Seventy Years Ago Today: An Improbable Victory

It was on this day, 7 June 1942, a Sunday precisely six months to the day after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, that the most decisive naval battle of the 20th Century came to an end in the vastness of the Central Pacific Ocean. The Battle of Midway, which lasted from early on the morning of 4 June 1942 until mid-afternoon on 7 June, resulted in a decisive victory for the United States of America against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Japan withdrew from the battle with catastrophic losses: four of Japan’s largest aircraft carriers had been sunk against a single United States carrier. Moreover, the loss represented essentially irreplaceable damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s forces, while the United States of America would build more than two dozen large carriers in the next three years.

It seems hard to believe at this far remove in time, but heading into Midway, the United States Navy was the undoubted underdog. The U.S. had three fleet carriers compared to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s four, and only a third of the additional support vessels needed for such a Confrontation. The U.S. had a slightly greater number of aircraft, but almost all were outdated and inferior to the Japanese warplanes. The Japanese High Command could feel understandably confident of another smashing defeat of the U.S. Navy.

In complete reversal of the Pearl Harbor disaster, the victory at Midway was in large measure a triumph of Military Intelligence. The U.S. Navy had broken the Japanese Naval code, and was able to decode much of the radio traffic leading up to the Japanese attack on Midway. When there was uncertainty as to the target of the huge Japanese task force – referred to as “AF” in the Japanese communications – a clever ruse pinpointed the intended objective. The commander of the small American force on Midway was instructed by secure cable transmission to radio a message stating that Midway’s water distillation plant was out of order. Subsequent Japanese transmissions revealed that “AF” was low on fresh water. The U.S. Navy thereby knew that Midway was the objective of the attack, and could plan accordingly.

Intelligence Data alone, of course, cannot win battles. It takes determination, skill, commitment, and courage. These too were abundant at Midway. The famed sacrifice of the U.S. Naval fliers of Torpedo Squadron 8 stands out. Torpedo Squadron 8 made the first American attack of the battle on the Japanese carriers despite the fact Squadron 8’s planes had too little fuel for a return flight, and despite the fact that the Japanese fighters were far faster and far more maneuverable than the dated, cumbersome American torpedo bombers. Indeed, only one pilot from that group survived the battle: Ensign George Gay escaped his ruined plane and floated among the hellish carnage for three days before his rescue.

Gordon Prange, in his landmark 1983 account of the battle, Miracle at Midway, (McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0070506728) asserted that the role of Torpedo Squadron 8 had been over-emphasized, especially in light of the fact that the squad’s attack completely failed to inflict any damage upon any Japanese ships. While I am in no way competent to challenge Professor Prange’s impeccable scholarship, I respectfully disagree with his interpretation of this attack. The mere fact that Torpedo Squadron 8 attacked greatly disrupted the Japanese plans, and ultimately left three Japanese carriers under-defended when they were struck by American dive bombers. The Japanese decks were covered with aircraft being re-armed and refueled, and the American divebombers were able to inflict an almost ideal tactical blow: the bombs struck amid fuel lines and piles of ammunition and explosives. This hugely multiplied the effect of the American ordinance, and proved fatal to the Japanese carriers.

The self-sacrifice of Torpedo Squadron 8 undeniably contributed to the U.S. victory, despite the fact that they did no direct damage. I have always been in awe of the commitment and courage of men who, knowing they had no hope of safe return, nevertheless pressed home their attack. Far from being futile, it bought the needed time and created the needed opportunity for a successful American attack, and for the ultimate victory. But for the unimaginable bravery of these men, the U.S. would have lost its element of surprise, and that alone could have changed the outcome of the battle.

The Battle of Midway was certainly the crucial turning point in the Pacific War, but it is equally true that the outcome of the battle did not determine the outcome of the war: it is generally agreed that the United States’ vastly greater industrial capacity and greater access to raw materials would, in any case, have led to ultimate defeat of Japan no matter how Midway had concluded. But it seems equally clear that the American victory at Midway greatly shortened the Pacific War. In the six months between Pearl Harbor and Midway, the Japanese Imperial Navy had almost unchallenged command of the Pacific, and the United States Navy was merely able to react to Japan’s initiative. After Midway, the U.S. Navy commanded the initiative. But victory would take a further three years: the Imperial Navy was in an underdog position following Midway, yet it was far from defeated.

Thus the Battle of Midway was not quite such a pivot point of history as the Greek victory over the Persian fleet at Salamis, nor the victory of Nelson’s British fleet over Napoleon’s forces at Trafalgar, for the ultimate fate of the war and the combatant nations was probably unchanged, however much the U.S. victory at Midway hastened the final conclusion. In any case, it was surely the most important naval action of the 20th century, and it definitely stands among the most important naval battles of history. Too, it represented an almost impossible achievement: a navy that had been largely destroyed merely six months before defeated a larger and better-armed force. Careful and accurate intelligence can offset numeric superiority; valor can neutralize tactical superiority and guide the course of history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.

— Winston Churchill

2 thoughts on “Seventy Years Ago Today: An Improbable Victory

  1. Torpedo Squadron 8 may not have accomplished their goal, but as you say, they did put a kink in the Japanese plans. Oft times there are seemingly insignificant events that do change the course of history. The little Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo) put a kink in Napoleon’s plans for his planned involvement in the Confederacy. I’m sure there are many others.

  2. Right you are! And though I did not get a chance to post about the Battle of Puebla this year, rest assured that when I do, I shall include your observation (and give credit where it is due!)

    -jmr

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