70 Years Since We Won the Battle of Midway

Remembering profound American courage and resourcefulness.

It was this week, seventy years go, that the battle of Midway - by common consent, one of the three most decisive battles of the Second World War - took place.

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.

Accordingly, the readiness of Fletcher’s Task Force 17 and Rear-Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Task Force 16 (Enterprise, Hornet) meant that the Americans were ready to deploy three carriers against Nagumo’s four: Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu. Had it been the Japanese rather than the Americans that had shown such adaptiveness and energy, the Japanese might have deployed six carriers against’s Nimitz’s two. Moreover, the Americans devoted extraordinary efforts to reconnaissance flights to locate the Japanese and were rewarded for their labor. The Japanese failed to locate Fletcher’s carriers positioned north-east of Midway and their efforts to search further with reconnaissance Kawanishi flying boats refueled by Japanese submarines were thwarted when American ships were found at the intended submarine rendezvous point.

For all that, the Japanese started out having matters almost entirely their way. The June 4 Japanese air-strike on Midway caused extensive damage, though Nagumo’s pilots failed to completely knock out the American air field. Their Zeros massacred the old Brewster Buffalo and Wildcat fighters sent up from Midway to meet them. A string of attacks on Nagumo’s ships by Midway-based aircraft - B-17s, B-26s, Avengers, Vindicators, Dauntless dive-bombers and other aircraft - failed to score any hits. But they rattled Nagumo, who departed from standing instructions by immediately re-arming with bombs the 93 aircraft held in reserve to attack the American carriers that might be in the area for a second strike at Midway instead. Only after these preparations were in progress did Nagumo receive word from a scout plane of the presence of one American carrier in the vicinity. Reversing plans again, Nagumo halted the rearming of his planes with bombs so they could be rearmed with the original torpedoes.

For a time Nagumo’s luck held. Commander Stanhope Ring’s 35 Dauntless dive-bombers and 10 Wildcat fighter escorts from the Hornet failed to find Nagumo. This meant that the first of Fletcher’s planes to find and attack Nagumo’s carriers were the three aging, slow Devastator torpedo bomber squadrons from each of the three carriers. It was a case of suicidal bravery. Dozens of Zeros cut the attackers to pieces. Lieutenant John C. Waldron’s 15 torpedo bombers from the Hornet were all destroyed. Ensign George H. Gay, who crashed into the sea and witnessed the subsequent battle from the water, was the only survivor. (When told of the sacrifice of Waldron’s squadron, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wept.) Lieutenant Eugene E. Lindsey’s 14 torpedo-bombers from the Enterprise were next up for slaughter, only four limping back to tell the tale, followed by Lieutenant Lance E. Massey’s 12 from the Yorktown (all but two shot down). Not a single torpedo hit was scored, but the tragic sacrifice of the American torpedo bombers gave the Americans their moment. Nagumo’s carriers were packed with refueling and rearming aircraft on their decks, devoid of fighter cover, the Zeros having all been pulled down to sea level to finish off the torpedo bombers. Now, 35 Dauntless dive-bombers from the Enterprise (Lieutenant C. Wade McCluskey) and 17 from the Yorktown (Lieutenant Maxwell F. Leslie) appeared in the skies above and swooped down for the kill.

The American pilots were not as yet up to par with their Japanese counterparts, but their hits sufficed: Nagumo’s carriers were convulsed with consecutive explosions of detonating planes and explosives. Within five minutes, McCluskey’s planes had turned the Akagi and Kaga into flaming infernos, while Leslie’s had destroyed the Soryu. That only left the Hiryu, which counter-attacked with dive-bomber and torpedo strikes that both located and hit theYorktown.

Here, too, American ingenuity misled the Japanese: the Yorktown was struck by three bombs, but filling its fuel lines with carbon dioxide ensured no conflagration consumed her and the Yorktown was under way when the Hiryu’s torpedo bombers arrived and scored two further hits. This led the Japanese to think that they had destroyed or at least crippled, not one, but two American carriers. But this reassuring conclusion was swiftly shattered when dive-bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown struck the Hiryu that afternoon and destroyed it with four or possibly five bombs. Nagumo’s 1st Carrier Fleet, the cream of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was at an end; the Americans had lost only the Yorktown, dispatched to the bottom by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. Yamamoto’s invasion fleet, sailing in Nagumo’s wake, turned back.

Spasmodic engagements continued over two days, but the outcome was already certain: the Imperial Japanese Navy had been struck a blow from which it never recovered. The tide of war in the Pacific had turned. Little wonder that military historian Sir John Keegan has called Midway “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

And yet, subtract a windfall here, a chance there, and Midway might have been the Japanese Imperial Navy’s finest hour. Had that occurred, the Pacific west of Hawaii would most likely have become a Japanese lake and the war immeasurably prolonged. In light of this, perhaps the Duke of Wellington’s verdict on Waterloo is apposite - “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, by God!”

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