My wife has the distinction of being one of the few people born on the Island of Midway. (We have pictures of her as an infant with some Laysan Albatrosses, better known on Midway as Gooney Birds. The medical staff was so excited at her birth that they put her in the new incubator, although they did not turn it on.) This has led to never-ending confusion over the years when she has presented her birth certificate, with puzzled individuals wondering where Midway is. Seventy years ago today all of America was learning where Midway was. A battle which has been called a miracle, Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific, with the decisive defeat of the Japanese strike force aimed at Midway that Admiral Yamamoto had intended to give a crushing blow to the remaining US carriers. The victory of Midway was the product of hubris, MAGIC, luck, courage and skill.
1. Hubris-Since Pearl Harbor the Japanese had won incredible victories on land, sea and in the air, and now controlled a huge Empire throughout East Asia. Japanese historians have described this as the period of “victory fever”. Even a very level headed and pragmatic individual like Admiral Yamamoto was affected by this atmosphere of seeming invincibility. Japanese intelligence as to the dispostion of the US fleet in the Pacific was poor, and Yamamoto’s plan to lure the Americans into battle by threatening Midway was very much a strike into the unknown, and risked Japan’s fate in the war on one battle.
2. MAGIC-US cryptographers had broken many Japanese diplomatic and military codes. The project was collectively known as MAGIC. In December of 1941 Naval cryptographers had broken the Japanese high command naval fleet code designated JN-25. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the US fleet in the Pacific knew as a result that Midway was the target of the Japanese fleet and assembled his three carriers and support ships to oppose the Japanese fleet with its four carriers, two light carriers and support ships.
3. Luck-It is hard in our era of satellite surveilance and ubiquitous electronic sensoring systems, to realize just how much a deadly game of blind man’s bluff a carrier battle was in 1942. Radar, still in its infancy, gave the US a critical edge at Midway, but finding the Japanese fleet carriers to attack them was as much a product of luck as anything else. If the Japanese had been luckier, Midway could easily have been a disastrous US defeat.
4. Courage-There were many brave men on both sides, however the palm for gallantry has to go to the aviators of Torpedo Squadron Eight from the Hornet and Torpedo Squadron 6 from the Enterprise and their attacks on the Japanese carriers on June 4. The men had to know that without cover from their own fighters they would almost certainly not survive their attack runs on the carriers. They went in anyway, and almost all of them died. Many Japanese observers were stunned while watching this. Japanese propaganda called Americans weak, decadent and cowardly, and here were American pilots going to their deaths in the best samurai style as they attempted to sink the well guarded carriers. The attacks failed, but they drew most of the Japanese carrier air patrols away from the carriers, kept the carriers off balance and unable to launch their own strikes and depleted the ammunition and gasoline of many of the Japanese planes guarding the carriers.
5. Skill-Approximately 30 minutes after the torpedo squadron attacks, three squadrons of American SBD’s from the Enterprise and the Yorktown came upon the Japanese carriers. They were led by Commander C. Wade McCluskey who decided to prolong the search for the Japanese carriers and found them by following the wake of a Japanese destroyer. In a matter of minutes the three squadrons inflicted devastating damage on three of the four Japanese fleet carriers, winning the battle of Midway for the United States.
Here is the report of Admiral Nimitz on the battle. Note the emphasis in his report on lessons learned and improvements that had to be made based upon these lessons: (more…)