Glimmers of Victory
Since that fateful day of 7 December 1941, America and its Allies in the Pacific experienced defeat across almost every front at a shocking speed. The defensive outposts in the Pacific crumbled before the Japanese juggernaut. From the White House to the Navy and Army war planners, a haunting question arose … how and when will we be able strike back? History would later record that the three fateful months, beginning in April and ending in June of 1942, would see the tide of war change in the favor of the United States and its beleaguered allies.
In April of 1942, an aircraft carrier named USS Hornet sailed out from San Francisco Bay on a special secret mission to bomb Japan. It was a daring plan filled with danger and high challenges. Preparation had begun in late January. It required special training for 16 Army B-25 bombers to takeoff from an aircraft carrier hundreds of miles from Japan. The famed “Doolittle Raid” hit Tokyo and other cities and in doing so lifted American morale. Japan was shocked and angered by the American audacity. Within weeks of that raid, Japanese naval forces responded and moved swiftly to capture a portion of Australia.
By May, U.S. naval forces rose to the challenge and confronted the Japanese Navy in the Coral Sea, where the first carrier battle in the history of warfare would unfold. Both sides lost ships, but the Japanese broke off their invasion plans of Australia and retired from the battlefield with two badly damaged carriers, thus giving the U.S. Navy a strategic victory. Of note was that 25 % of our effective carrier force had been lost in the battle. The carrier Lexington had been sunk and the Yorktown had suffered considerable damage.
Stunned by the events of the raid on Tokyo and the Coral Sea battle, the Japanese Navy, led by Admiral Yamamoto, had a plan to draw out the American Pacific fleet. First, Japan’s plan was to capture Midway. Thus the opening phase of the invasion of the Hawaiian Islands. Second, to destroy the American carriers and their supportive forces in elaborate naval plan of battle.
Unknown to them, American code-breakers located at Pearl Harbor had broken the Japanese naval code (JN-25). Admiral Nimitz and his staff had the dates of the attack and the Japanese forces involved. Armed with that critical intelligence, three American carriers slipped out of Pearl Harbor to rendezvous northeast of Midway. Once there, Nimitz’s plan was to ambush the oncoming Japanese carrier force.
From June 4th and 5th 1942, American naval air would win a decisive victory during those days of intensive aerial combat. Japan had lost four aircraft carriers. Ironically, all four had participated in the attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the island of Oahu. The battle had weakened the Japanese Navy and halted the offensive operations of the Empire of Japan. Americans listened to the news of victory on the radio or read the joyous headlines in the newspapers. It gave the nation a new optimism that the war could be won. Midway had certainly changed the course of the Pacific War.
A historian was once asked at a recent symposium on the Battle of Midway, “What short phrase would best summarize the successive and decisive Pacific War naval battles in 1942?” He responded, “They were glimmers of victory.”