Sunday, the Fourth of June, was the anniversary of the World War II Battle of Midway. It has a special meaning for me. Several years ago, I was privileged to attend a symposium on the Battle that was sponsored by the Naval Aviation Museum.
We stood as the national anthems were played. All stood, perhaps in remembrance of a battle fought valiantly by skilled men on both sides. We learned how five minutes, in the midst of the fight, determined the victor of World War II in the Pacific.
The Battle of Midway occurred barely six months after the debacle at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoru Yamamoto had expected a third flight over the fuel farms at the Harbor, an action that would have set the American fleet back by months or even years, but that did not occur. The action at Midway was, in part, to make up for the
At the Naval Base at Pearl the admirals were certain of an action by Imperial Japanese ships, but were uncertain of the target or the dates. In a dingy bunker worked some officers and men under the command of Joe Rochefort. They had early on broken the Japanese code and were able to determine a lot about the size of the enemy fleet, its approximate course, and an estimate of its arrival, but they did not know the exact target. They suspected that it would be Midway, so they sent, by underwater cable, a request that the commander there send out a plain language message that they could not distill sea water. The Japanese fell for the ruse, sent out a notice to that effect, and Midway became the target.
The American fleet set out to intercept. There were no battleships, but the carriers were guarded by cruisers and destroyers. The Imperial Japanese fleet moved toward the east, toward their destination. They dodged in and out of heavy weather, working ever closer to the small island in the midst of the Pacific.
America’s carriers were, at that time with a few exceptions, were named for battles. Lined against the Japanese ships (Kaga, Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu) were the USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, and USS Lexington. The fleets moved towards each other, searching for the large warships, for scouting planes, for anything that would indicate the presence of the enemy.
Finally, the American scout planes located the Japanese, and sent out the first sortie: Torpedo Squadron Eight, led by Lieutenant Commander John Waldron. The planes flew in, low and with little evasive action. One by one, they were downed. One by one the crews died, except Ensign George Gay. Gay’s craft went down, and he lost his crewman, but escaped into the water, holding onto a seat cushion, and he remained there for the total time of the battle, watching as each of the Japanese ships went beneath the waves. Gay was rescued by a PBY, and lived to come home and to participate in War Bond drives, with Hollywood starlets by his side.
Admiral Yamamoto, planner of the attack on Pearl Harbor and of the Battle of Midway, was reputed to have said of the dove bomber pilots, “These Americans, they sacrificed themselves like Samurai,” a high compliment, indeed.
Soon the Japanese located the American fleet and got ready to launch. But in the midst of the action a change was made that required re-arming, and the planes were struck below and their armament was changed. That was when Commander Wade McCluskey and his bombing squadron found them, the Kaga, the Hiryu, the Akagi, the Soryu, and began dive bombing. Soon all carriers were afire or sinking. And in that crucial five minutes, when Admiral Yamamoto approved the change of armament, the battle and the war
On the sixth of May, 1988 I, a couple of thousand other spectators stood as four men approached the stage. All had participated in the battle.
I met Captain Mitsuo Fuchida and have his book. I met Ensign George Gay, and I have his autographed book. In it he wished me to have the good luck in my life that he had in those two days in the Pacific. Nothing will ever convince me that his wish did not come true. I have met men who, by their actions, placed them in my opinion just a little lower than the gods.