"Secret Missions"
An Intermezzo At Sea
Chapter 25

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From the first days of the war there grew in my mind the question of how we could best defeat the Japanese at the least cost to us. I was of the opinion that it would be a long war, with the European commitments, the need for repairing and replacing our damaged ships, overcoming the distances, deploying our forces for the kill.

I felt certain that they could not withstand our war potential of ten to one against them. But I did not doubt that we would have to show the Japanese how to surrender.

At the outset of the Pacific war I felt that we should begin immediate retaliatory action, hitting the Japanese wherever we could with whatever means we had at our disposal. It was essential, I thought, to carry the war into Japanese controlled waters at once, to prevent the enemy from consolidating his gains with complacency or from strengthening his forces without interference. Little did I think when I presented my tactical suggestions to a new member of Cincus' staff, at his request, that I was to participate in our first attempt at a comeback in the first raids against the Gilbert Islands at Wotje, then Wake, Marcus, and the Hornet's trip to "Shangri-La" for the first raid against Tokyo. (I heard "Radio Rose" the night before that famous raid say: "It was reported today that a foreign plane was seen over Japan. I just want to say emphatically that it is impossible for a foreign plane to come over Japan." The next night she could not continue her broadcast. Neither could her assistant, as both were too choked up with tears and fears.)

So we were on the offensive from the first day of the war, a historical fact all Americans should proudly remember whenever they lament over the spilt blood of Pearl Harbor. Out numbered, out-gunned, and outsmarted as we were in those early days, we surpassed the Japanese where they thought they were far superior: in fighting spirit. The officers and men of the ill-equipped destroyers, the lone-wolf submarines, and the few cruisers and carriers which returned the ball to Japanese waters in suicidal thrusts and daring forays---all are the unsung heroes of those dark days of the war. It gives me immense satisfaction and fills me with justified pride that the Salt Lake City, affectionately referred to by Bob Casey as the Swayback Maru or the One-Ship Fleet, was part of this nuclear force which preceded the final release of nuclear energy by almost five years.

In those early days of the war I did not have time to analyze from the viewpoint of history. I was living it. I had never cherished the idea of war. I had hoped that I would never be compelled to participate in another one after the First World War to end all future war. But now that we were again deeply involved, I was at sea in command of a heavy cruiser which, in our estimate, was to play an important part in the fighting, at least for the time being. I devoted all my thoughts and energy to combat. I tried to visualize and determine exactly what I would do when suddenly confronted at close quarters by a superior Japanese cruiser force or by a battle cruiser, both of which conditions developed for out ships during the war. If it not for me or for this narrative to tell the many details of war as they manifested themselves to us at sea. They have been told in excellent detail by such outstanding writers as Fletcher Pratt, Gilbert Cant, and especially Captain Walter Karig and his various able collaborators in their unsurpassable Battle Reports. The exploits of my own ship, the Salt Lake City, were described with inspired pen by the great war correspondent Bob Casey of the Chicago Daily News in his "Torpedo Junction".

There is, however, one rather abstract or theoretical fact providing a proud remembrance for all of us. Our fleet, perfectly balanced prior to 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, was thrown off balance a few minutes later. It was with this unbalanced fleet that we had to embark upon war. We had only cruisers, a few carriers, destroyers, and submarines left, most of them in a peacetime condition, with inadequate antiaircraft batteries vastly inferior to those of our later ships which poured from the shipyards.

But there was a spirit which inspired this rudimentary fleet to offensive action. It was a spirit of the ruthless offensive, exemplified by the order of the new Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, Admiral E. J. King, USN. His order to the fleet was short: "Do the best you can with what you have on hand." We did even better than best. We remained on the offensive throughout those dark days in our naval history and continued to harass the Jap until we were strong enough to hit him in force. Only the submarines remained of what was once our Asiatic Fleet. But these submarines, left to themselves without a proper fleet organization and denied the vital cooperation of General MacArthur's aircraft in the Philippines, went after the Japanese on the day hostilities started and conducted a highly efficient attack of their own.

We suffered a grievous loss in the Battle of the Java Sea, but so did the Japanese. But our fighting spirit was demonstrated when our four destroyers engaged a whole Japanese force of cruisers, destroyers, and transports at night and inflicted extensive damage on them by torpedo fire. The badly battered United States was neither down nor out. It was in the war doing its best with the little then on hand. Our own initial activities afloat were led by an indomitable spirit: the spirit of Admiral William F. Halsey.

After the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal it was Japan's turn to be thrown off balance. While we continued on the offensive, the Japanese withdrew from action and remained on the defensive for eighteen months, until they were forced to join action when we arrived off Saipan. There remained just one major action in which the Japanese were willing to participate in which they again suffered a disastrous defeat, the second battle of the Eastern Philippine Sea which included the epic battle for Leyte Gulf in which Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf shone so brilliantly. The fine record of the Japanese Navy very early in the war is beclouded by its caution and ineptitude shown subsequently almost throughout the war. It is this aspect of the Pacific war which proved the soundness of the American Navy's often revolutionary strategic principles and its absolute tactical superiority over its opponent. These should dominate all considerations of our Navy's role in winning the victory.

It was the Salt Lake City's privilege to fight in the vanguard of this earliest offensive action. On February 1st, 1942, the people of the United States, carrying the burden of the war with lowered morale, were electrified by headlines announcing this first major offensive action against the Japanese. It was the raid against the Gilberts and the Marshalls, planned and executed by Admiral Halsey in the manner which foreshadowed his emergence as our foremost fleet commander.

The Salt Lake City was given the atoll of Wotje as a target; and we moved in, rather ill prepared, since our charts were inadequate and our intelligence incomplete for such a daring expedition. I considered it essential to benefit from our close approach to the island also in a purely intelligence sense, and was greatly supported in this decision by a guest on board, Lieutenant C. H. Coggins, (MC), USN. Ever since our first chance meeting over the Thompson case, we had been close friends and indefatigable coworkers in intelligence; and it was this friendship and his keen observation which induced me to ask the Commander in Chief's permission to take him on the raid. Until we had sailed, he thought it was to be only a normal cruise. Others on board were Bob Casey and Bob Landry (Life magazine).

Intelligence methods in combat were then embryonic, and no preparations had been made to gather topographical data from air reconnaissance on combat missions. We were at a distinct disadvantage, too, with the type of planes at our disposal. Even so, we made plans to conduct what to my knowledge was the first air intelligence operation in the Pacific war. Two planes were spotting for our ship-borne artillery, and two were standing by, but we were thinking of information for future activities. Our planes utilized private cameras, formerly locked up on board, to photograph the whole island as they were guiding the fall of our shots on important targets.

We could not help recalling the previous extensive efforts to gain information of this area through visits of our ships and the opposition of our own state Department to these "controversial" issues. In fact I prepared a note to be dropped by our aviators on Wotje addressed to the Gaimu-sho (Foreign Office), Tokyo, and marked: "Please deliver to Mr. Eugene Dooman, American Embassy." It read: "Have arrived and inspected the Gilbert Islands in spite of opposition---Zacharias." In the confusion of our preparations it was not given to my aviator, so Mr. Dooman continued to remain in ignorance.

The intelligence data which my aviators collected in their spare time seemed to justify the effort and open up entirely new vistas for air intelligence. From the photographs they acquired on their mission we prepared a detailed map of the island which was the basis of information used with great effectiveness during later attacks. Coggins was put in charge of the work and was delighted to be permitted again to act as an intelligence officer ad interim. He interrogated every officer who had flown over Wotje during this operation, including carrier pilots. Soon the carrier photographic officer came over to watch the technique. I told him to quote me to Admiral Halsey as saying: "We should have a camera in every plane."

Thus I was enabled to put to the test ideas I had long been advocating to the department. I had initiated the first large-scale photographic activities by calling a conference in Washington of all interested bureaus in June 1940, at which Merian Cooper, a famous aviator, explorer, moving-picture executive, and a boyhood neighbor and friend, had presented views on the photographic needs of the Navy. The efficacy of our later air photographic work needs no comment.

Our little task force under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey, USN, flying his flag on the carrier Enterprise, consisted of the flagship, the heave cruisers Northampton, Chester & Salt Lake City, and screening destroyers. Although our mission was limited in scope, it entailed considerable risk since we went in virtually blindfolded, having no information on Japanese installations, and our Combat Intelligence was still too young to advise us of the exact whereabouts of the enemy. We went in not knowing what might confront us, in the air, on the surface, or under the surface.

Even in this operation Halsey acted in his typically courageous manner only after he had convinced himself that there was no disproportionate material risk involved in his action. His move was unorthodox to the orthodox naval man. But it was also the unorthodox handling of their fleets which made Nelson and Cunningham of the British Navy the great leaders, one in the past and the other in the recent war.

It was a great thrill to sever under Admiral Halsey. He was then not yet nationally known, although in the Navy we knew that he was on of our natural tacticians, destined to become the naval leader of the Pacific War. He is a born commander who knows instinctively what to do in all situations. His daring is the result of absolute reliance on instinct and judgment, which has served him well in many tight situations and aided him in the death struggle off the Solomons when the Japanese kept coming down "the Slot." It was Halsey's brilliant handling of his fleet which caused the impassive Marines, in the words of their commander, General Vandegrift, "to doff their battered steel helmets to the navy." The public does not have quite the right picture of Halsey, just as they had no accurate picture of Dewey or Sims or even Farragut, Jones, or Lawrence. But while in the case of some of our naval leaders of history the retouching hands of time glossed over certain shortcomings, in Halsey's case popular idolation glorified a "shortcoming" which in fact is nonexistent. The public calls him "Bull" Halsey and attributes to him the irrational, unreasonable, swashbuckling acts of his namesake. It is a fact that Halsey was willing to take considerable risks, especially when they involved him, too; but his actions were carefully weighed and minutely planned. What makes these actions appear so improvised in their daring is the facile mind which finds the proper answer instinctively rather than through somewhat slower intellectual processes; and his own confidence in the soundness of his decisions makes him act on them many times as soon as the apparent solution has materialized.

The caution and calculating prudence which are equally inherent in him and emerge whenever the occasion requires were evident a few months later when under the leaded sky of a wet April we escorted the Hornet to launch Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, then a lieutenant colonel, on his epic flight to Tokyo. Although the story of this operation has been told often, its practical significance has never been made clear in the telling.

The sky over Japan was as unknown to us as had been the waters around Wotje. Clever Japanese propaganda had emphasized the tale that air conditions over the islands did not permit operations of aircraft and thereby tried to create the impression that Japan was protected from air offensive against Japan proper by "divine winds" and "divine air pockets." In a sense, therefore, the Doolittle operation was an intelligence mission on the largest practical scale. It was his job to determine air conditions over Japan and answer many questions before an air offensive could be planned on the scale which General Hap Arnold even then had in his mind. From this point of view the Doolittle mission was far more than the morale lifter which it was called. When several years later the first B-29's appeared over Tokyo, then were utilizing the experience and lessons gained under trying circumstances by Doolittle and his fliers.

On our voyage to escort the Hornet to its destination "Shangri-La" the first active cooperation between the Navy and the Air Force bore fruit. It began long before, when the Navy detailed capable young officers as instructors for the Doolittle fliers, teaching them the tricks of take-off from a carrier. While cooperation was complete, an incident toward the end of the joint voyage seemed to leave an unwarranted scar on General Doolittle's memory in so far as the Navy is concerned. It may be remembered that, despite comprehensive precautions to ensure absolute security, Admiral Halsey's force steamed into Japanese waters with its precious load of B-25's and was sighted by a fishing-trawler patrol of the enemy. The encounter demanded quick action. No one could know how much the trawler's crew had seen or whether its radio had reported the sighting to Tokyo. At that time we were operating on a shoestring, and these carriers and cruisers were vital to future offensive operations. We could not possibly risk them, since such risks could have entailed tragic consequences. As subsequent events proved, had we lost any more ships after the tragic encounters in the Macassar Straits, we should not have been able to start and sustain our offensive in the Guadalcanal area---a vital point in our campaign.

It was in this atmosphere of careful calculation that the decision had to be made when the Japanese trawler was sighted: The planes must be launched at once. Here then was what Doolittle probably regarded as the monkey wrench in his minutely prepared plans. We were still a considerable distance from the spot where he had hoped to take off. As a result, while his main mission was successfully executed, the increased length of the flight created insurmountable difficulties for many of his planes in trying to reach a landing point. but the decision of Admiral Halsey could not have been otherwise and it was in such crises that his true greatness became apparent. It was his combination of daring and caution which stood at the cradle of all his victories.

The war was by then, even in its earliest stages, moving toward an unexpected climax. A strange encounter in the Coral Sea revealed to us a new side to Japanese strategy. It revealed that, despite their tremendous initial successes, they were not quite sure of themselves. The Coral Sea battle was fought between two fleets which never saw each other, although Vice Admiral F. J. Fletcher watched on the screen of our radar the Japanese planes being recovered by the carrier. Japanese carriers were deployed beyond the horizon, while our own Lexington also remained out of Japanese sight. The battle was fought out by the planes launched from the respective carriers. It was conclusive only because it stopped the Japanese by their own caution rather than by the effectiveness of our countermeasures. To me this was a significant indication and confirmed my belief that, far from being the daredevils their propaganda represented them to be, the Japanese navy under conditions of near equality moved with caution and uncertainty.

At the same time our continued offensive convinced them that the basic strategic plan on which their grand strategy was based was not working. We were not locked in behind the Dutch Harbor - Midway - Pago Pago line; the life line to Australia was not cut; in fact, we still commanded the sea on the routes to our advanced bases then in the process of preparation under General MacAuthur on Australian, New Caledonian, and New Zealand soil. Admiral Seiichi Ito's caution, which prevented landings on Hawaii in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, had presaged a trend which had proved to be costly; and the war which Japan hoped to win in a blitzkrieg fashion with the first bold stroke developed into a war of attrition, which the Japs dreaded.

It was then that Tokyo decided on another bold venture to remedy the situation by sealing the imaginary line and keeping us east of it. Grandiose plans were drawn up for simultaneous landings on Midway and at Dutch Harbor and then Hawaii, and the transports which failed to sail for Pearl Harbor in December 1941, were now pressed into service against Midway and the Aleutians. America was facing another threat properly recognized by Admiral Nimitz as one equally as dangerous as Pearl Harbor.

It was just such a situation that I had visualized; and the awareness of its possibility had caused me to draw up for the attention of Admiral Nimitz my memorandum of March 17, 1942, which was later made a part of the record of the Congressional Pearl harbor Committee.

In this memorandum I indicated that I felt the local situation as it then existed in Hawaii was an open invitation for the Japanese to return---this time in force and prepared to take the Hawaiian Islands. There were various rumors prevalent which I recognized as typical fifth-column technique; and this, I said, "not only softens up our own people but it is throwing the second generation Japanese into the laps of enemy agents many of whom are still not in custody." At that time only 369 Japanese had been picked up. These were the one considered most dangerous or on whom the records showed something definite, but it was estimated that there were at least 1,000 active agents in the islands. Typical of those still at large was a former waiter at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel whom I saw there for the first time in 1941 when he served me dinner. I was in civilian clothes. During the course of the evening when I tried out my Japanese conversation on him, my host asked the waiter: "Jim, does he speak good Japanese?" Jim replied, "Oh, yes, he speaks excellent Japanese. Hes now a captain, soon to be an admiral."

Early in March 1942 when I checked up on Jim at the hotel, the assistant manager informed me that Jim had left suddenly after the attack and had never come back. Our investigators then found him working at the City Cafe.

This and other conditions increased my concern. There had not been made a house-to-house search for Japanese agents or for weapons in the hands of enemy aliens; only 8 per cent of the radio transmitting sets in houses of Japanese aliens had been collected, although an admonition against use of sending sets had been sent out; no search had been made of isolated areas or ravines for enemy fliers who might have landed; and enemy aliens still had freedom of movement on the edges of Pearl Harbor.

After conferring with several intelligence officers who shared my concern, I decided to report the facts and opinions to my highest superior on the spot, Admiral Nimitz, by speaking to his chief of staff, then Rear Admiral Milo H. Draemel, USN. I told him: "My conversation with you is impelled from a sense of duty because of what I consider a serious situation existing in Hawaii. Once before in such a situation, I gave concrete opinions and advice which apparently could not break through preconceived ideas." This referred to my meeting with Admiral Kimmel and his chief of staff, Captain W. W. Smith, in March 1941, in which I pointed out that the Japanese in the event of hostilities with us would begin them with an air attack on our fleet, on a week end and probably Sunday morning.

After my talk with Admiral Draemel he suggested that I draw up a memorandum for the Commander in Chief so that he could read it and then talk to me regarding it. In this memorandum I documented for the first time the fact of my conversation with Admiral Kimmel and Captain Smith nine months before Pearl Harbor in which I had presented to them my estimate of the situation. Extracts from this previous conversation were included in the memo for Admiral Nimitz for the sole purpose of making him feel that I knew what I was talking about before Pearl Harbor and that I was just as well informed now.

In less than three months just such a situation eventuated and resulted in the Battle of Midway. But for our intelligence work, and the superb performance and sacrifices of our own aircraft torpedo squadrons, who dedicated themselves to history as the first suicide airmen, we would have been confronted with a catastrophe even greater than Pearl Harbor.

I ascertained that Admiral Nimitz had passed my memo around to his staff and that all but two of them felt that I was correct in every detail. The dissenting two had commented: "Selfish interest involved." I took that to mean that certain ones, holdovers from Admiral Kimmel's staff, felt that I was their nemesis unless discredited.

I never ascertained exactly what Admiral Nimitz felt about the memo. He spoke momentarily about it the afternoon before I sailed for "Shangri-La", but his remarks had no bearing on his opinion of its merit. But on the morning of June 6, just after the Battle of Midway, when I had flown into Pearl Harbor, I encountered Admiral Nimitz approaching his headquarters. He crossed the street to intercept me and gave a hearty handshake, his face wreathed in smiles, and I felt that he wanted to say: "Now I know what you meant." He had realized that the Midway action could become a decisive battle of the war, either in the enemy's favor or out own, and he had realized it as soon as his Intelligence reported to him the Japanese plans and intentions. It is beyond the scope of my narrative to analyze the naval leadership in preparing for and executing the Battle of Midway. But it is proper for me to emphasize the decisive contribution which Intelligence made to victory.

Just as the Pearl Harbor disaster was partly due to failure to consider intelligence data in its proper perspective, the great victory at Midway was the triumph of properly recognized intelligence. Even today all that I am ready to disclose is that certain intelligence officers deserve as much credit for the victorious conclusion of the battle as the officers who planned and executed the action, largely on the basis of brilliant intelligence work.

The battle itself not only again revealed to me a series of clues in the field of Japanese psychology, but also manifested the spiritual superiority of our own forces. When long after the battle I read Japanese diaries of men who died on other battlefields after having been compressed like sardines on Japanese transports, ready for the landings on Midway and Hawaii, I fully realized the cycloid traits in the Japanese character. The diaries revealed men who were fully heartened and gloriously ready for still another victory. They disregarded the discomforts of their transport, the hardships of their voyage, and the possibility of imminent death in battle. All this was overshadowed by the imminence of triumph. But as these same men viewed from the distance the deadly clash between their own fliers and ours, as they saw their carriers wrapped in flame and then going down forever, their so-called and much vaunted "spiritual superiority" tuned into distinct psychological inferiority. The entries in the diaries changed rapidly from confidence to hope and from to despair.

It was evident to me that the Japanese were susceptible to psychological influences, no matter how complete and apparently successful their moral training and indoctrination.

In fact, even their combatant ships at Midway did not fight to the last. On one of their carriers was an old acquaintance of mine, my perennial shadow and opponent, Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, suffering the brunt of our attack. This was a climax he did not expect and for which he came completely unprepared. As our heroic aircraft torpedo squadrons conducted one suicidal attack after another in which our best men perished, Yamaguchi gave up the battle even before all his means of resistance were exhausted. He decided for himself that further resistance was impossible, so he prepared to die by the hand of inevitable fate. He called the crew to listen to a farewell address even while the battle was still in progress. He took the men away from their battle stations, just to "banzai" with him and awaited the end in inaction. It was an anticlimactic end to his career, his ultimate failure when the war for which he had so arduously prepared himself and which he had helped to plot became stark reality. To me, the Battle of Midway represented the end of an era which I may call the Yamaguchi era. It was in a sense symbolical. It heralded the end of Japan.

The failure of the Japanese in this battle ushered in a new phase of the war, a phase which was marked by out own deployments and maneuvering for position. The quiet which settled on the waters around Midway was shattered in other regions---around the Solomons when on August 7, 1942, our first expeditionary force of Marines invaded the islands. I was no longer at sea, but watched events from a battle station removed from the actual scenes of combat.

I was ordered to report to Washington, to the Chief of Naval Operations, and arrived in late June for duty in OP-16. This code stood for the Office of Naval Intelligence, and I was to assume the position of deputy directory of Naval Intelligence, with all the responsibilities which the job entailed in wartime. As I prepared myself for the new job, the highest thus far in my career as an intelligence officer, I reviewed the years which were behind me, the years of war between the wars.

I had fought them on many visible and invisible battlefields. They had provided me with thrills and frustrations, with opportunities and disappointments, and had yielded a glorious adventure which was forever implanted in my mind and heart. It had been an uphill fight I had waged, but every minute of it had been worth while if only because it had been a fight. The years had not been wasted. They had been devoted to hard work yielding results in the many improvements and better recognition of intelligence, as was manifested to me when I returned to the third floor of the navy Building to the desk that was to be my bridge for one year.

The war also had taught me many lessons, and I was determined to apply them in practice now that I was given the opportunity. I had one major aim upon assuming my new job: to add brain to the brawn which was then abundantly building in our shipyards and armament factories. Confined to an intellectual field of battle, I was determined to find ways and means by which we could gain victory sooner and more cheaply. In this sphere I recognized the primary task of wartime Intelligence and its great challenge to justify its importance, and indeed, its existence.

Ellis M. Zacharias


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Return to Index

Chapter 22:
The Shooting War Begins

Chapter 23:
Behind the Tragedy of Pearl Harbor

Chapter 24:
The Lessons of Pearl Harbor

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