WW II: Selfless Acts, Crucial Results

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No one wants war. When economic, diplomatic, territorial or political/religious relationships have deteriorated to the point that the opposing sides feel there is nothing to be gained from continued negotiation and they resort to armed conflict, everyone loses. Yes, there are instances when war is necessary, when it happens for “good” reasons (Can anyone say that the West’s military efforts to stop Hitler’s reign of terror and his crimes against humanity in the 1940’s was anything other than completely justified? Of course not.), but even in those instances, it would have been far better if the sides could have resolved their differences without bloodshed and widespread destruction of property.

However, whether fought for good reasons or not, war is a constant throughout human history. And in the strategizing and actual execution of military action, multiple instances of incredible personal bravery and technological innovation abound. Let’s look more closely at two events in World War II that epitomize this kind of personal initiative and ingenious problem solving.

The Dam Busters Raid, May 16-17, 1943

The incredible mission of May 16-17, 1943 to destroy the dams and hydroelectric plants in the German industrial Ruhr Valley was certainly among the most daring and memorable undertakings of the war. Although officially known as Operation Chastise, this has since come to be known simply as “The Dam Busters” raid. In World War II, Germany had a highly-developed and extremely efficient industrial manufacturing capability. Their armaments — planes, tanks, firearms, etc. — were extremely sophisticated and built in modern plants to unerringly precise tolerances. And despite Germany’s relatively modest size as a country, its industrial capacity enabled it to manufacture huge quantities of these weapons. As late as 1944 — a mere six months before Germany surrendered in May of 1945, ending the war in Europe — it produced over 13,000 fighter aircraft, more than it had in any other year of the war. Such was the astounding productivity of its remarkable industrial sector.

Therefore, it was well known to Allied war planners that finding a way to deliver a crippling blow to German manufacturing was critically important. The British devised a plan to attack three dams in the Ruhr River Valley — the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe. These dams not only protected several important factories from the rivers’ waters, but they were also important hydroelectric producers, supplying vital electricity to the area’s factories and populated environs.

The Germans were well aware that these dams were tempting targets and so they were defended by extensive heavy-duty torpedo nets well out in front of the dams, in order to foil any attempted attack using conventional torpedoes intended to strike the dam. In addition to the torpedo netting, the dams were ringed by heavy anti-aircraft cannon (“flak”) that could wreak havoc with any slow, low-flying attack planes that made a run at the dams.

However, the British, displaying amazing ingenuity, came up with a one-of-a-kind solution to the problem: the “bouncing bomb.” They used specially-modified Avro Lancaster 4-engined bombers to carry a cylindrical bomb — it actually looked like a depth charge that might be fired off a destroyer at sea while on an anti-submarine mission — that would be released from a very specific height, given a backwards spinning rotation, and thus skip over the surface of the water in the exact manner that a youngster might skip a pebble across the water at the beach. This skipping/bouncing action would enable the bomb to jump right over the defensive torpedo nets, strike the front surface of the dam, sink to the bottom and then explode at the base of the dam, causing catastrophic structural damage resulting in a fatal breach.

That was the plan. Although the bomb itself worked exactly as intended, lining the planes up for their bombing runs at exactly the correct height and speed and timing the bomb’s release at precisely the right moment proved incredibly difficult in the limited nighttime visibility, under withering German defensive anti-aircraft fire. The skill, courage and cool under fire displayed by those British airmen is almost without parallel in wartime aviation history.

Of the 19 Lancaster bombers dispatched, only 11 actually succeeded in attacking their targets and of those only seven stuck the target. Three of the strikes caused major damage, with both the Möhne and Eder dams suffering complete breaches. The resulting floods destroyed several factories, hydroelectric plants, roads, bridges and trains behind the dams. Casualties were heavy and production was seriously curtailed for several months. The seeming success of the mission came at high cost, however: Eight of the 19 Lancasters were lost either to enemy fire or flying mishap, with a loss of 53 British airmen killed and three taken prisoner.

The interception of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, April 18, 1943

Yamamoto was the commanding Japanese officer of Japan’s successful attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, marking America’s entrance into World War II. An experienced and highly respected naval tactician, Yamamoto achieved complete surprise on that Sunday morning attack, sinking or crippling every American battleship moored in the harbor, destroying almost 200 U.S. planes on the ground and killing more than 2,300 American servicemen and civilians. It was arguably the most destructive surprise naval air attack in history.

Military analysts can look back and question Yamamoto’s failure to follow up with a second strike later that day when the American carriers returned to port, or second-guess his overly complicated Midway campaign that ended in disaster for the Japanese six months later in June 1942. Nonetheless, the Japanese people revered Yamamoto as a hero, and he was a high visibility target to the Americans. If they could “get” Yamamoto, it would be a huge morale booster and PR coup for the Americans.

Following Japan’s defeat in the bitterly contested Guadalcanal campaign in early 1943 — a five-month back-and-forth siege that saw both sides suffer horrendous losses — Yamamoto had a plan to reverse Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific and stem the tide of American victories. In April 1943, he began what was known as Operation I-Go, a series of aerial strikes against Allied ships, aircraft and land installations, with the goal of stopping Allied offensive momentum and giving the Japanese the time they needed to consolidate their resources and plan for a counter-strike. On April 18, Yamamoto was scheduled to personally inspect participating Japanese forces in the area and he planned a flight from the island of Rabaul to the island of Balalae in the Solomon Islands. A personal visit from the legendary Yamamoto would certainly raise the morale of the Japanese airmen and inspire them for the difficult task they faced.

However, unbeknownst to the Japanese, American intelligence had cracked the Japanese naval code and Yamamoto’s secret plans were known in detail well in advance. The Americans used P-38 Lightning twin-engined fighters — the only American fighter plane that had the requisite 1000+ mile range needed for the mission. Knowing the exact timing and route of Yamamoto’s mission (Yamamoto was well known for his fastidious punctuality), the Americans took off and intercepted his flight with perfect accuracy, just as the Japanese planes were descending for their landing and at their most vulnerable. Yamamoto was in a twin-engined medium bomber, escorted by a number of deadly Japanese “Zero” fighter planes; his Chief of Staff rode in a second bomber.

The P-38s jumped on the Japanese planes with complete surprise. Both bombers were shot down and Admiral Yamamoto was confirmed killed. Two Japanese Zero fighters were also claimed to have been shot down; one American P-38 was lost. Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr. is often credited with shooting down Yamamoto’s plane, although that has come under some question in the ensuing years, with Lt. Rex Barber receiving credible support for his claim of victory.

Regardless of the actual shooter, the Yamamoto mission was one of aviation history’s most extraordinary accomplishments: timed to perfection against incredible odds, flying at extreme range over the vast expanse of unfamiliar ocean using aircraft and navigation equipment that is absolutely archaic by today’s standards. It’s difficult to put into words how unlikely a successful interception was. The fuel demands for the mission were so great and calculated to such a fine edge that the returning P-38s had mere minutes’ worth of fuel remaining. If the actual air-to-air combat had lasted longer, the American pilots would have all had to ditch into the sea with empty tanks. They knew this going into the mission, yet they all went without hesitation.

For several weeks after the successful interception, American P-38s continued to patrol the area, in order to give the Japanese the impression that the mission was merely a routine patrol and not the result of the Americans having cracked their secret code.

(Ironically, April 18, 1943 was the exact one-year anniversary of the famed “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, which took place on April 18, 1942.)

Who are these people, who can perform such astonishing feats? Mankind is indeed fortunate to produce these amazing, selfless individuals, willing to carry out such dangerous missions for the greater good. Their efforts redound to the benefit of civilization everywhere and make our world a better place.

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