The American Guts and Grit That Sank Japan at Midway

When his bosses hedged, Adm. Chester Nimitz took a chance on a codebreaker—and surprised the enemy.

 
 

Adm. Chester Nimitz leans out of the window of a B-29 bomber named in his honor, June 21, 1945.

 
Adm. Chester Nimitz leans out of the window of a B-29 bomber named in his honor, June 21, 1945. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Seventy-five years ago this Sunday, some 150 Japanese warships, 250 warplanes and 25 admirals were steaming toward a small atoll 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu. Imminent was the most crucial naval battle of World War II—Midway.

Aboard the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto retired to his quarters each evening to play chess. He had spent his final nights in port with his geisha, Kawai Chiyoko. Departing, he sent her verses: “Today too I ache for you / Calling your name / Again and again / And pressing kisses / Upon your picture.”

His present concerns were less sentimental. 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.

Searching for a fourth, Navy pilot Sam Adams sighted the Hiryu and her escorts. “One carrier, two battleships, three heavy cruisers, four destroyers,” he dictated to his radio man and gunner, Joseph Karrol, to transmit in dots and dashes to the American fleet. “Course north, speed 20 knots.”

“Mr. Adams,” Karrol interrupted, “would you mind waiting a minute? There’s a Zero on our tail.” After shaking the enemy, Karrol finished keying the report. Soon the Hiryu, too, was ablaze and sinking.

Neither man, however, made it home. Adams and Karrol would die on another mission the following day. The patched-together Yorktown would be bombed, torpedoed and sunk. Still, Japan’s six-month Pacific blitzkrieg had been stunningly halted, never to be resumed.

Book titles proclaim it the Miracle at Midway and an Incredible Victory. Perhaps. But providence and chance work mysteriously, judgment and daring more plainly. “The enemy lacks the will to fight,” Japan’s overconfident admirals had judged, disastrously. Nimitz, acting boldly while his bosses hedged, gave his outgunned Navy the first shot. His sailors and pilots made it count.

Three weeks later, flying to San Francisco to confer with his Washington superior, Nimitz was shaken but uninjured when his seaplane, while landing, struck floating debris and flipped over. As the capsized plane sank, he stepped aboard a small crash boat, where he stood watching rescue operations.

“Sit down, you!” the coxswain barked—before noticing, with horror, his faux pas. He stumbled out apologies.

Nimitz sat down. “Stick to your guns, sailor,” he said. “You were quite right.”

Mr. Garnett is a professor of English literature at Gettysburg College.

Appeared in the June 3, 2017, print edition.

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