Battle of Midway paved way for Allied efforts elsewhere

Jun 3 2010 - 3:24pm

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The Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu is shown maneuvering during a bombing attack by U.S. bombers at the Battle of Midway.
The Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu is shown maneuvering during a bombing attack by U.S. bombers at the Battle of Midway.

June 2010 marks the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. This fight is referred to as the most decisive naval engagement of World War II in that it changed the course of the war and ultimately led to the Allied victory. Midway was a victory of intelligence as well as skill and courage, and allowed the U.S. military to turn its attention back to the European theater and storm the beaches of Normandy two years later.

Midway was somewhat of a precursor to information operations and led to today's important program and role of operations security, OPSEC, in national defense. Not only did America win the battle, but in the eyes of the American people, sinking some of the aircraft carriers that launched the attack on Pearl Harbor boosted morale and led directly to the Allies winning the war in the Pacific.

The battle occurred June 4-June 7, 1942, approximately one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea and six months after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese operation, like the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor, aimed to eliminate the United States as a strategic power in the Pacific and give Japan a free hand in East Asia. Moreover, they hoped another demoralizing defeat would force America to negotiate an end to the Pacific War on conditions favorable to Japan.

The plan was to lure the United States' few remaining aircraft carriers into a trap. However, the plan was handicapped by faulty assumptions of American reaction and poor initial dispositions. Most significantly, American code breakers were able to determine the date and location of the attack, enabling the forewarned U.S. Navy to set up a surprise of its own.

U.S. Navy aviators sunk two Japanese aircraft carriers and severely damaged two others, while one American carrier was lost. Japan's heavy losses in carriers and aircrews permanently weakened their naval force. Japan's shipbuilding and pilot training programs were unable to keep pace in replacing losses, while the U.S. steadily increased output in both areas.

While deciphering Japanese radio messages a few weeks prior to the battle, the U.S. Navy's Combat Intelligence Office discovered information that made them suspicious of an upcoming attack. Deciphered transmissions pointed to a plan of attack on a target named "AF." The head of the Combat Intelligence Office, Commander Joseph P. Rochefort, was pretty sure "AF" was Midway, but he needed proof and soon came up with a clever way to obtain it.

The U.S. had an underwater cable phone line that led to Midway that could not be tapped by the Japanese. Using the phone, Rochefort called Midway and asked them to put out a transmission that the water desalination facility on the island was broken, meaning that the Americans on the island would soon have a shortage of drinking water. This false information soon showed up in a Japanese radio message, which stated that the desalination facility at "AF" was down. This was the proof Rochefort needed and helped the American Navy commander, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, place forces in the right location at the right time with knowledge of the enemy's plan of attack.

Still, defeating the Japanese was no easy task as their armada was superior in numbers: 16 submarines, four aircraft carriers, 250 aircraft, 16 cargo ships with 5,000 troops, nine battleships, eight heavy cruisers, and several destroyers. Nonetheless, with key intelligence, three aircraft carriers, and just a few more than 100 aircraft, the U.S. Navy prevailed.

Not knowing that the Americans knew of the pending attack, Japan's Admiral Isoruko Naguma initially sent out half of his aircraft. As soon as the U.S. forces detected them, their land-based aircraft took off from Midway. Because Japan outnumbered American aircraft, they succeeded in bombing Midway. They thought the resulting damage was sufficient enough to prevent any U.S. air attacks from the island.

They prepared for another assault on Midway in preparation for invasion. Meanwhile, a Japanese patrol aircraft spotted an American ship in the area.While the pilot reported the sighting, he failed to mention that it was an aircraft carrier. Because of the lack of that information, Admiral Nagumo did not take the report as seriously as he should have.

To Nagumo's surprise, the tables were turning. As some of his fighters were flying at low levels looking for ships, the fighters were bombarded by 37 U.S. Navy dive bombers, flying high above the Japanese carriers, which were full of fueled aircraft ready for launch, vulnerable to attack.

Successive American dive bomber attacks lasted only a matter of minutes, but they completely destroyed two of the four enemy carriers and severely damaged two others. In retaliation, Nagumo sent out 40 aircraft to attack the American carrier, Yorktown, but with little success.

The engagements spent Japan's armada. Realizing they had too much to lose, they retreated leaving the U.S. Navy victorious. The Pacific Ocean remains under the control of and protectition of American aircraft carriers.

Some of the U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft that operated from Midway 68 years ago were B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-26 Maurauders. Ogden Air Depot overhauled many of those types of aircraft as well as others at Hill Field throughout WWII, beginning the proud heritage of service in the nation's defense that we continue today.

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