a disinformation ruse to confirm the "AF" attachment to Midway. Radio operators sent a bogus plaintext message to the Commandant, 14th Naval District stating that the distillation plant at Midway experienced a catastrophic failure and that the island required fresh water immediately. The Japanese took the bait. They picked up the message and reported to Tokyo that "AF has problems with its de-salting plant" and "AF is short of water." Bingo!

On May 18, with a sense of urgency, US Naval commanders began reinforcing Midway with its battleships and aircraft carriers, stationing submarines off the island, preparing the air base for bomber aircraft, and instituting a plan to employ aerial reconnaissance to find the Japanese strike forces. All forces were required to be in place by May 25 and wait. However, American military leaders still did not know when the attack would take place or with what forces.

Through intense COMINT work, intelligence specialists were able to deduce the basics of the Japanese operation. They discovered the composition of its forces and their debarkation dates. They were also able to determine that the striking force would arrive on or about June 4. This analytical work was confirmed on May 25, when COMINT intercepted the final operations order sent to all Japanese commanders that positively identified June 4 as the attack date. In the days leading up to the Japanese attack, U.S. aerial reconnaissance planes began spotting the Japanese strike forces. Supremely confident of their plan, the Japanese began their assault on Midway at 4:30 a.m. June 4. However, they were unprepared for the armada of U.S. forces postured to pounce. The fight was on!

COMINT played a critical role in the decisive defeat of the Japanese Imperial Fleet at the Battle of Midway. It provided an outline of the Japanese plan of attack, the forces involved, and the timing. Hardly has a military commander ever had such insight into an opposing commander's plans, capabilities, and intentions. As a result, the U.S. Naval Fleet surprised the Imperial Fleet and utterly destroyed its warfighting abilities. The U.S. Naval victory halted the tide of Japanese conquests and expansion in the Pacific. Limping home in confusion and defeat, Japan remained on the defensive for the remainder of the war. Due to the victory at the Battle of Midway, the United States was able to launch a joint "island-hopping counter-offensive," which allowed the U.S. to control overlapping island bases and establish air control enroute to taking the fight to the doorsteps of Japan, subsequently bringing about its defeat.

On Sunday, America will remember and honor the sacrifices of its fallen heroes at Pearl Harbor. As Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of Goodfellow Air Force Base remember that infamous day, we can know that the American losses were not in vain. Mere months from that fateful day, our U.S. forces found and summarily destroyed the same force that sprung that surprise attack. We're also reminded of the critical role that intelligence plays in our nation's security - fighting and winning our nation's wars.