Why Remembering Midway Matters

As we mark 75 years since D-Day, another battle 77 years ago this week merits mention.

Harold Hutchison · Jun. 4, 2019

This week, President Donald Trump is in Europe to honor the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord’s D-Day. The great sacrifices and victories of that campaign receive attention for obvious reasons: Adolf Hitler’s regime, through the Holocaust and other oppressions, became a synonym of evil, and D-Day marked the beginning of his end.

While we honor the brave men of D-Day, let us also honor the great sacrifices and victories achieved 77 years ago this week at the Battle of Midway. While not readily accessible for visitors like the shores of Normandy, Midway turned the tide against the evil Axis power in the Pacific Ocean and proved the value of new tactics.

For starters, the battle showed the value of intelligence work once deemed “ungentlemanly.” In the 1920s and 1930s, code-breaking was looked down upon. In 1929, then-Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson shut down the “Black Chamber” — a forerunner of today’s National Security Agency — with the moralistic pronouncement that “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” (Sound familiar to anyone who followed the smearing of Gina Haspel and other American heroes in the military and intelligence community?)

Well, the reason America had a fighting chance at Midway was because of the heroic work of Joe Rochefort, who broke Japanese naval codes and was “reading their mail.” That bought Admiral Chester W. Nimitz enough time to not only send reinforcements to Midway, but to also come up with a way to ambush the Japanese, who had hoped to ambush American carriers rushing to Midway’s defense.

But that is not the only reason we should remember Midway. The battle was a near-run thing, partially because American forces had been caught by surprise at Pearl Harbor, but also because of decades of neglect. The “Two Ocean Navy,” coming from legislation passed in 1938 and 1940, was mostly still under construction. American faith in the arms-control agreements of the 1921 Washington Naval Treaty and the 1930 London Naval Treaty proved to be wrongly placed.

The Marines were also building up, but had already fought with legendary courage at Wake Island, being hung out to dry by the McClellan-esque duo of Frank Jack Fletcher and William Pye.

It was at Midway where the United States Navy, already hit with devastating losses and crippled by a unilateral adherence to arms-control treaties that a potential adversary flouted, managed to turn the tide. Much is made of the “five minutes” where SBD Dauntless dive-bombers fatally wounded three Japanese carriers, but that was made possible by the earlier string of attacks by torpedo planes, including Torpedo Squadron Eight, which suffered the loss of all but one of the personnel who carried out its attack.

When the Battle of Midway was over, the Japanese Navy had lost four aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, along with the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The United States Navy had lost the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann. It shifted the balance of power in the Pacific and halted Japan’s advances. It was a truly important event in our history, but try finding it in any textbook used in our schools today.

These days, Midway is part of a National Monument, administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. While the Navy commemorates this battle, it rarely draws the attention that D-Day does, and in many ways, America has suffered for it. Our Navy today is in desperate need of hulls in the water, while potential adversaries are building forces. Ensuring that we have a strong navy is important for our country — and one way to make sure we are prepared is to know about our history.

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