GEORGE A. ROSS | LT. COL. USMC (RET) | JUNE 16, 2010
The United States of America should always remember and honor the victory at the Battle of Midway. It was 68 years ago, between June 4-6, 1942, that the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Corps defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy and reshaped WWII. What is most significant about this victory is that it was not due to overwhelming forces but to independent decisions made by three USN Torpedo Squadron Commanders. These decisions were made without consultation and with full knowledge they and their squadrons would not survive. On these vital decisions hung not only the victory at Midway but the future of WWII. We owe Lt. Cmdr. Waldron, Torpedo Squadron 8 from the USS Hornet, Lt. Cmdr. Lindsey, Torpedo Squadron 6 from the USS Enterprise and Lt. Cmdr. Massey, Torpedo Squadron 3 from the USS Yorktown and their flight crews, more than mere words can express. None of these Squadron Commanders survived; in fact, most of the flight crews did not survive.
The brief history prior to the Battle of Midway was decidedly running in Japans favor. Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Guam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indochina (Vietnam), Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the Philippines were all victories for Japan. The Battle of the Coral Sea was, at best, a draw with the U.S. and Japan each losing an aircraft carrier. The Doolittle Raid on Japan was a morale boost for the U.S. but it was not of significant value. Japan planned to annihilate the remaining U.S. aircraft carriers and force American forces to retreat to the west coast and possibly, sue for peace. Even if the United States did not sue for peace the entire nature of WWII would have changed. The strategic concept of giving the European Theater of War priority over the Pacific Theater would have changed. Germany would have had a freer hand to defeat England. The Axis Powers, Germany, Italy and Japan, would have controlled North Africa, Southwest Asia and, quite possibly, Australia and New Zealand. The United States would have had to concentrate solely on the Pacific. Our ability to supply England and the Soviet Union with food and war supplies would have been severely hampered. Germany might well have succeeded with its conquest of the Soviet Union.
The United States had broken a portion of the Japanese naval code, thus the USN, Admiral Nimitz, was convinced Midway was the target of the Imperial Naval Fleet (INF) of Japan. The overwhelming military power resided with Japan. They had four fleet size aircraft carriers, two light aircraft carriers, seven battleships, four heavy cruisers plus 56 support ships. The carriers had 248 aircraft. The United States had three aircraft carriers with 233 aircraft, 25 support ships plus 127 land based aircraft at Midway. Japan sent an additional task force into the Aleutian Islands and seized the Islands of Attu and Kiska. Japan struck first attacking Midway Island and destroying the majority of the aircraft in a major air battle. Meanwhile, U.S. scout aircraft located the Japanese fleet. The aircraft carriers Hornet and Enterprise, under the command of Admiral Spruance, launched their aircraft. The aircraft carrier Yorktown, under the command of Admiral Fletcher, followed suit and launched its aircraft. The attacks were supposed to be coordinated with fighter cover for the torpedo and dive bombers. Due to weather and the staggered launches, this did not occur. The aircraft were operating at maximum range and many were unable to return to their carriers due to fuel starvation. Torpedo 8 sighted the Japanese carriers first and, without fighter cover or dive bomber support, commenced their attack; all were destroyed without achieving a hit. Torpedo 6 then sighted the enemy and commenced its attack again with the same results. Now Torpedo 3 began its attack; none of their torpedoes scored any hits but three aircraft were able to strafe one carrier with no appreciable affect. Just prior to these attacks the Japanese aircraft that attacked Midway returned with moderate losses. They recommended a second attack on Midway before the assault force (Japanese Naval Infantry) landed on Midway. What the torpedo squadrons did accomplish was to prevent the Japanese from launching any aircraft and the fighter cover over the Japanese carriers was drawn down to low altitude. Without their Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over their fleet, the Japanese carriers were vulnerable. Their flight decks and hanger decks were full of aircraft rearming and refueling. The U.S. dive bombers were about to return to their carriers when they found the Japanese fleet. Knowing they might not get back due to fuel constraints, the dive bombers of Bomber and Scout 6 led by Lt. Cmdr. McClusky from Enterprise plus Bomber and Scout 3 led by Lt. Cmdr. Lesley from Yorktown attacked. Within seven minutes they destroyed three Japanese carriers. The fourth Japanese carrier launched its aircraft and in two successive attacks severely damaged Yorktown but she was able to recover and launch her aircraft – along with aircraft from Enterprise they found and destroyed the fourth Japanese carrier. Subsequently a Japanese submarine sank Yorktown and the destroyer USS Hammann. Marine and Navy dive bombers from Midway Island along with dive bombers from Enterprise located two Japanese cruisers, sinking one and severely damaging the other. By the evening of June 6 both fleets retired. Japan never fully recovered its naval air power.
It was still a long hard struggle in the Pacific but the die was cast; Japan was doomed. Admiral Nimitz admitted the independent decisions of Lt. Cmdr’s. Waldron, Lindsey and Massey, coupled with the decisions of the dive bombers were the root cause of the victory. The three squadron commanders and almost all of their aircrews died not having seen the results of their bravery, yet they unselfishly gave their lives for a greater cause. “… The bravery and selfless devotion of the American airmen and sailors and the verve and skill of their leaders were the foundation of all” stated Winston Churchill. “As Churchill noted, it was finally the courage, skill and selfless dedication of the Navy airmen which made the difference. The torpedo bomber pilots knew before they took off they were not coming back, and to a man were shot to pieces …” stated Hiroshi Yasunaga a Japanese naval pilot.
Individual courage does count. Let us not forget the lesson these men taught us about dedication to cause and country.