Today, more than six decades later, Americans remember World War II as “The Good War,” and think of the nation’s victory as something that was always assured. Historians, and of course the vanquished, frame America’s victory in terms of manpower, production, and economics, a collection of charts and graphs, facts and figures that, when looked at in isolation, appear to assure that victory was inevitable.
The rapidly diminishing numbers of those who were there know differently. Between the wars, the U.S. armed forces had shrunk in numbers and power, and the nation, despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s sometimes clandestine efforts, was woefully unprepared for war.
The attack on Pearl Harbor sank the Pacific Fleet’s battleships at their moorings, the Asiatic Fleet had been destroyed or driven from the seas, and Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines had surrendered. The Battle of the Coral Sea had cost the Japanese one light carrier and forestalled their invasion plans for Port Moresby in New Guinea, but the carrier Yorktown (CV 5) was damaged and Lexington (CV 2) was sunk.
This left only Enterprise and Hornet in the Pacific, and not much else but what meager task forces could be gathered around them. The Hornet‘s raid on Tokyo, however, had spurred the Japanese to expand their perimeter of conquests, and their next target was Midway atoll.
Through the brilliant codebreaking achievements of Lt. Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort and Station Hypo, the American carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, her Coral Sea damage hastily patched up, were waiting at the aptly named “Point Luck” off Midway when the Japanese fleet arrived. Adm. Chester A. Nimitz had decided to stake everything on an ambush on the Japanese fleet with his numerically inferior forces.
Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, in overall command, flew his flag from Yorktown, centerpiece of Task Force 17. Task Force 16, comprised of Enterprise and Hornet, was commanded by Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Midway operation, had developed a complicated plan for the operation, but much of it depended on surprise, which, because of Station Hypo, he had already lost.
Even so, the odds were dauntingly against the U.S. Navy. Yamamoto’s forces included four fleet and two light carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers and around 20 submarines. Nimitz could muster only his three carriers, one light and seven heavy cruisers, 17 destroyers and 12 submarines.