Six Minutes That Changed The World

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One of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great services to history was the appointment, in 1942, of the eminent Harvard professor Samuel Eliot Morison to write the story of the United States Navy in World War II. This was to prove no ordinary task of scholarship, for Morison was given the opportunity to witness at sea much of the combat he would one day describe. The result of this firsthand experience, and the decade and a half of research and writing that followed, was the monumental fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II .

Now Admiral Morison has prepared a one-volume distillation of the longer work, entitled The Two-Ocean War , which will be published this spring by Little, Brown. From it we take here his account of an event that was, like Stalingrad, El Alamein, and D-Day, one of the turning points of the war.

In modern times, no record of conquest can quite equal the Japanese sweep across the Pacific in the early months of 1942. Then, with victory apparently in their grasp, they embarked on a plan full of menace for America. It would be a two-pronged effort. One offensive spearhead would push southward, gaining control over the Coral Sea and the islands that lay along Australia’s eastern flank, thus isolating her. Meanwhile the Japanese Combined Fleet, commanded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, would cross the Pacific to “annihilate” the United States Pacific Fleet. The Japanese striking force would also capture and occupy the Western Aleutians and Midway Island, and then set up a so-called “ribbon defense” anchored at Attu, Midway, Wake, and the Marshall and Gilbert islands.

“The one really sound part of this grandiose plan,” Admiral Morison writes, ”…was Admiral Yamamoto’s challenge to the Pacific Fleet. He knew that the destruction of the Fleet must be completed before 1943, when American war production would make it too late. With the Pacific Fleet wiped out … Americans would tire of a futile war and negotiate a peace which would leave Japan master of the Pacific. Such was the plan and the confident expectation of the war lords in Tokyo.”

Early in May, the Japanese received their first real check when they were turned back in the Battle of Coral Sea. But undaunted by this momentary failure, they now turned their attention to the Midway operation. As Yamamoto’s armada steamed out of its home ports late in May, the chances of an overwhelming victory seemed bright indeed. —The Editors

Even before the sea warriors of Japan began roaring into the Coral Sea, word had reached the Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, at Pearl Harbor, of a second offensive that threatened to be much more powerful and dangerous. Imperial General Headquarters issued the order that put the wheels in motion on 5 May 1942: “Commander in Chief Combined Fleet will, in co-operation with the Army, invade and occupy strategic points in the Western Aleutians and Midway Island.” The objectives were three-fold. The named islands were wanted as anchors in the new “ribbon defense,” and Midway also as a base for air raids on Pearl Harbor. But most of all, the Combined Fleet’s commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, intended this operation to draw out and “annihilate” the United States Pacific Fleet, in its hour of greatest weakness, before new construction could replace the losses of Pearl Harbor. The success of this battle was central to the entire Japanese strategic concept of the war. Had Japan won, Port Moresby, the Fijis, anything else she wanted, would have fallen into her lap. But the yet small Pacific Fleet declined to accept the sacrificial role.

Midway, situated 1,136 miles west-northwest of Pearl Harbor, is the outermost link of the Hawaiian chain. The entire atoll is but six miles in diameter. Only two islets, Sand and Eastern, the first less than two miles long and the other a little more than one, are dry land. It had been a Pan American Airways base since 1935, and a Naval Air Station since August, 1941.

A comparison of the Combined Fleet thrown into this operation with what Admiral Nimitz could collect to withstand it indicates that Yamamoto’s expectations of “annihilation” were justified. He commanded (1) an Advance Force of sixteen submarines; (2) Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s Pearl Harbor Striking Force, with four big carriers; (3) a Midway Occupation Force, some 5,000 men in twelve transports, protected by two battleships, six heavy cruisers, and numerous destroyers; (4) a Main Body under Yamamoto’s immediate command, comprising Japan’s three most modern battleships and four older ones, with a light carrier; and (5) the Northern Area Force, with three light carriers, two heavy cruisers, and four big transports, for the bombing of Dutch Harbor and occupation of Adak, Attu, and Kiska in the Aleutians. This added up to 162 warships and auxiliaries, not counting small patrol craft and the like—practically the entire fighting Japanese Navy. The total number that Admiral Nimitz could scrape together was seventy-six, of which one third belonged to the North Pacific Force and never got into the battle.