In December, the United States observed the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, which brought America into World War II. In the coming months, we will remember battles great and small and the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of service members in that tremendous struggle. This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, a U.S. victory that deserves to be better remembered, not just for its impact on the war, but also for the sacrifice that made victory possible.
The school-textbook version of the battle goes like this: Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese admirals planned to attack the U.S. outpost on Midway Island, about 1,300 miles west of Hawaii. When the U.S. forces came to defend the island, they would be ambushed and destroyed. But having broken Japanese codes in early 1942, the U.S. Navy knew of the attack in advance and sent the bulk of its fleet to surprise the Japanese.
On the morning of June 4, by sheer coincidence, American dive bombers encountered the Japanese fleet as its planes were being refueled and rearmed. The resulting attack sank three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers, with the fourth caught and destroyed later that day as well. (The United States lost one carrier.) It was one of the greatest victories in the history of naval warfare, and it ended the Japanese offensive in the Pacific for good.
What’s often left out of this story is why the Japanese were refueling and rearming at that moment.
An hour earlier, three U.S. squadrons of torpedo bombers had attacked the Japanese carriers. Flying Devastator bombers, they were picked apart by the much faster Japanese Zero fighters; of the 41 Devastators that took off that morning, only six survived. But their attack forced the Japanese to delay refueling and rearming — without the torpedo bombers’ doomed sortie, the dive bombers would almost certainly have been less successful, and the course of the war in the Pacific might have been very different.
What makes the sacrifice even more noble is that the Devastator, slow, not very maneuverable and only lightly armored, was known to be obsolete. The torpedo pilots and gunners knew they were sitting ducks. And yet they took off that June morning, unfazed.
The night before the battle, a small group of men of the carrier Yorktown’s torpedo bomber squadron passed the time together.
“They talked about the weather, dinner, how the food was, nothing about the battle,” said a junior deck officer who was in the room: my grandfather John W. Crawford. “None of them came back.” On the 75th anniversary of the battle, we should pause and remember not just one of the great victories in U.S. history, but the brave aircrews who gave their lives for it.
– Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.