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Six Minutes That Changed The World
At 10:24 on the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese seemed to have won the Battle of Midway—and with it the Pacific war. By 10:30 things were different
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
By 1000 June 5 Spruance’s carriers were about fifty miles north of Midway. Five hours later they launched fifty-eight SBD’s to search for targets, but found only one destroyer. After continuing to a point some 400 miles west of Midway, and increasing his score only by the sinking of Mikuma , Spruance turned east on the evening of the sixth to keep a fueling rendezvous.
After the battle was over Yamamoto blamed his defeat on the failure of his advance screen of sixteen submarines to accomplish anything. The fault, however, was the Admiral’s. He had deployed them to catch the Pacific Fleet where he counted on its being, instead of where it was. Nevertheless, a Parthian shot by one of these boats scored for Japan in the last play of this big game. Her victim was Yorktown , abandoned after her hits on 4 June unnecessarily, as proved by the fact that she floated for twenty-four hours with no human hand to help. She was taken in tow on the fifth by minesweeper Vireo , too small to cope with the carrier’s 19,800-ton bulk. As Yorktown inched along toward home on 6 June, submarine I-168 penetrated her destroyer screen and got her torpedoes home. A third torpedo sank destroyer Hammann , which was secured to the carrier to furnish power and pumps for the salvage crew; she went down in four minutes, taking eighty-one officers and men with her. The two other torpedo hits finished old “Waltzing Matilda.” During the night her list suddenly increased, and at dawn it was evident she was doomed. The escorting destroyers half-masted their colors, all hands came to attention, and at 0600, with her loose gear making a horrible death rattle, Yorktown rolled over and sank in a two-thousand-fathom deep.
Midway was a victory not only of courage, determination, and excellent bombing technique, but of intelligence, bravely and wisely applied. “Had we lacked early information of the Japanese movements, and had we been caught with carrier forces dispersed, … the Battle of Midway would have ended differently,” commented Admiral Nimitz. So, too, it might have ended differently but for the chance which gave Spruance command over two of the three flattops. Fletcher did well, but Spruance’s performance was superb. Calm, collected, decisive, yet receptive to advice; keeping in his mind the picture of widely disparate forces, yet boldly seizing every opening, Raymond A. Spruance emerged from this battle one of the greatest admirals in American naval history.
The Japanese knew very well that they were beaten. Midway thrust the war lords back on their heels, caused their ambitious plans for the conquest of Port Moresby, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Samoa to be cancelled, and forced on them an unexpected and unwelcome defensive role. The word went out from Imperial Headquarters that the name Midway was not to be mentioned.
Admirals Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance are, as I write, very much alive; Captain Mitscher of Hornet , Captain Murray of Enterprise , and Captain Miles Browning of the slide-rule mind have joined the three-score young aviators who met flaming death that day, reversing the verdict of battle. Think of them, reader, every fourth of June. They and their comrades who survived changed the whole course of the Pacific war.