Midway Recognized As a Naval Victory that Changed the World

By Gordon R. England ─ Arlington, Virginia ─ June 3, 2004.

Prepared remarks Of the Secretary of the Navy, The Honorable Gordon England, at the 2004 Battle of Midway Dinner, Arlington, Virginia, June 3, 2004.

"They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war … even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit – a magic blend of skill, faith and valor – that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory."

Dedication Stone Inscription by Walter Lord, National WWII Memorial, Washington, DC, Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942.

Rare is the occasion to reflect on the sweep of time and those events that not only alter history … but also are so lasting in their impact that they afford insight to deal with our nation's current and future challenges.

Admiral Houser, thank you for this unique opportunity and for that kind introduction. I applaud you and your association for keeping the memory of the Battle of Midway alive. Surely, that moment in history ranks along with the greatest military victories … and upsets … Thermopylae, Stalingrad, Salamis, Agincourt … other tipping points that changed the course of history.

Last year, Dr. Jim Schlesinger's remarks put the proper emphasis on the strategic significance of Midway … not just for the war in the Pacific, but for the conduct of the Allied campaign overall. Tonight I'd like to add my thoughts to those of Dr. Schlesinger.

On June 4, 1942, I was four years old and certainly did not appreciate the importance of Midway --- a world away from my home in Baltimore. Earlier in 1942, not only Manila had fallen, but Bataan and Singapore too. London was being bombed nightly, and America had a Navy and an Army still emerging from boot camp.

Historians often like to ask, "What if?" … as in "What if Hitler had not been appeased in the late 1930's?" … or "What if another country developed the atom bomb first."

Asking such questions … called counterfactuals … can give enlightening and insightful results, despite their theoretical nature. On a night like tonight … it's worth asking ourselves "What if" with respect to the Battle of Midway. Simply stated, what if we had lost?

One veteran from USS YORKTOWN recalls hearing the answer to that question just an hour or two before the battle began … the Captain got on the 1MC … the ship's announcing system … and said, "If we don't stop this enemy fleet today, there is nothing between here and San Francisco to keep them from going all the way. "The Japanese believed that if they could destroy the Pacific fleet then the United States would be forced to negotiate for peace.

At best, most experts concede that the war in the Pacific would have dragged on for months or even years more while the U.S. tried to recover from a loss at Midway.

Of course, much depends upon the magnitude of the loss, but it's safe to say that our forces would have been further in retreat and would have lost a strategic staging point in the Pacific. But even in this best-case scenario, the consequences run deeper in the context of an American and Allied grand strategy in the war.

During the interwar period of the 1920's and 1930's and well before Pearl Harbor and our formal entry into the war, naval war gamers in Newport and senior strategists in Washington had always envisioned a potential conflict with Japan in the Pacific.

Japan was a rising power with expansionist goals. Plan Orange was formulated and gamed and refined year after year. More importantly, however, it was recognized that the United States should be prepared to fight not only a war with Japan, but a simultaneous war in the Western hemisphere, too.

But even this early on … whether the second front was Germany or Russia … there was an overwhelming consensus that protecting the Western hemisphere must be the priority.

And in order to do so, the war in the Pacific would initially have to be one of defensive containment and holding ground … rather than offensive in nature. It was always envisioned that in a two-front war … Europe would have to come first, and this judgment that Germany must be defeated before Japan stands as the most important single strategic concept of the war.

What was not envisioned, however, was the way in which the U.S. would enter such a war. December 7th, 1941 left the Pacific Fleet not on the defensive, but in disarray … and shortly thereafter, we lost Wake, Guam and the Philippines. Our forces in the Pacific were in retreat and, as such, the grand strategy of "Europe first" was at risk.

Despite this, Roosevelt remained committed to the plan, but needed to hold ground in the Pacific so that the Allies could advance in the Atlantic. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo provided a morale boost, and the Battle of The Coral Sea stymied Japan's advance toward Australia, but was not decisive.

The tipping point … from retreat to containment … and even to the offense in the Pacific came at Midway in 1942.

Strategist Basil Liddell Hart said: "It is the loss of hope rather than the loss of life that decides the issues of war. "Midway gave our nation that hope.

A History Channel video on "Defenders of Midway" starts: "Less than six months after America entered World War II, a small force of young, poorly equipped Americans faced the undefeated might of the Japanese Imperial Navy in a great naval battle that changed the war."

Two years ago at the War of the Pacific Museum in Fredericksburg, TX, I spoke with several of the Midway veterans.

One of these pilots was Rear Admiral Lew Hopkins, who was then a green ensign, one of 59 who flew that day from Enterprise. When he took off, it was a time of firsts: the first time he ever carried a real bomb; the first time he ever dropped a bomb and, of course his first ever dive-bomb attack against an enemy target. The bomb smashed through the deck of the Japanese carrier, Akagi. Later, when he returned to his ship, many pilots of his squadron had already been forced to ditch for lack of fuel. Ensign Lew Hopkins landed in the fading light of evening … his first night time landing ever. I suspect that history will never fully record the youth and inexperience that won at Midway.

Another of the pilots I met was Dusty Kleiss, an "old salt" by comparison. He was a LT Junior Grade. He too was embarking on his first combat mission, pitching his Dauntless Dive Bomber to an angle of attack of 70-90 degrees and racing at a top speed of 240 knots. He released his 500-pound bomb at only 400 feet. Dusty also scored a bulls' eye on the Akagi, setting it on fire.

It was spirit and determination that carried the day … even though we were outnumbered … with no battleships vs. Japan's eleven … and only three carriers – Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown … vs. the Imperial Navy's six.

The Japanese lost four carriers, a heavy cruiser, three destroyers, some 291 planes, at least 4,800 men and suffered heavy damage among the remaining vessels of their fleet.

American losses included one carrier, the Yorktown, a destroyer, about 145 planes and 307 men. Japan's losses, both at Coral Sea and Midway, did much to restore the balance of naval power in the Pacific. The Japanese never fully recovered from the loss of many of their best naval pilots in the two battles.

For the United States, Midway was a magnificent victory – a "glorious page in our history," as Admiral Nimitz said. But the words that a U.S. Navy officer wrote to his wife came closer to what survivors on both sides felt: "let no one tell you or let you believe that this war is other than a grim, terrible business."

There are certainly military lessons to be gained from Midway … the critical importance of intelligence, the contribution of each Service in a joint effort … the need for decisive leadership … but I believe the lessons were more about how we live, and who we are as a people and how we cherish freedom, liberty and our way of life. June 4, 1942 appears, in some ways, to have been a simpler time.

Walter Winchell used to start his radio broadcasts with … "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press."

With that lead in, he became, along with a number of other well-known commentators, the voice of America.

We saw the war through his voice and the voices of reporters like him, who reported facts and let us draw our own conclusions. We were indeed one nation, indivisible, in support of our war against a common foe.

People were more open then about their faith and expressing it; and their faith, whatever denomination, was expressed in the way we supported the war, singing songs like, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," and "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer".

Between December 7, 1941 and June 4, 1942, maybe many of our citizens had grave doubts about the war, and maybe the rhetoric of the time had a highly political fervor. But the sense you get of the nation at that time is one of unity, resolve and a clear determination to carry this war to victory whatever the cost.

If we had indeed lost the Battle of Midway, then perhaps the Japanese would have achieved their primary objective. Maybe we would have negotiated for peace.  doubt it, but then again the U.S. won a resounding military victory at Tet in Vietnam, yet it turned out to be a political defeat at home. Tet clearly demonstrates that victory is not just on the battlefield but requires a popular and political consensus.

It is perhaps a paradox of our times that the terrorists who threaten us today are similar in many respects to the Japanese.

The Japanese had a rigidly enforced state religion … the Shinto religion … which was used to justify Japanese aggression against its Asian neighbors and then against the United States. Members of the Japanese military were inspired to believe that they were going to heaven if they took our lives and were willing to literally become suicide bombers … in their kamikaze "divine wind" airplanes.

It took the United States and our allies another three and a half years after Midway to ultimately prevail. That time would have been longer if not for the sudden and enormous loss of life suffered by the Japanese people through the use of the atomic bomb.

You may recall that the Japanese had decided to sacrifice every last man, woman and child during an invasion of Japan.

They conceded defeat when the loss of life escalated so dramatically.

Perhaps there are no parallels to draw with today … perhaps the world is too different. Visual scenes and information today are transmitted instantly, and also interpreted and presented for us in the way the media would like us to see the world, and the events that are unfolding.

Perhaps our governmental process has become too political and perhaps it is too hard to separate reality from the expediency of political gain. Perhaps many of our citizens and some of our former friends and allies from WWII don't, or don't want to, understand this new grave threat that faces America and the world.

To me, however, there are still clear lessons from Midway and clear messages from that era that will resonate with the American people today.

Freedom is still not free. The freedom, liberty and justice that are the core of our nation will continue to be attacked and especially by those who see us as weak and vulnerable. It will continue to be our people, our young men and women, who will be called upon to protect and defend those liberties we all so cherish, and victory will not come quickly or swiftly.

After four years of fighting fascism and 40 years of fighting communism, our country should know that it is the strength of our military coupled with the resolve, determination and commitment of our people and political leadership, that make victory possible.

As the President said yesterday at the US Air Force Academy, "This war on terror is civilization's fight". This is a war against people who are determined to change our political systems, our value systems, and our way of life. Terror is their weapon, their chosen agent of change.

Last year, in an article published on an Al Qaeda website, a terrorist spokesman said, "We have the right to kill four million Americans – two million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons."

We made a stand at Midway because it allowed us to execute our preferred strategy … to win in Europe first, making D-Day possible. The time and situation were far from perfect at Midway, but we still stood tall. It also fit in the larger strategy of freeing Europe from fascism as a major objective in a global conflict.

We made a stand at Midway because it reflected who we are as Americans and, as Americans, we stand for liberty, freedom and justice for our citizens and for all the citizens of the world. It is the same reason we are standing for the same principles in the Middle East today.

It is the reason you served and the reason that thousands of young men and women today are standing the watch and hunting down terrorists where they hide.

I mentioned earlier that I was four years old during the Battle of Midway. My granddaughter was four years old during the attacks in New York and Washington on 9/11/01.The young and inexperienced military at Midway preserved America and provided for me the opportunity to grow and thrive in this great country. Generations today have the same obligation for all of our grandchildren and our great, great grandchildren yet to come.

Last Friday, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke to the graduating class at West Point. CBS News reported on the graduation and noted both one proud young graduate who is a member of an Army family … and the demonstrators parading outside the gates of West Point.

This family serves our nation and protects the rights of those demonstrators to free speech. The young man's mother commented to CBS News, "So many take so much from America and never give anything back."

Do not be confused … this is a war against our values and our principles, and we are in this fight to win. The President expressed it well yesterday when he said of the Middle East, "If that region grows in democracy and prosperity and hope, the terrorist movement will lose its sponsors, lose its recruits and lose the festering grievances that keep terrorists in business."

In closing, let me make a few comments about remembering this seminal event. Our dinner tonight honoring those who fought and died at the Battle of Midway finds itself sandwiched between two towering events; namely, the dedication of the WWII Memorial and the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

While these are two very significant events, Midway is beginning to be recognized as a naval victory that changed the world. In addition to our gathering tonight, dinners, ceremonies or exhibits honoring those who fought at Midway are being held in Jacksonville, Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, and Hawaii.

In San Diego, the aircraft carrier, MIDWAY, which entered the Navy's service in 1944, will be dedicated this weekend as an active and living memorial to the Battle of Midway and the contributions of naval aviation. This carrier is a magnificent monument to Midway.

I know that VADM Houser and many of you are working to establish a formal national memorial to this historic Battle, and I applaud and encourage your work – but also consider that we now have memorials coast to coast, here in Washington, D.C. and in San Diego.

Thanks again for the privilege and honor to speak tonight. I am humbled to speak about heroes past and to be here with heroes present. God bless you all for what you do for our naval forces and for America, God bless all of our men and women who stand the watch for freedom tonight, and God bless America.

Source : US Navy.

 

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