Commentary by J. Overton, Navy Region Northwest Public Affairs
Each year in early June the U.S. Navy commemorates the Battle of Midway, considered one of, if not the, most important battle in U.S. Navy history.
The written accounts of the Battle are filled with such drama and coincidence, heroism and luck, that if it were fiction it would seem just a little too fantastic. But in those many stories, one may never get a sense of the basic reasons why Midway was fought, and why it was such a classic, decisive Naval battle.
The Battle of Midway occurred June 4 to 7, 1942, in and around a very small island at the Northwest corner of the Hawaiian archipelago. To give it some historical and naval context, however, one must start earlier.
Nations, from the Greek City-States to the current United States, have built and maintained Navies for two basic reasons: to project power and to control the sea. And power projection and sea control – from Athenian triremes to the Spanish Armada to American CVNs – have been enabled by, and wholly dependent on, technology. The Battle of Midway, and any Naval action for that matter, can best be explained using those endearing truths.
In the late 1800’s, the U.S. Navy was switching from sail to steam, and attempting to project America’s power and control the seas farther abroad and with greater effectiveness. To do this, the Navy needed coaling stations: sailing ships must only resupply food, water and some repair materials, but steamships need a more permanent, secure logistical base. Wars were fought, rebellions were instigated, treaties were signed, and little by little throughout the 1880’s and 90’s, the U.S. gained logistics outposts around the globe, particular across the vast Pacific.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, Japan, as a result of winning the Russo-Japanese War and gaining Germany’s Pacific territories after World War I, was also extending its Pacific Empire By the 1930’s, much of the Northern and Central Pacific were under the influence of these two growing Naval powers.
Although political decisions ultimately were the catalyst for the U.S. and Japan going to war, it was technological advancement that enabled both countries to project power, in sufficient force and with sufficient reach, to eventually collide.
The shooting war between the two had started six months before the Battle of Midway, at Pearl Harbor, and other sea battles had been fought in the meantime.
By June 3, 1942, the Pacific War was at a strategic stalemate. It may be difficult to see why, at this state, the Japanese even wanted to attack Midway, and why the U.S. had it in the first place, and fought so hard to keep it? Midway, bereft of any resources, functioned as a giant, unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. In the days before aerial refueling, nuclear
propulsion, and inter-continental ballistic missiles, Midway’s importance as a base of power projection can hardly be overstated.
If the Japanese had taken the island, most historians don’t believe that the Axis would then have invaded California and marched east to Washington D.C., or even to have occupied Honolulu. But from there, they could have launched further, more devastating attacks against U.S. forces in Hawaii, putting the U.S. and Allied countries on the ‘horns of a dilemma.’ We might have been left no choice but to sue for peace, essentially saying “Let’s stop fighting. We’ve lost control of our sea lanes and can no longer project power here. We’ll stay where we are and not interfere with your plans for Pacific and Asian domination.”
Remember that June, 1942 is early in the U.S. involvement of World War II. At this point, we’re floundering a bit: there was no certainty that the U.S. or Allies would win. In fact, across the world, the Axis powers had the upper hand. But the Battle of Midway became the high-water mark of the Japanese forces in the Pacific … from then on through the next three years of the war, U.S. industry supplied the technology that made our power projection across, and sea control of, the Pacific possible: we could build more and better ships and planes, and we could repair and return them and their crews to the fight more quickly.
In popular imagination, if not Naval imagination, Midway has been overshadowed by an event that took place exactly two years later, the Normandy Invasion, or “D-Day.” Like Midway, D-Day could’ve failed. But by that time U.S. industrial capacity was such that we could have recovered. Had the June 6, 1944 landings been repulsed, in time the Allies would have regrouped, rebuilt, and returned across the English Channel, projecting power onto the European Mainland and bringing down the Third Reich.
In June, 1944, victory was a matter of “when,” not “if.” In June, 1942, victory at sea was still very much “if.”
Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has fought two other wars against Pacific Rim nations. In both, we were able to control the sea lanes right up to those countries’ littorals, and project power from bases well out of harm’s way. From the Battle of Midway to the present, the U.S. has had the upper hand in sea control and power projection in the Pacific Ocean, and much of we do in Navy Region Northwest is basically just trying to sustain that positive operating environment.
The Battle is relevant to our Region for other reasons as well. Japanese forces attacked Alaska’s Aleutian Islands at nearly the same time as they did Midway … and they were successful. However, those Islands just weren’t as good a place for power projection as was Midway, so strategically, it didn’t matter all that much. Alaska and the Bering Sea are difficult places from which we operate today, and were far more so with the technology of 1942. But it’s worth noting that parts of Navy Region Northwest were actually occupied by enemy forces during WWII, a dubious honor we share with no other region in the continental U.S.
Also of Northwest note, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, in tactical Command at Midway, was later in the War head of the 13th Naval District in Seattle and Alaska…he was the Commander, Navy Region Northwest of the time. Fletcher’s time here is detailed in his biography “In Bitter Tempest,” and his portrait hangs in the Navy Region Northwest Headquarters building.
For more information about the Battle of Midway – photos, oral histories, and a detailed chronology – see the Navy History and Heritage Command site at http://www.history.navy.mil/Midway/midwaybattle-index.htm.