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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But Nagumo still had one carrier left, the Hiryu, and one carrier could still sting, fatally. "Bogeys, 32 miles, closing!" cried the Yorktown's radar officer. A dozen fighters from the Yorktown were circling overhead, and more than twice as many antiaircraft guns were firing, when the Hiryu's dive bombers and torpedo bombers struck. As the Yorktown's guns demolished one attacking bomber, its bomb exploded with a huge orange flash behind the carrier's bridge. Then another two bombs penetrated deep below decks, and the carrier's whole bow went up in flames. The Yorktown was doomed (though 2,270 men -- nearly all the crew -- were rescued).

No sooner had the Hiryu's torpedo bombers returned to their ship than they were ordered out again. But few were in shape to go -- five dive bombers and four torpedo planes -- and their crews were so exhausted that the commander ordered a break before the next takeoffs. The rice balls were just being served when the alarm sounded: "Enemy dive bombers directly overhead." Swooping down, planes from the Enterprise and the dying Yorktown started the fires that would destroy the Hiryu.

Admiral Nagumo discreetly refrained for hours from reporting the full extent of the disaster to Yamamoto. Only in late afternoon did he finally tell him that the Hiryu, the last of his carriers, was burning out of control. With that, Nagumo decided to withdraw the remnants of his fleet from the battlefield. Yamamoto sank into a chair and sat staring into space, as stupefied as MacArthur in his penthouse in Manila.

Finally stirring, Yamamoto sent a message of MacArthurian unreality: "The enemy fleet, which has practically been destroyed, is retiring to the east . . . Immediately contact and destroy the enemy." As a further measure, he also relieved Nagumo of his command. And imperial headquarters said a great triumph had been achieved, bringing "supreme power in the Pacific."

What the outnumbered Americans had accomplished at the Coral Sea and Midway was even greater than they at first realized. Describing "this memorable American victory," Churchill wrote, "At one stroke, the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed . . . The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock than these two battles, in which the $ qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and of the American race shone forth in splendor."

Before MacArthur finally received the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, though, would come three grinding years of "island hopping," the slow and painful campaign across the South Pacific from the fetid jungles of New Guinea to the barricaded caves of Okinawa. The first of these battles, and one of the worst, occurred at the southern tip of the Solomon Islands, where the U.S. Marines made their first landing of the war early in the morning of Aug. 7, 1942. There was no opposition. The Japanese, who would fight more than six months to hold that desolate island, called it Gadarukanaru. It entered American history under the name of Guadalcanal.

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