By Theodore A. Hargrove III, 316th Training Squadron
/ Published March 13, 2013
GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Imagine yourself on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. The year is 1942, and it is mid-spring. Since mid-December, Chester Nimitz has been searching for ways to strike back at the enemy, but the admiral has a problem: he has three - maybe four - aircraft carriers to defend the entire Pacific Ocean.
Any offensive move put these irreplaceable floating airfields at risk. So far you and your fellow sailors and airmen have made raids, which amount to little more than pinpricks at the Japanese navy, but you are proud of these attacks and want to inflict more damage. Without warning you receive orders, and your ship changes course; even the captain does not know the carrier's mission. But you know the air is getting cold and things are changing.
After several days underway, you encounter portions of a small American task force and then see in the center of it an old friend, the carrier USS Hornet. Something is strange about her: her flight deck is crowded but not with dive bombers, torpedo planes or fighters. You can hardly believe your eyes as you realize the aircraft has B-25 medium bombers. What is going on? Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and his handpicked 16 brave aircrews are planning a daring one-way raid to bomb the Japanese homeland.
The Doolittle Raid, which was executed April 18, had major consequences, some of which have only recently been fully understood. Doolittle's B-25s dropped few bombs and inflicted only minor damage. The raid dramatically improved morale both on the home front and for those under arms.
Additionally, the raid caused the Japanese to reallocate a large number of troops, aircraft, ships and anti-aircraft assets to the defense of the Japanese home islands rather than offenses against the Allied forces. Those assets would be sorely missed by the enemy's army and navy throughout the remainder of the war in the Pacific. But another less publicized aspect of this raid, is its most unexpected and far-reaching effect.
Move forward a month and a half to June 4, 1942. Your name is Lt. Dick Best, and you are piloting a Dauntless dive bomber assigned to the Enterprise. You command the higher of two flights. This elevated vantage point allows you to spot a breathtaking sight: two enormous Japanese aircraft carriers and their escorts.
In a serious break from doctrine, everyone dives on the rear carrier - the Kaga. You and two stunned wingmen fly on to the squadron's planned target - the Akagi. Three small American planes, each armed only with a single one thousand pound bomb, versus Japanese Zeros and anti-aircraft fire - the odds are not in your favor. To your surprise, the Akagi has no combat air patrol protection, but as you push your plane over into a seventy degree dive, the flak looks like exploding black soup.
Down you scream as the Akagi's deck gets larger and larger. The bombs from the wingmen miss but strike closely enough to rupture steel plates below the carrier's waterline. Your one thousand pounder drives through the wooden deck to the hangar bay below, which is filled with aviation fuel and ordnance. The explosion is devastating and the Akagi will soon be at the bottom of the sea. Behind you, the Kaga is getting the same treatment, at least twelve bombs ripping her to pieces.
Five minutes before the Japanese were winning the war; in an instant, they are not. In the coming hours, Japanese carriers Soryu and Hiryu will be at the bottom of the sea, as well. Your bombing accuracy began perhaps the most decisive few minutes in any battle that has ever occurred before or since. Four Japanese super carriers, all of which had attacked Pearl Harbor, were sunk, and with them the best of Japan's naval aviators. The war was not won; the killing would go on for more than three brutal years. This was a catastrophe from which the Rising Sun would not recover.
The battle's outcome seemed miraculous, but it was not a miracle; and it almost did not happen. What enabled it to occur? The answer - as revealed in Japanese naval records - is Doolittle's raid. Why did we win? Not because of luck; the answer is the bravery of our troops and the careful calculations and plans of Nimitz as well as the intelligence produced by our code breakers, who worked relentlessly to discover the enemy's plans.
Today's cryptologists, trained at Goodfellow in the 316th Training Squadron, are their descendants. This is the kind of mission with which some of our airmen will take on in the operational Air Force.
Japanese Adm. Yamamoto hatched the Midway attack to destroy American carriers. There were howls of protest when his plan was presented to Naval Group Staff. In fact, much of the Japanese army leadership thought the idea was crazy: the supply lines were too long, Midway could not be held, interior lines favored the Americans and virtually all tactical initiatives were being surrendered as well.
The meetings of the Naval Group Staff took place in early April 1942. April 2, Japanese Adm. Inoue spoke strongly in opposition to the Midway plan. Yamamoto threatened to resign; still his opponents were not convinced. Finally, on April 16, the navy opposition relented and agreed to present the plan to the General Staff and the Emperor. The Army still had to be brought on board since they were the real power within the Japanese government.
All opposition evaporated when Doolittle and his bombers appeared in the skies over Tokyo on April 18. The Japanese General Staff, which had assured the Japanese people that the Emperor was safe and the home islands would never be bombed, were stunned and embarrassed. How could this happen? The answer was clear: American carriers were roaming the Pacific. A few days later, even the powerful Army faction agreed to the Midway attack. The decisive Pacific battle of World War II may not have occurred without the Doolittle raid.
Nimitz's Task Forces 16 and 17 were waiting when Yamamoto and Nagumo arrived at Midway. The task forces were waiting due to the brilliant intelligence analysis of Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort and his team at Station Hypo. The Japanese code had been broken by bits and pieces.
As the 316th TRS's cryptologists know better than anyone, decoding is not analogous to intercepting then reading a sentence from a magazine. Rather, intelligence analysts acquire seemingly-unrelated bits of information, which must then be fit together to solve a jigsaw puzzle without benefit of a completed puzzle photo.
Rochefort and his staff had put in countless, tedious, punishing hours and their work yielded stunning results. They knew where the Japanese were going and when, the attack on Alaska was a feign, Australia was not about to be invaded; rather, Midway was the target.
Nimitz trusted and believed in Rochefort's conclusions, but top brass in Washington was skeptical. How could a mere O-4 convince them he was right? His answer has become legend. The false message "AF [meaning Midway] low on water" did the trick. Nimitz was given the green light to make his plans to intercept the Japanese attack force, known as the Kido Butai.
Sept. 2, 1945, the USS Missouri lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay awaiting the arrival of Emperor Hirohito and other dignitaries participating in the surrender ceremony. The beautiful clear blue sky above was peaceful. Three and half years earlier that same sky was pierced by 16 American aircraft assigned to the 17th Bombardment Group. Those planes changed the course of the war and the course of world history. Simultaneously, Joe Rochefort and his staff of code breakers were saying their goodbyes in the small Honolulu offices where so much had been done to make the Doolittle raid possible.
Today, the 17th Bombardment Group and Rochefort's cryptologists have essentially become one. Their descendants, now known as the 17th Training Wing, are worthy recipients of the torch that has been passed. The pages of military history are full of "what ifs" and "but fors." One thing is certain - signals intelligence professionals did good work then and still do so today.