Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Battle of Midway, 75 Years On

Lt. Commander John C. Waldron
Today is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, in which the American navy defeated a superior Japanese force and turned the trajectory of World War Two in the Pacific. 

After their strategic loss at the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier in May, 1942, the Japanese were determined to win a decisive victory over the Americans in one final, massive naval engagement.  Their hope was that the Americans would sue for peace after the destruction of the naval force that served to protect their west coast from invasion.  The Japanese plan was to invade Midway Island, which lies at the far end of the Hawaiian Island chain, over one thousand miles west of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Rather than concentrate their forces, the Japanese, fortunately for the Americans, divided them into multiple prongs of attack.  The spearhead, and most important part, was a strike force of four aircraft carriers and some escort ships that provided the guns to defend against air attack.  Those Japanese carriers did not benefit from the considerable additional defensive firepower the Japanese could have deployed around them had they not split their forces.  The American naval force, the heart of which consisted of the aircraft carriers Yorktown, Hornet, and Enterprise, knew via superior intelligence the overall arrangement of the Japanese strike forces but not their location.  The Americans took a position to the northeast of Midway and waited for the Japanese to arrive.  The American air forces on Midway Island itself took part in the battle and served, in a sense, as a fourth carrier, although their planes were not as effective as those carrier-based.  The battle, once begun, turned on many factors, including American personal initiative and some good fortune in timing. 

A pivotal element of the battle was the courageous role played by a small squadron of the effectively-obsolete, slow and cumbersome Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and the history-changing personal initiative displayed by its commander John Waldron of South Dakota.  From Wikipedia:

[On] June 4, the 15 Douglas TBD-1 Devastators of [squadron] VT-8 launched from Hornet's flight deck in search of the enemy.  Before takeoff, [Lieutenant Commander John Charles] Waldron, [VT-8’s commander,] had a dispute with the Hornet's Commander, Air Group, Stanhope C. Ring, and Hornet CO Marc Mitscher about where the Japanese carriers would be found.  Despite having a contact report showing the Japanese southwest of Hornet, Mitscher and Ring ordered the flight to take a course due west, in the hopes of spotting a possible trailing group of carriers.  Waldron argued for a course based on the contact report, but was overruled. Once in the air, Waldron attempted to take control of the Hornet strike group by radio.  Failing that, he soon split his squadron off and led his unit directly to the Japanese carrier group.  Leading the first [American] carrier planes to approach the Japanese carriers [in the entire battle,] Waldron was grimly aware of the lack of fighter protection [as those fighters had run out of fuel,] but true to his plan of attack committed Torpedo 8 [squadron] to battle.  Without fighter escort, underpowered, with limited defensive armament, and forced by the unreliability of their own torpedoes to fly low and slow directly at their targets, the Hornet torpedo planes received the undivided attention of the enemy's … Zero fighters.  All 15 planes were shot down.  Of the 30 men who set out that morning, only one – [pilot] Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. – survived.  

Their sacrifice, however, had not been in vain.  Torpedo 8 had drawn down the fighter cover over the Japanese carriers, and also forced the carriers to maneuver radically, delaying the aircraft relaunching to which the Japanese were committed.  After further separate attacks by the remaining [later-arriving] two torpedo squadrons over the next hour, Japanese fighter cover and air defense coordination had become focused on low-altitude defense.  This left the Japanese carriers exposed to the late-arriving SBD Dauntless dive bombers from Yorktown and Enterprise, which attacked from high altitude.  The dive bombers fatally damaged three of the four Japanese carriers, changing the course of the battle.

American dive bombers returned early the next day to sink the fourth Japanese carrier, but not before that carrier sent off waves of its own planes that attacked and severely damaged the American carrier Yorktown, which was soon thereafter sunk by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.  Having lost all four carriers of their strike force, the Japanese turned back toward Japan.  It was a great though costly American victory.

Ensign Gay, whose plane was the first of his squadron to take off from the Hornet that morning of battle, continued to serve after Midway.  From Wikipedia:

Gay [later] took part in the Guadalcanal Campaign with Torpedo Squadron 11, and he later became a Navy flight instructor.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation for his actions in combat at Midway. He was also later awarded the Air Medal.  After World War II, he spent over 30 years as a pilot for Trans-World Airlines.  He often lectured on his Midway experiences, and authored the book Sole Survivor.…  [In] 1994, Gay died of a heart attack [at age 77]….  His body was cremated and his ashes spread at the place that his squadron had launched its ill-fated attack.

Churchill’s words after the Battle of El Alamein are just as apposite for Midway and the Pacific War – “This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."  The pivotal Battle of Midway, 75 years ago today.

R Balsamo

Related link:
El Alamein at 70 –“The End of the Beginning"

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