I Wish I’d Been There

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Awhile back we asked sixty eminent authors to tell us what was the one scene or incident in American history they wished they had witnessed. We published their responses in the December 1984 issue and subsequently in our thirtieth-anniversary anthology, A Sense of History . At the time, I promised to make a contribution of my own to the project but it has taken this long for me to settle on a choice. I owe it to Edward L. Beach’s wonderfully readable book, The United States Navy: 200 Years , to be published in May—specifically to his description of the Battle of Midway, which took place only six months after Pearl Harbor.

Following their devastating raid, the Japanese planned to capture Midway Island so they could threaten Hawaii and force a negotiated peace. To accomplish this, Japan’s naval commander-in-chief, Yamamoto, assembled a huge task force of 190 ships, including 4 first-line aircraft carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines, and 700 warplanes. The Americans, under Admiral Nimitz, were barely able to scrape together 38 ships, including 3 carriers, 8 cruisers, 15 destroyers, and 12 submarines. We had 353 planes at our disposal.

Despite the odds, we sank all four Japanese carriers and turned back their fleet. Yamamoto was taken by complete surprise when he discovered the presence of our carriers; we, on the other hand, because of superior military intelligence, knew the nature of his armada and where and when he was going to attack.

As Beach tells it, it was Comdr. Joseph John Rochefort who was the man largely responsible for feeding Nimitz the crucial information that not only won the day for us but marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific; from June 1942 on, the Japanese found themselves fighting on an ever-shrinking defensive perimeter. Rochefort was able to forecast the date of the Midway attack, Beach writes, “by deep knowledge of the Japanese psychology, intuitive reading of their collective mind, and probably the biggest emergency code-breaking operation our navy … has ever conducted. It was a day and night chore. Rochefort … hardly slept, changed clothes, shaved, or ate—sometimes apparently for weeks at a time. He and a few top assistants lived and worked in the basement beneath the Pearl Harbor headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) for days on end when they were on to something.”

Beach concludes that Yamamoto “was defeated by one man, whose special genius enabled him to give Admiral Nimitz the invaluable background that made all the difference between fighting blindly and fighting with full awareness of the enemy’s plans. To Commander Joe Rochefort must forever go the acclaim for having made more difference, at a more important time, than any other naval officer in history.”

I wish I’d been a fly on the wall in Rochefort’s sweaty basement during those months when Japan held the initiative. I wish I’d seen him and his men react to the news from Midway. I wish I could have buzzed the cups raised to toast him.