June 3, 1942: The Battle of Midway

The first stage of the Battle of Midway, the outcome of which permanently changed the course of World War II in the Pacific, occurred on this day sixty-nine years ago. The American forces eventually prevailed, thanks to what one analyst aptly termed “brilliance shot with luck,” while the Japanese navy lost, because, in the view of the same historian, the manner in which it planned and conducted the battle was “a mass of chaos.” Thanks to brilliant cryptanalytic work, the Americans had broken the Japanese naval code, and so they had a least a general idea of the scale and intentions of the vastly superior forces arrayed against them. Conversely, the Japanese naval staff, provoked into making hasty decisions by the success of the Doolittle raid two months earlier, and already afflicted by what one of their number termed “victory disease,” were victims of both their own pride and the ingenuity of their American adversaries.
The combatants on both sides performed their duties with professional dispatch and almost preternatural courage. For the Americans, despite the loss of one aircraft carrier (the Yorktown, pictured at right), the battle both avenged the debacle at Pearl Harbor and marked the beginning of their westward advance across the Pacific, which would culminate in the unconditional surrender of Japan. For the Japanese, who lost four aircraft carriers in the battle (including the Hiryu, pictured below), Midway was both a military disaster and a profound psychological trauma, since it was essentially a reprise of the Battle of Dan-no-ura (1185 C.E.), the archetypal naval catastrophe in their national history.

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