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Personal: On the Battle of Midway

More than anything else, even a first-grade year living in the history-saturated Washington, D.C. area, I think that it was my fourth-grade discovery of my public library's young-adult versions of World War II history that started me on the road to becoming an historian. And more than anything else in that material, it was the stories of the naval combat of the Pacific theatre that grabbed my attention, in particular the Battle of Midway. So I couldn't help but notice and feel a little bit of history-awe in seeing this news story today of the 65th anniversary of that decisive engagement, soon to pass out of living memory.

Veterans Commemorate Battle of Midway
Jun 4, 11:05 PM (ET)

By AUDREY McAVOY

MIDWAY ATOLL (AP) - Six veterans of the Battle of Midway and about 1,800 people ventured to this remote atoll on Monday to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the fight that marked a turning point in World War II.

The veterans held their hands to their hearts as a Navy band played "The Star-Spangled Banner" to honor those who served in the U.S. victory on the atoll 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu.

"We salute the fallen warriors of the Battle of Midway. We remember their great victory and tremendous sacrifice," said Adm. Robert F. Willard, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander. "We honor them with our eternal vigilance and combat readiness."

William Tunstall, 87, an aviation machinist mate 2nd class on the USS Hornet on June 4, 1942, said he felt lonesome as he remembered those who died.

"I lost a lot of good friends," said Tunstall, of Portland, Ore.

The observance drew World War II veterans and their families, who sailed to Midway on a Princess Cruise Lines ship from Los Angeles. Another 100 or so were flying on a chartered plane from Honolulu.

Only a few dozen people live on the island now - mostly wildlife researchers and support staff at the U.S. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles frequent the clear, blue waters of the atoll's lagoon, and hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross nest where bombs once fell.

On June 4, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy descended on the atoll with four aircraft carriers and the world's most modern and agile fighter plane, the Zero.

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto's plan called for sending planes to bomb U.S. Marines and soldiers defending the island. Then he would send in his amphibious invasion force to overrun the atoll, hoping to gain control over a patrol plane base and possibly pave the way for an invasion of the Hawaiian islands.

But U.S. Navy intelligence staff were able to decode Japanese communications and provide Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, with details of the attack. U.S. forces were able to ambush and overwhelm Japanese forces during the three-day battle, putting them on the defensive for the rest of the war.

The U.S. saw 307 men perish and one aircraft carrier sink. It lost 145 planes. Japan's casualties were even higher, with 4,800 men dying. All four of the aircraft carriers Tokyo sent to Midway sank, along with a heavy cruiser and three destroyers. Japan also suffered the loss of 291 planes.

"After that (Japan) didn't have enough aircraft or pilots to effectively continue the war effort," said Douglas Smith, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "After that they were not in a position to recover."
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