During the Battle of Midway, a Japanese heavy cruiser of the Mogami class lies low in the water after being bombed by U.S. naval aircraft, as seen in this 1942 file photo. Bursts from anti-aircraft fire fill the air. CLICK FOR LARGE
65th anniversary of Midway battle
In a turning point of World War II, Japan fought the U.S. in The Battle of Midway atoll 65 years ago
SIX MONTHS after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a weakened and outnumbered U.S. fleet limped north to confront a flotilla of Japanese ships advancing on the remote Pacific atoll of Midway.
A U.S. defeat would have enhanced Japan's naval superiority in the Pacific. Instead, the United States sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and snatched the military advantage from Tokyo.
Next week marks the 65th anniversary of the three-day battle that changed the course of World War II. Three Midway veterans in their 80s and 90s and the current Pacific Fleet commander will visit the island 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu on June 4 for a ceremony hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which today runs a nature reserve on the atoll.
"Americans like underdogs, and here we are underdogs," said Donald Goldstein, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. "I think that's what made it so good -- that we shouldn't have won and we did."
Crewmen aboard the USS Yorktown battle fire after the carrier was hit by Japanese bombs during the Battle of Midway, as seen in this June 4, 1942, file photo. CLICK FOR LARGE
The victory came after a string of U.S. setbacks in the Pacific. Japanese forces ousted the United States from Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines in rapid succession in the months after Pearl Harbor. Japan also drove the British, U.S. allies, from Singapore.
By targeting Midway, the Japanese navy aimed to take control of the U.S. patrol plane base there and destroy what was left of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Conquering the island was a way to protect Japan from U.S. air raids and prevent the U.S. from interfering with Tokyo's plans to dominate the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. thwarted Japan's intentions with a mixture of code-breaking, smart decisions and luck.
The Navy's intelligence experts deciphered encrypted Japanese communications, giving Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, the precise time of the planned assault and what route Japan's ships would travel to Midway. He was also given notice of what vessels Japan would bring to the battle. Japan's commanders were forced to guess about their foes.
The U.S. lost one carrier, 145 planes and 307 men. Japan lost four aircraft carriers, a heavy cruiser, three destroyers, 291 planes and 4,800 men. The defeat was so overwhelming that the Japanese navy kept the details a closely guarded secret until after the war.
Goldstein, co-author of "Miracle at Midway," said Japan's military never recovered from the loss because it was unable to manufacture replacement aircraft carriers quickly enough.
Over the next three years, U.S. forces moved increasingly westward to deny Japan access to Guadalcanal and to retake Guam. The island-hopping led the United States to Iwo Jima and Okinawa before Japan surrendered in 1945.
"Midway made it possible for us to take the offense. Before that, it had been all defense," Goldstein said.
The Navy handed the two islets that make up Midway -- Sand and Eastern islands -- over to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996. The agency has held annual ceremonies ever since.
Midway enjoys quieter days today. Its primary residents are hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross that have long nested there. A few dozen humans run the refuge.