For That One Day

Author: Mitsuo Fuchida
NOTES: 316 pages, ISBN 0984674500

As often as I can manage, I lay down my academic mortarboard to read a text about military history. When possible, I favor primary texts such as Saburo Sakai's Samurai. The Pacific War holds a particular fascination in our family, as a Bronze-Star posthumously arrived for an uncle who did not return from Okinawa.

Lately my reading has been For That One Day, by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, whose planning made the Pearl Harbor attack so devastating. Of particular interest to me was how he honed the torpedo-bomber squadrons to deal with a shallow harbor, a plan that involved changing the ways torpedoes operated and how pilots made their attack runs.

Commander Fuchida focuses on events where he was present or he helped plan. Thus the last gasps at sea off Okinawa, as well as Coral Sea and the back-alley brawls in Ironbottom Sound, do not get a lot of coverage. He does, however, give us an intimate glimpse at what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he was on the ground in both cities the day after they were bombed. In a twist that he later saw as divinely ordained, he left Hiroshima the day before it got obliterated. When the government sent him to conduct a damage assessment, he found not a "splinter" of his hotel remaining.

As we might expect, the atomic bombings continue to stir passions around the world. Fuchida's account adds to the debate by showing how confusing the situation was after Hiroshima; the government frantically gathered information, but Fuchida had barely reported when news of Nagasaki arrived. This casts a shadow over claims made by professional historians, including in Richard Frank's magisterial Downfall, about Japanese intransigence when faced with evidence of an atomic attack. I have concluded that we may never know why Japan hesitated to surrender. No one seems to have had enough authority to place evidence swiftly before Emperor Hirohito.

As Fuchida documents, he was quite active in preparing for MacArthur's occupation after the Emperor asked the Japanese people to face "enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable." When Navy fliers attempted a coup at Atsugi air base, Fuchida personally apprehended the base commander, an old friend from the Academy, sending him for treatment at a mental hospital. In true Samurai style, however, Fuchida had arrived ready to challenge his friend to a sword-duel.

In terms of scope, the book covers Fuchida's life from entering the Naval Academy to his conversion to Christianity and beyond, but to me the fascinating parts involved his first-hand experiences aboard Akagi and in Japan once the tide had turned after Midway. He uses memoirs of famous officers such as Admiral Kurita to debunk a few myths. While modelers won't get scale plans or color plates, they will learn a great deal about the increasingly desperate situation Japan faced from 1943 onward. One lesson this modeler learned: never build any carrier-based attack planes from the decoy force that lured Halsey into the Battle of the Cape Engaņo. Fuchida notes that only Zuikaku carried planes, all of them scouts; here and elsewhere, he corrects those he calls "amateur historians" who claim otherwise.

Fuchida implicates the Admiralty of the Imperial Japanese Navy as "mediocre," including Isoroku Yamamoto, who gets singled out for a great deal of blame for Japan's defeat. In a chapter entitled "Guts," Commander Fuchida lays out the reasons, ones he notes earlier: the doctrine of Big Ship / Big Gun that led Japan to the impressive but finally doomed Yamato and Musashi, instead of the carrier task-forces they could and, for Fuchida, should have built (and the US Navy did build). The leader he hoped for to lead such an aviation-focused Imperial Navy, Rear Admiral Yamaguchi, chose to go down with his carrier, Hiryu, at Midway.

Of special interest to me was Fuchida's honest critique of the Midway operation, which he felt should have instead been directed at severing Australia's link to the United States. He likewise felt that the Navy's earlier foray into the Indian Ocean against the Royal Navy wasted precious initiative. He instead longed for a task-force attack on Hawaii or the US West Coast to lure out the American carriers.

He was correct. Personally, I'm glad no one heeded him.

Admiral Nagumo's refusal to launch a follow-up third wave at Pearl Harbor gets close analysis by the author, who finds that given the uncertainty about the location of the US carriers, pulling back made sense. Later in the book, however, Fuchida critiques the decision on different grounds: namely, that he felt the Americans were completely at the mercy of the strike force from Japan, and another round of attacks might have ended the war then and there. We will, mercifully, never know. There's no mention of him and Minoru Genda begging Nagumo for a third strike. It may have happened, but Fuchida does not mention it.

As with Pearl Harbor and Midway, Admiral Kurita's decision to break off contact during the Battle of Leyte Gulf gets good coverage. Kurita's own memoirs get cited for his belief that destroying transports would not have ended the war; he was after a decisive battle with the US battle-line, something that had eluded the IJN for two years, and which, until Leyte and despite the supremacy of carrier-based airpower, remained the core of Japan's military strategy.

I do not have a sense of Fuchida grinding any axes here; his prose is lucid, at times regretful, at others apologetic for his nation's militarism. In any case, I recommend this book's coverage of Japan's naval strategy without reservation; others will find of more interest than I the author's conversion narrative after a postwar encounter with a Doolittle raider.

Get yourself a copy to understand what a young officer with a lot of influence, but not enough to alter the war's trajectory, thought.

Joe Essid

April 2023

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