The American Guts and Grit That Sank Japan at Midway by Robert R. Garnett, Wall Street Journal
Seventy-five years ago this Sunday, some 150 Japanese warships, 250 warplanes and 25 admirals were steaming toward a small atoll 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu. Imminent was the most crucial naval battle of World War II—Midway.
Aboard the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto retired to his quarters each evening to play chess. He had spent his final nights in port with his geisha, Kawai Chiyoko. Departing, he sent her verses: “Today too I ache for you / Calling your name / Again and again / And pressing kisses / Upon your picture.”
His present concerns were less sentimental. For six months, Japan’s navy had battered Allied forces across 8,000 miles of ocean, from Pearl Harbor to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Still, Yamamoto worried that the American fleet was wounded but still dangerous. “We have scorched the snake,” as Macbeth had put it, “not killed it.”
His American counterpart, Adm. Chester Nimitz, relaxed by pitching horseshoes. Steady, calm, old-school—his most violent oath was “Now see here!”—Nimitz marshaled his forces for battle, waiting for the unsuspecting Japanese.
Weeks earlier, with strikes expected toward Australia, Washington had ordered Nimitz’s aircraft carriers to the far South Pacific. Others feared assaults on Hawaii, perhaps San Francisco or San Diego. Or the Panama Canal, Alaska . . . even Siberia.
But in a windowless basement near the fleet’s Pearl Harbor headquarters, codebreakers under Cmdr. Joe Rochefort pored over intercepted Japanese radio traffic. Independent, impolitic, single-minded, Rochefort “left the basement only to bathe, change clothes, or get an occasional meal to supplement a steady diet of coffee and sandwiches,” one officer recalled. “For weeks the only sleep he got was on a field cot pushed into a crowded corner.”
Rochefort’s team could decode about one-eighth of an average message, filling in the gaps by educated intuition. For example, the messages called the proximate Japanese objective “AF.” But where was “AF”? Midway, Rochefort concluded. The authorities in Washington scoffed. Why would Japan dispatch a massive armada to seize a tiny atoll?
Nimitz, responsible for millions of square miles of ocean, had scant means to repel the Japanese anywhere, let alone everywhere. With his fleet, and perhaps the entire Pacific war, at stake, “I had to do a bit of hard thinking,” he would recall.
As the Navy’s heavyweights vacillated, Nimitz decided to gamble on the out-of-step Rochefort. He recalled his three carriers from the South Pacific to defend Midway. Time was short. The USS Yorktown had been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea and had recently returned to Pearl Harbor trailing a 10-mile oil slick. Repair estimates ranged up to three months…