By lex, on June 4th, 2006
The Brits have a small island and a thousand year navy. They’ve got Camperdown and the Nile and Trafalgar and Jutland.
Us? We’ve got Midway.
Sixty-four years ago today the Japanese Empire was on the march across the Pacific. Seemingly unstoppable, they’d thumped every power they’d come in contact with, again and again: the British at “fortress” Singapore, the US at Hawaii, the Java Sea and the Philippines, the Dutch in their Asian possessions, and the Chinese practically everywhere else. They rapidly consolidated their interior lines, and were hard a work stabilizing the peripheries of the “Greater Southeast Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” Australia was eyed menacingly, as was a small island, half-way between the Japanese homelands and the main US carrier base at Pearl Harbor, where the remnants of the old battleship Navy still bubbled at the bottom of the harbor.
It is easy now, through the retrospective lens of more than a half century, to look at the successful conclusion of the war the Pacific as inevitable. Nothing could have been further from the truth for those who were engaged in it, however. Rear Admiral Ray Spruance’s sailors knew they were in a fight for their country’s survival in the theoretical sense, but also for their very lives in the here and now. They also knew that, apart from the bloody draw that was the recent battle of Coral Sea, they had been beaten in every clash of arms theretofore.
The US had critical intelligence, provided by cryptologic code-breakers – they knew where the Japanese fleet would attempt their next assault. They also knew that they would be outnumbered 3 to 1 in in a battle that they could literally not afford to lose. Fortunately, the Japanese fleet commander neutralized much of his own advantages in strength by dispersal of his forces in order to avoid detection, and by a sideshow assault on the Aleutian Islands far to the north. Unfortunately, Japanese carrier operations were in a much higher state of operational art then their US adversaries. So very much would depend upon luck.
The first defenders of the Japanese onslaught were the island’s army and Marine defenders. Obsolete Brewster Buffalos struggled in to the air against their much nimbler adversaries, while the anti-aircraft artillery mauled the attacking waves of naval bombers. Ten counter-attacking land based bombers managed to roil the waters around the Japanese attack force, without doing much in the way of material damage and losing seven of their own number in the attempt. The strike aircraft launched from a miraculously salvaged USS Yorktown – she’d been cruelly mauled at Coral Sea, nearly sinking – as well as those launched from the decks of Enterprise and Hornet struggled to join forces and find the foe. Abandoning the effort to join, they succeeded at finding the enemy, launching at first ineffective and uncoordinated attacks whose only real effects were to keep the Japanese flight decks in a state of indecision while pulling their combat air patrols out of position. The first two torpedo bomber attacks were shattered with one of the two attacking squadrons entirely obliterated and the other nearly so – VT-8 lost all fifteen of its TBD Devastator aircraft and all but one of its aviators – with no hits scored.
A long series of increasingly improbable but strategically favorable events culminated with two squadrons of dive bombers stumbling into the fight from opposite directions high overhead the Japanese carrier force just as the last torpedo squadron started its low altitude attack. Fuel hoses for recovering fighter CAPs littered the Japanese flight decks, and bombs for sequential attacks on Midway Island were stacked in her hangar bay as the Dauntless divebombers began their attack runs. In minutes, three of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s four carriers, the Kaga, Soryu and Akagi were ablaze and out of the fight, soon to be sunk or scuttled and leaving only his fourth deck, Hiryuto to counterattack. This she did, raking Yorktown yet again before being herself found and sunk by patrol aircraft later in the afternoon. At day’s end, Yamamoto had lost all four of his carriers in the fight, all them veterans of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The battered Yorktown would later succumb to a submarine’s torpedo attack during salvage operations.
The battle was over in a morning, with stragglers picked off over the course of the next few days. The war itself would not be over for three long years, and many more men would have to fight and die along the way. But from that point forward, the US Navy, hard pressed in a defensive fight since December, seized the strategic initiative.
Last night the Hobbit and I attended an event in commemoration of the battle of Midway aboard the USS Midway, now a museum ship in San Diego harbor. CNO was there, and gave a lovely speech. Survivors of the battle walked the deck and talked with us. One of them had been an ensign gun director on an escort cruiser during the battle, and had retired many years later as an admiral. I spoke with him briefly, almost reverentially – there was living history, standing before me. He looked closely at the name tag on my whites, asked me where I was from, asked me what my father’s name had been.
“I’m from Virginia, sir. And I share my father’s name,” I replied.
“I knew your father in the service,” he said, asking, “Is he still alive?”
“No sir, he died 24 years ago last month.”
“Ah. Well, he was a good man,” the grizzled veteran concluded.
Yes, I thought. He was. You all were.