English: The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) in Dry Dock No.1 at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, 29 May 1942, receiving urgent repairs for damage received in the Battle of Coral Sea. She left Pearl Harbor the next day to participate in the Battle of Midway. USS West Virginia (BB-48), sunk in the 7 December 1941 Japanese air attack, is being salvaged in the left distance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I mentioned yesterday that we are going to do quite a bit of history this week, I wasn’t kidding. This is a week that plays host to several battles that changed the course of history, or didn’t, which can, of course, be as significant. Yesterday was one of those. because of the British (plus Canadian and Australian) strategic win at Jutland, the English speaking peoples continue to this day to rule the oceans and guarantee free trade and work for freedom everywhere.
Today we go halfway around the world and twenty-six years forward in time.
Here’s the situation: On 7 December 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy struck at Pearl Harbor disabling the US Pacific Fleet‘s battleships, and destroying most of the airpower in Hawaii, Shortly thereafter they struck Clark Air Base in the Philippine destroying the largest concentration of American strategic airpower outside of the continental United States. Shortly thereafter the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Singapore and elsewhere. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk off Singapore and the fortress (which had no rear) surrendered..
It was a busy spring, on 18 April Colonel Doolittle mounted his raid on the Japanese Home Islands from the deck of the USS Hornet. Between 4 and 8 May the United States Navy and the Australian Navy, under Frank Jack Fletcher fought the first naval battle between aircraft carriers where surface units never saw in each other against Shigeyoshi Inoue of the IJN. On 4 May the Japanese took Tulagi but were surprised by airstrikes from the USS Yorktown.
On 6 May Lt. General Wainwright surrendered all Allied forces in the Philippines to the Japanese army.
Back in the Coral Sea, the Americans on the 7th sank the light carrier Shoho, on the 8th the Shōkaku was heavily damaged while the Americans had the Lexington critically damaged (it was scuttled) and the Yorktown was damaged. Both sides lost a lot of aircrew as well. And the invasion of Port Moresby was deferred.
In the meantime, American signal intelligence people were trying to figure out what the Japanese were planning and by doing a bit of trickery they deduced that the Japanese, who were pretty ticked off by the Doolittle raid, had a plan to invade Midway, and mount at least a raid in the Aleutians. Midway is about 1200 or so miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands and was mostly a military outpost. later it would become the main submarine base for the war on Japan. But not today.
Today, one of those amazingly complicated Japanese plans began to unfold, as the carrier air strike came in against Midway, there was adequate warning because of the radar installations and a return strike by army B-17s and B-26s was ordered reinforced by nearly every other combatant aircraft on the island. To very little effect, except that the Japanese strike commander radioed that a second strike was needed.
In the meantime, Midway reported the position of the various fleet units that they had sighted to Pearl Harbor where Nimitz was able to relay the information to the fleet, as opposed to Yamamoto sitting on the Yamato hundreds of miles from the battle observing radio silence. If you remember Yorktown had been damaged fairly badly at the Coral Sea a month ago, by herculean efforts the Pearl Harbor base had got it usable for this battle. So the Enterprise, the Hornet, and the Yorktown would be available for the battle against the IJM with four carriers.
And so Admiral Spruance, filling in for Halsey who was on the beach with a skin ailment, found out where the Japanese carriers were and ordered a strike. The range was long and it seems at this distance that Halsey’s staff wasn’t all it could have been. Because the aircrew were told to look for the fleet where it wasn’t [I’m skipping a lot here, more than a few books have been written about this day] Spruance decided that assembling the strike was taking too long (and burning too much gasoline as well) and ordered a general attack. The dive bombers went down the wrong track, but the torpedo bombers, which were the most effective anti-ship weapons but very slow and vulnerable, found the Japanese first.
Ensign George Gay
In a heroic effort three torpedo squadrons were wiped out, VT-8 had a single survivor, ensign George Gay of Valparaiso, Indiana.
This is the high water mark of the Imperial Japanese Navy. They had just destroyed the American Schwerpunkt, and were in position to resume the offensive. Or were they? The scout plane from the cruiser Tone had reported the American fleet although it took a while to establish its composition, and the Japanese were rearming the aircraft for a maritime strike instead of a second strike on Midway. And then Wade McClusky, leading the dive bombers spotted a Japanese destroyer making high speed and followed its lead and found the carriers. When the torpedo attacks were coming in the Japanese combat air patrol had come down to combat them and hadn’t regained altitude yet, when the dive bombers appeared.
They attacked into the undivided attention of every gun in the Japanese fleet. In the next 5 minutes the Imperial Japanese fleet lost three carriers, and would lose the fourth as well. The return strike would cost the Americans the Yorktown. The Japanese could not replace the carriers and even more they could not replace the trained airmen. After this battle the Japanese would never again be on the offensive, and soon they would face overpowering odds, as American production started to get into high gear.
This was the day, only 71 years ago when the United States Navy both won World War II in the Pacific, although never doubt that there was an incredible amount of desperate fighting to come, and secured the control of the sea down to our own day.
Military historian John Keegan called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” It was Japan’s worst naval defeat in 350 years.
Thus we see the twin thrusts of American leadership once again, the daring gamble leading up to and through Midway, which served to keep the cause alive and then the massive firepower which began to completely overwhelm the Japanese. To the point that in 1945 there was disagreement on whether to invade Japan or just starve the entire country to death, all sides should thank their God(s) that the atomic bomb offered a third way.
The World Changed that Day, in Thirty Minutes, on decisions made by men probably in their 30s