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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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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.

Maybe.

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?

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