(These quotes come from Ben Bradlee’s essay, The Turning Point: The Battle of Midway, included in Defining a Nation, edited by David Halberstam).
This is what they called a decisive battle.
On May 7, 1942 (five months after Pearl Harbor), American forces under General Wainwright surrendered in the Philippines. The Americans gave up a “tactical victory” to the Japanese at the Battle of Coral Sea.
The scene was now set for the critical sea battle of World War II, the Battle of Midway.
On one side was the greatest sea force ever assembled – more than two hundred Japanese combat ships, including eight carriers, eleven battleships, twenty-two cruisers, sixty-five destroyers, twenty-one submarines, and more than seven hundred planes. The fearsome Admiral Yamamoto was in command. The size is no easier to grasp today than it was on June 3, 1942. This armada was divided into three groups: a four-carrier strike force approaching from the northwest; an invasion/occupation force approaching from the west; and a main battle force of the battleships between the other two.
On the other side, Admiral Nimitz had only three carriers, eight cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. One of the carriers, the Yorktown, had been so badly damaged at Coral Sea that experts said it would take three months to repair her, but 1400 repairmen managed to patch it up in a Pearl Harbor dry dock in two days. Nimitz split this force into two groups – one commanded by Admiral Fletcher, the other by Admiral Raymond Spruance, a last-minute substitute for Admiral Bull Halsey, who had come down with a severe case of shingles. Many students of the Pacific war consider Spruance to have been its greatest American admiral.
The rest of the essay tells the story of the battle. The key “lucky break” for the Americans was an almost simultaneous attack on three Japanese carriers, all three of which happened to have planes and ordnance on the deck, loading fuel, making them sitting/defenseless targets.
Japanese planes on all three carriers were warming up for take off. Gasoline lines snaked across all three decks. Ordnance was stacked everywhere to reload returning planes… In less than ten minutes time, the tide of the war would turn.
When the Japanese commanders finally learned that the Hiryu was sunk, the fate was clear. The invasion of Midway was aborted. The tide of the Pacific war had definitely turned. The Japanese would never again be on the offensive.
I am certainly not a World War II expert. In fact, I know few of the details. I know that my wife’s father was a young, 20 year old signalman who watched his companion killed in front of his eyes from a direct hit by a kamikaze attack, just feet from where he was standing. (No, he has never been able to talk about it with me). But I know that the effort, the courage, the doggedness of countless people gave us our way of life, and, yes, many gave “the last full measure of devotion.”
And I also think this. All progress, all victory, in war and in every thing else, is fought one campaign, one battle at a time. We write the history in big phrases. But it was the single pilot, flying next to the other single pilots, working together in first this battle and then that battle, with their individual acts of courage, that describe the “bigger named” battles (the Battle of Midway), that ultimately led to the biggest description – we won World War II.
It’s Memorial Day. It is right to remember those who deserve our memories, and their memorials – those from the earliest days of this nation to the ones who carry on with individual acts of courage in places far from home today.
And so, as always, we remember these words from Lincoln, after one so very costly battle – one single battle that cost nearly as many lives as the loss of American life in the entire Vietnam War:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Personal note: if you made me clear out my library of all but a handful of books, one that I would keep is this volume edited by Halberstam. You can buy it used from Amazon for as little as $4.00, including shipping. It is a great volume! I encourage you to order a copy, and read it slowly.