Summer Reading 2017: A Family Under Fire at the Turning Point of World War II

A gripping story of the search to find the youngest brother of a family whose other sons are also under fire in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War

Credit: Victoria Korzec Photography
2017 Summer Freeman
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

“The Jersey Brothers” is a harrowing true story of a family’s desperate quest to locate their favorite youngest son and kid brother, a supply corps officer listed as missing after the Japanese attacked the U.S. navy yard near Manila. Middle brother Bill, a naval intelligence officer who oversees the secret White House Map Room for President Roosevelt, is entreated by their mother to find Barton and help him. Guilt-ridden over helping Barton obtain the very orders that put him in harm’s way, Bill initiates the search. Benny, the eldest of the three Annapolis-trained brothers, is the anti-aircraft officer on Admiral Halsey’s storied carrier, the USS Enterprise, one of the few Pacific ships to escape annihilation at Pearl Harbor. Benny assists Bill in the search for Barton, even as he and the short-handed Enterprise repeatedly prevail against the Japanese naval juggernaut.  Wounded Barton, meanwhile, has been taken prisoner straight from his Manila hospital cot just weeks after the Japanese attacked the Philippines.

Chapter 11 – MIDWAY

JAPAN’S DECISION TO ATTACK Midway was based on a grand misperception that would ultimately change the course of the Pacific War. The enemy picket boats that Benny Mott had sighted on April 17 never did get the word to their Japanese superiors that the planes over Tokyo had launched from an aircraft carrier. When queried by the press after the attack, President Roosevelt said with a smile that the B-25s had flown from “Shangri-La”— the mythical city in James Hilton’s popular novel Lost Horizon. But the Japanese believed they had launched from Midway, the closest American land base to Japan’s home islands. As a result, Japanese high command decided to revise its war strategy and attack and occupy Midway to prevent future raids on its home soil.

Pearl Harbor mastermind Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had been an early advocate of securing Midway, understanding the power of his adversary. He stood alone among victory disease-ridden commanders in his belief that Japan could succeed against America only if it knocked out its battleship and carrier strength early in the war, before the country’s mighty shipbuilding industry could mobilize to replace them. This would give resource-starved Japan enough time to seize the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya and strengthen its own arsenal before any Allied counterattack.

Only after the humiliating success of Doolittle’s surprise Tokyo raid did Yamamoto’s superiors yield to his imperative that the Japanese attack and occupy Midway Atoll, strategically situated 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu and 2,500 miles east of Japan. Wresting Midway from the Americans, he persuaded, would limit their ability to defend Hawaii, thwart their resistance to Nippon conquests in the entire region, and protect Japan proper. Seizing the objective in an overwhelming surprise attack would further allow the Japanese Navy to annihilate the remainder of the US Pacific Fleet. Under Yamamoto’s ambitious Midway annexation plan, the Pacific Ocean would soon become one large Japanese fishpond.

ON THE COOL SPRING evening of May 26, 1942, Bill Mott stood outside the Oval Office with an urgent intelligence update for Admiral Ernest King, chief of naval operations (CNO). King was behind closed doors with President Roosevelt, a relative rarity. Despite King’s accurate reputation as generally irascible, Bill respected him for his unalterable—if minority— view that America’s interests were best served by allocating more men, money, and materiel to the battle in the Pacific. In a world war in which British and other European interests competed with this priority, the navy’s senior flag officer was consistently obdurate on this point.

To his core, King was suspicious of what he saw as British attempts to divert resources from his ability to fight Japan—not just to save their homeland but also to preserve their colonial holdings in the Pacific. The CNO wasn’t isolated in this opinion: the Allies’ joint South East Asia Command (SEAC) was mordantly nicknamed “Save England’s Asian Colonies” by his sympathizers. King was also well known for his rants against MacArthur, using unprintable adjectives to describe his disgust at the general’s failures in the Philippines as well as his “absurd” demands on the US Navy. Bill didn’t hate that about the CNO, either.

While he waited to speak with Admiral King, Bill chatted with Grace Tully, the president’s secretary, all the while nervously fingering the envelope, stamped “Top Secret,” in his hand. Grace finally told him she would ring the Map Room as soon as King emerged from the Oval Office; their meeting seemed to be taking longer than expected. Still clutching the envelope, Bill retreated down the cavernous West Wing hallway, which was quiet now at the relatively late hour of seven o’clock.

The Map Room was tense, hushed, and smoky. Barely audible above the teletype was the murmur of gathering brass conferring over the same eyes-only document that Bill Mott had presented to them a half hour earlier. The communication was from Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC). It revealed the shattering news that Admiral Halsey was too sick to engage in the “next operation” and had to be practically forced off the Enterprise to be hospitalized at Pearl Harbor, fuming and cursing every step of the way.

To his crew and top Washington brass, the seemingly irreplaceable Halsey was now unable to lead the charge in this next—and most critical— sea battle of the war. The diagnosis was a severe case of dermatitis compounded by exhaustion, for which there was no quick or easy cure. Worse yet, Halsey had apparently decided, with minimal consultation, that a little known rear admiral by the name of Raymond Spruance was to take his place.

Spruance! The news took Bill by surprise. As if Benny and the crew weren’t in enough danger, now subtract the revered, fearless, battle-hardened Halsey and install a cruiser commander—who wasn’t even an aviator and who had never commanded an aircraft carrier? Respected? Yes, but untested, and Spruance had never even seen sea-air battle!

War Secretary Stimson said nothing as he reviewed the onionskin paper containing the news. In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Bill walked along the Pacific wall map and inspected the updates. Not one of the men voiced concern about Spruance, as though to do so would have placed a hex. But the discomfiting news hung in the air as palpably as the layer of smoke from Stimson’s cigarette.

The facts were these: Admiral Halsey had worked with Raymond Spruance—currently in command of a cruiser division—for more than a decade and had tremendous faith in him. Halsey regarded Spruance as a brilliant tactician with a reputation for making quick, masterful, and precise decisions under pressure. Admiral Nimitz also liked and respected Spruance, but, more importantly, he had immeasurable faith in Halsey’s judgment in such matters.

When Admiral King was finally apprised of Spruance’s selection to replace Halsey for the Midway operation, he too concurred. He was certainly not about to challenge either Nimitz or Halsey on the eve of battle, from a distance of six thousand miles. Thus the closed society of top brass had spoken by barely speaking. The selection of Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, cruiser commander, for tactical command of the upcoming Armageddon of the Pacific was not reversible.

ABOARD USS ENTERPRISE, when the ship and air crews learned of Halsey’s illness and the substitution of Spruance, the reaction was seismic. “Spruance! He was against sending Doolittle to Tokyo!” Benny hollered across the wardroom as the men ate dinner. “I know that for a fact.” “He thinks aviators are for the birds, that’s what I heard,” came a reply. “The pilots are mad as hell!”

These and countless other such conversations reverberated throughout Enterprise just hours before the men were to put to sea for certain battle. The crew were stunned and gloomy when they heard about Halsey. Some cursed and fretted, others prayed. With little else to go on in the last six months, they’d placed every ounce of hope, faith, and pride in their feisty and indefatigable admiral. In their heart of hearts, the Enterprise crew was in the fight as much for Halsey as they were for their country. At daybreak on May 28, 1942, Enterprise, Hornet, and a rudely patched up Yorktown slipped from their Pearl Harbor berths, followed by an abbreviated band of weary-looking cruisers and oilers. There was a keen sense among all of them that David was trudging to meet Goliath, though the precise details of their mission had not yet been announced.

Early rumors aboard Enterprise were that they were on their way to repel an all-out Japanese assault—complete with planned troop landings—on the Hawaiian Islands; it was dramatic, if wildly inaccurate. By early morning May 29, however, the convoy was three hundred miles north of the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a distance at growing odds with rumors of a land attack in the other direction. At 0505 that same morning, just after the ships’ sirens wailed general quarters and the men took to their battle stations, a message from Admiral Nimitz was read aloud over the ships’ loudspeakers:

“In the cruise just starting, you will have the opportunity to deal the enemy heavy blows. You have done this before, and I have great confidence in your courage, skill, and ability to strike even harder blows. Good hunting and good luck.”

Then came Captain Murray’s voice: “We have reason to believe the Japanese may attempt to occupy Midway Island. We are, therefore, moving into such position to counter such an attempt should it develop.”
Lastly, the voice of the little-known Admiral Spruance came through: “An attack on Midway Island is expected. Enemy forces include all combatant types, four or five carriers, plus transport and train vessels. If we remain unknown to the enemy, we should be able to flank attack from a position northeast of Midway. Should our carriers become separated by enemy aircraft, they will attempt to maintain visual contact. The successful conclusion of operations now commencing will be of great value to our country.”

Benny leaned back in his seat in the wardroom and let out a long, low whistle. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Four or five carriers and how many escorts? Against what? About two and a half of us?” He turned to face Captain Randall. “I think I’d better go write my mother.”

But since Enterprise had embarked from Pearl, Admiral Raymond Spruance, a wiry, energetic man whose low-key manner belied a hefty intellect and tremendous self-confidence, had paced several miles on Enterprise’s flight deck. Senior officers took turns walking alongside him, briefing Spruance and answering questions. The tenor of these conversations was always the same. They were laser-focused, intense, to the point. Almost like a relay race, when one ambulatory meeting concluded, another officer took his place by the admiral’s side, Spruance’s gait never slowing.

The admiral would question, listen, question, listen, and question some more. He had inherited Halsey’s capable, battle-hardened staff, and in these walking meetings, Spruance processed every detail and committed to memory every critical aspect of the upcoming mission. A strategy was developing in his head.

By the last day of May, Enterprise and Hornet had assumed striking position northeast of Midway—on the flank of the enemy’s anticipated thrust. Submarine reports confirmed that the Japanese attack force was approaching from the northwest, as expected. A low cloud cover and poor visibility so far favored the Japanese, because that made it all the harder for the Midway defenders to spot and repel their approaching ships and planes.

For the first three days of June, Benny slept fitfully. His sole comfort those lonely and anxious nights was that he was moving closer to Barton. He would remind his mother of this because he knew it would comfort her—assuming he survived the next two days.

During that same seventy-two hours, the American force maneuvered continuously to avoid detection, then reversed course to arrive at “Point Luck”—code name for the rendezvous point—on June 4. At 0330 that morning, Enterprise reveille sounded, followed by the loud, clangorous general quarters summoning crew to battle stations. Anticipation coursed through the ship like a high-voltage electrical current. From stem to stern, from flight deck to bridge, in all departments and at all levels, the USS Enterprise prepared for action.

Benny made a final gunnery check at each antiaircraft mount. Guns of every caliber and on every level of the ship, port and starboard, were as ready as they would ever be. Planes were also armed and primed for launch. Together with seventeen-year-old Texas sharpshooter Wayne Barnhill (who’d lied about his age to enlist and serve with his older brother), Benny stood in Sky Control, poised for certain action. Wayne was in charge of the sound-operated telephone used to communicate Benny’s rapid-fire orders to the gunners throughout the carrier during battle.

Wayne’s brother, photographer James ‘ Barney’ Barnhill, set up his action camera on the 0-2 level, halfway down the ship, to capture battle scenes for newsreels to be dispatched to Washington. Though Wayne chose not to speak his mind, he wished his brother would move back from the rail toward the camouflage draping the ship’s side. When Wayne winced for Barney’s safety, Benny understood in a way he could barely express.

Word shot through the ship an hour later that Japanese planes had begun their attack on Midway. The enemy flotilla was two hundred miles northwest of the base and the US convoy the same distance to the northeast. Of the forty-three American planes that launched in the first four hours, only six returned. Forty attacking Zeros had shot the others out of the sky like so many skeet clays. Benny barely took his eyes off the flight deck as the hours ticked away, trying to conceal building unease. The sense of impending disaster pervading Sky Control seemed to confirm the worst-case fears leading up to the Halsey-less mission.

But despite the dearth of returning planes, the American Navy’s luck was about to turn. Enterprise’s flight leader, Lieutenant Wade McClusky, had inadvertently flown off course to find nothing but vacant seas. Disheartened and low on fuel, he prepared to turn his squadron back toward Enterprise when, through a peephole in the clouds, he spied a lone Japanese destroyer heading northeast at flank speed. On a hunch, McClusky ordered his air group to pursue the unsuspecting destroyer instead. Within ten minutes, the hunch paid off. Dead ahead was the entire Japanese striking force, replete with four carriers and a dozen support vessels, including battleships, destroyers, and cruisers.

Benny was so startled to hear McClusky’s voice break radio silence over the crackling ship’s radio that he spilled his coffee all over Wayne Barnhill. He turned the knob just in time to hear McClusky’s staccato delivery of more stunning news: not only had they sighted the Japanese carriers, but their first round of attack planes had just returned from Midway for refueling. Eureka!

Fuel hoses crisscrossed the Japanese carrier decks, and stacks of munitions were piled for reloading in plain view as the Enterprise flight squadron— and, shortly after, Yorktown’s fighters—came hurtling through the clouds. From ten thousand feet, McClusky and his thirty-seven bombers bore down on the Japanese anchorage at a seventy-degree angle. In less than thirty minutes, they had handily sunk two of their four carriers and wiped out half their airpower. Yorktown pilots torpedoed a third carrier. By the time the planes returned to Enterprise, Kaga, Soryu, and Akagi were nosing toward the ocean floor. The fourth and last Japanese carrier, Hiryu, had not been located, but its pilots, seething with revenge, had discovered the American ships’ position northeast of Midway and were heading straight for them.

Although Yorktown and Enterprise were steaming less than six miles apart, Yorktown was closer to the approaching Japanese fighters. Benny watched enemy dive bombers roar toward Yorktown like a swarm of angry bees. Her antiaircraft gunners responded with furious intensity—but their efforts were futile.

With Enterprise beyond gun range, Benny and his megaphone were of no use to Yorktown. He could only watch helplessly from Sky Control as three bombs and two torpedoes all found their deadly marks. Seconds later, Yorktown was belching flames and smoke. Barney Barnhill swept his camera back and forth, back and forth, duty-bound to record the horrific scene. Only a fixed grimace hinted at his internal turmoil while he recorded hundreds of burning sailors jumping into the water. Soon the listing ship’s outline blurred into a fireball after which only an urgent water rescue operation was left to film.

The jubilant return of Enterprise planes to the flight deck was tempered by the grim spectacle. They were soon followed by Yorktown’s fighters— orphaned by the fatal blows to their mother ship. But there was no time for the Yorktown pilots to grieve the certain loss of so many shipmates. Within minutes, they refueled and were again airborne, charging at Hiryu to exact their own revenge. Hiryu soon joined the three other Japanese carriers on the Pacific floor.

FOR BILL MOTT IN the White House Map Room, the suspense—listening moment to moment for the teletype to begin its clicking report of agonizing defeat, failure, and loss—was like waiting for as many pulls on a pistol trigger. The lopsided match between twenty-four American ships and an enemy armada four times that size had him on heart-hammering edge, hour after hour, waiting for Midway’s battle status to come across.

Over the course of the three-day engagement, the crowded Map Room was efficient but hushed. Frequently the only sound that could be heard was the semicircular protractor scratching around a table map dotted with two- and three-inch ships. When the dispatch arrived about the loss of Yorktown—in advance of any news on the fate of the Japanese carriers—Bill braced for the rash of casualty reports.

When word then came through of the Enterprise squadron’s brilliant air strikes and the enormity of enemy losses—and, best of all, that Japanese firepower was eliminated before it could retaliate against Enterprise—Bill joined in the party-like atmosphere that had fully erupted in the Map Room. Similar celebrations were breaking out throughout the War Department and on Capitol Hill. Admiral Spruance was forthwith crowned the navy’s newest wunderkind.

As it turned out, his painstaking preparation, tactical brilliance, and calculated risk of launching all task force planes ahead of schedule to ensure the crucial element of surprise—worked. His strategy not only achieved complete surprise and devastated enemy forces, but also prevented the deadly nighttime counterstrikes at which the Japanese excelled. In a rare moment of cheerful self-deprecation, Admiral King was overheard saying, “I see now that I am only the second-smartest man in the United States Navy!”

The reduction in Japanese naval strength the handicapped US Navy seemed almost too good to be true. Japan had lost four carriers, a heavy cruiser, and well over three hundred aircraft, not to mention its most experienced pilots. The Battle of Midway marked a strategic reversal in the Pacific War; America was now the aggressor, and Japan on the defense.

Admiral Nimitz immediately recalled the remainder of the task force to Pearl Harbor. The mood aboard Enterprise was a strange mix of relief, exhilaration, and mourning. They had won and won big, but had also lost numerous pilots and air crews. They could not even pay last respects on the fantail at a burial at sea service. The airmen had crashed to their Pacific graves without so much as a final salute.

Admiral Spruance came over the loudspeaker and addressed the crew as Enterprise steamed to port: “I wish to express my admiration and commendation to every officer and man of the Enterprise and especially to the pilots and gunners for their splendid performance . . . The personnel losses are most regretted, but it is felt that these gallant men contributed materially in striking a decisive blow against the enemy.”

Congratulatory messages poured in over the ship’s radio – from President Roosevelt and Allied commands and officials from around the globe. There was also an awkwardly translated and wildly inaccurate report from Radio Tokyo, claiming victory for Japan’s navy: “Japan’s forces carried out fierce attacks on Midway Island, inflicting heavy damage on fleet reinforcements in that area, also damaging naval and air installations  .  .  . Japanese sank carrier Enterprise and Hornet and shot down one hundred twenty enemy aircraft.” Benny allowed a wide grin as he listened to the message.

This was the second time the Japanese had reported sinking the Enterprise: the first was after the Gilbert and Marshall Islands raid in February. When the translation was read gleefully over the ship’s loudspeakers, crew on every level stamped their feet approvingly. It was getting to be a good omen. Admiral Halsey’s sobriquet for his beloved flagship, the Galloping Ghost of the Oahu Coast, had been well earned.

On the afternoon of June 13, 1942, every sailor at Pearl Harbor lined the docks to welcome Enterprise home. Deafening cheers and waving flags greeted the task force as it approached. The beginning of a forty-eight-hour congratulatory liberty found Benny and hundreds of other boisterous celebrants crowding the bar at the Royal Hawaiian. None of them paid for their own drinks that night. Over the ukuleles, laughing, and back slapping, one comment made the rounds countless times: “That Spruance! Brilliant, by God, brilliant!”

From THE JERSEY BROTHERS by Sally Mott Freeman. Copyright © 2017 by SMF Productions, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This book is available on Amazon.

Read more excerpts in the 2017 Summer Reading series.