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Curator's Corner: Miracle Off Midway

Japanese Carrier Hiryu

As history has shown over and over, a simple action by a small group of people, or even an individual, can have consequences far beyond that group or individual that affect the whole of humanity.  This is especially true in military battles where the resistance of a small group of fighters can save a battle from being lost, and in the end, a war or country being lost.  Such a situation happened 75 years ago in the waters of the Pacific Ocean near an insignificant atoll called Midway.

To read about the Battle of Midway in the quick, “sound bite” histories that are so prevalent in the media today, you might  get a very a brief and technically accurate portrayal of the battle.  You would learn that six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy, armed with intelligence from broken Japanese codes, ambushed the Imperial Japanese Navy as it attempted to take over Midway Island, the farthest west island of the Hawaiian chain.  You might also learn that the U.S. sank four Japanese aircraft carriers for the loss of one U.S. carrier, and that the Japanese were forced onto the defensive for the rest of the war.  But, to put things so simply is to discount the hard-fought struggles of individuals on both sides and the role that luck and timing can have on the outcome of history.



Japanese Carrier Hiryu


Many things went wrong for both sides on the morning of June 4, 1942, but luck and fortune shined brighter on the U.S. Pacific Fleet that day.  After launching an air strike against Midway early in the morning, the Japanese learned of the presence of American warships in the area. Their reserve aircraft, which had been armed for a second strike on Midway were ordered re-armed for an attack on the ships, while at the same time, the first strike was returning to land.  The whole intricate dance of landing aircraft and getting them refueled and rearmed while getting the reserve aircraft up on deck and ready to launch was a lengthy process that would cost the Japanese dearly.

While the Japanese prepared to attack the U.S. fleet, two groups of American aircraft, one launched from Midway and the other from the carriers USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise and USS Hornet were closing on the Japanese fleet.   The group of Army, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft from Midway arrived first and attacked in an un-coordinated way that caused no damage, but cost over one third of the attacking aircraft. 

The next strike came from carrier based TBD Devastator torpedo bombers.  Slow and unable to maneuver while attempting to launch their torpedoes, the Devastators were easy targets for the Japanese fighters and ship’s gunners, which shot down 37 of the 41 attacking aircraft without any achieving a hit on an enemy ship.  But the sacrifice of the 73 men flying those planes was not in vain.  Having drawn the Japanese fighters down to sea-level, it opened a window for three squadrons of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers to slip through the Japanese defenses.  Their bombing attacks turned three of the four enemy carriers into burning wreckages.  As Lt. Commander John Thach, the commander of fighter squadron VF-3 said, “I saw this glint in the sun, and it just looked like a beautiful silver waterfall, these dive bombers coming down…  I’d never seen such superior dive bombing.” 


TBD Devastators preparing to launch



Within six minutes, the back of the Japanese fleet was broken.  A fourth carrier was located and destroyed later in the day, causing the Japanese to withdraw.  From this point on, they would be forced to fight a defensive war against the Allies; one which they could not win.  The heart of the Japanese carrier fleet was gone and with it, all of their experienced pilots and crews.  They could not make up for the losses and could only attempt to slow the American onslaught over the next three years.
For the Americans, the Battle of Midway was a great victory, purchased with the loss of one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, 150 planes and 307 men.  But, it was the heroic, self-sacrificing effort of a handful of flyers that changed the course of World War II.  It was on the shoulders of this tiny force that world history turned.

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Today, Lone Star Flight Museum visitors can see for themselves one of the machines like those that the victors of Midway flew into battle on that historic morning, 75 years ago.  Although the SBD Dauntless in the collection is a later model than those used at Midway, it is one of the few that remain (and one of only five flyable) which illustrate the type of plane that turned the tide of World War II during a six-minute window on a June day, west of Midway Island.


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NEXT CORNER: Sunday, July 1 @ 1:30 pm
Flying Colors:  Curator Stewart Bailey will talk about the history of the aircraft as a canvas for creative markings from the Wright Brothers to today. 



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