Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a three-part series about the Battle of Midway: the turning point of the Pacific Theatre campaign during World War II.
By USS Nimitz Public Affairs
Only six months had passed, yet it felt like an eternity. This, after all, had been Teddy Roosevelt’s America: unstoppable. Still, the unthinkable did happen. And it happened as most of America slept that distant Sunday December morning. As Sailors busied themselves in preparation for liberty, the Hawaiian tranquility suddenly exploded in the inferno of a sneak attack.
We were at war.
In a matter of hours it was over. Nine ships sunk, 21 severely damaged. The United States Pacific Fleet was in near ruins. Almost 2,500 American lives were lost that day – 1,177 from the USS Arizona (BB 39) alone. The following months would see the imperial Japanese juggernaut’s expansive domination of the Pacific: Wake Island, Dutch East Indies, the Solomon Islands, Corregidor, the Philippines …
If Australia, and possibly Pearl Harbor were to be spared from future attacks, the fight would have to be brought to the enemy.
If ever there was an underdog for just such a fight the U.S. Pacific Fleet was it.
The first swing took place in May 1942 when U.S. and Japanese naval forces engaged in what would be a history-making battle: Coral Sea. The battle, fought mostly in the skies above the aircraft carriers, marked the first time in history that a naval engagement took place without the ships ever seeing each other. Deadly torpedo raids claimed USS Lexington (CV 2) leaving the carriers USS Hornet (CV 8), USS Yorktown (CV 5) and USS Enterprise (CV 6) to fight another day.
They listened. The static-filled beeps, discernable to only a few, crackled across weak signals into the earpieces of a determined group of codebreakers – ironically positioned deep inside the bombed-out basements of the same Pearl Harbor headquarters attacked six months earlier.
They listened. Embedded deep within the hours of sound lay the battle plan of the mighty Japanese fleet: Objective “AF” would be the next target. But where, or even what, exactly was “AF”? It was a long shot, Nimitz thought, but the gamble’s rewards would be worth it. Waiting was not an option.
The tiny atoll of Midway, that lonely, isolated speck of a runway in the vast Pacific Ocean, must be the location. Since the fall of Wake, it marked the furthest western military outpost - a sure prize to the Japanese, thought U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Chester Nimitz. An ingenious solution was presented to Nimitz by the codebreakers to prove Midway was the location. Puzzled looks must have crossed the radio operators’ faces at the isolated outpost when they received the order to broadcast the unclassified message: “Distilling plant suffered serious casualties. Midway is running low on fresh water.”
Back in Pearl, they listened. “Objective ‘AF’ is running low on water” crackled across the airwaves.