D-Day, June 6 will be marked next week. It is every year and it should be. That terrible “Longest Day” in 1944 was the final turning of the tide that defeated Hitler’s war machine. I’m in my mid-sixties so I grew up in a time when parents everywhere, even in those rural and small towns that are now hard-core “we don’t need no stinking education” Trump territory valued good public schools. Demanded them even. Oh, they’d bitch and complain about the costs and bond issues but especially for poor and working class parents education was their children’s ticket to a better life. That good old American dream.
For all that, this date, June 4 (and also the 5th) are every bit as significant as D-Day, and the battle I’m going to talk about and those who fought it, especially those who died in it are every bit as deserving of the honors we automatically confer on June 6/D-Day and those who fought and died in it. The Deserve It.
History was of course a subject introduced in grade school and taught every year through graduation from high school. My own small midwestern town had excellent public schools, and I had multiple outstanding teachers along the way. Believe me when I tell you we learned plenty about June 6, 1942 – the day itself and the subsequent events that led to winning the war. Yet the final end of the war was the defeat of Japan and the warring nations gathering on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor so all the properly designated representatives of the various governments could sign the documents ending WWII.
Frankly, for most people except those who fought in that theater or their loved ones back home the war in the Pacific was an afterthought. The infamous Tokyo Rose liked to taunt Marines and GIs for quite a long time because of the lack of support they got. If so many operations in the Pacific teetered on the brink of disaster it was because most of the energy and resources were devoted to beating Hitler/Germany. Given that most non Native-Americans were of European ancestry it made sense in its own way. At one point during the awful months fighting for Guadalcanal more money was spent resettling Italian refugees than on getting ammo and supplies to the Marines fighting and dying there. The news please “Little Italy’s” across our land. Having been all but abandoned, the Marines and Sailors (the SeeBees on the Canal were adored by the Marines) were somewhat less than pleased. Bastogne in Europe was an epic fight, lionized at the time (rightly so) and since as the surrounded paratroopers making do with only a trickle up the needed supplies held off German forces superior in numbers and weapons/equipment.
For eight days. On the Canal our guys spent ten times that long, getting only a trickle of what they needed to survive before finally the powers-that-be in DC ordered proper support. My point is that given attitudes back then, and even with a man from my hometown (a member of my church even) who’d survived Bataan, the battle, the infamous “Death March” and years of cruel captivity the Pacific was little remembered. In history classes when I was in school we learned a lot about the war in Europe. A decent amount about WWI even but a solid understanding of WWII in the European theater.
The Pacific? Not so much. In fact, very little. Pearl Harbor of course. Iwo Jima, mostly due to the hoopla over the photo of the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi early in the battle. There were months of fighting and dying yet to come and most of those who did the original flag raising wound up killed before that battle was done. But the history books and lessons implied that was the climax of that battle! We learned some about the Bataan Death March but virtually nothing about how it came about or what was to come for those who survived. Okinawa got brief mention if only (I believe) because that was the first major, sustained use of “Kamikaze” attacks. And we learned about the formal surrender of Japan and the ceremony on the Missouri, the “Mighty Mo” and if it got extra attention from my teachers if was probably because our town was only eight miles from the Mississippi. That was pretty much it, with little beyond a name and phrase about some other places. If that. And for the life of me I can’t remember learning about Midway back in history classes.
Despite two movies, one fairly recent that introduced cheesiness where none was needed or warranted Americans still mostly don’t know the significance of what took place on this date (and the next) 81 years ago. Those who fought that day, especially the Naval Aviators and Army Air Corps (the Air Force wouldn’t be created until after the war) took to the skies knowing the odds were overwhelming they were taking off on their last flight. They flew anyway, knowing they had a chance to strike a decisive blow if that intelligence was accurate. They only learned about it at the last minute, and many had their doubts but they trusted their leaders, and felt bound by duty to do all they could even though they were facing a gifted, battle tested enemy with superior planes and ships than we had at the time.
As historian Walter Lord said in the first line of Incredible Victory “They had no right to win.” Lord went on to note the factors I mentioned and others. We were as he said “hopelessly outclassed” and though we won the battle the cost was enormous. Entire squadrons were lost, or virtually so. And despite sinking those four Japanese carriers, all of whom had taken part in Pearl Harbor we lost one of our own. The Yorktown, whose final moments are depicted in the title photo.
Why Midway was and remains an afterthought I’ve partially explained. Both then and now our largely European ancestry (if you’re not Native American) of course. But Midway itself is a tiny Atoll in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific. It’s a little over a thousand miles west of Hawaii. Before the war in addition to being a small Naval outpost it was a refeuling stop for Pan Am flights and a coaling station for ships. With the onset of WWII beefing it up to be a submarine base that could extend the operating capabilities of our subs was an obvious decision. Both to us and Japan, at least those in their Navy who worked for/served in Combined Fleet Headquarters. The Naval General staff tended to defer to their Army.
The point is that Midway was/is a tiny Atoll that’s the only thing of significance for a thousand miles in any direction. And at that only two of the island amounted to anything. Sand Island mattered most. That was where the priceless airfield was. And despite the severity of the attack and the skill of the Japanese pilots who did manage to do a lot of damage to the airstrip and support infrastructure that day they didn’t do enough to put Midway out of commission. But take another look at that photo. A ship, a very large one sinking into a vast ocean.
But why was Midway worth the largest and to that point mightiest Naval force ever? So tiny a place, yet it had strategic importance most didn’t fully grasp, if they “got it” at all. Yamamoto was forward thinking yet still a creature of his training and experience which for the Japanese Navy was a doctrine of a single decisive blow. A single “knockout punch” on a Naval battle scale. How that came about is a long story but it guided every decision and was instinctual for Japan’s military.
Yamamoto knew his America. He’s served here when younger and got around this country. And not in style either. He took trains and buses so he could get to know Americans. He also knew all about both our industrial capability and our wealth of natural resources, both of which Japan couldn’t hold a candle to. He knew that in time American production and with a much larger population could overwhelm Japan and the best chance of winning the Pacific war was to strike a blow that would make the road back so overwhelming that perhaps we would mitigate our desire for retribution and settle for a peace favorable to Japan in that theater. And a curtailment of their alliance with the Axis powers would help us win against Germany faster.
It’s well known he said that if given free reign his forces would run wild for six months to a year but there was little confidence to be had for any fighting beyond that point. That’s where the idea of Midway came from. Take something we couldn’t afford to give up, and would have to defend with everything we had because if not Pearl Harbor was nakedly vulnerable, those huge oil tanks and other military infrastructure could be taken out quickly using Midway as a base and our forces would have to withdraw to the west coast! It was a gamble, but Yamamoto enjoyed gambling. Literally. And had little respect for those who didn’t.
He reasoned (not without justification) that Midway was something we’d have to defend, and with the resources at his disposal he’d crush what was left of the American fleet including and especially our precious few aircraft carriers. Again, a detailed (I’ll spare you but trust me on this) comparison would cause any rational person to say such thinking was well justified. He would attack and destroy Midway’s defenses, a large invasion force would occupy the place a day later and the Americans would come rushing from Pearl Harbor with everything we had. Most importantly while Yamamoto (unlike most others in Japan) knew the Americans would put up a worthy fight their planes, ships and even fliers were, despite their courage no match for his own forces. So the huge, complex plan went forward.
The main part of the battle took place at sea in and over a small patch of the vast Pacific ocean. A speck on the map, with no history. No population from which our ancestors came from. Just vast, empty ocean. On top of that, for those trying to describe events even a few days afterward there’s the problem of the date. The battle was quite literally fought back and forth across the International Date Line! What happened with and to what ship on what date was confusing as hell. June 6, 1944 is a massive amphibious invasion that began on a specific date in a specific place. One that people could, and still can and do visit. Where one can walk among the graves of those who fought and died there, or down on the beaches amidst those anti-ship obstacles (meant to puncture the hulls of ships that tried to land at high tide) that still stand.
The small patch of ocean where U.S. and Japanese Naval forces clashed can be visited I guess if one has a ship and GPS. But there’s nothing to see but the vast ocean. The sunken ships are far below the surface, too deep for any divers. The people who died on those ships or in the air long ago were consumed by the sea. No graveyards laid out in neat rows. Even their footwear (eerily, leather footwear can be found on intact sunken ships) and metal (zippers for example) from uniforms are no doubt covered up by silt at the bottom of the ocean.
The point of all this is that something extraordinary took place, and the cost was enormous both for us and Japan. But despite our own losses, Japan’s were far worse, and six months after Pearl Harbor and an unbroken string of victories that had given them control of most of the Pacific their Navy would never again be able to project the kind of power it could before that fateful day.
Midway was a place America couldn’t afford to lose. Yamamoto knew it and convinced his superiors to let him take it because we’d have to try and take it back – and he’d get to bag the aircraft carriers that hadn’t quite made it back to Pearl Harbor before the attack. One more day and like our battleship fleet our aircraft carriers would have been decimated. Even if Pearl Harbor hadn’t convinced the old-school military minds in Japan that battleships would become secondary and aircraft carriers were the future of Naval warfare the April, 1942 Doolittle Raid, launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier turned on the proverbial light bulb.
It was a gamble but Japan didn’t know how good our code-breaking was and that we knew they were coming. And when. Japan still had an enormous advantage in everything else but we had the element of surprise, and one of the biggest surprises for their admirals (and lower ranking folks) that day was the courage and will of Americans. One noted later his astonishment that despite his belief Americans had no heart for fighting (the resistance earlier at Wake Island should have taught Japan otherwise, as was McCarthur’s defense of the Philippines after initially blowing off war warnings and getting caught with his pants down) were “hurling themselves into battle with the spirit of a samurai.”
Yes, I know this has been on of those long articles that people tend to complain about. But so many people gave so much that day. Imagine knowing what you were up against, that the odds were you wouldn’t live to see the sun set, and finally knowing your grave would be the vast Pacific ocean instead of some nice cemetery with a headstone your loved ones could visit. And going out to fight anyway.
They fought. And won. And in doing so they changed the course of the war. So for those who’ve made it this far I say again:
They DESERVE to be remembered this weekend.