A Battle that Changed History
The roar was deafening. The black, billowing smoke could be seen for miles.
Chased by faster, more nimble Japanese Zeros, and dodging antiaircraft fire, American pilots in Douglas Devastators dropped their torpedoes, aiming at enemy battleships and carriers far below, floating like toy boats in the turquoise water, somewhere near a tiny, remote atoll known as Midway, after its location roughly halfway between North America and Asia. All but a few were consigned to watery graves in the depths of the Pacific.
Their sacrifice wasn't in vain, however, for they distracted the enemy, keeping the lethal Zeros away from American dive bombers, who unleashed fires of vengeance on some of the very ships that had wrought so much destruction at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, six months before.
One hit. Two hits. Three. Four. Five.
"Let's hit them again," one pilot said into his radio. "Let's hit them all."
"Gee, I wish I had one more bomb," another called.
Within minutes, American firepower reduced three Japanese carriers to flames. Two would be at the bottom of the sea by nightfall.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese, already in possession of Korea and much of China, had continued their assault on American and European possessions in the Far East: the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Singapore, Burma, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). They fell like dominoes, many of their defenders murdered or captured, their people all but enslaved.
Finally, during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the U.S slowed them down. It had cost the carrier USS Lexington (CV 2), as well as an oiler and a destroyer, and had left USS Yorktown (CV 5) limping back to Pearl Harbor for repairs, but the Navy had forced two Japanese carriers into dry dock in the process, carriers that would be out of commission for months.
By that time, said Robert Cressman of the Navy's History and Heritage Command, "the Navy's carriers were learning their trade and carrying out virtually uncontested raids on the Japanese defensive perimeter (Marshalls and Gilberts, Wake and Marcus). ... The Halsey-Doolittle Raid [on the Japanese home islands] cemented Japanese resolve to go after Midway and provoke a confrontation with our CVs that had bedeviled them since February 1942."
But Japanese commanders didn't realize that American cryptographers had cracked much of their code and knew the enemy was planning an attack on a location known as AF.
Intelligence analysts suspected AF was Midway, a strategic stopover and refueling point that would put Japanese bombers a mere 1,200 miles from Hawaii. If they succeeded in taking the atoll, "we would have had to remove our fleet base to the West Coast," Alvin Kernan, an historian and author who was also a 3rd class aviation ordnanceman on USS Enterprise (CV 6), said in a 2007 documentary.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, agreed with the assessment, but he needed proof in order to convince his superiors at the War Department to risk the fleet on such a gamble. He ordered Midway's commanders to report in via an undersea cable, advising headquarters in Hawaii that their water distillation plant had broken.
Two days later, Americans intercepted a Japanese message saying AF was running low on water.
This was our great occasion. "A great battle was coming. ... This was something like Nelson sailing to Trafalgar or the Civil War battle of the ironclads." - Alvin Kernan