Battle of Midway: A reversal of fortune
The (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press
If you wanted to pitch a novel about World War II battle, the following story line might be considered too dramatic.
Six months after the Navy suffers its most catastrophic loss in history, it defies expectations and turns to fight.
A Navy captain pinpoints the location of the enemy attack after deciphering a maddingly complex code. For a while, his bosses don't believe him.
An aircraft carrier damaged at sea one month earlier is rushed back into battle, earning a legendary place in Navy history..
John B. Lundstrom has written extensively about the early years of World War II in the Pacific. When it comes to the Battle of Midway, the pivotal sea confrontation of the Pacific campaign, he's convinced of one thing.
"Nobody would have had the courage to write this as fiction," he said.
Battle of nerves
The Battle of Midway took place June 4-7, 1942 -- 70 years ago this week. It began when an armada from Japan, its leaders brimming with confidence, bore down on a volcanic atoll, 2.4 miles square, strategically located between Asia and North America, the site of a US. naval air station and a refueling stop for ships and aircraft.
The Japanese wanted to smash Midway and lure American carriers into a fight, having crippled the U.S. battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor six months before. But the Americans, armed with superior intelligence, went on the offensive. The battle stretched over days, but much of the action happened on the first day, June 4.
On that first day, the Japanese launched an air attack on Midway Island and began arming aircraft for a second wave. As it did, a Japanese scout plane located the American fleet.
American planes counter-attacked and at first suffered heavy losses. But in a mid-morning strike, the Americans delivered a sudden and withering blow to the Japanese fleet, wrecking three carriers in a matter of minutes. They were later sunk, as was a fourth Japanese carrier.
Before the battle ended, the U.S. lost one of the three carriers it had involved in the battle, the USS Yorktown.
The carriers Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet were built at the Newport News shipyard. Many of the pilots who fought and died at Midway trained over the skies of Hampton Roads. That included the pilots of Torpedo Squadron 8, a courageous but doomed unit that lost 29 of its 30 crewmen flying into the teeth of the Japanese defenses on the first day.
Lundstrom said the Yorktown was his favorite carrier, its leaders hardened by the Battle of Coral Sea one month earlier. It deserves to be remembered more than it is, he said.
"They learned from their experiences," he said. "The Yorktown really had something special."
And while its sinking was a shattering loss for the Navy and the shipyard workers who built it, Japan lost four of its carriers and a staggering 3,000-plus men, a loss from which it never recovered.
"If you have to go down," Lundstrom said, "that's the way to go down."
Some have attributed the American victory at Midway to luck or good fortune. That's not giving Navy pilots their proper due, according to Timothy J. Orr, an assistant professor of history at Old Dominion University who is writing a biography of a dive bomber pilot who survived the battle.
People tend to misinterpret early mistakes made by American admirals -- and the subsequent corrections by pilots on the fly -- "as the telltale signs of providence," Orr said.
The original attack plan conceived by the admirals was overly complex, combining aircraft from the three carriers in one massive wave, "essentially, a crude attempt to copy Japanese tactics utilized at Pearl Harbor," he said.
Compounding the problem: the American squadrons went in the wrong heading, "a terrible mistake that cost two dive bomber squadrons from the USS Hornet to miss the battle entirely."
But the pilots corrected these errors in flight. Torpedo Squadron 8 altered its heading in defiance of orders and proceeded to its targets. Although the squadron was decimated, the disruption caused by the torpedo attack made it easier for the dive bombers that came later.
"Attributing the victory to Lady Luck robs the story of the Battle of Midway of its drama and casts a shadow over the skill of the American aviators who, in defiance of the odds against them, made their shots count," Orr said.
The American and Japanese ships never saw each other, and it was a relatively new way of making war. Crews had to react to incoming planes in a matter of minutes, depending on how high or low they were flying.
"That's a very nerve-wracking type of warfare," said Lundstrom. "You've got time, but you don't have much time. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and that's very, very difficult."
In assessing this rolling battle of twists and turns, Lundstrom is struck by the aggressiveness displayed by theU.S. Navy– despite the fact that the Yorktown had been damaged and was being pressed back into service.
"The thing that's so remarkable was that the Navy was so crushed at Pearl Harbor and regained the initiative," he said. "To do that in six months is pretty good."
The key to that aggressiveness was advance intelligence, knowing the Japanese strengths and where they would be. That is a story in itself.
A very independent cuss
Capt. John Rochefort joined the Navy despite having parents who wanted him to be a priest. He became an officer after working up through the enlisted ranks on the basis of smarts and hard work.
Trained in the Japanese language and schooled in cryptanalysis, he was the officer in charge of Station Hypo (H for Hawaii, and "hypo" from the Navy's phonetic alphabet at the time) in the office of OP-20-G, the Navy's cryptanalytic organization.
By the time of Midway, Rochefort had impressed a number of military brass and alienated others, said Elliot Carlson, author of the 2011 acclaimed biography "Joe Rochefort's War."
Carlson, a former editorial writer at the Honolulu Advertiser who later worked for The Wall Street Journal, became fascinated with Rochefort the more he learned about his career.
"He had trouble with his bosses and said what he thought. He was a very independent cuss," he said. "It was impossible for a journalist not to love this guy."
For the Americans, deciphering Japanese messages wasn't a matter of overcoming a single barrier.
The Japanese code known as JN-25B was contained in about 50,000 five-digit numerals. The code itself was protected by a cipher. Essentially, Rochefort's men had to break the cipher before getting to the code.
When a group of Japanese messages came in, Rochefort would give them to his cryptanalysts. They would literally stare at them to find relationships or patterns between rows of numbers. The idea was to find the "additives" -- which obscured the code -- and then "subtract the additives" by sending the message to men known as strippers.
That would get them to the raw code.
The code breakers in his office, using their knowledge of Japanese, would fill in the blanks as best they could before handing it off to Rochefort, whose skills as a Japanese linguist were unparalleled in that office.
AF = Midway
It was Rochefort who deduced that the Japanese fleet was headed to Midway. He kept picking up references to AF, the Japanese code for Midway. The trouble, said Carlson, was that not enough people believed him. Some thought he was being duped. Army leaders were certain an attack would come to the West Coast.
But Rochefort had a key backer: Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet. And Rochefort provided the final bit of proof when he planted a false message that Midway's water distillation plant had failed. The Japanese picked up the message and retransmitted it. Seeing the "AF" linked to Midway's distillation plant finally convinced military leaders that Midway was the Japanese target.
"If there was any doubt about it, the evidence was overwhelming," Carlson said.
And the rest was history.
Distributed by MCT Information Services