Down but Not Out

Against all odds, as Japan marched to one overwhelming triumph after another, the U.S. scored a memorable victory

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Both sides claimed victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The U.S. had lost the Lexington plus a destroyer and a tanker; the Japanese had lost the carrier Shoho, plus a tanker and a destroyer, more aircraft (77 vs. 66) and more men (1,074 vs. 543). But in strategic terms, the key fact was that the Japanese troop transports bound for Port Moresby had to turn back.

The Japanese empire had reached its outer limits.

The imperial navy's Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was still determined to do what he had failed to do at Pearl Harbor: draw the U.S. Pacific Fleet into a high- seas confrontation where he could destroy it. His strategy, which he hoped would win the war for Japan or at least open the way to California, was to seize the two tiny islands known as Midway. A lonely outpost 1,100 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor, this was the westernmost U.S. base now that Guam, Wake and the Philippines were lost. The U.S. Navy would have to defend Midway, Yamamoto figured, and then he would attack it with the most powerful fleet ever assembled: 11 battleships, 8 carriers, 23 cruisers, 65 destroyers -- 190 ships in all, plus more than 200 planes on the strike-force carriers.

Yamamoto, who had stayed in Japan during Pearl Harbor, took personal command of this huge armada. His flagship was the largest battleship in creation, the 64,000-ton Yamato, whose 18.1-in. guns had a range of more than 25 miles. His carrier chief was once again Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the Pearl Harbor commander who had gone on to wreak havoc on the British fleet. With virtually no losses, Nagumo's planes had bombed British bases at Darwin, Australia, and Colombo, Ceylon; sunk the carrier Hermes and two cruisers; and driven the Royal Navy all the way across the Indian Ocean.

Once again, cautious staff admirals in Tokyo opposed Yamamoto's strategy as too risky. Once again, he threatened to resign if he did not get his way. Once again, the admirals gave in.

Against Yamamoto's overwhelming force, Nimitz could send only a pitiable remnant -- 76 ships in all, no battleships to Japan's 11, three carriers to Japan's eight (and one was the Yorktown, barely patched together at Pearl Harbor after its mauling in the Coral Sea). And his most redoubtable skipper, Admiral Bull Halsey, whose combative spirit was worth several warships, suddenly had to repair to the hospital with a skin disease.

But Nimitz still had Lieut. Commander Joseph Rochefort's code-breaking team in Pearl Harbor, which told him that Midway was Yamamoto's main target, that there would be a secondary attack against the Aleutians, and that the strike at Midway was set for June 4. Now the fates that had condemned the U.S. to blind complacency at Pearl Harbor visited the same punishment on Japan. Declared Nagumo as he neared his launching point: "The enemy is not aware of our plans."

That Japanese blindness enabled the outnumbered Americans to plan an ambush as decisive as that of the Concord Minutemen of 1775, when they fired their "shot heard round the world." In the new style of naval warfare, which admirals around the world were just beginning to learn, aircraft carriers were supreme. They could destroy anything but were highly vulnerable, so the key was to find and attack the enemy's carriers.

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