Naval Historian Highlights Significance of World War II Battle
By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 9, 2009 The U.S. Navy learned significant lessons during a pivotal World War II engagement, an award-winning historian told online journalists and bloggers last week during a conference call commemorating the battle’s 67th anniversary.
"Operationally, … the lesson was we needed more carriers,” Robert J. Cressman said. “We were literally fighting a catch-up war, because the Japanese had more carriers than we did.”
Also among the lessons learned, Cressman said, was the need to provide more protection for strike groups.
"Tactically, I think one of the things we learned at Midway was the whole business of defending our various strike groups,” he said, “because we had just too few fighters. And so not only did we need more aircraft carriers, but we needed more fighters on those decks to [protect] our attack groups."
Regarded as the turning point in the Pacific during World War II, the Battle of Midway took place June 4-7, 1942. An important marker in the nation’s naval heritage, the battle changed the course of the war in the Pacific within just a few days. It came a month after the Battle of Coral Sea, the war’s first engagement between carrier forces.
“In terms of employing carrier air groups, the U.S. Navy was much more flexible than the Japanese,” Cressman said. “Had the Japanese had that flexibility after Coral Sea, they might have taken the air group off of the Shokaku and parked it on the Zuikaku for the operations, giving them one more carrier.”
However, he added, the Japanese didn’t practice that tactic. “Whereas the Americans were able to put together an air group, literally at the last minute, to put on board Yorktown, that enabled her to participate in the Battle of Midway.”
Though the U.S. Navy was able to put together an air group, coordination and communication were the two biggest lessons learned from the battle, Cressman said. The U.S. aircraft carriers Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown all were supposed to have coordinated cover, he explained, but only Yorktown’s group had fighter cover that worked by trying to keep the Japanese fighters off the torpedo planes.
“The way things worked out, the Hornet fighters ended up getting lost and flying to nowhere,” he said. “The Enterprise fighters ended up following the Hornet torpedo planes. There was a great need shown at Midway for much better communication in terms of letting people know where they were and what they needed to do. That was one of the big lessons.”
Cressman said fate played a hand for Navy Lt. Cmdr. C. Wade McClusky to spot the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Arashi. At that time, he said, a U.S. submarine, the Nautilus -- the slowest, least maneuverable, noisiest boat in the Pacific Fleet -- had intercepted the Japanese fleet.
“They … popped up right in the middle of it,” he said. “And they caused all kinds of consternation because, you know, a submarine periscope in the middle of a force of carriers is not something you want to see. And so the Japanese were really busy trying to drive off this sub.”
At the time of the interception, Arashi was detached from the Japanese fleet to either sink or drive off Nautilus.
“And once they figured they'd done the job -- which of course, they hadn't, because Nautilus was still very much alive -- they set course to return to the Kido Butai, the carrier task force, at top speed,” Cressman said. “And of course, when a ship is moving across the ocean at top speed, it tends to leave a pretty good wake behind her. And that was what McClusky spotted, was the wake from the Arashi.”
Cressman added that the training, the courage and the dedication to duty of the men who fought on both sides in the Battle of Midway made it a battle worth commemorating.
“I think it's a triumph of training, of courage on our side, and you know, there was certainly an equal amount of courage and bravery on the other side as well,” he said. “I mean, when you're flying a torpedo plane, you have to fly basically low and on a steady course so you don't deviate to miss your target. And both the Japanese and the American torpedo pilots were extremely brave and courageous in carrying out their jobs.”
(Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)