The Battle of Midway Island

Yesterday, 4 June, marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway Island in 1942 where the U.S. Navy defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy and reversed Allied fortunes in the Pacific campaign. Prior to the battle, the Japanese were on the offensive throughout the Pacific area.  Following the battle, they fought a series of defensive operations and steadily retreated back to the home islands.

In a nutshell, the battle entailed an all-in strategy by the U.S. commanders, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Admiral Chester Nimitz and the tactical commanders Rear Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher.  Thanks to cryptologists that broke the Japanese code, the U.S. was aware of the Japanese plan to attack Midway Island and presumably, remove the U.S. from any further ability to thwart Japanese expansion.  The attack on Midway was accompanied by a nearly simultaneous (due to circumstances the attacks were actually a day apart) on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska — an attempt to remove U.S. Army Air Corps aircraft from being in range of the Japanese home islands.

In the battle four Japanese aircraft carriers went up against three from the U.S. Navy.  In short, all four Japanese carriers — Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu — sank, along with the resulting loss of airplanes, pilots and crews.  They also lost a heavy cruiser, a destroyer, and other ships were badly damaged.  The Japanese Navy was never able to recover from those losses as their industrial capacity simply could not replace what was lost, along with the lack of seasoned pilots.  The U.S. Navy lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown and one destroyer.  Military historians such as John Keegan call the victory “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

Without going into all the details of the battle, it is apparent that there many instances of heroic actions. In our present days of troubled times and divisive political arguments, I find it worthy to focus on a small, but significant portion of the battle.  I trust that today, we can find men (and now women) that hold the same high level of selflessness, courage and devotion as those of the torpedo squadrons of the Douglas TBD Devastators from VT-3 on Yorktown, VT-6 on Enterprise, and VT-8 from the Hornet. These airplanes flew low and slow in order to attack surface ships with torpedoes.  In order to get the torpedo on target, it meant a long, slow, straight approach into the teeth of the Japanese air defenses.

The Devastators were on their own due to inexperience on the part of the American commanders coupled with the desire to strike the Japanese first.  Therefore they launched their aircraft piecemeal which resulted in an uncoordinated attack by the torpedo bombers without fighter escorts.  They were doomed.  Of the forty-one aircraft launched, thirty-five were lost attacking the targets, with no hits against the enemy.  On each of those airplanes, a three-man crew piloted and fought the aircraft.  A heavy loss of life.  The aircraft was never used again in battle in the Pacific.

Their sacrifice secured the victory because while the Japanese were preoccupied with the torpedo bombers, they became confused as to the big picture.  This allowed the Navy’s dive bombers and remaining fighter escorts to arrive over their targets virtually undetected and caught the bulk of the Japanese aircraft on the deck of the carriers while refueling and rearming.  Three Japanese carriers were destroyed in about five minutes and the fourth sank from its damage later in the day.

The pilots and crews of the Devastators did not think that they were on a suicide mission.  No one expects anything bad to happen to them, individually, when on a mission.  Yet, they understood the odds and that they weren’t good.  By the time of the battle, the U.S Navy knew that the aircraft was obsolete and vulnerable, but no replacement aircraft had yet made it to the fleet.  Additionally, once over the Japanese fleet they knew that they were alone, without fighter escort, and had no idea where the dive bombers might be.  They knew that the plan, a coordinated attack with all forms of aircraft striking the Japanese simultaneously was out the window. They were on their own.  And yet, they went forward, alone.

As we argue over less important issues today, it serves us well to remember the sacrifices made by those that went before us.  They knew that they were involved in a cause bigger than their individual lives, and they knew that only true sacrifice would carry the day.  Along with our thoughts as a grateful nation, we should also step back and think of our own lives and ability to follow in their foot steps.

We can all benefit from their selfless example.