In the six months after its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Navy sailed from one victory to another, across the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, until it seemed as though it was not merely unbeaten, but unbeatable. The Japanese conquered everything they attempted to conquer—including the Philippines and Singapore—and they defeated every fleet they encountered. Perhaps the most heavily symbolic of those early victories was the Battle of the Java Sea, in which a force of cruisers and destroyers fighting as part of something known as American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, was routed and its commander, Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, killed when his flagship, the Dutch cruiser De Ruyter, was hit by a Japanese torpedo that blew up one of the ship’s magazines.
That victory, and others, were so conclusive—even easy—that the Japanese Navy began to think of itself as invincible and became infected with what some of its officers would call, ruefully, “the victory disease.” But that was later. After Midway.
Despite its astounding run of victories, Japan had still not fully settled accounts with the Americans. Faced with the decision of “what next?” the Japanese high command designed an operation to force America’s aircraft carriers into a decisive battle and sink them. The U.S. Navy would be left without carriers, with its battleships mostly resting on the mud in Pearl Harbor, and with its submarines shooting torpedoes that routinely malfunctioned. In this state of helplessness, the Americans might be persuaded to negotiate. If not, Japan could defend its empire from behind a barrier of island fortresses that ran from the Aleutians to New Guinea, with its invincible navy sailing out to meet and engage any threat.
One more decisive battle might do it. This, anyway, was the thinking of many in the Japanese high command. They did not believe the Americans had the will to fight the kind of war it would take to reclaim the Pacific. One conspicuous exception was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had spent time in America—even studied at Harvard—and believed he knew the American character. He was opposed to war, believing that Japan would be overwhelmed by American industry.
He had that right. Even before the opening of hostilities, America was building new vessels. Carriers, especially, which Pearl Harbor had conclusively established as the new capital ship for the world’s navies. But in June 1942, America’s new Essex-class carriers were still in the yards, in construction, or undergoing sea trials, and the U.S. Navy was limping by on what it had left after Pearl Harbor.
Which wasn’t much. The nucleus consisted of three carriers—Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown. The Japanese believed they had sunk the Yorktown in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. And they nearly had. But the ship made it back to Pearl Harbor, badly damaged and trailing oil. First estimates were that repairs would take three months and that they would need to be made in one of the West Coast yards, not in Hawaii.
After the wounded ship had arrived in Pearl and the water had been pumped out of the dry dock, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who commanded the Navy in the Pacific, pulled on a pair of hip boots and sloshed around beneath her hull with the repair crew inspecting the damage.
“We must have this ship back in three days,” he said.
“Wilco,” someone must have said. Or, in modern parlance, “Can do, Admiral.”
With the urgency of a NASCAR pit crew changing all four tires and gassing up its car in a matter of seconds, the yard crew went to work, pulling so much power for their floodlights and welding torches that parts of Honolulu lost electricity. The repairs were made, in large part, without the benefit of blueprints and schematics. Things were done by eyeball, and the American art of jury-rigging and improvisation may never have been more historically decisive. The ship was ready to make steam and to launch and recover aircraft in just over 48 hours. It was one of many turning points in a battle not yet fought and in which Yorktown would play a critical role. And, sadly, be sunk.
Nimitz had set his deadline for the return of the Yorktown on the basis of something between intuition and scientific certainty. His code-breakers had been intercepting and analyzing Japanese radio traffic that they believed indicated the objective of the enemy’s next major offensive was Midway. The code-breakers were not able to read every word of every message, as the Bletchley Park team did with the German radio traffic that had been coded by the famous Enigma machines. The people working for Nimitz were able only to tease out bits and pieces from which they made very informed estimates. In one celebrated episode, they used a ruse to trick the Japanese into identifying the target of a large operation that went by the code letters “AF” and turned out, indeed, to be Midway, a cluster of forlorn little islands 1,300 miles west of Hawaii; close enough to be strategic.
As expert and clever as they were, the code-breakers’ work was treated with skepticism by some of their superiors. And some of Nimitz’s superiors, as well, including his boss, Admiral Ernest King, the highest ranking officer in the Navy, and Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, who believed the approaching great sea battle would be fought just off the coast of California.
This may seem preposterous to generations of Americans who have assumed that their country always has the military upper hand and decisively so. But in June 1942, it was absolutely not the case. As Stimson wrote in his diary, “It is a serious situation for [the Japanese] greatly outclass us in the strength of carrier vessels. . . . [N]evertheless, if the Navy uses good judgment and doesn’t run the risk of getting out from under the air umbrella, we may entice them into a position where we may get a chance to do something—some hit and run blows which may even up the situation navally and make it a little more possible.”
Nimitz had other—and considerably more aggressive—ideas. Trusting his code-breakers had correctly teased out Japanese intentions and plans, Nimitz doubled down and decided to send his three carriers to meet the attack on Midway. The Japanese carrier fleet normally included six carriers. For the Midway operation, it would consist of four. The two left behind had been in the Coral Sea fight and had lost flight crews. One had been damaged and required repairs. But the Japanese command did not see the urgency that Nimitz had impressed on the yard personnel repairing Yorktown.
So it would be four carriers to three. Yorktown, like the two missing Japanese carriers, had suffered serious losses among its air group’s pilots. But, again, instead of taking the time to bring in replacements and reorganize, Nimitz simply cannibalized from squadrons that had been orphaned after the loss of other carriers. The Yorktown was a jury-rigged man-of-war, with a patched-together air group. Still, it was in the fight.
But the odds favored the Japanese, in numbers, experience, and weaponry. The Japanese Zero was one of the finest fighter planes in the world, and the F4F Wildcat was not in its class. The U.S. dive-bomber, the SBD Dauntless, was dependable. But the torpedo plane, the TBD Devastator, was obsolete even before the war. It was slow in the attack and pitifully vulnerable to fighters. Against the Zero it had no chance.
But as events were to prove, the aviators flying the TBDs were as aggressive as the admiral who commanded them. The pilots made up for what their planes lacked in speed with what still seems incredible boldness. And they were as resourceful—especially one of their leaders—as the people at Pearl who had patched up the Yorktown.
The battle eventually turned on just these qualities: aggressiveness and the ability to improvise. It was a battle of many “what ifs,” and when viewed that way, the American victory can be seen as lucky. What if the Japanese float plane from the cruiser Tone had launched on time and searched its sector according to plan? Perhaps it would have alerted the Japanese admiral to the presence of the American fleet in time for him to strike first.
And what if the American submarine Nautilus had not played an aggressive cat-and-mouse game with a Japanese destroyer that, as a result, was racing to catch up with the rest of the fleet and leaving a wake that pointed, like an arrow, to the position of the Japanese carriers?
And what if Wade McClusky, leading American dive bombers off the Enterprise, had not seen that destroyer’s wake and followed it to the Japanese fleet, which he attacked?
And what if McClusky had not arrived at precisely that moment, when the Zeros were all at low altitude, having nearly wiped out three squadrons of American carrier-based torpedo planes and leaving the sky above undefended against dive bombers?
And what if the commander of one of those American squadrons—Torpedo 8, off the USS Hornet—had not been an aggressive junior officer willing to disobey a direct order and risk court-martial in order to fly a course he knew would take him to the Japanese fleet while the rest of his ship’s air group spent the day over empty ocean with none of its planes engaging the enemy and many of them splashing into the Pacific, out of gas?
The story of the last flight of Torpedo 8, the bravery of the attack and the death of all but one pilot and every radio gunner—15 planes down, 29 of 30 men dead—has been told many times. But in Craig L. Symonds’s The Battle of Midway, the most recent and, by far, most satisfying account of the battle yet, readers learn just how badly handled the Hornet’s air group was that day and how insubordinate John Waldron, Torpedo 8’s commander, had been when he broke off formation to fly his own course, which he believed (correctly it turned out) would take him to the Japanese fleet.
When his commander ordered him not to break formation and go out on his own, Waldron replied, “Well, the hell with you. I know where they are, and I’m going to them.”
Had he lived, Waldron would have been court-martialed. He was, instead, awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously.
His squadron flew directly to the Japanese fleet and attacked without scoring a hit. But the raid of the torpedo planes brought the Zeros down low, leaving the sky above open to McClusky and the dive-bombers. In five minutes, three of the Japanese carriers were in flames, so badly damaged that they eventually sank. The fourth, now heavily outnumbered by the Americans, was attacked and sunk later that afternoon.
The Japanese lost the initiative in the Pacific in five minutes. And, of course, eventually lost the war. Which, from this distance, seems inevitable.
Not so, however, early on June 4, 1942, when the loss of Midway seemed likely, the loss of Hawaii seemed probable, and attacks on the West Coast of the United States or the Panama Canal seemed all too possible.
One can read the accounts and conclude that the fortunes of war (read: luck) went the Americans’ way. Or one can read more closely and see that while the Americans may have gotten some breaks, they made the most of them. What John Keegan has called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare” was, above all, a victory of spirit.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.