Midway Eighty Years On: Remembrance and Lessons

Midway Eighty Years On: Remembrance and Lessons

Midway Eighty Years On: Remembrance and Lessons

Eighty years ago this weekend, a battle began which decided the future of American might in the Pacific. That would be the Battle of Midway, which raged from June 4-7, 1942.


How the Battle of Midway Began

Japan had wanted a reprise of its victory over the US Navy with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided to initiate another surprise attack, this time upon the Allied base on Midway Island. The ultimate goal would be gaining a point from which Japan could launch more attacks against Pearl Harbor.

But early in 1942, American codebreakers began breaking Japanese codes, and had learned of their plans to attack a specific location in the Pacific. The Japanese called the location “AF,” which the codebreakers figured out meant Midway Island. They also decoded messages that told them the dates of the planned attack as well as the order of battle. Thus, US Admiral Chester Nimitz was able to use this vital information to ready a counterattack.

Then, on June 3, patrol bombers (“PBY”) discovered part of the Japanese Midway Occupational Force southwest of the atoll. The carrier force couldn’t be located, however. Nevertheless, PBYs and B-17 bombers attacked the forces that could be seen. Later that night, four PBYs carried out torpedo attacks against some of the Japanese ships, damaging one or two of them.


The Battle of Midway

On the morning of June 4, Japanese aircraft — launched from carriers — attacked the base on Midway, and the Marines on the base sustained disastrous losses. Meanwhile, the US carrier force to the east had finally discovered the rest of the Japanese attack force, and as the Japanese aircraft returned to their carriers, their navy also learned of the US presence.

But three US carriers — the USS Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet — launched Devastator torpedo bombers to attack the Japanese force. While the Japanese focused upon these aircraft, Dauntless dive bombers from the the Yorktown and Enterprise attacked, crippling the Kaga, Akagi, and wrecking the Soryu. However, the surviving Japanese carrier Hiryu, was able to attack American carriers, severely damaging the Yorktown. But payback came later in the evening of June 5, when Dauntlesses from Enterprise attacked the Hiryu, with fatal results for the final Japanese carrier.


Attack on the Yorktown. Goodfreephotos.com. Public domain.

Japan lost four of its aircraft carriers, and the Battle of Midway turned the tide for American forces in the Pacific.


The Yorktown Sinks

On June 5, US Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance chased the Japanese fleet to the west of Midway, forcing them to scuttle the Akagi and Hiryu. Then, on June 6, the Americans dealt the final blows to the Japanese attack force, as dive bombers from the Enterprise and Hornet sank the heavy cruiser Mikuma and damaged three other ships.

Meanwhile, the crew of the USS Yorktown furiously fought to save her. However, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the crippled Yorktown and sank the destroyer USS Hammann. Despite courageous efforts on the part of her crew, Yorktown rolled over and sank on June 7 at dawn.

Decades later, crewmen from the Yorktown recalled her sinking in these interviews.


Lessons From Midway

One of the lessons Americans should learn from the Battle of Midway is this: we can’t afford to cut back on our fleet.

Dr. James Holmes, the JC Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, has also served as a surface-warfare officer in the Gulf War. So he knows a thing or two about naval warfare. And, on this 80th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, Holmes notes that Adm. Nimitz was able to be “venturesome” during the battle. He could trust his subordinate commanders to exercise their judgment, and to attack when they felt they would inflict greater damage on the enemy than they would receive in return. As Holmes wrote, The quest for disproportionate gain made sound tactics.

Nimitz was able to take these risks, despite the damages the Pacific fleet received earlier at Pearl Harbor. That’s because he knew a brand-new fleet was being built, which would be arriving mid-1943. So if the worst happened at Midway, replacements would be on their way. Knowing this, Nimitz took the gamble — and won.


Biden Plans to Cut the Navy

But now, writes Holmes, the Biden administration is proposing to retire 24 ships of war, while replacing them with only nine. The inventory of ships is set to shrink to 280, which is below the 355 mandated by US law. And this while Russia is waging war on Ukraine, and China is surging in power.

As Holmes wrote:

“So again, the memory of Midway should give us pause. It’s doubtful a future Admiral Nimitz could give task-force commanders the same latitude his pre-battle directive bestowed on Admirals Spruance and Fletcher ….”

“Official Washington should think twice before cutting back fleet numbers.”

Meanwhile, we have a president who wants to spend billions on the military. Not on building more ships, mind you, but on making military vehicles more climate friendly. “Every vehicle — I mean it,” he said.

Joe Biden should learn the lessons from the Battle of Midway, instead.


Featured image: “Battle of Midway,” magazine cover, 1961. Tom Simpson/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0.

Written by

Kim is a pint-sized patriot who packs some big contradictions. She is a Baby Boomer who never became a hippie, an active Republican who first registered as a Democrat (okay, it was to help a sorority sister's father in his run for sheriff), and a devout Lutheran who practices yoga. Growing up in small-town Indiana, now living in the Kansas City metro, Kim is a conservative Midwestern gal whose heart is also in the Seattle area, where her eldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson live. Kim is a working speech pathologist who left school system employment behind to subcontract to an agency, and has never looked back. She describes her conservatism as falling in the mold of Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles. Don't know what they are? Google them!

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  • Dietrich says:

    Joe Biden learn? Surely you jest.

  • Cameron says:

    “But early in 1942, American codebreakers began breaking Japanese codes, and had learned of their plans to attack a specific location in the Pacific.”

    Nowadays, the NYT would release that information because it wasn’t fair that we were oppressing the Japanese so much.

  • NTSOG says:

    The air battle of Midway was a major victory and the turning point in the Pacific war, but discussing Midway without the earlier Battle of the Coral Sea is to tell only half the story. The Battle of the Coral Sea effectively stopped [discouraged] the planned Japanese landings in Port Moresby; it was the first time since December 7th. 1941 a Japanese invasion force did not succeed. Getting the Yorktown back to Hawaii for quick repairs was a monumental effort and a significant ‘victory’ in itself.

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