Thursday, June 28, 2012

For all the marbles, and half the world

The 15 planes pushed on alone through the clouds.  Far below the Pacific stretched beyond the horizon in every direction.  The two man crews strained their eyes all about but saw no sign of anyone else; not the bombing squadron or fighter escort that was supposed to be with them, not the Japanese invasion fleet bound for Midway Island and most frustratingly not the Japanese fleet of attack carriers leading the way.

They knew what they were up against and they knew what was at stake.

They knew the planes they flew were slow and obsolete; the torpedoes were faulty and often failed to go straight or even go off when they did hit something.  They knew they most of their crews were undertrained and had never dropped a torpedo before.  They knew they only had two full strength aircraft carriers with them, and another still sporting heavy damage from the last battle.  Yorktown had put back to sea hurrily with an army of civilian mechanics and welders still trying to piece her back together.  Midway was that important.

The champs of the '100 heads' contest

They also knew a bit about the Japanese.
They had had four full strength carriers with them, which meant a lot more aircraft.
They had experienced pilots, verterans from China, and plenty of them.
They had modern planes including the very fast and deadly state of the art fighter the Mitsubishi Zero.

They also knew the Japanese were brutally cruel to those they captured.  When they took Nanking 300,000 were massacred.  There were untold numbers of rape, looting, burning, bayonetting contests, and beheading contests of POWs and civilians alike.  It was celebrated in Japanese newspapers.

And now the Japanese, having overrun much of asia and already threatening Australia, were now headed east, towards the US.  Their first stop would be Midway, then ...Hawaii?  California?

The fifteen flew on.
They knew they had to win. 
They knew there was no way they could. 
It didn't matter, they had to try if they spotted the Japanese fleet.

At 9:20 they did. 
The four carriers were grouped together and Torpedo Squadron Eight made their attack.  The Japanese fire from both their surface ships and the fighter umbrella of Zeros decended on them with murderous fire.  None of their torpedos struck.  Every one of their planes was quickly shot down.  29 of the thirty men were killed.  Another american torpedo squadron showed up, with similar results.  Dozens of planes and scores of American airmen were killed.  Not one torpedo detonated against a Japanese ship.  Not one.

And it was the turning point of the war.

Those fruitless attacks forced the torpedo dodging Japanese carriers out of position, and brought their umbrella of fighter cover down to sea level.  When a squadron of American dive bombers arrived a short time later the Japanese were caught with their pants down -their decks covered with aircraft, refueling lines and stacks of ordinence (high explosive bombs and torpedoes).  The Americans fell on them like thunder and lightning.  Within six minutes three of the four carriers were burning out of control.

Now facing a single Japanese carrier, the Americans had a decisive advantage.  Though Yorktown took some hits in the counter attack but stayed afloat.  Another American attack saw the last Japanese carrier destroyed like her sisters.  It was something of a miracle.

Shaken to the core, the Japanese had to abandon the Midway assault and all their other plans for eastern expansion.  Their four newest, biggest and fasted carriers now decorated the ocean floor.  They could not replace such a monumental loss, not quickly enough to make a difference.  Nobody could outbuild the American shipyards.

The Japanese public was told it was a great victory -as expected.  Only the emperor and naval high command knew the truth.  The navy didn't even tell the army what happened, though they eventually found out.

Japan never regained the upper hand and were eventually beaten back to their home islands over the course of the next three years.  Even then, with their navy and air force destroyed and no hope of victory whatsoever, they still refused to surrender after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Only after a second was dropped on Nagasaki did the Emperor prevail upon the high command to give up.

Of course the story is more complicated that I've had time or room to lay out, but the decisive turning point was triggered by Torpedo Squadron 8 at Midway, playing for all the marbles.

Yorktown listing after taking a few hits, but survived.  A Japanese submarine found her after the
battle and put yet another two torpedoes into her.  It was too much, she sank the next day.

This, the most important action of the Pacific war inspired the memorable quotes:

"They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of the war. More than that, they added a new name - Midway - to that small list that inspires men by example – Marathon, the Marne, the Somme, and Rorke’s Drift. Even against the greatest odds, there is something in the human spirit – a magic blend of skill, faith, and valour that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory."
- military historian Walter Lord

"This memorable American victory was of cardinal importance, not only to the United States, but to the whole Allied cause…At one stroke, the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed…"
-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

"The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock than this battle, in which the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour. The bravery and self-devotion of the American airmen and sailors and the nerve and skill of their leaders was the foundation of all."
-Winston Churchill

This impromptu history lesson brought to you courtesy of the 30 days of scholarly epics.


  1. Same here. Wow.

    Very nicely done, Sir!

    And this was impromptu?

    You've missed your calling.

    You should be a history professor!


  2. That was fantastic. I can only imagine what you would have done had you had more time! Now as for that "brought to you by 30 days of scholarly epics", all I can say is:

    Haha. You said "annals".


  3. Babs,

    I've wondered that before

    you're such a child sometimes. I like that about you.

  4. HOLY COW. You wrote all this?! You are incredible!!!! I've actually been listening to a lot of books on CD about this time... I am so astounded at what you wrote.