Intelligence, heroism and just plain luck combined to produce the miracle that was the Battle of Midway.

The late Gordon W. Prange, a best-selling author and noted professor of history at the University of Maryland, titled one of his works Miracle at Midway. A truer epithet could not have been chosen.

Rarely, if ever, in military history have events unfolded to produce a more unlikely result. In June 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy was master of the Pacific. A mere six months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was still reeling from the devastation wrought by the sneak attack.

Although they had experienced their first strategic setback just a month earlier at Coral Sea, the Japanese had no intention of abandoning the offensive. Their focus shifted from the South to the Central Pacific and a tiny atoll called Midway. Composed of two islets, Sand and Eastern, Midway had been a stopping place for the large seaplanes that carried civilian traffic on transpacific flights during the 1930s. It was best known for its comical native albatrosses, or gooney birds.

Midway was important because of its proximity to the main Hawaiian islands, only 1,135 miles from Honolulu. Midway (see story, P. 36) was a lone American sentry, a perceived chink in the Japanese defense perimeter that had to be eliminated.

The Americans were uncertain where the Japanese would strike after Coral Sea, and a group of navy cryptanalysts led by Commander Joseph Rochefort was working day and night to figure it out. The Americans had been reading the Japanese diplomatic code for some time and noticed an increase in traffic concerning a location referred to as “AF.” The codebreakers were sure that AF was Midway, but to confirm their suspicions, the Midway garrison was instructed to send a false uncoded message that they were having problems with their freshwater condenser. The Japanese took the bait, and soon their radio operators were relaying the news that AF was short of potable water. It was confirmed; AF was Midway without a doubt.

The gallant attack of the American torpedo bombers on June 4, 1942, has few parallels in the history of the United States, although the defense of the Alamo comes to mind. Flying obsolescent Douglas TBD Devastators, the pilots pressed home their attacks. Hopelessly outclassed by the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros, which shot them from the sky virtually at will, and riddled by intense anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese ships, they were slaughtered. Most of the American torpedo planes went down with their torpedoes still in their slings.

The sole survivor of USS Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8 was Ensign George Gay, who clung to a seat cushion and watched the American dive bombers change the course of the war in a matter of minutes. “It’s the end of the world, and I have a grandstand seat,” Gay whispered to himself. He was picked up the next day and survived the war.

Northeast of Midway, U.S. Task Forces 16 and 17 rendezvoused for a stand against a Japanese naval force that outnumbered them 4-to-1. Appropriately, the location was named Point Luck. The carriers Enterprise and Hornet were ready for action, but Yorktown had been seriously damaged at Coral Sea. Repairs to Yorktown were originally expected to take three months, but extraordinary effort had her battleworthy in a mere 72 hours.

When the American dive bombers appeared above their targets, their timing could not have been better. The Zeros were off wave-hopping after the few U.S. torpedo planes still in the air. Scattered and flying low, they were unable to regroup and gain enough altitude to fend off the dive bombers. Fuel lines stretched across carrier decks. Planes originally armed with torpedoes for a strike at the American carriers were being rearmed with bombs for a second strike against Midway. In their haste, the Japanese crewmen had not secured the ordnance, and stacks of torpedoes and bombs were lying about. In an instant, Japan’s dream of empire was shattered. Three carriers–Akagi, Kaga and Soryu–became flaming pyres. A fourth carrier, Hiryu, was sunk later.

Some historians have placed the blame for Japan’s failure at Midway squarely on the shoulders of the author of the Japanese plan, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. It was Yamamoto who planned the diversionary attack on the Aleutians and divided his remaining ships into three separate task groups rather than massing his forces. Complicated planning, however, was not unique to Yamamoto. In fact, it seems to have been ingrained into the Japanese psyche. It appeared again in October 1944 at Leyte Gulf, and the results were disastrous once more.

At the end of the motion picture Midway, Rochefort (played by Hal Holbrook) comments to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (Henry Fonda), commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific: “It just doesn’t make any sense. Were we better than the Japanese or just luckier?” The answer to that question matters little. In a few short days in June 1942, heroes were made, the tide was turned and an empire was lost.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II