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.

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  1. They certainly do. The movie came out decades ago, I saw it in the theatre, and still remember it. My dad served in the Pacific Theater (mostly in the Phillipines, in the Army Communications; they worked closely with the Seabees). If you’ve never seen “Midway”, I highly recommend it.

    • They just HAD to go and invent some love story angle and they trivialized the work of Joe Rochefort and his crypto team but there was a lot that made the original worth watching. Knowing what I’ve learned they could have eliminated most of the fudging of certain people events and (and the love story and the invented character Charlton Heston played) still had a highly compelling movie.

      I’ve seen the second on and it delves into some things the first movie didn’t but still plays with some history/events and actual people in ways it didn’t need to and shouldn’t have. But it’s probably worth watching once if the subject interests you.

  2. Timely and important article, Denis, but some confusion seems to have arisen over dates. Your first paragraph cites “the longest day,” ie D-Day in Normandy, as being June 6,1942. You obviously know this isn’t correct, and I point it out so that you might correct it if you so wish.

  3. Denis, I don’t mind your long informative articles. We all need a little more in-depth reading of important events whether current or historical. My friend served as a body guard for a General during the battle at Tarawa and he rarely ever spoke of it. My uncle also served in the Army in the Pacific Theater but would never ever spoke of it either. He went in at turning 18 and shipped out with 2 weeks of Basic Training! As you pointed out the Pacific was a different war for our boys.
    Also my husband is Navajo and his father served on a naval ship and was captured, tortured, and almost died as a prisoner. He was saved and carried out by a Black Marine. Let’s also recognize the Code Talkers that helped us win the war. Thanks your article was appreciated.

    • Wow. We’d have lots to talk about. My Senior Drill Instructor had Native American ancestry (a grandparent if I remember correctly) and one part of those months spent being converted from civilian into a Marine is learning the Corps’ history. It was from him that I (all of us) learned about the Code Talkers, something he took considerable pride in. The Guy from my church? I didn’t know about his history until I was in college. He never said a word. He’d arrive, worship and quickly leave after a service was over. The most I ever saw was a small smile and nod acknowledging a greeting. Once my dad told me about him I understood. As for Tarawa, after leaving active duty I found myself working for a while for a physician recruitment company and got a client down in Plaquemine (the town, not the Parish) Louisiana. The hospital director told me first thing who I’d be having lunch with, and after introducing me to Dr. Boniface Trosclaire politely excused himself and said he’d take care of the check when I said while shaking hands that lunch was on me and the Doc said no, it would be on him! It was one of the most memorable hours of my life and I was humbled in that man’s presence. He was one of those grunts who’s landing craft got stranded on the reef and stepped into chest high water and waded over eight hundred yards into the murderous Japanese fire to get to shore and fight. He recounted more than I expected, far from all and it was clear some memories were too much to talk about but what stood out most was this – he said that night as they dug into positions that if he survived that battle and the war he’d never kill another thing, and devote his life to saving lives instead of taking them. At the time he was 18 and barely literate, but he survived the war and learned to read. And to study and got himself into college and then medical school. Years later I had a boss who had a picture of her own dad in her office – a Marine. I commented on it and she said something to the effect of I was a Marine and maybe knew something about where he’d fought but he never talked about it. The place? Guadalcanal. The clients were gone for the day so I closed the door and spent the better part of an hour telling her about that battle, and what her dad and others went through. She was in tears, blubbering long before I was done but I know she understood her father a lot better after that. He’d passed away some years before, but I’d have loved to have met him just to shake his hand. People generally don’t know how brutal the fighting in the Pacific was. And while it didn’t get the attention the Nurenburg trials did there was a similar version for Japanese war crimes in that theater. Japan even had it’s own version of Dr. Mengele and his team of sadists doing terrible medical “experiments!”

    • The Navajo Code Talkers were a brave group and using their “native tongue” as code for the military to communicate amongst themselves was a brilliant strategy. I lived in Albuquerque for two years while I did my graduate work in counseling. I was a “dorm mom” to earn my room and board and I had lots of Navajo students in my dorm. I was honored to learn about their culture first hand. That was where I learned about the Code Talkers.

      • It’s an obscure and distinct language which made it ideal. But within it the senders and receivers still worked in code. In practice it was a “code within a code” functionally speaking which is why it was so valuable. Like any Hollywood production Windtalkers takes a lot of license with events but if you’ve never seen it I recommend doing so.

  4. TY for remembering our brave men, from that era! They were so devoted to America & what it stood for! I was born in “43” & you made me tear-up! OMG, what courageous & fierce Patriots they ALL were! That Generation gave us Peace & prosperity & it was a pretty good life(for most) anyway. Can’t say things have gotten better, that’s the really SAD part!

    • Virtually everyone who fought in that war, as well as their loved ones are gone now. It’s a shame that like my father most were reticent in talking about what they saw and experienced. I think not knowing things they understandably wanted to forget and which in many ways we didn’t want to know but needed to made it easier for what’s happened to happen. My dad, who was a Democrat but leaned conservative in some ways would be both horrified and enraged from the time Bush 43 lied us into Iraq. He’d have stroked out over Trump! And this is someone who despite being a Democrat would have I’m sure voted for both the elder Bush (41) and for McCain too.

      I can’t help but think if they’d set us down once or twice when we were say at jr. high school age and summoned up the ability to tell us about war, they fought and how the whole country pulled together and joined in the effort things would be different. Some have mocked Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” label and let’s face it, plenty of these people from it were far from perfect but it was a different time. FDR had sons that served. One was to Eleanor’s dismay a Marine, a Raider in fact. His closest advisor Harry Hopkin’s son was killed, as was the son of GOP leader Leverett Saltonstall. Sure, there were those hear and there who dodged but for (overwhelmingly) the most part no strings got pulled and we were all in it together.

      • I was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa … As a junior high student, I learned exactly what was done to the prisoners of the Nazi camps … my history teacher was one of the US Troops that liberated one of those camps … he carried a small camera with him and had about 3 rolls of film also … Black and white pictures of course, but amazingly well focused and easy to see details … A sight I will never forget, and, since then, I have decided, EVERY history text book should show those details, something that was NEVER shown or taught in public schools ,,,

        At my age at that time, his display of his own photos was posted to back-to-back bulletin boards hinged together at the top, like the old sidewalk café menu’s …

        It was mind boggle time for sure, but, I NEVER forgot what he said to me after class as I listened to him recount his horror at the time … it was the awful smells of the camp, burning flesh and decomposing bodies …

        I saw the cart loads of naked men and women, stacked on those carts after being hosed down in the gas chambers, where they were killed, told to undress for the, “showers”, where purple gas instead of water came out of the shower heads …

        These carts would be unloaded at huge burning pits for cremations …

        He took pictures in every part of the camp, it was horrible, and yet, because he took the pictures himself, and experienced the actual Nazi cruelty first hand, I found an appreciation for his courage to show those photos, because these would be wrong in the school system, too sensitive for delicate minds …

  5. Denis, I confess I (sometimes) find your articles a little long for my attention span! (Hey, there are SO MANY great articles on the Politizoom news feed!) But this one caught my eye and pulled at my heartstrings. I am currently writing a historical biography about my Aunt Ethel “Sally” Blaine Millett. The Japanese, as you probably know, sent ground troops to invade Luzon, the Philippine Island where many American military were stationed. The date was December 8, 1941. Eighteen hours after the Pearl Harbor attack. Many called it the Other Pearl Harbor, but as you so clearly expressed, the Pacific Islands were shoved to the back burner by the Washington DC bigwigs, in favor of the more popular European War.

    My Aunt Sally was one of the Bataan nurses who helped set up and staff the “jungle hospitals” following the invasion. The American and Filipino forces stationed at military hospitals on Luzon evacuated those hospitals and hid the patients from the Japanese under cover of the dense foliage of the Battan Peninsula.

    Thankfully, my aunt sat for an oral history recording before her passing in 2004. I am writing the book from her perspective, and you probably already know that the nurses (all women) had been evacuated from Battan and some made it off Corregidor Island to the safety of Australia. None of the nurses, (called the Angels of Bataan) were around when patients (mostly male) and their doctors and the troops that kept the Japanese at bay for four months were forced to March back to Manila. There were some very ill and banged up guys in the group who “marched” with the help of able-body men. But how do you make a paraplegic or quadriplegic man March without the help of one or two others? The answer is you don’t . The Japanese just shot the weaker men and left their bodies on the road.

    But back to my Aunt Sally. She was one of the ones who didn’t make it out because the PBY plane she and her fellow nurses were on bottomed out on some rocks when they were trying to refuel. Sally and the others tried to hide but were captured within a few days and sent to Santo Tomas University-Turned-POW-Camp where they were interned for almost three years.

    History has always been an interest of mine and this is by far the most notable work on which I have embarked. (I have four published titles.) But I am spending a good deal of time researching names, places and notable facts about things my aunt may mention in passing without much context. I should be looking for a “Cliff Notes” of the Pacific Wars! With your permission, I would like to use a few phrases from your article in my book. I would give you credit in the book. We can discuss this further through messaging if you care to contact me through my website’s Contact Meg link. http://www.MegCorrigan.com Thank you for such a thorough lesson on Midway! I hope we can stay in touch.

    • I’ll go to your site sometime this weekend and we can sort out how to get in touch. Feel free to incorporate any of my thoughts in your work. If you will need a more formal permission (lawyers can be pesky about such things) just let me know.

  6. On that day, my father was in Germany with the US Army, working in liaison. He often entered a German town just as the German Army was leaving. He brought home a Bronze Star which my brother has. The main reason that he was there was because of his aunts and uncles who lived there. He spent some time as a teenager, with his older brother, in school there and, in a way, it was his second home. He felt that he had to do this for them. I was just over six years old and my brother was a year and a half younger. We both still remember what it was like without him.

  7. Denis I always welcome your articles. I always learn a lot. What you have written I learned from my uncle and great uncles. And also, believe it or not, from some of my teachers in Wi and Ca growing up. Thank you again. History is VERY important.

    • Thank you. When it comes to history (something I hope I never lose my love for learning about) there’s complete truth to the old adage about study history or repeat it. It’s actually a more complicated concept/saying than it appears on the surface. History’s lessons can help us both replicate things that went well, or avoid mistakes. Sadly, humanity has too often overlooked/ignored or worse refused to heed the harsh lessons past events have taught us. Or worse, caused us to forget just what it took to cause something good to take place. “For it is the doom of men that they forget” I urge you and anyone else to take just one minute and watch this speech from Merlin in the movie Excalibur when he admonishes the Knights during their celebration of Camelot thinking peace would be forever:


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