Friday, June 5, 2009

Remembering the Battle of Midway

I've got a post over at NH Watchdog going up tomorrow about the 60th anniversary of D-Day, but a similarly critical battle took place in the Pacific 67 years ago today. Powerline remembers.

Midway marked the eastern edge of Japanese naval expansion. Just six months after Pearl Harbor, Japan has pushed the U.S. Navy out of the Solomons and was threatening to acquire land bases within range of Hawaii and the American mainland.

The U.S. Navy, relying on intelligence gathered from broken Japanese codes, decided to take a stand at Midway. Using the airstrip on the tiny atoll, his last three carriers in the Pacific, and aging aircraft that were outclassed by their Japanese counterparts, Admiral Chester Nimitz gambled that his forces would be able to spot and attack the Japanese fleet first. He was right. U.S. planes sunk all four large carriers in the Japanese battle group. Japanese planes finally sunk the U.S.S. Yorktown, after mistakenly thinking they had sent the flattop to the bottom twice before. I highly recommend Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully's Shattered Sword, a compelling account of the battle, using primary sources from both the U.S. and Imperial navies.

The amount of skill, courage, and blind luck that took place over a vast stretch of ocean that day is astounding. I've had the opportunity to visit Midway, which is now a research station. The naval base was abandoned years ago, and the massive airplane hangers have been left to decay. But you can still see the bomb damage that they took on June 5, 1942. It's hard to convey the odd feelings of standing on that ground, knowing that this is where the tide turned in the War in the Pacific.

Though less significant in the overall course of the war, Japan also launched a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska as part of the Midway campaign. Japan's decision to split its superior forces was a key to American victory in the battle. I've also had the chance to visit Kodiak Island, where my grandfather was stationed during the Aleutian campaign. This marked the only time a foreign army occupied American soil in the 20th Century. Brian Garfield's The Thousand-Mile War tells that story.

We need to remember our history. The events of June 5, 1942 were as pivotal to the future of the Pacific Rim as the events of June 6, 1944 were to Europe.


David Starr said...

"Incredible Victory" by Walter Lord is another good Midway book. Intelligence was everything. The code breakers told Nimitz that Midway was the target and the date of the attack. They also told him that the Dutch Harbor attack was a diversion. When Midway air patrols found the Japanese support force and were about to launch every aircraft on the Island after it, they received a message from Nimitz at Pearl Harbor saying, "That is not, repeat not, the enemy striking force." It went on to pinpoint time and location of the Japanese carrier force.
We don't get intelligence that good these days.

Grant Bosse said...

Great points on intel. Finding and fixing the enemy position is always the key, and the intercepted intel gave Nimitz a huge edge. I think Yamamoto's decision to split his forces, in violation of classic naval doctrine, had even larger consequences. If the Japanese fleet had stayed together, there's no way the U.S. forces would have inflicted such lopsided damage.
It's just a fascinating battle. History Channel has done come great work on it. The mediocre 70's movie "Midway" captures some of it, but I think we're overdue for a "Band of Brother" for the Pacific.
I hear Tom Hanks is working on one for HBO.