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    The Battle of Midway: Fleet Admiral Nimitz and the Fate of the Pacific

    On Thursday June 4, 1942, only six months into America’s involvement in World War II, the fate of those who would dominate the seas of the Pacific would be decided by the Battle of Midway.

    The island of Midway, located approximately 1,300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor, served as an early warning and observation point for American forces in the Pacific. The battle for Midway would pit two of the world’s premier naval strategists against one another in a lethal contest for naval supremacy: American Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz and Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto.

    Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz was born in Texas in 1885 and attended the Naval Academy at just 16 years old. Nimitz joined the U.S. Submarine Service after serving with the surface fleet and by 1918, he was a commander and one of the most experienced submariners in the service. Nimitz then returned to the surface fleet and commanded multiple ships. During this time he recognized the importance of combined naval and air operations and the growing significance of the aircraft carrier.

    Nimitz believed the age of the battleship was coming to an end and that the seas would soon be ruled by the mighty aircraft carrier. His views were confirmed by the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor orchestrated by Yamamoto. In its aftermath, President Roosevelt gave Nimitz command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet with the task of rebuilding the fleet and defending the Pacific.

    Yamamoto was born in 1884 and became the youngest Japanese admiral at the age of 44. Earlier in life, Yamamoto had studied at Harvard University, and even worked in Washington D.C. as the Japanese Naval Attaché. On May 7, 1942, Yamamoto suffered a major defeat at the Battle of the Coral Sea, just one month prior to Midway, when U.S. Naval Intelligence intercepted Japanese plans to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea. Yamamoto now believed that in order for Japanese naval and ground forces to control the Pacific, they had to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet forces at the island of Midway.

    The Japanese devised a four pronged attack. Yamamoto would split his forces into four sections, each with a specific role. The first was designed to draw the U.S. Pacific Fleet north by attacking the Aleutian Islands, leaving Midway exposed. Once the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been drawn away, Yamamoto planned to launch an air strike on Midway to destroy its airstrip and cripple U.S. air power on the ground. After Midway was destroyed, the Japanese could then turn their focus toward the smaller U.S. Pacific Fleet forces.

    The plan was predicated on incorrect intelligence about the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s size and strength. Yamamoto was convinced the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV 5) had sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. He was equally convinced that Nimitz and the U.S. Pacific Fleet was unaware of the plans for Midway.

    The reality was that U.S. Naval Intelligence had long since cracked the Japanese code and had managed to decipher exactly when and where the attack on Midway would take place. Using this information, Nimitz risked the fate of the Pacific and ordered a large portion of the U.S Pacific fleet to defend the small island listening post. Additionally, the Yorktown hadn’t sunk, but had in fact limped back to Pearl Harbor, made repairs within 72 hours, and returned to sea on Nimitz’s orders.

    On the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese put their plan into motion. The initial diversionary phase of attacking the Aleutian Islands began. The Japanese attack was not nearly as effective as they had planned due to fierce resistance from U.S. forces and poor visibility.

    That same morning a U.S. reconnaissance plane from midway spotted another prong of Japanese attacks headed for Midway. In response, B-17 bombers were dispatched from Midway to attack that portion of the Japanese fleet.

    Meanwhile, another portion of the Japanese fleet launched an air assault on Midway despite poor visibility. Over 100 aircraft took part in the attack and inflicted heavy damage on the island’s defenses. Luckily, the Japanese failed to destroy the main runway. Many American aircraft survived the attack while the Japanese lost 38 of their own. The surviving Japanese pilots returned to the fleet with the information that the airstrip was still functional, leaving the Japanese with a complicated problem of whether to attack the island again, or wait and attack Nimitz and the U.S. Pacific Fleet forces once it arrived.

    As American bombers from Midway attacked the first portion of the Japanese fleet only a short time after their pilots had returned, the Japanese made their decision. While the American attack caused little damage, it convinced Yamamoto to immediately attack the Island of Midway again rather than wait for Nimitz and the U.S. Pacific Fleet to arrive.

    At this point, Nimitz knew where this portion of the Japanese fleet was and launched another attack hoping to catch the Japanese planes while they were reloading. Again, the attacks inflicted little damage on the Japanese fleet, and cost 35 of the 41 aircraft sent, but did succeed in causing the Japanese fleet to take evasive action and delay their second attack. This disruption caused Yamamoto to rethink his strategy and instead chose to cancel the second attack on the island and re-arm with torpedoes to attack Nimitz and the U.S. Pacific Fleet forces.

    The diversion caused by Nimitz’ first wave allowed the second wave of U.S. aircraft to advance undetected. The fate of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the battle for Midway now rested in the hands of Nimitz’ 60 SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers closing in on the Japanese fleet.

    Within minutes, the bombers hit their mark causing devastating damage to the Japanese carriers, leaving nearly 2,500 Japanese Sailors dead and the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu sinking.

    Undeterred, the remaining Japanese carrier Hiryu launched a wave of bombers and torpedo planes aimed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet forces. Japanese aircraft delivered a crippling blow to the Yorktown, landing multiple bombs and torpedo hits. The Hiryu then turned north, away from the U.S. forces, but Nimitz gave chase.

    Nimitz launched a fresh wave of bombers and destroyed the final Japanese carrier Hiryu. Upon receiving this news, Yamamoto ordered his fleet to withdraw. As a final blow, Nimitz sunk the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma that had been damaged in a collision previously.

    When the smoke finally settled, American forces had managed to destroy four Japanese carriers, one cruiser, over 300 aircraft and left over 3,000 Japanese sailors dead or missing.

    On June 7, the Yorktown, left crippled but still afloat, was sunk by a Japanese submarine bringing Nimitz’ losses to one carrier, one destroyer, nearly 150 aircraft and just over 300 men.

    After Midway, Yamamoto continued to command the Japanese fleet until U.S. Intelligence intercepted his itinerary for an inspection in the Solomon Islands. American pilots shot his plane down on April 18, 1943 over the jungles of Bougainville. His ashes were returned to Japan, but the wreckage remains in the jungles of Bougainville.

    Nimitz continued to serve as the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet for the duration of the war and eventually served as the Chief of Naval Operations. Nimitz never fully retired, he served as a special advisor to the secretary of the Navy until his death at the age of 81 years old, a five star admiral.

    The Battle of Midway is widely considered to be the most significant turning point in the war in the Pacific. By committing a significant portion of the Pacific Fleet to the small island outpost, Nimitz enabled American forces to push back the Japanese, paving the way for U.S. naval supremacy in the Pacific and ultimately winning the war against Japan.

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    Date Taken: 10.13.2020
    Date Posted: 12.29.2020 18:59
    Story ID: 386019
    Location: ARABIAN GULF

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