Midway: End of the Beginning

Midway: End of the Beginning
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Two thousand years ago the Greek historian Thucydides chronicled what he saw as history’s greatest conflict: the 27-year war between Athens and Sparta. He touted his History of the Peloponnesian War as a possession for all time. No humility there. But he was right to boast. We still study—and still learn—from a book about rowboats and spears in fifth-century B.C. Greece.

War pits people against people. And human nature remains largely constant. So no matter what weapons we carry, similar dynamics pervade human strife from age to age. Rowboats and spears in the age of Thucydides, smart bombs and nuclear-powered submarines in ours; conflict is conflict.

But with apologies to the father of history, the twentieth century bore witness to a conflict far bigger and more consequential than the bloodletting between Athens and Sparta. I refer, of course, to World War II. We gather here today to remember the Battle of Midway, a key engagement in that world-historical trial of arms between America and Imperial Japan.

Needless to say, I can hardly do justice to Midway in fifteen minutes or less. Historians have spilled buckets of ink on the topic since the guns fell silent in 1945. The battle inspires new histories to this day.

So I want to accomplish three things during our short time together. I want to explain what makes the battle noteworthy; to consider whether it was the decisive battle of the Pacific War, as some eminent historians claim; and to provide the merest glimpse of what fighting the battle was like for U.S. Navy aviators.

For the youngsters among you: I hope to pique your interest so that you learn more about Midway and World War II on your own. This is part of who we are as Americans, and of how we conduct ourselves in the world to this day.

First of all, let me briefly recap what happened and explain why it’s significant. Why strike at Midway, a tiny atoll west of the Hawaiian Islands? The Japanese did so in an attempt to eliminate American sea power in the Pacific.

Winning big was a real possibility for Japan’s navy in mid-1942. Think about it. Except for a momentary setback in the Coral Sea in May 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy had compiled an unbroken record of success since Pearl Harbor. It conquered Southeast Asia, making short work of an Allied fleet at the Java Sea. It struck into the Indian Ocean, giving Britain’s Royal Navy its own Pearl Harbor at Colombo, on the island of Ceylon. It appeared to be poised to fence off the Western Pacific so that Tokyo could work its will, both in China and elsewhere in Asia.

The remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—in particular the aircraft carriers that escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor by chance—constituted the main obstacle to Japanese ambitions. Tokyo well understood the potential of carrier warfare. In April 1942, U.S. Army airmen—led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and flying from the carrier USS Hornet—raided the Japanese capital of Tokyo. To Japanese eyes the Doolittle Raid reaffirmed the need to put an end to American naval power in the Pacific Ocean.

And the portents were good for Japan. The Japanese Combined Fleet outmatched the U.S. carrier task forces at Midway by every conceivable measure. Accordingly Japan’s supreme naval commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and his advisers formulated their battle plan in a sound and time-honored way. If you want to compel a weaker foe to fight, you have to attack something so important that the foe must defend it whether he wants to or not.

That confronts the enemy with an unsavory choice between giving up something important and doing battle despite long odds. That’s a choice no commander relishes. Yamamoto & Co. hoped to bait Admiral Chester Nimitz’s fleet into action—an action where they would inflict a death blow.

Japan also went after Midway as a goal in its own right. Naval commanders hoped to transform the island into what amounted to an unsinkable aircraft carrier on America’s western flank. By repurposing the U.S. Marine airstrip and other infrastructure, and by stationing planes and ships there, Japan could control the seas and skies west of Hawaii. In the process it would deny the U.S. Navy a vital steppingstone—a sea and air base it would need to carry the war across the Central Pacific to Japan.

Seldom are the sayings concealed in Chinese fortune cookies very profound, but once in awhile you find a gem. Here’s one I like so much I keep it taped to my computer monitor: Good luck is what happens when hard work meets opportunity. That fits Nimitz; intelligence officer Joe Rochefort; Admiral Ray Spruance, who directed the Enterprise and Hornet aircraft-carrier task force, Task Force 16; and the airmen and sailors under their command—to a tee.

The admirals thought hard about where to take station to maximize their chances of protecting Midway, finding the Japanese fleet, and shielding Hawaii. They set themselves up for success—for good luck—when opportunity beckoned.

Seamen and airmen were likewise opportunistic when fortune smiled. Torpedo squadrons operating from Midway and the fleet took it upon themselves to attack the Japanese fleet piecemeal when they discovered it northwest of the island. They lumbered in without protection from fighter planes, a near-suicidal undertaking with Japanese Zeroes standing guard. They did little damage, and yet they rattled the Japanese while throwing their fleet into disarray. Good luck.

Or, American scout planes happened to find the Japanese carrier fleet before Japanese planes detected the Americans. And the Japanese plane that did cross paths with the American fleet had the misfortune to have its takeoff delayed by thirty minutes. That minor delay made a crucial difference because in the interim, fleet commander Admiral Chūichi Nagumo had ordered the attack planes held in reserve to strike the U.S. carriers rearmed with bombs to pelt Midway. Good luck.

And fortune smiled yet another time. USS Enterprise dive bombers and their fighter escorts chanced to arrive on scene at the very moment when the four Japanese flattops’ decks were filled with explosives, in the form of combat aircraft, bombs and torpedoes, and highly flammable fuel. And to compound this good luck, the Zeroes were down below battling Hornet’s low-flying torpedo planes while the Enterprise squadrons approached at high altitude.

American aviators made the best out of a good situation—and when it was all over, four Japanese flattops—the Imperial Japanese Navy’s entire fleet of fast carriers—was on fire. All four descended to Davy Jones’ locker—and Japan never regained its momentum.

German chancellor Otto von Bismarck once wisecracked that God favors fools, drunks, and the United States of America. Never did Bismarck’s joke ring truer than on June 4, 1942. At the cost of one U.S. Navy carrier—Yorktown—Nimitz’s fleet ruined Japanese aspirations to rule the Central Pacific.

Does that make Midway a decisive battle? Some historians say yes, others say no. I say both! It decided something important, namely whether Imperial Japan could incorporate the island and its airfield into a maritime picket line, barring American access to the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Midway put a stop to Japan’s eastward surge, and in that sense it was decisive.

But it didn’t decide the outcome of the Pacific War as a whole. Three-plus years of hard fighting remained before the surrender ceremony on board the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The other way of characterizing Midway, as a turning point in the Pacific War, seems more apt to me.  As British prime minister Winston Churchill said of the Allies’ 1942 victory in Egypt: Midway was not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end. But it was the end of the beginning.

From then on the action flowed westward toward the Philippine Islands, and toward Japan itself. U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal later in 1942, opening an American offensive across the South Pacific. Nimitz’s fast carriers plunged across the Central Pacific toward the Japanese home islands. The vectors depicting U.S. force movements all pointed westerly. Naval, amphibious, and air forces dismembered the Japanese Empire—and ultimately compelled surrender.

And lastly, what was the battle like for airmen soaring above the scene of battle? Midway was history’s first naval engagement in which the enemy fleets never saw each other. This was a naval-aviation show—a good thing for the American side since Yamamoto’s fleet vastly outclassed Nimitz’s in raw gun power.

But relying on air power took its toll. Think in particular what it must have been like for the fliers in those doomed first waves of torpedo planes. There was the pilot from Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8 who discovered his turret gunner had been killed only when the turret’s dead-man’s switch swiveled it back to centerline—its default position. Or how about Ensign George Gay, the only survivor of thirty VT-8 squadron mates at Midway? Seeing all of one’s comrades-in-arms slain constitutes a lonely fate.

Yes, the Battle of Midway was about strategy and politics. It helped determine the destinies of nations. And yes, we can debate whether it was decisive, a turning point, or something else. But let’s never lose sight of the human dimension of war—raw passions such as fear and spite, despair and exaltation. As Thucydides taught—and as Midway confirms—these passions are what make war such a human endeavor.

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