|In Bello Parvis Momentis Magni
by Larry Parker
In Bello Parvis Momentis Magni Casus Intercedunt
In war great events are the results of small causes.
History is replete with examples of Caesar's observation drawn from his
experience in the Gallic Wars. While inspecting General Bank's army at
Carrollton 04 September 1863 General Grant was given a large, nervous horse to
ride for the pass in review ceremony. In his Personal Memoirs Grant
recounts, "The horse I rode was vicious and but little used, and on my return
to New Orleans ran away and, shying at a locomotive, fell, probably on me."
Grant lay insensible in a nearby hotel for over a week and was on crutches for
two months afterward. Imagine the American Civil War fought without Ulysses S.
Grant, thrown from his horse and killed two months after the fall of Vicksburg.
Consider the case of Premier Canovas of Spain, a strong leader whose policies
might have suppressed the growing insurrection in Cuba. Assassinated in 1897 by
Miguel Angiolillo, an obscure Italian anarchist long since forgotten to
history, the Cuban rebellion escalated into the Spanish-American war one year
later. San Juan Hill launched the career of Theodore Roosevelt who succeeded to
the Presidency when yet another anarchist assassinated William McKinley. No
Miguel Angiolillo, no Spanish-American war, no San Juan Hill, no Teddy
Roosevelt presidency, no Bull Moose Party to split the Republican Party and,
consequently, Woodrow Wilson loses in 1912, altering the course of World War I.
Such are the fragile elements of chance, Caesar's 'small causes', which
influence great events. These 'small causes' are one of the more intriguing
aspects in the study of history. Given the scope of World War II such incidents
are quite numerous, the ramifications particularly noteworthy and the
implications especially interesting.
"I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have
utterly no confidence for the second and third years."
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
Imperial Japanese Navy
Admiral Yamamoto's prediction proved remarkably prescient. Three days short of
six months after Japan's incomplete but nonetheless stunning victory at Pearl
Harbor the American navy decisively defeated the Imperial fleet at Midway.
Phase One of the Pacific War, the Japanese Blitzkrieg, ended and Phase Two, the
build up for an Allied counter offensive, began. At this point, when the
fortunes of war turned, this paper will examine several seemingly insignificant
incidents, which greatly influenced actions at Pearl Harbor, Midway and
consequently, the war's eventual outcome.
Pearl Harbor, 07 December 1941
Fleet exercises conducted in 1928, 1932 and 1938 thoroughly demonstrated the
vulnerability of Pearl Harbor to attack by carrier borne aircraft. Ignoring the
results of those war games, disregarding repeated (albeit conflicting and
confusing) warnings from Washington D. C., and displaying a remarkable lack of
caution for a senior naval officer, Admiral Kimmel, Commander in Chief Pacific
(CINCPAC) did nothing to ensure the security of the American Pacific fleet
moored at Pearl Harbor. Misplacing his confidence in Lieutenant General Short,
Commander Hawaiian Department, charged with the land and air defense of Hawaii
and abrogating his responsibilities to Rear Admiral Bloch, Commandant of the
14th Naval District, tasked with the naval defense of Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel
invited disaster upon the Pacific fleet. As a result of his inaction, as enemy
planes approached, American sailors were complacently enjoying Condition Four,
holiday routine on that notorious Sunday morning. Admiral Kimmel did, however,
take steps to reinforce the garrisons at Wake Island and Midway. These actions,
the first of many 'small causes' would alter the course of the Pacific war.
On 01 December Admiral Kimmel ordered a squadron of Marine fighter planes
transported to Wake Island via USS Enterprise. These were followed on
05 December by another squadron embarked upon USS Lexington bound for
Midway. By chance USS Saratoga was in port on the west coast as the 'day of
infamy' dawned. Accordingly these three warships with their cruiser and
destroyer escorts were spared the carnage visited upon the remainder of the
Pacific fleet by Admiral Nagumo's first wave of 140 bombers and 50 fighters and
second wave of 132 bombers and 81 fighters. The consequences of Admiral
Kimmel's inaction are well documented. The results of his move to protect Wake
Island and Midway are threefold:
• Overly concerned with the location of the American carriers Admiral Nagumo
adamantly disapproved the third strike ardently requested by Commanders Fuchida
and Genda. Such a strike against the fuel tank farms, repair facilities, sub
pens and remaining surface ships would have truly crippled the American fleet
setting back any possibility of a counter offensive for at least a year or
more. Given additional time to prepare, the bloody island hopping campaigns of
1942 -1945 would have been even more costly in time, manpower and materiel. It
is ironic Admiral Nagumo did not display the same concern for American carriers
at Midway six months later.
• Prior to World War II many of America's senior admirals stubbornly clung to
the unfulfilled promise of Jutland – decisive battle at sea whose outcome hung
on weight of shell and depth of armor plate. The loss of America's battleships
forced even her most hidebound admirals to accept and utilize the aircraft
carrier as the dominant surface warship it truly was.
• War Plan Orange and its successor Rainbow 3 called for immediate relief of
the Philippines by the navy in the event of a war with Japan. Charging into the
guns of the Imperial fleet reinforced by carrier assets and supplemented by
land based air support invited disaster worse than Pearl Harbor. The loss of
America's battleships forced a revision of those war plans to suit remaining
assets, namely the carriers Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga
. The resultant strategy was not only more prudent but also took advantage of
America's overwhelming industrial superiority and proved more cost effective in
the long term.
Midway, 04 June 1942
The Japanese were quick to exploit their tactical success at Pearl Harbor.
Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Burma rapidly
fell to combined army and navy forces in a Japanese blitzkrieg across the
Pacific. At this point most Japanese admirals argued for a concerted push
toward Port Moresby, Papua to complete the conquest of New Guinea, combined
with a continued drive to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands to seize control of the
Coral Sea region. Capture of these critical areas would isolate Australia and,
quite possibly, lure the remnants of the American navy to its destruction
leaving Hawaii, Midway and the Aleutian Islands vulnerable.
On 18 April 1942 American audacity changed everything. The Doolittle raid on
Tokyo humiliated the Imperial Army and Navy causing grave loss of face. While
tactically insignificant those sixteen B25 twin engine bombers flown from the
aptly named carrier Hornet stung the Japanese psyche, and radically
altering Japanese strategy, focused complete attention on Midway, the perceived
weak link in the Empire's defensive perimeter.
Overriding all opposition with his tremendous prestige, Admiral Yamamoto pushed
forward a convoluted plan calculated to finish the destruction of the American
fleet begun at Pearl Harbor. Practically every unit in the Imperial fleet
(sixteen submarines, seven aircraft carriers, eleven battleships, ten cruisers,
sixty destroyers, eighteen troop transports, five seaplane carriers and four
minesweepers) played a part in Yamamoto's master stratagem. Designed to deceive
and confuse the Americans, luring her carriers into an enormous trap,
Yamamoto's plan took into account every contingency except American
intelligence capabilities, a daring counter move by Admiral Nimitz and the
element of chance - what Clausewitz called the "friction" of war and others
term fate or the fortunes of war. The primary objective, destruction of the
American carriers, got lost as the grandiose scheme evolved. Disregarding the
basic principles of war Yamamoto divided his enormous fleet into five separate
forces. The Midway Occupation Force was further subdivided into five distinct
groups. Sailing independently none of these forces or groups could adequately
support the others. J. F. C. Fuller aptly describes Yamamoto's strategic
concept with this analysis, "This plan was radically unsound and the
distribution of forces was deplorable. Both were complex; the aim was confused
and the principle of concentration ignored."
Even so, even taking into account the intelligence gathered through
cryptographic analysis and subsequent American preparations, Yamamoto's Carrier
Striking Force consisting of four aircraft carriers, two battleships, two
cruisers and twelve destroyers under the command of Admiral Nagumo should have
been more than a match for the American fleet lurking northwest of Midway. At
this point in the war the United States could muster only three carriers, seven
cruisers and fourteen destroyers for this crucial battle against the
approaching Japanese armada.
At 0430 Nagumo's Carrier Striking Force turned into the wind, launching the
first wave of fighters and bombers against Midway. Search planes from the
carriers Akagi and Kaga as well as seaplanes from the
battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma
immediately followed seeking the American fleet. Completed in 1938 and 1939
respectively, Tone and Chikuma were Japan's latest, most
modern cruiser design. Measuring 650 X 61 X 21 feet and displacing 15,200 tons,
they carried eight 8-inch guns in four turrets forward, eight 5-inch guns in
secondary batteries amidships, up to fifty-seven 25mm antiaircraft guns and
twelve 24-inch torpedo tubes. Purpose built for scouting operations, the after
decks were fitted with catapults, cranes and facilities for five seaplanes.
Ideal reconnaissance platforms Tone and Chikuma were give the
center lanes of the planned search pattern.
As it had at Pearl Harbor however, Caesar's 'small causes' intervened once
again. The catapult aboard Tone malfunctioned delaying the launch of
its aircraft until 0500. Engine trouble also prevented the Chikuma from
launching her seaplane as scheduled. Its planned flight path would have taken
it directly over the American carriers a scant 215 miles away but further
engine trouble caused it to turn back early. Consequently it was not until 0820
that Nagumo received confirmation of the presence and location of the American
carriers from Tone's aircraft. By then it was too late. American
torpedo planes and dive-bombers were already inbound.
Although the American torpedo planes were ineffective, their near suicidal
attack prevented the Japanese carriers from launching additional planes and
drew fighter cover down to sea level setting up the Akagi, Kaga,
Soryu and Hiryu for the follow on dive bombers. Poor
operational planning by Yamamoto, engine trouble on the Chikuma's aircraft,
a catapult malfunction onboard the Tone and a series of poor tactical
decisions by Nagumo doomed the Japanese Carrier Strike Force. Decks crowded
with planes, fuel and ordnance, the flagships of the Imperial Fleet were soon
flaming wrecks. 300 miles astern with the main body consisting of three
battleships, one carrier, two seaplane carriers and twelve destroyers Yamamoto
could do nothing to avert or avenge the disaster.
In exchange for the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann
American forces sank all four carriers of Nagumo's Striking Force as well as
the heavy cruiser Mikuma. Badly damaged, the cruiser Mogami spent
the next year in Truk undergoing repairs. More importantly the Japanese lost
their best naval pilots and most experienced aircrews. This was a loss from
which they would never recover. Midway ended the Japanese threat to Hawaii and
Australia. The initiative in the Pacific now passed to the Allies and was never
seriously challenged again.
Thanks to a series of events, great and small, six months after Pearl Harbor
the United States Navy devastated the Imperial Fleet at Midway halting Japanese
expansion and restoring the balance of power in the Pacific. To drive the
fanatical and tenacious Japanese back to the Home Islands required another
three years of bloody combat under some of the worst conditions in military
history. After Midway however, the issue was never really in doubt.
Copyright © 2005 Larry Parker
Written by Larry Parker. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Larry Parker at:
About the Author:
Lieutenant Commander Larry Parker, United States Navy, served as a Surface Warfare Officer, with afloat tours onboard USS De Wert (FFG-45) as
Ordnance & Fire Control Officer, USS Portland (LSD-37) as First Lieutenant, and USS Butte (AE-27) as Operations Officer.
Rotations ashore included Navy Reserve Center Cheyenne, Navy & Marine Corps Reserve Center Denver and Navy Reserve Readiness
Command Region 16 Minneapolis. He retired in July 2000 and taught Navy Junior ROTC until June 2011. LCDR Parker holds a Bachelor's
degree in English and History from the University of Kansas and a Master's degree in Military Studies - Land Warfare from American Military University.
In his free time LCDR Parker pursues a lifelong passion for military history. His articles are the result of extensive research and personal
experience in surface warfare, fleet logistics and amphibious operations.
Published online: 05/01/2005.