64 years ago today…

It was 64 years ago today that the Imperial Japanese Navy’s self-image of invincibility was irreparably shattered, when a rag-tag force of American ships (one barely out of the repair yard) took on the cream of the Japanese fleet and sent four of the aircraft carriers who attacked Pearl Harbor barely seven months before to the bottom of the Pacific.

The Battle of Midway was, arguably, the most important naval battle not only of World War II, but of the 20th Century. IT began a virtually unbroken streak of American victories and Japanese defeats, a chain of battles that finally came to an end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And many consider it the birth date of America as a global superpower.

On that beautiful day in 1942, Americans found themselves vastly outnumbered and outgunned. The one concrete advantage we had was that the Japanese were convinced that we had one or two aircraft carriers available. Thanks to truly heroic work by the yard workers at Pearl Harbor, the Yorktown (barely patched together, and in dire need of far more extensive repairs) joined her sisters Enterprise and Hornet for the battle.

However, we had another advantage, one strictly on paper, but worth at least another two aircraft carriers. We had broken the Japanese code, and knew their battle plans.

Horrible mistakes were made on both sides. Errors and misjudgments and miscommunications all added together in the inevitable fog of war. Just to cite one example, American torpedo bombers got separated from the dive bombers and fighters, and made solo attacks on the Japanese fleet — with catastrophic results. Of two squadrons of bombers, only one man survived.

But their sacrifice was not in vain. They drew all the Japanese defenses down to sea level, leaving the skies bare for the arriving dive bombers. In short order, the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were blazing wrecks, leaving only Hiryu still intact. The Japanese managed to strike back, crippling the already-wounded Yorktown and leaving her vulnerable to a submarine attack. The Hiryu herself was sent to a watery grave the next day.

Japan never recovered from this blow. Four of their front-line carriers — and more importantly, their highly skilled aircrews — were gone, never to be fully replaced.

On this day, we should all pause to remember those died 64 years ago.

(Correction: 64 years, obviously, as several pointed out. I fell prey to one of the more insidious traps for the amateur World War II historian, and confused the events of June 4-6, 1942, with those of June 6, 1944. Both were momentous turning points in the war — one in the Pacific, one in Europe — and they just happened to occur on the same day two years apart.)

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  1. David June 4, 2006
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