- Historic Sites
The Biggest Theater
Revisiting the seas where American carriers turned the course of history, a Navy man re-creates a time of frightful odds and brilliant gambles.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Yorktown was only half a ship, a crucial loss, restorable in part if she could somehow be made fit for service. There was no time for any of the fine points, even for the growing controversy over our tactics at the Coral Sea. Get the ship ready; get her engines working as they should be, get the flight deck repaired, patch the holes in her bottom, replace damaged aircraft and injured fliers. There was only one thing to do: Get ready for another battle in the mid-Pacific against as many as ten aircraft carriers. Halsey was directed to return immediately at best speed but first—and this was a stroke of genius—to get within search-plane radius of the Japanese base at Tulagi, a few hundred miles northeast of the scene of the Coral Sea battle, and allow himself to be spotted. It was not hard to do, for he was practically there already. As expected, Yamamoto heard immediately of the presence of Enterprise and Hornet in the South Pacific; knowing that Lexington had been sunk and Yorktown severely damaged, Yamamoto would figure (Nimitz calculated) that the two ships had been sent to replace them. Thus the Americans could manage at most to have but one carrier, the damaged Saratoga, to oppose Yamamoto’s Midway adventure, about which, he believed, they as yet knew nothing. Perhaps this might reduce the force Yamamoto thought he required and thus reduce the odds faced by the Americans.
The fact was that Saratoga was nowhere near ready. Halsey’s two carriers, however, pushed their engines beyond limits as they raced back to Pearl. Yorktown too returned as fast as she was able and went directly into dry dock. Repairs, it was reported, would take three months; Nimitz himself went down into the dry dock to look her over, and he directed the damage be patched and the ship returned to the firing line in three days.
By this time Rochefort had informed him that the Japanese attack on Midway would come on the third of June and that a scouting ring of submarines, ordered to report all movements of U.S. Fleet units, would be in place on the first. Getting the Enterprise and Hornet beyond the submarine scouting line was easy; they made it with a day or so to spare. The damaged Yorktown was much more of a nip-and-tuck proposition; but luck was with the Americans, and she too got to sea and passed beyond the scouting line just in time. There was still more good fortune. Shokaku and Zuikaku, moderately damaged and depleted in aircrews at the Coral Sea, were scratched from the Midway operation (another piece of important information provided by the code breakers). The presence of these two additional first-class carriers at Midway might have given Yamamoto the extra strength events proved he needed. Halsey’s venture into Tulagi’s search radius had paid off a thousand times.
At the Battle of Midway the Japanese lost 4 carriers, 1 heavy cruiser, 322 aircraft, and perhaps as many as 2,500 officers and men. The story has been told many times, and it is not my purpose here to retell it again. Rather, I aim to point out some of the dilemmas besetting Admiral Nimitz and to extol the inspired performance of Commander Joe Rochefort, who supplied him over a continuous period with the critically important information that made possible the U.S. victory.
Nimitz certainly deserved all the honors he received, but fair-minded U.S. naval officers regret the niggardly treatment of Rochefort, not only during the war (in spite of Nimitz’s strenuous efforts) but also afterward. It is true he disobeyed the intelligence bureaucracy in giving Nimitz raw data, but by doing so he made possible one of the greatest naval victories in the history of man at sea. In consequence, and perhaps especially because he was right in so doing, the bureaucracy hated him. Even the posthumous award of a medal, many years later, was muted. It was bestowed, indeed, by President Reagan in the Rose Garden of the White House, but with minimum public notice. This man, who, more than any other, gave Admiral Nimitz the keys to victory in the most critically significant battle of modern times, was shamefully treated then and shamefully treated even after his death.
Midway has been compared with Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I, decisive in that Germany’s High Seas Fleet never again challenged that of Britain. Since 1916, when it took place, Jutland has been studied and restudied by historians and scholars. Their general conclusion has been that Britain’s numerical superiority, on the order of eight to five, provided the margin over a highly effective but numerically inferior German fleet. At Midway—a far more significant battle—the winning side was inferior by odds of three or even four to one.