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Turning Point in the Pacific: The Flattop Carriers Collide at Battle of Midway, 1942

Updated on November 5, 2011

Seriously. If you have never seen the 1960's epic war film "Midway", star studded and tense, you are missing a thriller that is based on fact on this critical carrier battle in the Pacific, 1942. I saw it as a kid, it remains my favorite WW2 flick.

Tolstoy once wrote, "chance determines events but it is people who make history". This battle confirms it. Back then, America had suffered its first 9\11, a Japanese attack on its then naval outpost at Oahu, Hawaii, Dec. 1941. Like the 2001 9\11, it totally shocked and woke up an America that up to that time felt that "the rumors of war in Europe" would not touch the US. It would confined and contained to that area. Americans sat and watched Hitler gradually come to power, overrun Poland, then France, Czechslovakia, Austria, made friends with Spain, conquered Libya and even Blitzkrieg into Russia towards Moscow. Despite all of this, America remained aloof and rather untouched by it. We were well insulated by distance and ocean.

The Japanese oddly enough, did not occupy Oahu, Hawaii, although Yamamoto did have serious plans to land a division to do so. These plans were cancelled because of distance to Hawaii for troop transports and resupply ships. Yet, the brilliant Pearl Harbor attack did cripple the US Navy. Many senators thought we should abandoned Hawaii, which was not a State, just an outpost. After Pearl, the US spent the next few months in a planning mode. The only failure at Pearl were the three missing US carriers that were not present. This is what the Japs wanted the most. Had they destroyed them then, America would have been seriously challenged in the Pacific for another year, for the rest were on the East coast.

Thus, the Japanese devised another plan to take Midway Atoll by sending four carriers, troop transports and other ships to invade and take the small atoll with its critical airfield for future operations. All of the plan and Japanese Task forces of ships sailed in total secrecy. So they thought. US code breakers had deciphered Intel and the USN knew the Japanese were coming and the objective, thus, the three US carriers in Hawaii were sent out.

The ocean is huge with vast expanses even for these immense forces about to collide, Radio reception was not always good. The new device, radar, was spotty. Thus, the Battle at Midway was largely search and destroy. Each side sent out legions of spotter planes to locate the enemy ahead of the task force. If found, aircraft would launch and hopefully surprise. Thw whole battle was a test of nerves, some luck, accident and errors that would prove pivotal in the battle. The forces were equally matched and had the Jap code not been deciphered in time, Midway, would fall quite easily with little effort, just as Wake Island had. The Japanese did not know the US carriers were lurking around, yet for both sides, the first to find the other had the edge. It was nail biting, edge of your seat battle. It could turn against or toward you with a single bad move.

For instance, one of the Japanese spotter planes took off late, however, this off schedule was a blessing, as the plane flew right over a US Carrier. A Japanese destroyer found and tracked a US sub. The commander made the error to continue tracking it which led it off course. High above, a US spotter plane spied the enemy ship and simply followed it back to its carrier task force. After three of the Jap carriers had been sunk, one of the dive bomber pilots veered off from its pack on the way back, it stumbled upon the fourth Jap carrier, which up to then, had been undetected. Other odd things happened, when 65 US dive bombers began their attack on a Jap cruiser, it seemed to have an invisible force shield around it- none of the dive bombers managed to get a single hit! Then, there were false sightings which sent whole squadrons from a US carrier to nowhere and back.

Good reads are:

The Battle of Midway (2011) by Craig Symonds

Shattered Sword (2005) by Jonathon Parshall

Black Shoe Carrier Admiral (2006) by John Lundstrom

Miracle at Midway (1982) by Gordon Prange


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      Jim H 5 years ago

      ENjoyed this piece on Midway. Like the Tolstoy quote, hadn't seen that before. You are invited to visit my history magazine. It is I've compiled 42 articles on a fair variety of historic subjects with an emphasis on military history, especially WW II and the Civil War. My latest article is on the battle of Midway. WOuld enjoy your comments. Please stop by.