ABOARD USS YORKTOWN — There has been much said and written of late regarding “high-risk decision-making” and “courageous leadership” in Washington. The so-called mainstream media, politicians and pundits are all a-twitter — literally — about a congressman’s underwear, the damage done by WikiLeaks and how the death of Osama bin Laden and the “Arab Spring” are changing the course of history. For those having difficulty discerning what qualifies as “decisiveness under duress” or a “gutsy call,” the first week of June offers some excellent examples from living history that put current events into a more reasonable perspective.
Much of that history is visible here on the flight and hangar decks and spaces aboard “The Fighting Lady.” This aircraft carrier, designated CV-10, was commissioned barely 10 months after its namesake was sunk by the Japanese shortly after the epic Battle of Midway, 69 years ago this week. The docents and tour guides here know how bold, brave decisions and the undaunted courage of young Americans in uniform can create world-changing events. And they explain all this without political coloration or equivocation to visiting students, tourists and Boy Scouts.
When I was a midshipman at Annapolis, we were taught how the battle for Midway — a tiny atoll 1,137 miles northwest of Hawaii — became the turning point in the Pacific and America’s first victory in World War II. But it wasn’t until decades later, while interviewing eyewitness participants of the desperate fight (for our Fox News’ “War Stories” documentary), that I completely understood how easily it all could have turned out differently.
From Dec. 7, 1941, until Midway (June 4, 1942), the United States failed to win a single engagement with the Empire of Japan. Less than a month before, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the U.S. Navy had lost one of its five carriers, USS Lexington, and Yorktown was badly damaged and required extensive repairs in Pearl Harbor. Bill Surgi, an aviation mechanic aboard Yorktown, described the harrowing battle and provided a dramatic account of how his damaged ship was hastily repaired and — with repairmen still aboard — sent back into the fight at Midway.
Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, on the job for less than five months, was down to two undamaged carriers in the Pacific, USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. But Nimitz knew, from top-secret code breakers at “Station Hypo,” that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was en route with the entire Japanese battle fleet to capture Midway. That’s when Nimitz made what Surgi called “the bravest call a commander could make — to attack them before they could hit us again.”
Having the participants in the furious battle — men such as Surgi aboard Yorktown; Ensign Lewis Hopkins, a dive bomber pilot aboard Enterprise; and Mac Showers, one of the legendary code breakers — describe the searing, bloody battle is unforgettable. They all recognize that a more timid commander than Nimitz could well have decided to husband his scant assets until America’s factories and shipyards were able to churn out more planes and ships. But instead, he took the risk.
The battle exacted a terrible toll. Every plane from the USS Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8 was shot down. Only five planes from Torpedo Squadron 6, off the Enterprise, made it back. And only two from Torpedo Squadron 3, from Yorktown, came home. The Marine aviators ashore on Midway fared little better. Maj. Lofton Henderson was killed leading his squadron of 16 Dauntless dive bombers in an attack on the Japanese carrier Hiryu. Only a handful of his wingmen survived. Then, late in the day, the Japanese found the already battle-damaged Yorktown. It was hit three more times by Japanese bombs.
As darkness fell on June 4, Yamamoto canceled his order to take Midway and turned toward his homeland with the entire Japanese Combined Fleet. Taisuke Maruyama, one of the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor and whose carrier went to the bottom at Midway, gave us a firsthand account of the battle and what it all meant to his nation’s dreams of a globe-spanning empire.
Notably, neither President Franklin Roosevelt nor Chester Nimitz, the tall admiral from Fredericksburg, Texas, took credit for the victory. They gave it instead to those who fought the battle. And unlike what would happen today, a “leak” about how our code breakers provided the decisive “edge” in the Battle of Midway — first carried in an article in the Chicago Tribune and later carried in Time magazine — did not get picked up in Tokyo. Now we have WikiLeaks — and small-minded officials who want all the credit.
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