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A great deal rode on this battle, shaped so profoundly by resourcefulness, ingenuity, sacrificial bravery, chance and unexpected turns of fate such that the battle’s outcome might have been diametrically opposite.
Fought over three days, Midway’s decisive moment actually encompassed a mere few minutes in which the fortunes of Imperial Japan and the United States it had assaulted six months earlier at Pearl Harbor were reversed. The all-conquering Japanese, who in those six months had swept through south-east Asia and the western Pacific like a juggernaut, were spectacularly brought to heel. From that day on, the path ahead would be horrific and tortuous, but Japan’s defeat was assured.
Why assured? The Japanese ambition to knock the U.S. out of the Pacific and establish a “Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” – a Japanese empire free of Western influence – always partook of lunacy: the massive industrial might of the U.S. and its ability to husband enormous resources should have foretold Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s regime that, no matter how stunning and destructive the first, Samurai-like blow inflicted on the Americans, the U.S. would in time recover and overwhelm it with outraged and righteous might. Yet, the awareness in Tokyo of American might (Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, had spent years in America and seen with his own eyes the dreaded portent of Japan’s fate contained in the gigantic factories of Detroit) only gave the spur to exaggerated Japanese reliance on knock-out blows. And the great intended knock-out blow at Pearl Harbor – which did indeed eliminate for a time the U.S. Navy’s arsenal of battleships – fatefully missed the most important targets of all: the three American aircraft carriers in the Pacific at the time: Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga. All three were at sea when Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s Kido Butai, the 1st Carrier Fleet, a strike force of six carriers – the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku – unleashed their destructive power on December 7, 1941.
The Imperial Japanese Navy possessed a fleet of ten carriers (as against Britain’s eight and the U.S.’s seven), wielding an armada of the best carrier-based aircraft: Zero fighters, Val dive-bombers and Kate torpedo bombers, the latter also adaptable to level attack bombing. They had also unmatched experience and an unbroken string of victories which continued to grow after Pearl Harbor. Only at the Coral Sea, during May 4-8, 1942, were the Japanese checked when the U.S. carriers Lexington and Yorktown harried the Japanese invasion force heading for New Guinea’s Port Moresby, sinking the light carrier Shoho and damaging the Shokaku. The Japanese recalled the invasion force and the Americans registered their first strategic victory in the Pacific. But the victory was not a tactical one: the U.S. had suffered more in the fight, losing the Lexington, while the Yorktown, flagship of Rear-Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, suffered extensive damage. It limped back across the Pacific to Pearl Harbor, steaming into port on May 27, 1942, requiring an estimated three months’ repair job.
But by then, a major Japanese attack was imminent. The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, had the advantage of a first-rate team of decoders, led by Joseph J. Rochefort, who had broken the Japanese naval cipher. They thus ascertained that a Japanese attack was scheduled for June 4. The only outstanding question was the scene of the intended assault: the Japanese were using a special letter code to identify place names, and the letters “AF,” denoting the scene of the intended attack, meant nothing to them. Rochefort devised a stratagem to identify AF. Logic dictated that the Japanese seize Midway, a 2.4 square mile atoll in mid-ocean, a vital American air field and refueling point whose capture would endanger the Hawaiian islands. So a false message was duly transmitted from Midway that its water distillation system was malfunctioning, depriving the atoll of vital water. The Japanese took the bait, in turn transmitting in the code Rochefort and his team could read that that “AF” lacked water.
After that, the Americans enjoyed the massive advantage of knowing the time and place of Nagumo’s assault. For that reason, diversionary Japanese feints – like an assault on Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska – did not distract the Americans. To that, the Americans added several advantages while the Japanese handicapped themselves. At Pearl Harbor, the Yorktown was repaired and returned to service, not in three months, but in three days, using 1,200 technicians around the clock, many still on board when Fletcher’s Task Force 17 set out to find the Japanese on May 30. No more timely and vital repair job was performed in the war.
In contrast, the Japanese went into battle without the Shokaku, which, like the Yorktown, required extensive repairs, and the Zuikaku, whose air group had been depleted at the Coral Sea. Perversely, the Japanese had ceased production of their Kate torpedo bombers and reduced production of their Val dive bombers just when both were needed most. In contrast, the Americans were working feverishly to mass produce aircraft of all types, including new models to replace aging carrier aircraft. The new Avenger torpedo bombers destined for their carriers arrived at Pearl Harbor one day after the carriers had sailed, meaning that the fateful attack of American torpedo bombers on Nagumo’s fleet were carried out by the slow, obsolete Devastators. But unlike the Japanese, the American ships had a full complement of aircraft.
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