The Battle of Midway was, in the words of more than one Naval historian, “America’s Trafalgar.” The battle occurred 80 years ago this month in June 1942. At that moment, the navy of imperial Japan was dominant in the Pacific Ocean. It had knocked out much of the American fleet and its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor seven months before.
What it missed at Pearl Harbor was the majority of America’s aircraft carriers, which happened to be at sea at the time of the attack. The Japanese hoped that their planned attack on Midway would illuminate any remaining threat from the American Navy and would be further discouragement to the Americans in rearming themselves and fighting a long and brutal war.
The island of Midway presented for the Japanese what seemed to be a golden opportunity. It was a U.S. Naval Station on a small island that had few natural defenses. The Japanese conceived a plan to lure the American aircraft carriers to Midway and then to ambush those carriers with its combined fleet of ships and fighter aircraft.
What the Japanese did not realize was that in the seven months since Pearl Harbor the Americans had broken Japanese codes and had become reasonably well aware of the trip that the Japanese were attempting to spring. That intelligence gave the Americans the opportunity to spring their own trap. Part of the American trap occurred when the naval command on Midway, at the orders of the police command, sent out an encoded message saying that the freshwater facilities on Midway had stopped working and were in need of repair.
The Japanese intercepted this message and were delighted. They believed that this would provoke the Americans to sail right into their air into their ambush. The irony is they were providing the very same opportunities for the Americans themselves.
On June 4, 1942, the engagement between Japanese and American forces began. The American attacks on the Japanese aircraft carriers initially were unsuccessful, while the Japanese attacks on American targets seemed to be hitting their marks. The battle had begun early in the morning, and by 10 o’clock local time things seemed to be going very well.
The luck that had been on the side of the Japanese was about to shift quickly and dramatically.
Next week: A good battle plan and a lot of luck
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