This year, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway (June 4-6). While often referred to as “the turning point of the war in the Pacific,” Midway was more than that. It solidified a change of military doctrine on the high seas. Gone was the era of the battleship. Carrier warfare was what would determine the fate of the Pacific and would reshape our navy into the modern era.
Midway was one of those battles that could have, and possibly should have, gone horribly wrong for the United States. Six months after Pearl Harbor and our only real victory against the Japanese was Doolittle’s Raid. We were outnumbered in carriers and experience by the Japanese. Coming out of the Battle of Coral Sea, the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. The thinking then was that she was going to take several months in drydock in the US to become operational. The navy got her ready for battle in 72 hours, with some repair crews remaining on the ship and fixing her while at sea.
One of our best admirals, Bull Halsey, was ill. In his place was Admiral Raymond Spruance. Fuzzy historians (my phrase – copyright pending) like to say that he was a cruiser commander, but Spruance was well versed in carrier tactics.
The US knew the essence of the Japanese plan. Naval intelligence had broken the Japanese code and learned the basics of the plan. Admiral Yamamoto’s Plan MI was to strike at the Aleutian Islands to lure away the Americans with a diversion there, then to attack and land troops on Midway. Doing so would lure the understrength American fleet (which he believed only consisted of two carriers, the Hornet and the Enterprise) into a battle they could not win.
Knowing the plan and achieving victory were two different things. The Americans scouted the Japanese approaches from the air. Midway dug in like a tick on exposed skin. The Japanese did not fully expect the US fleet to engage them, they were expecting them to be lured off towards their diversion.
Initially the battle went badly for the American navy. The Japanese struck at Midway, pulverizing their air defenders and bombing the island hard. The Imperial Navy scouts spotted the American ships and the Japanese began to swap out contact bombs intended for Midway, to torpedoes to deal with the new threat. That was when they were pounced upon. While the Americans failed to do significant damage and suffered heavy losses, the attack threw off the Japanese plans. As they tried to regroup, another American force, three squadrons from the Yorktown and the Enterprise, hit them again. The battle was furious and fast, ultimately ending the day with three of the four Japanese carriers crippled or sunk. The infamous line was broadcast back to the carriers by Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon after sinking the Shosho, “Scratch one flattop!”
The Japanese struck back, catching the Yorktown and hitting her hard – with an over 20 degree list and no working propulsion. The Japanese thought they had sunk her. They were wrong though. The Yorktown was salvaged for another day of battle, though it was destined to be her last.
The next day brought about another strike by the Japanese, this time all but sinking the Yorktown (it would fall prey to a Japanese submarine after the battle. Believing they had already sunk one of the two American carriers the day before, they surmised they had taken out the last American carrier. US Navy dive bombers took out the last Japanese carrier, forcing the invasion force to retreat.
The US had traded one carrier for four and had, in one battle, tipped the scales of the war in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor had truly been avenged.
I first learned of this battle from Walter Lord’s book Incredible Victory. Alan Andrews, a veteran of Vietnam on my paper route loaned me his dog-eared copy and I devoured it.
There are myths around the battle that survive to this day. One is that the Navy War College wargamed the Battle of Midway many times over the years but was never able to duplicate the US victory. While accepted as truth, I have not found any credible source for this story. At the same time, it is hard to doubt it. Midway was a rare combination of strategy, tactics, and blind luck that would be difficult to properly simulate.
To commemorate the anniversary of the battle I re-watched the 1976 movie Midway. I wished I hadn’t. First off, they reused (poorly) a lot of footage from Tora Tora Tora. Then they intermixed real-life combat footage that made the battle hard to watch from a historian’s perspective. All of the additional plot lines were unnecessary. The only fun I had was watching Tom Selleck and Erik Estrada in early career roles in the film. It left me wondering when they would make a good version of this film, one that tells the true story, not the Hollywood dribble.