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Victory at Sea

The Battle of Midway at 70.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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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.

A Navy ship at sea

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.

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