Six Minutes That Changed The World

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Nevertheless, Nimitz had certain assets which helped tip the scale. The senior commander of the Carrier Striking Force which did most of the fighting was Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher in Yorktown , “the Waltzing Matilda of the Pacific Fleet,” as the sailors called her. Badly damaged in the Coral Sea action, she had been repaired at Pearl Harbor in two days, when by peacetime methods the job would have taken ninety. Fletcher had learned a thing or two at the Coral Sea. Junior to him, and in temporary command of Halsey’s Task Force 16, which had pulled off the Tokyo strike, was Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. (Admiral Halsey had been hospitalized after the Tokyo strike.) Spruance, though not a flyer, showed in the forthcoming battle the very highest quality of tactical wisdom, the power to seize opportunities. “Big E” ( Enterprise ) and Hornet , the carriers under him, had two superlative commanding officers, Captains George D. Murray and Marc A. Mitscher. In Midway itself, where thirty-two Navy Catalinas and six of the new torpedo-bombing Avengers, fifty-four Marine Corps planes, and twenty-three Army Air Force planes (nineteen of them B-17’s) were based, we had an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Finally, Nimitz had the inestimable advantage of knowing when and where the enemy intended to attack. But for early and abundant decrypted intelligence, and, what was more important, the prompt piecing together of these bits and scraps to make a pattern, “David”—the United States Navy—could never have coped with the Japanese “Goliath.”

Admiral Nimitz had ordered Fletcher and Spruance to “inflict maximum damage on enemy by employing strong attrition tactics,” which meant air strikes on enemy ships. He cannily ordered them to take initial positions to the northeastward of Midway, beyond search range of the approaching enemy, anticipating that the 700-mile searches by Midway-based planes would locate the Japanese carriers first. To this he added a special Letter of Instruction: “In carrying out the task assigned … you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk … the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting … greater damage on the enemy.” No commander in chief’s instructions were ever more faithfully and intelligently carried out.

Yamamoto really threw away his chance of a smashing victory by dividing his mammoth forces several ways, and by fitting his operation plan to what he assumed the Americans would do. Dividing forces was a fixed strategic idea with the Japanese. They loved diversionary tactics—fleets popping up at odd places to confuse the enemy and pull him oft base. Their pattern for decisive battle was the same at sea as on land—lure the enemy into an unfavorable tactical situation, cut oft his retreat, drive in his flanks, and then concentrate for the kill. Their manual for carrier force commanders even invoked the examples of Hannibal at Cannae and Ludendorff at Tannenberg to justify such naval strategy as Yamamoto tried at Midway. Thus, the preliminary air strike on Dutch Harbor, set for 3 June, was a gambit to pull the Pacific Fleet up north where it could not interfere with the occupation of Midway Island, due to take place at dawn 6 June. When the Pacific Fleet hastened south after a fruitless run up north, which could not be earlier than 7 June, Japanese carrier planes and Midway-based aircraft would intensively bomb the American ships. These, if they did not promptly sink, would be dispatched by gunfire from Yamamoto’s battleships and heavy cruisers.

So very, very neat! But IVimitz, instead of falling for this trap, had three carriers already covering Midway as Nagumo’s carriers approached it. It was the “Nips” who were nipped.

The Japanese Aleutian prong struck first, on 3 June, with the triple object of deceiving Admiral Nimitz into the belief that this was the main show, destroying American installations at Dutch Harbor, and covering an occupation of the Western Aleutians. Besides separate occupation forces, Vice Admiral Hosogaya had light carriers Ryujo and Junyo , three heavy cruisers, and a suitable number of destroyers and oilers. On our side, we had the North Pacific Force commanded by Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald in light cruiser Nashville , with sister ships St. Louis and Honolulu , two heavy cruisers, a destroyer division, a nine-destroyer striking group, six S-class submarines, and a flock of Coast Guard cutters and other small craft. Nimitz’s Intelligence smoked out Japanese intentions in this quarter, and informed the Admiral of them on 28 May, but “Fuzzy” Theobald, as usual, thought he knew better—that the enemy was going to seize Dutch Harbor. Consequently he deployed the main body of his force about 400 miles south of Kodiak, instead of trying to break up the Western Aleutians invasion force. This bad guess lost him all opportunity to fight; for Hosogaya’s two light carriers, under the tactical command of Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, slipped in between Theobald’s force and the land, began bombing Dutch Harbor at 0800 June 3, and returned through a fog mull for another whack at this Eastern Aleutians base next day, completely unmolested from the sea. The Japanese could have landed at Dutch Harbor, for all the protection it had from Theobald. Considerable damage was inflicted on this base, but it was far from being knocked out.