05 June 2009

This Week In History

67 years ago yesterday the US and Japanese fleets met in battle at a place called Midway Atoll.

When I got my EAWS wings we were, of course, required to know the pertinent facts about the battle of Midway.

The significance of Midway was that the US Navy was able to achieve parity in forces with the Japanese, while simultaneously depriving Japan of her skilled naval aviators. For this reason Midway is known as the turning point of the war in the Pacific, even though the Japanese juggernaut would continue for several more months.

(The significance of the earlier battle of Coral Sea, incidentally, is that it was the first time in history when naval forces engaged and the surface ships never saw each other. It was the first time carriers went head to head, and was waged completely from the air.)

Ensign George Gay had the dubious honor of being the only aviator to survive from Torpedo Squadron Eight, and enjoyed a front row seat for the destruction of three of the Japanese carriers from his spot in the water. He was rescued by a PBY flying boat 30 hours later.

The battle commenced on June 4, 1942 when nine Army Air Corps B-17s dropped bombs on (and missed) the Japanese transport group, and ended on June 7, 1942 when Admiral Spruance ordered the disengagement and subsequent withdrawal. During the course of the battle four Japanese fleet carriers were sunk at the cost of one American carrier, the USS Yorktown (CV-5), and the destroyer that was providing damage control assistance to her, the USS Hammann (DD-412).

Admiral Spruance is sometimes condemned for not continuing the engagement and destroying the retreating Japanese fleet utterly, but others will point out that the reinforcements on the way included the 18 inch guns of the battleship Yamato, and that the Yamato would have engaged at night while the carrier aircraft were chained down due to the darkness (military aircraft were not equipped for night fighting at the time).

It must be remembered that at the time US servicemen of all branches served in-theater from beginning to end, and the only way out of the battle was due to injury or death. Today our deployments are limited and units are rotated in and out.

It was a different time, a different enemy, and a different fight, and we learned much from their example. Let us pray that we never have to witness the devastation of another world war.

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