This weekend has seen some war programs on television and it’s nice to see that part of our history remembered in documentaries. I know as much about the Battle of Midway as anyone else alive, I think. It’s a battle where we ought to have lost it and lost it big but we wound up winning, and winning really big. One of the Japanese commanders would later refer to it as “the fruit of arrogance” and I think he was right.
But there were a lot of men who died in that battle, a lot of men who went to death willingly, and it seems to me that battle helped define who other men would be and how they would fight that war. If Midway was the fruit of arrogance for the Japanese it was a harvest of valor for the American forces. It was scary brave to risk our carriers, all of our carriers, all three of them, in a battle that could have gone horribly wrong for us as well. But that was the defining moment in that war; we could fight the Japanese on the sea and in the air and we could win and win big.
All of this was set up by the Doolittle Raid which caused the Japanese more heartache and pain than they should have allowed. The raid itself was paramount to tossing a rock through the window of someone who just beat the hell out of you, but FDR wanted to strike back in any way we could. Flying B-25’s off the deck on the carrier Hornet and sending Enterprise out to protect this mission could have easily gone wrong for us. That is what helped define how our service men would look at the war. We took just enough bombs to drop on Tokyo and five other Japanese cities and they were stunned. Six weeks after Pearl Harbor and there we are bombing their capital in broad daylight. That took a lot of guts, really.
The Japanese wasted a lot of time on that raid. They spend countless hours looking for the secret air bases in China because where else could those planes had come from? They captured some of the air crews and didn’t believe a word about a carrier launch. At Midway they attacked the carrier Yorktown but they thought the Yorktown had been sunk at the battle of the Coral Sea. How many carriers did the Americans have? If they were wrong about how many carriers the Americans had once they could be again. They didn’t figure we would work around the clock for three weeks to get that boat ready for war again. But that too, helped define the war effort. The Yorktown went into battle with welders and steelworkers still patching her up. That, too, defined who would fight the war and the way it would be fought. Even those who did not fight on the front lines took their service a step further.
When the Japanese fleet was sighted the American forces sent a squadron of torpedo planes to attack. These were lumbering and slow planes armed with torpedoes that either missed or misfired about ninety percent of the time. All of the pilots of all of these planes knew that they were going into what was certain death; the Japanese fleet was protected by the agile and dangerous Zero, considered to be the best fighter aircraft in the war. Yet into the teeth of the battle they went. Not a single torpedo got near a Japanese ship. Nearly all the men on this flight were injured or killed. Yet they defined how this war would be fought and their sacrifice lead to victory.
The fighter planes were low on fuel for having repelled the attack and the flight decks of the Japanese carriers were full of planes being rearmed for the attack on the American fleet. Out of the sky roared dive bombers from the carriers Hornet and Enterprise. Down to the bottom of the ocean did they send three of the four Japanese carriers. The next day we would lose the Yorktown yet sink the last Japanese carrier in the attack. What should have been another Japanese victory was instead one of the greatest sea victories in human history. The Japanese would not launch another naval offensive operation against the Americans.
The Battle of Midway was a lot more complicated than I wish to convey here. There were broken codes and lucky accidents. There were miscommunications and little things done right. There were the right people in the right place at the right time of history yet this battle remains one of those in which many young men put their lives on the line for their country without hesitation and with the knowledge what they were doing was exceedingly dangerous.
In a time of electronic and computerized warfare we tend to think of the days of hand released munitions and dogfights as relics from a different age and perhaps they are. But there are those still with us who fought in that age and now instead of warriors they are old men, a stage of life they could not imagine so long ago.
These men redefined the world in which we live. They defined what honor, valor, courage, and sacrifice might mean for a greater cause. Freedom, in the eyes of these men, was not some vague concept but real and actual, and it was worth killing for and it was worth dying for, and they did both.
The men and women who have served in our recent wars are not seen in the same light was those who fought at Midway but I say they have earned their place of honor next to those. They have bled real blood and shed real tears. Their losses are no less. Their lives are no less scarred. Their bodies no less maimed. Their service is as great as any ever and we should acknowledge this before they are old and grey.
Today we should remember all who have served and in some way honor that memory. We, as Americans have been defined by the courage of those in uniform. How we treat these men and women, how we remember them, how we honor them, will define us every bit as much.