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Remembering Midway, the ‘Other’ Great American Victory of World War II

June 6th, 2017 · No Comments · Uncategorized

The first week of June brings to mind two history-changing military actions in World War II involving the United States. Arguably the country’s finest hours, when it comes to warfare.

–D-Day, June 6, 1944, which was 73 years ago today.

–The Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942,

Most Americans with a passing knowledge of U.S. history know about D-Day.

They may not know about Midway, fought two years and two days earlier. But that victory was hugely important in the war against Japan, and it also is a great story — of courage and resolve and also more than a little luck.

In early June 1942, barely six months since the U.S. fleet’s battleships were largely destroyed at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had not yet managed a victory against Japan, which had overrun much of southeastern Asia, from the Philippines to Malaysia and Singapore.

And imperial Japan was aiming for what its military leader, Yamamoto, hoped would be a knockout blow, sailing in great strength to invade Midway, an American-owned island west of Hawaii.

Japan’s military men assumed what was left of the U.S. fleet would be drawn to the invasion site and could be dealt with by the imperial navy and its four first-rate aircraft carriers and excellent naval pilots — who had so devastated Battleship Row at Pearl.

The U.S. was, in fact, prepared to defend Midway because Hawaii likely would go next. Three carriers and some consorts steamed to the area and waited just east of the island.

The Americans were aided by the fact that cryptologists had broken the Japanese naval code and they knew quite a bit about the invasion fleet and where it was.

The Japanese fully announced themselves by bombing Midway Island’s airfield, knocking out most of the planes there, but while they were in the air the three U.S. carriers launched their dive bombers and torpedo planes.

The Pacific Ocean is a very big place, and some of the planes got lost and fell into the Pacific, out of fuel.

The Japanese also had strong counter-measures against the lumbering U.S. torpedo bombers, and they shot down all but a handful of them, and their fighters managed to keep the dive bombers at bay.

At a time when the Japanese planes had returned to their carriers, and were being refueled, with lots of bombs being trundled around … planes from the aircraft carrier Yorktown found the Japanese fleet and, specifically, the four Japanese carriers — Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu.

Again, the U.S. torpedo planes were shot up, and none of their torpedoes hit a target, but a surviving group of U.S. dive bombers from the Yorktown, just about the last weapon in the U.S. armory that day, arrived overhead, via “luck and shrewd guesswork”, the late, great military historian John Keegan tells us.

(And let’s quote him for this part; he sums it up so well.)

“At 10:25 on the morning of 4 June 1942 [the dive bombers were] exactly placed to deliver the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

The bombers’ leader, Commander Wade McCluskey, “turned to the attack and from 14,500 feet led his 37 Dauntless dive bombers seaward at the Japanese carriers’ flight decks.

“All were cluttered with aircraft and the paraphernalia of refueling and rearming. High-octane fuel hoses ran between piles of discarded bombs, which stood beside aircraft running their engines for takeoff; they were ingredients of catastrophe.

“Akagi, Nagumo’s flagship, was the first to go. A bomb started a fire in a torpedo store and within 20 minutes raged so fiercely that the admiral had to shift his flag to a destroyer.

“Kaga, hit by four bombs, was set ablaze by its own aviation fuel and had to be abandoned even more rapidly.

“Soryu suffered three hits; one started a fire among aircraft parked on deck, stopped her engines and left her victim to a shadowing American submarine, which sank her at noon.

“Within exactly five minutes, between 10:25 and 10:30, the whole course of the war in the Pacific had been reversed. The First Air Fleet, its magnificent ships, modern aircraft and superb pilots, had been devastated.

“And the disaster was not at an end. Hiryo had evaded attack and got away — but only temporarily. At 5 in the afternoon she was found racing furiously away from Midway by dive bombers from Enterprise, was hit with four bombs, set on fire and left to be scuttled by her crew when the flames took hold from stem to stern.

“Thus, the whole of Nagumo’s fleet and, with it, the dream of empire perished. Yamamoto’s prophecy of ‘running wild’ for six months had been fulfilled almost to the day. Not only did the balance in the Pacific between fleet carriers now stand equal (Yorktown was sunk by a submarine on 6 June); the advantage the Japanese had lost could never be made good, as Yamamoto knew, having seen American industry at first hand.

“Six fleet carriers would join the Japanese navy from 1942-44; America would launch 14 as well as nine light carriers and 66 escort carriers, creating a fleet against which Japan could not stand.”

The war was far from over, and when the U.S. turned to the offensive it found invading Japanese-occupied islands to be a bloody business.

It can be argued that in a war of materiel, Japan could never overcome the U.S., even had Midway and Hawaii been lost, but the process of American victory would have taken quite a but more time and far more lives and treasure.

It is a battle worthy of knowing about, for Americans. D-Day is interesting, too, but Nazi Germany already was reeling from its bloody fight against the Soviet Union. Taking down Japan was pretty much a U.S. show, and it really began with Midway.

If you are interested in a concise but wide-ranging look at the Second World War, I heartily recommend Keegan’s book on the topic.


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