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65 years ago today

65 years ago today, the war in the Pacific reached its turning point.

Less than seven months after Pearl Harbor, the Empire of Japan was planning another attack. This time, it was our outpost on tiny Midway Atoll. The plan was to take this foothold and threaten an invasion of Hawaii. Further, they hoped to lure the remnants of the US Fleet into a decisive, final battle and secure their holdings.

Unfortunately, the Navy was reading the Japanese code, and we knew their plans.

We were outnumbered across the board. They had four carriers and several battleships sailing for Midway -- and all the carriers veterans of Pearl Harbor. We had two in good shape, and a third -- the Yorktown -- in need of three months of repair after being mauled at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

But thanks to some heroic efforts by dock workers, those three months were condensed into three days, and the Yorktown -- still battered, but restored to functional status -- she sailed to fight alongside her sisters, the Enterprise and Hornet.

The trap was set.

Still, bad luck ruled the seas for both sides. The Japanese had sent submarines to watch for US ships heading for Midway, but missed them. Scout planes also failed to spot the US forces. The carriers met at "Point Luck" and started hunting for the Japanese fleet.

Meanwhile, unaware of the US fleet's presence, the Japanese launched their attack on Midway. They mauled the island's defenders, but didn't believe they had softened them up enough for the landings.

Then the US struck.

Bad luck governed the first strikes. The combined torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and screening fighters were separated, and the torpedo bombers arrived first.

Torpedo bombers were big, slow, and clumsy. They had to fly low, slow, and straight at their targets. As such, they were absurdly easy to shoot down.

And they were.

They were, in a word, slaughtered. One squadron lost every plane and 29 of 30 men. A second squadron had three surviving aircraft. The third, four.

And not a single hit was scored.

But their sacrifice achieved a goal they did not even dream of.

With all the Japanese guns aimed at sea level, all the fighters low on altitude, fuel, and ammunition, and all eyes scouring the horizon, the dive bombers arrived.

In a matter of minutes, three of the four carriers were shattered, burning hulks. The avenging of Pearl Harbor had begun in earnest.

The battle played out over the next two days, with Hiryu joining Soryu, Akagi, and Kaga on the ocean floor, and valiant Yorktown once again mauled -- but savable. Then a submarine sneaked in and sent her and her escort, the destroyer Hammann, under the waves.

Midway was the turning point of the Pacific War. It was the last great offensive of the Japanese, and the last time their carriers posed a credible threat to our forces. It also gave the United States the breathing room to plan the attack on Guadalcanal, the first offensive operation that set the tone for the rest of the war.

At the time, everyone knew that Midway was a tremendous victory for the United States, the first real one for us. But few at that time could know that we had broken the back of the Japanese Navy, shattering her mighty carrier force. 307 Americans died in that battle, but the Japanese lost ten times that many.

Before the war, the United States had built eight aircraft carriers. On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, we had seven -- the first, the Langley, had been converted into a seaplane tender and replaced with bigger, faster, stronger, far more capable ships. But by the end of 1942, only three were still afloat. The Japanese had sunk Langley, Lexington, Saratoga, Hornet, and Wasp. The Saratoga was crippled and laid up for repair, and the Ranger was needed in the Atlantic. Only the Enterprise stood between the Japanese and total victory.

But she was all we needed, until the new carriers -- the mighty Essex class -- started arriving.

The Enterprise was enough to stave off the Japanese, in large part to the victory she helped win at Midway.

Sixty-five years ago today.

(Update: the Saratoga survived the war; it was the Yorktown that was sunk in 1942. I can't believe I made the same damned mistake a year ago, and didn't learn from it then.)


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Comments (18)

I wonder how this would be ... (Below threshold)
tom c:

I wonder how this would be reported in the New York Times today.

tom c:<a href="htt... (Below threshold)
Jay, I'll have to quibble a... (Below threshold)
Drago:

Jay, I'll have to quibble a bit with you on this one.

The War in the Pacific did not reach it's turning point at Midway. Midway simply represented the single worst defeat of Japanese Naval Forces in it's history.

Japan began to lose the war on Dec 7, 1941.

You only have to stop for a second and envision what it would have taken for the Japanese to actually defeat the US.

It would have required sufficient capability to roll back US forces to the US West Coast. It would have required an invasion force sufficient to capture the major West Coast ports, along with the key continental routes of resupply and counter-attack in North America, and the ability to press the advantage into the heartland of the US (basically what we did to the Germans in Europe).

At no point did Japan ever possess anywhere near the capability to do even the first of those tasks.

As you may recall, the Japanese hoped that US would simply tire of war and allow the Japanese free reign in the Far East.

Japan could never defeat the US militarily. All they could hope is what the Islamo-fascists hope today: that enough Americans were too weak to fight back over the long term.

The Japanese were wrong about that then.

The Islamo-fascists may very well be right about that today.

A lot of the Japanese fight... (Below threshold)
kim:

A lot of the Japanese fighters were decked after downing the torpedo bombers. They were useless when the dive bombers, by a miracle, found the fleet.

Ultimate jui-jitsu; unconscious, too.
=======================

It is amazing how quickly p... (Below threshold)
cryptoref:

It is amazing how quickly people gloss over the fact that we were reading the Japanese codes. The code in question (JN-25) was pretty good and the code breakers only had a partial breaks. They knew that island AQ was the point of the next attack but did not know where AQ was. In a brilliant insight the head of the code breakers (Safford sp?) had Midway send a message in the clear (that is not encoded in a US code system) that the fresh water machine was broken. Voila, a message was soon read that AQ's fresh water machine was broken. And that is how we KNEW that Midway was the target. However JN-25 wasn't tatical so we didn't know exactly where they would show up, we still needed that luck to find them first, and we did.

Last week I read Newt Gingr... (Below threshold)
Justrand:

Last week I read Newt Gingrich's (and his co-author) new book "Pearl Harbor". It's the first in a new "alternate history" series. As with the Gettysburg series they have altered only one fact, and then are going to let history re-play.

One of the key "what if?" questions associated with the attack on Pearl Harbor has always been:
"What if the Japanese had come back for a 3rd wave, per Yamamoto's original plan, and destroyed the fuel storage, submarine pens and (most important) the dry-dock & repair facilities??"

If you're looking for a good read I encourage you to read this book.

Justrand: "What if the Japa... (Below threshold)
Drago:

Justrand: "What if the Japanese had come back for a 3rd wave, per Yamamoto's original plan, and destroyed the fuel storage, submarine pens and (most important) the dry-dock & repair facilities??""

It would have put the US back an additional 12 months, possibly kept us from stemming the Japanese advance in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and left Australia open to direct bombardment (and possibly worse). It's unlikely the Japanese would have had the capability to maintain a defensive perimeter that included Australia over the long-term once the American military machine kicked into high gear.

But still, what a pain that would have been.

Justrand"Wha... (Below threshold)

Justrand

"What if the Japanese had come back for a 3rd wave, per Yamamoto's original plan, and destroyed the fuel storage, submarine pens and (most important) the dry-dock & repair facilities??"

That reminds me of the many admonitions of my father (WWII vet, Third Army) at our dinner table years ago. He made a point of reminding us that that we very well could have lost this war and he took particular issue with the many "manifest destiny" histories being written then.

HughS & Drago...it definate... (Below threshold)
Justrand:

HughS & Drago...it definately would have been a dicier time!! Fighting our way TO Hawaii, would have been awful! Would also have given time for the anti-war crowd (which was considerable before December 7th) to re-mobilize and try to force us to quit!!

I firmly believe we still would have won...it just would have cost us a whole lot more!

Reading their codes?!? I h... (Below threshold)
Baron Von Ottomatic:

Reading their codes?!? I hope for history's sake none of the Japanese communiques emmanated from US territory lest the New York Times has to retroactively expose our government's surveilance strategy to the world.

Bad enough they give FDR a pass on his illegal war against Germany - who had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. So what if Germany was led by a murderous dictator who would have detonated an atomic bomb over New York City given time, there was no operational link between Germany and Tojo on Pearl Harbor.

And tell me the Missouri didn't look like it was intentionally scuttled. Battleships don't just sink, they're made to withstand explosions...

Thank God our fathers and grandfathers lived in saner times. And thank God their Esprit de Corp lives on. Go Navy!

BaronIt's been a lon... (Below threshold)

Baron
It's been a long day...you almost made me bite on that!

Don't forget USS Yorktown (... (Below threshold)

Don't forget USS Yorktown (CV-5), lost at Midway and reborn as Essex-class CV-10 .

There are few today who und... (Below threshold)
tyree:

There are few today who understand why that most famous starship was named "Enterprise" so long ago. Thanks for remembering, and may we never forget.

You mentioned the Saratoga was sunk, then you mentioned it was damaged. The Saratoga survived the war and was sunk in one of the atomic bomb tests.

tyree - "You mentioned the ... (Below threshold)
Waffle King:

tyree - "You mentioned the Saratoga was sunk, then you mentioned it was damaged."

Looks like a typo - should have been Yorktown in the first list.

I love the names of the old carriers. Much better than Presidents.

If there was one ship from ... (Below threshold)
waldo:

If there was one ship from WW2 that should have been kept as a memorial like so many others, it was the Enterprise. A great ship and it did not deserve being cut up for scrap.

Japan never thought Pearl H... (Below threshold)

Japan never thought Pearl Harbor was the first step in defeating the United States. They hoped, rather, that it would set us back for a year or two in the Pacific. That, and our being drawn into the European Theatre, were supposed to give them time to consolidate their conquests and supply lines in East Asia, and to reinforce their own naval power. But for some bad luck, that plan could have succeeded.

Our carriers were out on exercises that fateful Sunday morning, leaving the battleships in port. Up until that time, the battleship was considered the ultimate in naval armament, with carriers thought of as support vessels as part of battle groups. The tide of naval warfare was turning to the carrier, though, perhaps hastened by the necessity of using them as the primary offensive weapons in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor was a bold and risky stroke by the Japanese, but they had little choice. If they ignored our naval forces, we would have continued to build up strength until the inevitable conflict. Had they succeeded in taking out our carriers instead of our battleships, we could hardly have contested their positions for two or more years.

Reading their codes?!? I... (Below threshold)
Steve L.:

Reading their codes?!? I hope for history's sake none of the Japanese communiques emmanated from US territory lest the New York Times has to retroactively expose our government's surveilance strategy to the world.

Actually, there were news reports of that very thing back in the day. Fortunately, the Japanese were so confident in their codes that they didn't change it.

For anyone interested in Mi... (Below threshold)

For anyone interested in Midway, I would highly recommend reading Shattered Sword, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. According to their version of events, which I find persuasive, the torpedo bombers did not lure the Japanese combat air patrol to sea level. It seems that the Japanese were simply spread too thin and may have been distracted by the initial US carrier attacks, which appears to have been the dive bombing of the Kaga.

Nor did our dive bombers catch the Japanese carriers with their decks full of armed and fueled aircraft waiting to take off, though that distinction might be academic. They were being prepped for launch in their hangar bays below the flight decks, as was Japanese practice. They could not have been on the flight deck with the IJN trying to maintain a CAP in the face of US air attacks.

Waffle King,

I, too, am a little irritated at the current naming practices for US aircraft carriers. I recently did a blog post on the subject. http://procynic.blogspot.com/2007/05/talking-with-irans-mullahs-or-why-do.html




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