Sunday, June 2, 2002


6 minutes off Midway
turned tide of WWII

Japanese and U.S. fortunes changed
in a pivotal battle 60 years ago this Tuesday

Miracle at Midway
The Midway diary of a naval aviator

By Burl Burlingame

Six minutes.

Everything changed, the world turned over, in the space of six minutes, maybe less, in the cold, blue Pacific north of Midway, 60 years ago.

Put yourself in Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's shoes during those few minutes.

One moment he's in command of the greatest striking force the world has ever seen, more than 200 warships, including four aircraft carriers and two of the largest battleships ever built, with the world's most highly trained and combat-tested pilots flying the best-designed aircraft then in existence.

The Imperial navy had enjoyed an unbroken string of victories since striking the Americans at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, and the British at Singapore. They were rolling up the Pacific like a doormat.

Then, thanks to the audacity of the American "Doolittle Raiders" dropping bombs on Tokyo -- near the Imperial Palace! -- Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's scheme to seize the Hawaiian Islands, starting with tiny Midway, was given the go-ahead.

Dubbed Operation MI, it began with a feint at the Aleutians to fool the Americans. The real tip of the spear was pointed at Midway. Yamamoto hoped not only to grab the island, but to draw the U.S. Navy into a decisive mid-ocean battle and decimate the Americans, forcing them to sue for peace.

Nagumo's bombers and fighters spent the morning of June 4, hammering the tiny Midway Atoll and beating off American torpedo-bomber attacks. Imperial navy Zeros had a field day, slaughtering the Americans.

Of 41 torpedo planes launched, only six escaped. American fighters and high-altitude bombers also were massacred. No U.S. Navy bomb or torpedoes touched any Imperial navy warships. But they kept pressing home the futile assault, causing one officer to murmur, "They die like samurai, these Americans."

There were too many American torpedo planes to have come from Midway, Nagumo thought. These must be American carriers nearby . Nagumo decided to rearm his own planes with torpedoes to search out and destroy the American fleet.

As his air cover of Zeros chased the fleeing Americans at wavetop height, Nagumo's deck crews feverishly began moving the planes below deck to be serviced. In a few minutes, they could take off and destroy the Americans. It looked like another great victory was at hand.

But they didn't have those few minutes.

Flights of SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers began screaming out of the clouds. At 10:24 a.m. June 4, 1942, American bombs struck the Imperial Navy carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, and six minutes later, all three ships were wracked by fire and explosions.

Essentially, it was over at that moment.

"It was closer than people realize," muses local historian John Stephan, author of "Hawaii under the Rising Sun." "If Jimmy 'The Greek' were betting on the battle, he would have bet on the Japanese."

In most ways, the Battle of Midway was a traditional military engagement, with planning, expertise, equipment and sheer momentum falling afoul of weather and pure good and bad luck. Although the battle would rage for another day -- a brutal slugging match that cost the Japanese the remaining carrier Hiryu and assorted cruisers and support ships, and the Americans the carrier Yorktown and a single destroyer -- it was the first Japanese naval defeat since 1592, when a Korean armada routed an Imperial invasion fleet.

More than the loss of the ships, the cream of the Imperial Navy's pilot corps was wiped out. Ships could be rebuilt, but Japan never recovered from the loss of so many highly trained and motivated aviators. During those six minutes, the course of the Pacific War changed, from a desperate delaying action on the part of the Americans to an inevitable, bloody retreat by the Japanese.

The most immediate fallout from the battle was a speeding up of Allied strategy to end the war. With the Imperial navy on the defensive, they could concentrate on Europe, and the U.S. Navy's careful, step-by-step Central Pacific campaign was goosed by MacArthur's island-hopping strategy that gave the Japanese no breathing room. The war ended a year before the Allies expected it to, primarily due to the events during those six minutes off Midway.

Thanks to the quicker resolution of the Pacific War, the Russians were largely frozen out of Pacific Rim diplomacy. Japan became part of America's sphere of influence .

And so, those six minutes had a profound impact on modern history.

"It occurred in the nick of time to help prevent an invasion," said Stephan. "It was a crucial battle, because, with Midway, the Japanese were then in a position to strike at the islands. It was the first door in a long corridor, and the U.S. Navy closed it on them."

Events planned to remember Midway battle

The International Midway Memorial Foundation, Inc. will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Midway with a ceremony tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. aboard the Battleship Missouri and a formal dinner at the Halekulani Hotel on Tuesday.

The Midway Night Dinner will begin with a reception at 6:30 p.m. and will feature speaker Adm. Walter F. Doran, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The commemoration of the first six months of World War II in the Pacific began Friday with a reception at Halekulani Hotel.

The Pearl Harbor Naval Complex is holding a historical symposium on the first six months of World War II in the Pacific. The symposium started yesterday and will be repeated today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the complex.

The International Midway Memorial Foundation Inc. of Chevy Chase, Md., a non-profit organization, is sponsoring the events and is hosting the commemoration in cooperation with the Navy.

For more information about the commemoration, go to

E-mail to City Desk


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