Battle of Midway at 75: Four men, one date, forever joined in history

June 4, 2017

While the Morning Joe crowd wallows in their Russia conspiracy theories and the left screams the sky is falling it’s important to remember that 75 years ago today the sky really was falling as “the Battle of Coral Sea had been a small strategic victory, the Philippines were lost, and Japan was in control and on the move.”

On June 4th, 1942, less than six months after the American battle fleet was devastated at Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.  Three carriers and the determination, bravery and sacrifice of their pilots and crews turned what was anyone’s guess when dawn broke that day to a decisive victory by nightfall.

For the e-edition copy of the story of four men forever bound by that day click here:

John Ford’s original Battle of Midway film is here:

Ford’s tribute to Torpedo 8 (VT-8) is here:

Please, if you do nothing else today, watch those videos.  All but one of the men you see in the VT8 film were dead less than three hours after filming.  Surely we can give them a half an hour to remember the battle they gave all to win.



Battle of Midway at 75: Four men, one date, forever joined in history

It sits 1300 miles northwest of Oahu, Hawaii, and is barely 2 square miles in area.  Yet on June 4th, 1942 Midway Island became the biggest prize in the Pacific Ocean.

To its northwest that morning was a Japanese task force consisting of the fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, four of the six carriers that had launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier.  To its northeast, the American carriers Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown lying in wait to engage a force of both superior size and strength.

The odds were against the Americans, as they often were in those early days of World War II.  And while the Battle of Coral Sea had been a small strategic victory, the Philippines were lost and Japan was in control and on the move.  But by the end of the day the balance of power had shifted, the tide of the war in the Pacific had been turned, and the history of the United States Navy’s greatest victory began to be scribed.

The official record is great at storing dates, times, maps and diagrams, not so great at remembering the men that wrote it.  This is the story of four of those men.

Cmdr. Joe Rochefort

In the spring of 1942, in a dank basement room guarded by an armed Marine, Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort and his staff that made up the Combat Intelligence Unit based at Pearl Harbor Hawaii were tasked with determining the Japanese Imperial Navy’s next target after the Battle of Coral Sea.

After days of deciphering intercepted Japanese communications they were determined that their next target, code named “AF” was Midway Island.

But higher ups in Washington, D.C. weren’t convinced and it fell on Admiral Chester Nimitz to authorize Rochefort’s team to have Midway send an open message that its desalination plant was out of order. Within days Rochefort’s team intercepted a coded Japanese message that “AF” (Midway) was having water problems. And so the die was cast.


Admiral Chester Nimitz

Admiral Chester William Nimitz assumed his role as Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet on December 31st, 1941 on the deck of the submarine Grayling because due to the December 7th attack, no battleship was available.

Though a grandson of a sea captain, the young Nimitz wanted to be a soldier but with West Point full it would instead be the U.S. Naval Academy that would accept the 15 year old candidate. 41 years later the responsibility of committing America’s last remaining naval power in the Pacific to Midway would rest upon his shoulders.


Director John Ford

John Ford was born John Martin Feeney to Irish immigrant parents and reluctantly began his film career in July, 1914 after failing the entrance exam to the U.S. Naval Academy. Already a three time Oscar winner for Best Director, there was no reason for him to be on Midway in June, 1942 other than as his page on the U.S. Naval Institute states “his heart was never far from the Navy he loved.”

Having played every connection he had, in 1934 he secured a commission in the United States Naval Reserves and in 1940, in preparation for a war he saw coming, he gathered up some of the best talent Hollywood and privately formed his Naval Field Photographic Unit. Yet the Washington Navy brass refused to take it seriously.

It took Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan and his newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to give Ford the authorization he’d longed for and in September, 1941 “John Ford’s Navy” was official.

Eight months later, the soldier turned sailor, Nimitz would call Ford to Pearl Harbor and when dawn broke on Midway, June 4th it was Ford atop the powerhouse personally filming the attack by Japanese carrier planes.

His and the rest of the unit’s footage was edited and screened at the White House, prompting President Roosevelt to comment “I want every mother in America to see this picture” and so it was that on September 14, 1942 New York City’s Radio City Music Hall screened the first public showing of “The Battle of Midway”.


Pilot George Gay

It was a sunny 7am on June 4, 1942 when Ensign George Gay joined his 29 mates of Torpedo Squadron 8 VT-8 on the deck of the USS hornet for film crews of Ford’s unit to film each two man crew standing by their planes and marking their torpedoes.

Less than 2 ½ hours later the Japanese carrier group was spotted and alone and without air cover, VT-8 attacked.

Low and slow the Devastators were sitting ducks for the Japanese zeroes and one by one they exploded into the sea, until at last there was only one: Gay. Who with a life raft between his legs and a seat cushion over his head would witness the battle first hand and spend the rest of his life ensuring it would never be forgot.

Four men, four lives, four paths, all with one common date, June 4, 1942.

Had it not been for the failure at Pearl Harbor, Chester Nimitz would have not have assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Without Nimitz, Rochefort would not have had the needed ally to buck the D.C. bureaucracy and uncover that AF was indeed Midway Island giving the Americans the advantage they needed to surprise the Japanese.

Without the bravery of Gay and VT-8 no clear run for the dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown to do their damage.

And if not for Ford’s perseverance, he never catches the eye of Donovan, without Donavan there’s no call from Nimitz, and without that call there’s no, “The men of Torpedo 8″ and “The Battle of Midway”. The former forever preserving the life of those 29 who gave all, the latter proving invaluable in rallying morale back home.

And on, and on, it goes. Such are the elements of history, each independent yet each also connected.

75 years ago today, those pieces came together at just the right moment in just the right place.

History will always record the Battle of Midway as a decisive victory. Let it also never forget the delicate balance that made it all possible.

PUBLISHER NOTE:  A version of this column first appeared in the June 4, 2017 print edition of the Joplin Globe

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