Friday, June 4, 2010
Today, we mark the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. On June 4, 1942 the Imperial Japanese fleet bore down on the United States from several directions in an effort to draw out the carriers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. If all went as planned within days, the Japanese would control the Midway Atoll and several islands in the Aleutian chain. These footholds would allow Japanese forces to harass the Hawaiian Islands and provide Japan with a security screen to all but close the North Pacific from American naval traffic.
From where we stood as a nation the situation was grim. Japan had overwhelmed the Allied forces in the Pacific since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One after another the British, American, French and Dutch strongholds in the region were overrun and Japan’s forces seemed increasingly unstoppable.
Politically the President had a difficult problem. How to stop the Japanese offensive, while still committing the main focus of American forces in Europe to stop Nazi Germany from defeating England and the Soviet Union. After all, the United States had entered this war as a result of Imperial Japan’s attack on America and the American people wanted to see Japan defeated so how would Roosevelt justify assigning a secondary focus to the Pacific.
Japan hoped to cripple the United States once and for all and force a negotiated peace, allowing for Japan to reinforce their mastery of the Western Pacific unhindered by her Eastern Pacific rival. Admiral Yamamoto’s bold plan would marshal Japan’s naval forces in much the same way as the Pearl Harbor expedition six months prior. Though Japan would invade the Aleutian Islands and Midway, the real hope for Japan would be that the remaining American naval forces would come out to defend the atoll only 1,100 miles from the military facilities in and around Pearl Harbor. If things went as planned then the Japanese carriers would pounce on the precious few carriers of the American Pacific Fleet and effectively end America’s ability to defend the Pacific for the near future.
Admiral Chester Nimitz found himself in a difficult situation, how to meet the Japanese challenge, at the risk of losing the three precious carriers that stood between the Powerful Imperial Japanese Navy and the west Coast of the United States. Fortunately Admiral Nimitz at least had the element of surprise thanks to the brilliant intelligence work conducted by the Combat Intelligence Unit in Pearl Harbor which, following the breaking of the Japanese JN-25 code had ascertained, not only Japan’s planned assault on Midway, but also where and when to expect the attack. If the Admiral was correct he could send his three available carriers the Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise on a sneak attack of their own and inflict a defeat on Japan. If his gamble failed, then the remainder of America’s offensive capabilities in the Pacific could be lost forever, furthering not only the war in the Pacific but perhaps jeopardizing America’s war effort as a whole.
On the that Summer morning of June 4, 1942 in a span of only about six minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu would be set aflame and would eventually sink. The fourth carrier the Hiryu would launch her aircraft against the Yorktown in two attacks which would lead to the death of that great ship, but the Hiryu’s time would come as well when Dive-Bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown would send her to the bottom. America had survived and Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific would soon turn.
Thanks to the ingenuity and aggressive “calculated risk” taken by Nimitz and his commanders both at sea and on the ground the United States won arguably its most decisive naval battle in history. The victory has been referred to as the turning point in the Pacific theater but an argument could certainly be made that its consequences were far broader. The destruction of a large portion of Japan’s naval air fleet and the experienced pilots who flew in it set the Japanese navy into a position of defense and America took an offensive stand that they never relinquished. America’s forces could be safely focused on the European theater while the Americans public had reason to believe that Japan’s defeat would be imminent.
Today on Sand Island of the Midway atoll a memorial marks the occasion of this epic battle which refers to June 4, 1942 as, “the day when the American spirit reached unparalleled heights, and in so doing, saved democracy for the Western World.”
Our gratitude remains