9. The Mistake That Handed America a Great Victory
History’s biggest naval engagement was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23 – 26, 1944. During the battle, American defenders showed sublime courage and committed heroic acts of self sacrifice. Nonetheless, Leyte Gulf would have ended in an American disaster if not for a crucial mistake by the Japanese commander, who ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The battle was the culmination of a complex Japanese plan, featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions. Collectively, they were intended to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. At that point, a powerful Japanese naval force would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf, and devastate the Americans there.
8. Leyte Gulf Started Great For the Japanese, and Looked Super Dicey for the US
The Japanese deception plan actually worked. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as decoys for Admiral William F. Halsey, whose powerful 3rd Fleet was guarding the amphibious landings at Leyte. Halsey took the bait and steamed off with his powerful fleet to sink them, without telling anybody. He left behind a small force of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties, and which had had little in the way of anti-ship weapons.
While Halsey was off chasing the Japanese decoys, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf. It steamed towards the American landing sites, under the command of admiral Kurita. The Americans were caught by surprise, as it was assumed that Halsey was in the north guarding against attack from that direction.
7. The Tiny Force Between the Japanese and Victory
The only thing standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was an underwhelming collection of escort carriers and destroyer escorts. The northernmost American contingent, which first came in contact with the Japanese, was known as “Taffy 3”. It consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, under the command of rear admiral Clifton Sprague.
Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5 inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte. So Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge.
The American “tin can” destroyers’ desperate attacks at Leyte Gulf were supported by planes flown from escort carriers, which made strafing attacks, or dropped high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When the American planes ran out of ammunition, they continued to brave Japanese antiaircraft fire by making dry strafing and bombing runs, just to discomfit the enemy.
So reckless and incessant were those gadfly attacks that the Japanese admiral lost his nerve. Kurita convinced himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. So Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp had he simply steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away. In so doing, he gifted the Americans in Leyte Gulf with a miraculous reprieve.
Failing to correctly set the time, like when daylight savings come around or roll away, can lead to minor inconveniences, say, showing up for work an hour late or an hour early. Failing to correctly set the time when there’s fighting to do, however, can lead to disaster. Such was the case in the spring of 1961, as American-trained Cuban exiles readied themselves to overthrow Fidel Castro.
The Cuban exiles were convinced – or more accurately, they convinced themselves – that when they landed in Cuba, they would be supported by the US Air Force, with the US Marines right behind them. The aerial cover actually promised the Cuban exiles by the CIA was support from 16 WWII era B-26 medium bombers, flying out of bases in Nicaragua. However, that number was halved to 8 bombers when the new president, JFK, insisted that the operation be kept minimal.
4. Failure to Account For Time Zones Drives the Final Nail Into a Doomed Endeavor’s Coffin
On April 17th, 1961, Cuban exiles landed on the Bay of Pigs, but the 8 B-26s turned out to be woefully inadequate support. Pinned down, with their backs to the sea, no means of retreat, and no chance of advancing into Cuba’s interior, the invaders were cut to pieces. The invasion had failed, but on the following day, JFK made a final gesture. With Castro’s forces now on full alert, any followup strikes by the B-26s would require fighter protection.
So the president authorized 6 fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Essex to fly cover over the Bay of Pigs for an hour on April 18th, to protect the B-26s as they carried out another strike. However, the invasion, which had already gone from failure to fiasco, was destined to conclude with a farce. The rendezvous between the carrier jets and the B-26s was missed, because the Pentagon had failed to factor in the one hour time zone difference between the bombers’ base in Nicaragua and Cuba.
3. A Simple Error Led to America’s Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan
America is the only country to have ever used atomic weapons in war, and it all might have been the result of a misunderstanding. There is a myth that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have been true if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
At war’s end Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a brutal occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and treated t hem barbarically.
2. Japanese Intransigence Sets The Stage for a Tragic Mistake
Every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. In the meantime the Japanese government, run by militarists hopped up on bushido and machismo, vowed to fight to the end. So America correctly saw Japan as a formidable foe that was inflicting significant harm every day, and that would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.
In short, Japan was a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.
It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.
The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. That Japanese word meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language, in which the same word could convey various meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading