Seventy years ago today, U.S. Navy warships were in place near Midway Island, the westernmost U.S. outpost in the vast Pacific Ocean, for an epic sea battle that changed the course of World War II in the Pacific.
Only six months earlier, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with planes launched from aircraft carriers. Dec. 7, 1941, was a day of infamy, President Franklin Roosevelt declared in his war message to Congress on Dec. 8. The United States was in World War II, fighting in the Pacific against Japan and soon enough in Europe against the Axis powers – Nazi Germany and Italy.
Naval intelligence calculated that “The Japanese were planning something very nasty and sinister in the mid-Pacific” and Admiral Chester Nimitz “understood that the whole course of the war could hinge on the outcome,” even if he lacked exact details on the when and where, Winston Groom writes in his marvelous book “1942: The Year That Tried Men’s Souls.”
The war had not gone well following the disaster at Pearl Harbor: “annihilation of the Allied fleet in the Java Sea, the loss of the entire Philippine army, and the sinking of the Lexington and serious damaging of the Yorktown.” The latter were aircraft carriers. No carriers were in port at Pearl Harbor six months earlier, or the damage to our Pacific naval forces would have been much worse.
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Now, sometime in June of 1942, the Japanese planned to attack and occupy Midway Island, take it out of play and bottle up the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and later invade Hawaii.
The Midway atoll was an important little place. Its two habitable parts had been a coaling station and a stopover for Pan American clippers that flew the Pacific. I served on Midway Island in 1959 when the Navy flew big airplanes over Alaska and back to Midway as part of the national defense early warning system. I remember a marker about the Battle of Midway at the entrance to the Administrative Building of the Naval Station. Then, the battle was only 17 years in the past.
“In 1942, after the fall of Wake [Island], a thousand or so miles to the southwest, Midway took on enormous significance because it was now the farthest U.S. Pacific warning station, guarding Hawaii against another surprise attack or even invasion,” Groom writes.
The Japanese anticipated a tough battle, Groom writes, and sent a 5,000-man invasion force and a great portion of the Japanese fleet. The aircraft carriers and battleships included Admiral “Yamamoto’s flagship, the Yamato, the most powerful battleship ever built.” The Japanese naval forces totaled 84 ships including eight aircraft carriers.
Against this tremendous force, the U.S. had 29 ships. One of the three carriers was the Yorktown, seriously damaged three weeks previously (Battle of the Coral Sea) and put back in fighting shape in less than three days. More than 3,000 men worked around the clock on the Yorktown. The U.S. had one advantage the Japanese did not know about – surprise. U.S. naval intelligence had broken the Japanese code and our forces, what was left of them, were in the vicinity of Midway when the Japanese arrived.
The battle started on June 4, 1942, and resulted in the loss of 35 U.S. torpedo-bomber planes, their pilots and radio-gunner crewmen. No Japanese ships were touched. “Clearly there was something wrong with the American torpedoes,” Groom writes. The next stage was a different story, with American dive bombers from the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown finding Japanese carriers with no high-altitude cover and in the process of refueling and rearming planes. Within minutes, three carriers were burning from bow to stern.
The Yorktown was crippled but within an hour and a half of the Japanese attack was again launching planes thanks to “a Herculean effort by engineers and damage-control parties.” Later, Japanese torpedo bombers got through and the Yorktown was doomed.
By shortly after dawn on June 5, “all four Japanese carriers, which had formed the backbone of the Pearl Harbor attack, lay on the ocean floor, three miles beneath the surface. Yamamoto reluctantly ordered a withdrawal, back toward Japan, Groom writes. The U.S. lost 307 lives and 147 airplanes and most of their crews. “The U.S. fleet had destroyed four Japanese carriers, along with 332 planes, a cruiser, and three destroyers and killed 4,899 Japanese sailors.”
The Battle of Midway was “a resounding victory” for the U.S. fleet, Groom writes, and it would not have happened without “the crucial role played by the code breakers.”
Contact Schumacher, a member of The Sun News editorial board, at email@example.com.