OVER THE SAKISHIMA GUNTO
The wartime Royal Navy had an especially heavy New Zealand presence in its Fleet Air Arm, due entirely to the fact that the Royal Navy had a recruitment office in New Zealand, while the Royal Air Force did not. Any ‘Kiwi’ wishing to fly therefore had the choice of signing on for the Fleet Air Arm or of making his way to the UK to join the RAF, which was not an easy task in wartime. The Royal New Zealand Air Force was relatively slow at building up its strength at first, due largely to the country’s very small population and also the lack of an aircraft industry, which meant that new equipment for expansion had to come a long way. One of these New Zealand fliers was Lieutenant Donald Cameron, who joined as a volunteer reservist although later switching to become a regular officer in the postwar Royal Navy. Cameron was serving in HMS Victorious during the attacks on the Sakishima Gunto, and he was involved in one especially unlucky operation.
During the afternoon of 9 May 1945, Cameron was due to lead a flight of four Corsairs to escort a raid by a squadron of Avengers against airfields on the island of Miyako. If no enemy fighters were encountered, after the raid the Corsair pilots were encouraged to look for targets of opportunity.
The fighter flight was dogged by ill-luck from the start. When it took off at 15.30, it left behind one of the aircraft with engine trouble, and as they escorted the Avengers, another aircraft had to return to Victorious because of low oil pressure, leaving just Cameron and his wingman. No fighters were encountered and the Avengers carried out their raid successfully and started to return to the carrier. The airfield at Ishigaki appeared busy and Cameron and his wingman, who had a 500lb bomb under each wing, decided to attack. Cameron suggested that his wingman, No.4, choose a target and let him know when he was prepared to dive so that he could accompany him and force the airfield’s AA fire to be divided between the two aircraft:
‘‘‘Going in now, 501,’’ my No.4 called, and we both winged over together,’ recalled Cameron. ‘At about 2,000 feet I pulled up to port in a skidding climbing turn and see-sawed my way back to 15,000 feet. No sign of No. 4. I called again, but no reply. Slowly circling I saw a large fire burning amongst the hangars of the airfield. That had to be No. 4 …’
He looked around the airfield, still hoping to see No. 4 flying around below. He saw what appeared to be a large aircraft at the corner of two hangars. Cameron dived down once again at more than 400 mph and reached the airfield at about 45 degrees to the main east-west runway, and at low altitude raced across the airfield as the hangars rushed towards him. He had a fleeting glimpse of men running and jumping down from an aircraft outside a hangar before he was climbing again and over the sea. He decided to repeat the exercise, despite the fact that this was definitely not recommended, as not only were AA defences alerted by the first pass, but the gunners would also have adjusted to the high-speed low-level run across the airfield:
I streaked up the runway at nought feet and as I passed the hangars at the far end there was a terrible bang and the aircraft seemed to jump sideways. Bits of cowling shot over the hood and the cockpit filled with smoke.
Keeping low I shot the hood back with my left hand and the airflow enabled me to see ahead. I was by this time out to sea … the aircraft still handled normally apart from the burning smell … no oil pressure at all .. . cylinder head temperature was off the clock.
I eased the throttle back, eased the nose up a little and tried to get what height I could. At about 2,500 feet I called ‘Mayday, Mayday, 501 ditching 20 miles west of Ishigaki.’
He repeated the call, held the hood back and prepared to ditch, with the aircraft splashing down tail first into the sea:
Off harness, out on wing, reach in and tear dinghy off bottom of parachute, turn on a small CO2 bottle, the dinghy inflates, and I jump into the sea with it.
Now comes the hard part, trying to get in the small dinghy. I had to let the air out of my Mae West and after repeatedly tipping the dinghy over onto myself managed to hold one end under water while I got the top of my body on top by kicking my legs, raising my behind, and pulling towards my knees with both hands, I finally flopped into the bottom of the dinghy …
Cameron was unlucky as the Japanese found him before his own ships could, and he spent the rest of the war in a PoW camp, suffering barbaric treatment from his captors. In some ways he could count himself lucky as he did survive, while many Allied airmen were shot on discovery by the Japanese. It became the practice for the senior officers of naval air squadrons to disguise their real rank in case they were shot down and taken prisoner, when they could expect especially harsh treatment as the leaders of a raid.
It took until June before Okinawa could be regarded as occupied after much bloody fighting, and at a cost of 48,000 US servicemen dead and wounded. There were few major objectives left ahead of the US Fifth Fleet, apart from Japan itself. Meanwhile, some of the tidying-up and infilling saw Amphibious Group 8 landing the 24th and 31st Infantry Divisions on the west coast of Mindanao on 17 April.
Further west, the British Eastern Fleet had sent the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Richelieu, the latter a Free French ship, to bombard Sabang once again, with just two escort carriers, two cruisers and five destroyers as the main force had moved further east in the creation of the British Pacific Fleet. On the night of 15/16 May, British destroyers torpedoed the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro as she steamed through the Malacca Straits.
A modern battleship with eight 15-inch guns in two forward turrets, Richelieu had been completing at the time of the French surrender, but the Marine Nationale had managed to get her away to Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria and safety, or so they thought. She was subsequently moved to Dakar, where she was damaged on 8 July during an attack by aircraft from HMS Hermes and two cruisers. Later that year on 23 September, in a further attack on the French ships at Dakar she became involved in an exchange of fire with British ships, damaging a battleship and a cruiser. Nevertheless, while much ill-feeling was caused, especially among the French, by these attempts to prevent the French warships falling into German hands after the Allied invasion of North Africa, those ships in North Africa and some that managed to escape from Toulon after the Germans advanced into what had been Vichy territory, eventually joined the Free French forces. She was sent to New York for a refit, with her main rangefinder having to be removed so that she could get under the East River’s Manhattan Bridge. She joined the British Eastern Fleet to provide anti-aircraft cover for the joint Anglo-American operations against Sabang by HMS Illustrious and the USS Saratoga before being refitted briefly at Gibraltar and returning to join the British East Indies Fleet in April 1945.
On 27 May Halsey took over the Fifth Fleet from Spruance and the designation changed back to Third Fleet once more, with the same adjustment to the numbers of the task forces. Command of the American carriers also changed, with Vice-Admiral McCain taking over from Mitscher as commander of what now became TF38.
With Okinawa secured, between 14 and 18 July the Third Fleet returned to heavy aerial attacks on the Japanese home islands. While the airmen attacked airfields and harbours and coastal shipping, the battleships were sent to bombard industrial targets along the coast for the first time. After refuelling and replenishment, Halsey took the Third Fleet back to Japan to resume its attacks between 24 and 30 July, this time giving priority to bases on the Inland Sea. The new aircraft carrier Amagi was sunk, along with three battleships, Ise, Hyuga and Haruna.
An indication of the state of Japan by this stage of the war can be gained from the fact that the daily ration for the population was down to 1,400 calories. The volume of shipping passing through the Shimonoseki Straits was down from more than half a million tons monthly in March 1944 to a mere 5,000 tons by August 1945.
During the night of 9/10 March 1945, the USAAF mounted a major fire-raid on the capital, Tokyo. The raid lasted just two hours, with the incendiary bombs setting off a firestorm which produced gale-force winds of more than 75 miles per hour and swept through the city devastating an area of 16 square miles, destroying around 267,000 buildings, some 25 per cent of the total in the city, killing 83,783 people with another 50,000 or so seriously injured, and more than 1,000,000 homeless. Having seen the effect of similar attacks on other cities, the Japanese had attempted to minimise the impact of such a raid by creating firebreaks through bulldozing thousands of homes, but it was to no avail.
The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August and on Nagasaki on 9 August did not produce an immediate Japanese surrender, so again the Third Fleet returned to the attack between 8 and 14 August. During these attacks the British Pacific Fleet also operated against targets in Japan. On 9 August, Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, a Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reservist was leading a strike of Corsairs of 1841 and 1842 Naval Air Squadrons from HMS Formidable when he came under heavy AA fire from five warships as he attacked a destroyer in the Onagawa Wan. He pressed home his attack despite his aircraft being badly damaged, and succeeded in sinking the destroyer before his aircraft crashed into the harbour. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration.
It took fourteen days after the dropping of the first atomic bomb for Japan to accept the Allied surrender terms, but it was not until 2 September that the documents were signed and the war in the Pacific was formally over.
This still astonishes many people today, and there are those who maintain that dropping a second bomb was unnecessary. It is true that the impact of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan cannot be underestimated. At Hiroshima within seconds 78,000 people were dead, another 51,000 were injured and 176,000 were homeless with more than 70,000 buildings destroyed. Three days later at Nagasaki, while Japan’s leaders still debated Truman’s call of 6 August to surrender or face complete ruin from repeated attacks by the new weapon, 50,000 people were killed and 10,000 injured, a lower figure than that at Hiroshima since Nagasaki’s hilly terrain and the use of a ground-burst weapon rather than air-burst as at Hiroshima offered protection for many buildings in valleys which shielded them from the burst.
While Japan accepted the Allied surrender terms on 20 August, the formal date for surrender was set for 2 September. The surrender only came after much debate, and even an attempt at a coup d’e´tat by those military leaders opposed to surrender.
The use of two atomic bombs was a matter of cruel necessity. Many, not just in Japan, have complained about the short interval between the dropping of the two bombs, but despite this it took another eleven days before the signing of the surrender. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, important military and industrial targets as they were, were chosen rather than Tokyo partly because of the devastation which had already been visited upon the capital, and partly because of the need to leave both the government and the emperor alive to surrender and enforce that surrender on the Japanese commanders in the field.
The strength of the ‘no surrender’ movement should not be underestimated. By this time Mitsuo Fuchida, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor, had risen to the rank of captain and was not at sea where he might have been useful, but in a staff job. Fuchida and his old friend, Mindoru Genda, found themselves both caught up in the emotion that swept through the Japanese military, with Fuchida banging his fist on his desk and chanting ‘no surrender’ in unison with others.
Elsewhere, two planes carrying negotiators to the peace conference were forced down, with casualties, before eventually one was repaired and the Japanese delegation resumed its journey.