On This Day In History

On This Day In History

Many of you may have learned about my reverence for history and the project that I launched this year in the opening days for he 53rd Arizona Legislature.  Each and every day, under a point of personal privilege I rose for an “On this Day in History” moment, which came to be appreciated by the members of both caucuses.  I have long been enamored with the quote, “Lacking the light of history the soul is destined to walk in darkness.” (unknown, n.nd.)

Today is such a day that should not be lost to time, but remembered in history.  Seventy-five years ago today the Battle of Midway began because one man trusted another.  Thank you Mr. Gannett, Professor of English Literature at Gettysburg College.

For six months, Japan’s navy had battered Allied forces across 8,000 miles of ocean, from Pearl Harbor to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Still, Yamamoto worried that the American fleet was wounded but still dangerous. “We have scorched the snake,” as Macbeth had put it, “not killed it.”
His American counterpart, Adm. Chester Nimitz, relaxed by pitching horseshoes. Steady, calm, old-school—his most violent oath was “Now see here!”—Nimitz marshaled his forces for battle, waiting for the unsuspecting Japanese.
Weeks earlier, with strikes expected toward Australia, Washington had ordered Nimitz’s aircraft carriers to the far South Pacific. Others feared assaults on Hawaii, perhaps San Francisco or San Diego. Or the Panama Canal, Alaska . . . even Siberia.
But in a windowless basement near the fleet’s Pearl Harbor headquarters, codebreakers under Cmdr. Joe Rochefort pored over intercepted Japanese radio traffic. Independent, impolitic, single-minded, Rochefort “left the basement only to bathe, change clothes, or get an occasional meal to supplement a steady diet of coffee and sandwiches,” one officer recalled. “For weeks the only sleep he got was on a field cot pushed into a crowded corner.”
Rochefort’s team could decode about one-eighth of an average message, filling in the gaps by educated intuition. For example, the messages called the proximate Japanese objective “AF.” But where was “AF”? Midway, Rochefort concluded. The authorities in Washington scoffed. Why would Japan dispatch a massive armada to seize a tiny atoll?
Nimitz, responsible for millions of square miles of ocean, had scant means to repel the Japanese anywhere, let alone everywhere. With his fleet, and perhaps the entire Pacific war, at stake, “I had to do a bit of hard thinking,” he would recall.
As the Navy’s heavyweights vacillated, Nimitz decided to gamble on the out-of-step Rochefort. He recalled his three carriers from the South Pacific to defend Midway. Time was short. The USS Yorktown had been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea and had recently returned to Pearl Harbor trailing a 10-mile oil slick. Repair estimates ranged up to three months.
Three days, ordered Nimitz. Fourteen hundred welders and shipfitters swarmed aboard. Three days later, the Yorktown sailed for Midway.
When the Japanese approached on June 4, Nimitz’s forces were waiting. Yet the battle began badly. Agile Japanese fighter planes—Zeros—annihilated the Navy’s obsolete torpedo bombers. American dive bombers struggled even to find the enemy carriers.
But then came another lucky break. Hunting for the Japanese carriers, his fuel running low, Wade McClusky, a dive-bomber group leader, spotted a lone Japanese destroyer making speed. Guessing that it was hurrying toward carriers, he followed. His hunch was correct. McClusky’s bombers dropped out of the blue on two Japanese carriers just as another squadron arrived to attack a third. Within minutes, all three were flaming wrecks.
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