“(Midway is) the most complete naval victory since Horatio Nelson’s near annihilation of the Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, and, like that battle, had momentous strategic consequences.”
This statement by esteemed Naval Academy historian Craig Symonds is not hyperbole. As Trafalgar established Britain’s dominance of the seas for the next century, Midway established the aircraft carrier as the preeminent capital warship which it remains today, and the United States, who would go on to build 47 more large aircraft carriers over the next 80 years, as the dominant sea power on earth.
This weekend we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Midway fought June 3-7, 1942, indeed one of the most momentous battles in world history and an American victory that shaped the world we live in today. That’s right, it shaped the world we live in today and afforded freedom for hundreds of millions of people. More on that later.
This year is also the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, with the commissioning of the converted collier Langley in 1922. After Langley, the converted battle-cruisers Lexington and Saratoga followed. These ships and the pioneering efforts of visionaries like Admirals William Moffett and Joseph Reeves, the latter considered the father of carrier aviation for his development of carrier tactics and doctrine during the “Fleet Problem” series of exercises in the 1920’s and 30’s that were instrumental to the American success at Midway, provided the basis of how the United States operated carrier forces in World War II.
We know the story of Midway; an overwhelmingly superior Japanese fleet was surprised and defeated by a much smaller American force which turned the tide of the Pacific War. But how? Superior radio intelligence to be sure, and Commanders Joseph Rochefort and Edwin Layton deserve much credit for the victory by predicting the exact Japanese position within five degrees, five miles, and five minutes.
Armed with that knowledge, Nimitz committed what he had.
It is, sadly, part of the American way of war to enter a conflict underprepared, overmatched, and/or surprised. In the American Revolution the Continental Army lost every important battle until the decisive win at Yorktown. In 1814, after two years of war, Washington was burned by the enemy. The United States was losing battles of the Civil War until Gettysburg in 1863. We entered World War I with reluctance, and entered World War II the same way, despite our naval preparations that began in the late 1930’s as war clouds gathered over Europe and the Far East.
Donald Rumsfeld once said that “you go to war with the Army you have,” and he was correct. This is especially true of naval forces. At Midway, those that were already serving, “The First Team” as historian John Lundstrom calls them, answered that call with their eyes open.
Especially those who flew the ancient Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber. When it arrived in the fleet in 1937 the TBD was the last word in naval combat aircraft technology. A folding wing monoplane able to carry a 2,000-pound torpedo almost 200 miles, TBD pilots were the envy of all. However, by 1942 the TBD – which cruised at 110 knots – was hopelessly obsolete. It was in this airplane that had to slow to an agonizing 80 knots to drop its torpedo that 41 two-man crews flew into battle. Only six TBDs returned the morning of June 4, 1942, and a gunner in one of them lost his life from combat wounds.
Marines assigned to Midway flying the equally obsolete SB2U Vultee Vindicator dive-bomber and the F2A Brewster Buffalo fighter fared little better against superior Japanese Zero fighters. Nor did those in the brand new TBF Avenger that made its combat debut at Midway. The Americans simply fought with what they had and adapted, rigging torpedoes to PBY patrol planes and even Martin B-26 bombers, with crews untrained in their delivery. Ensign Gaylord Probst, flying a PBY at midnight on June 3, found and torpedoed a Japanese transport ship – the only successful torpedo attack of the battle.
On the morning of June 4, 1942, obsolescent and outclassed American warplanes attacked the powerful Kido Butai of four front-line carriers. The Americans knew exactly where they were, and the American aircrews knew exactly what they were up against. Yet they went, and while most of them lost their lives with no hits to show for it, their contribution to the success of the battle was immense as they kept the Japanese off balance and defensive.
The United States was fortunate to have the finest dive-bomber in the world at that moment, the Douglas SBD Dauntless. The airplane was designed to enter a 90-degree dive and from that dive deliver a 500- or 1,000-pound weapon with near point-blank accuracy on a moving vessel. SBDs from the three American carriers, beyond the point of no return and facing fuel starvation, found and attacked three Japanese carriers that morning and a fourth that afternoon, altering the course of the Pacific War which until then had seen Japanese victory after victory.
It was the courage – and dogged determination – of naval aviators Lofton Henderson, Langdon Fieberling, Benjamin Norris, John Waldron, Gene Lindsey, Lem Massey, Max Leslie, Wade McClusky, Richard Best and Earl Gallaher who carried the day at Midway. Joseph Rochefort and Edwin Layton displayed the same determination and steadfast belief in their team that convinced Nimitz to risk his forces. Nimitz showed courage and resolve by his willingness to, as Captain Wayne Hughes writes, inflict – and accept – losses to win a great battle.
At Midway, the United States seized the offensive from the Imperial Japanese Navy. By holding and winning at Midway, the Pacific playing field was now even, allowing Roosevelt’s “Europe First” strategy to proceed. According to former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, winning at Midway allowed us to land at North Africa later in the year and keep the Germans pinned down there and on their southern and eastern fronts for two years before we could mass forces for D-Day. It had effects on how Soviet Russia behaved, and on how Europe was shaped post-war. It is not a stretch to consider that all of Europe could have fallen under Soviet domination were it not for the American victory at Midway that allowed the allies to land at Normandy and meet the Soviets in central Germany almost one year later.
Normandy, or Gettysburg, Yorktown, Fort McHenry, Pearl Harbor and other battlefields…are visited by hundreds of thousands each year featuring modern museums with interpretive displays and tour guides that can bring these battlefields to life for families and schoolchildren in a way that imbues meaning to the sacrifice that occurred there. Normandy was where Europe (western Europe, unfortunately) was liberated from tyranny, and Yorktown was where a fledgling republic broke free to form of government of the people. We can walk the grounds and learn of human stories, inspirational stories of daring and pitched battles, and come away with a greater understanding of our history.
On the other hand, Midway Atoll, where the turning point battle of the Pacific War was fought, is one of the most inaccessible places on earth, over 1,000 miles northwest of isolated Hawaii. The atoll, run by the U.S. Park and Wildlife Service, requires special permission to visit and one should expect the first answer to be no. The two main islands (Sand and Eastern) have many buildings (and scars) remaining from the day Japan attacked it on June 4, 1942. The geographic coordinates of where the carrier duel was fought, a barren seascape where four Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers and one U.S. flattop were sunk is some 200 miles north of the atoll, a desolate wilderness of water.
World War II featured industrial attrition warfare such as the world had never seen and has not seen since, and subsequent generations of aerial warriors – even the Vietnam generation – did not face the long odds such as those who fought at Midway faced. At Midway, ensigns and teenagers manned their planes and flew into battle knowing their chances of survival were slim at best, inspiring the generations to follow. We can marvel at their courage in those slow and clumsy airplanes – all they had then – and must rightly honor their achievement in winning one of the most momentous naval victories in history, and one that had it been lost would have prolonged the war and likely altered the map of the post-WWII world. This is the importance of Midway.
Captain Kevin Miller USN (ret.) is the author of The Silver Waterfall: A Novel of the Battle of Midway