Jimmy Thach. Wade McCluskey. Earl Gallaher. Lofton Henderson. Richard Fleming. Dusty Kleiss. Dick Best. John Waldron. George Gay. Max Leslie. Sam Adams. Lance Massey.
All of the above were ordinary men. Pilots, to be specific. Soldiers, if you will, doing their duty and serving their country. None of them were above the rank of captain, they were just men following orders from above. Some were squadron leaders, some were just ordinary pilots following their leaders.
And one June day seventy years ago, in the heart of the Central Pacific, in the midst of the most terrible and bloody war the world has ever known to date, these men did something extraordinary. They participated in and were largely responsible for one of the greatest military victories America has ever known, one that threw back a relentless enemy that up until that time had never tasted defeat, had never known the agony of a supposedly brilliant plan going terribly wrong and having their asses handed to them on a platter. A big silver one.
Some of the above mentioned names didn’t come back alive from this victory.
June 4th, 1942 was the day the Battle of Midway was fought. A battle fought between pilots and their aircraft carriers, where the opposing fleets never sighted one another except via search planes. A story of two fleets, one huge one (Japanese) used to conquering all before it and a much smaller one (American) lying in ambush, to deal a killing blow right at its opponent’s most critical spot. A turning point in the Pacific War against the Japanese Empire, against one of the finest navies at the time and its crack pilots who had an almost unbroken string of victories up to that point.
I have no need or intention to bore you by rehashing the entire battle here, there are many books and webpages that have done so much better than I ever could. For those interested, two of my favorite books that I would personally recommend on the battle are here and here.
But like many famous battles and points in history, Midway has had its share of legends ascribed to it that enhanced its larger-than-life status, a few which I will explain or debunk.
Probably the biggest one is the claim that we won the battle despite overwhelming odds and it was a miracle triumph of David over Goliath, that we had no right to win. The truth was that the Japanese fleet was much larger in ships and materiel, but it was tied to a rigid doctrine, banked too much on the element of surprise, and was too widely scattered instead of concentrated at the point of attack. The much smaller American fleet was skillfully placed right where the Japanese did not expect it by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who shrewdly was able to discern the Japanese intentions and makeup through skillful use of his intelligence assets, and gave his task force commanders sufficient leeway with their orders so they could adapt and react to changing circumstances during the battle as they saw fit. Thus the American fleet was perfectly poised to cut off the head of the huge serpent, aka the Japanese fleet.
Another legend is that Midway completely broke the back of the Japanese Navy. While Japan did suffer crucial losses to her carrier battle groups and aircrews that ended its rampage across the Pacific and took away the strategic initiative, its navy still was a formidable, though weakened, force after the battle and it wasn’t through causing pain, misery, and grief to the American fleet, which was proven in the subsequent Guadalcanal campaign. Rather it was the slow but steady awakening of America’s industrial might, which fed the war machine and gradually dwarfed that of Japan, forcing her into a war of attrition she couldn’t win, that ultimately brought the Japanese Navy to its knees. The Battle of Midway did mark the beginning of that road, though.
And, like many other battles in history, Midway was far from a perfect victory. Fought by men like the aforementioned and boys fresh from training academies and boot camps, there were many mistakes and instances of sloppiness that threatened to undermine the American efforts and hand the victory over to the Japanese. Carrier air war and tactics was in its infancy at the time, and the American carrier battle groups had great difficulty coordinating their airstrikes, resulting in a lot of serious losses and at least one whole carrier strike group failing to ever make contact with the enemy. Most notorious was the slaughter of the torpedo squadrons which went in without fighter protection, resulting in the loss of gallant leaders like John Waldron and Lance Massey, who bravely led their squadrons and pressed their attacks in the face of certain death. Yet their sacrifices sufficiently disrupted Japanese air operations, keeping them from preparing any counterstrikes, and pulled their fighter cover out of position enough to clear the way for the dive bombers to attack almost unopposed. Wade McCluskey quite literally went the “extra mile”, flying his squadron beyond their fuel return limits on a hunch and finding the Japanese carrier fleet. Max Leslie lost his bomb due to an electrical glitch, yet still led his squadron to the enemy fleet and even dived on a carrier in a dry run to draw its fire while his men pounded it into a burning wreck. Dick Best found himself abandoned by almost his entire squadron save for two wingmen, yet he led his meager remaining force on an attack on the Japanese flagship and personally dealt the mortal blow with his own bomb. Jimmy Thach successfully used a new tactic that he himself created to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of his Wildcat fighter against the superior performance of the vaunted Japanese Zero fighter, and managed to outfight them with his outnumbered squadron.
Probably the greatest legend that endures to this day about this battle, and one that has been proven and still stands, is the contribution of the carrier USS Yorktown. Having taken a beating in the Battle of the Coral Sea the previous month, she was due for an estimated 60-90 days of repairs at minimum. Yet she was put back into fighting condition (barely) in three days and sent off to meet the Japanese fleet with her sister ships. Her aircrews were responsible for the destruction of no less than two large Japanese aircraft carriers, and she fully absorbed the Japanese counterstrikes that ultimately resulted in her loss, but protected the other American carriers from similar harm. Few ships in history can claim the honors that Yorktown did that June day.
But the real honor came in the individual efforts of ordinary men thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Men like the names mentioned above. They were the real heroes, just like the men and women of today serving in the armed forces against those who would destroy us. They are the ones that guarantee our freedom, and their names should be as remembered as those of the great generals and admirals of history. The ones that serve and have served so that this nation shall not perish from the earth. The ones whose individual efforts contribute to small triumphs and smashing victories.
Like the one on June 4th, 1942.
God bless the men and women of our armed forces.