From the moment the first bomb dropped on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Japan was ascendant in the Pacific and the Allied navies were on the run. Defeat followed defeat, major surface ship after major surface ship sunk, every defended objective or stronghold lost before the Imperial Japanese military juggernaut...with little damage inflicted in retaliation. There was Doolittle's heroic raid on Tokyo in April, a 'mosquito bite on an elephant's arse' if ever there was one...but it did have one enormous consequence: it infuriated Japanese high command, and committed them to an elaborate offensive by early summer, the successful completion of which would, they felt, effectively end Allied resistance in the Pacific. The chief military goal of this offensive...was Midway.
Japan should have accomplished it's goal. It's fleet was massive...and the tip of it's spear, the four aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, the largest, most advanced such vessels in the world, their crews and aviators skilled and accomplished without peer. Against them, after the attrition of the war thus far, the US Navy could range only a small task force of escorts, the hero of the Doolittle raid the carrier Hornet, her sister ship Enterprise...and the Yorktown, so badly mauled at Coral Sea the previous month Japan actually believed her sunk, but asteam at Midway thanks to an heroic refit by the dockworkers at Pearl Harbor. Still gross underdogs, even before considering the inadequacies of early war aircraft and inexperience of crew versus the Japanese, the Navy still took arms to defend Midway Island--with one enormous advantage, the intelligence of knowing Japans intentions after breaking her military cipher, and an almost unbelievable sequence of fortunate breaks, from the ridiculous (the Japanese scout plane that would have spotted the US fleet had a broken radio) to the sublime (one squadron pilot--a 'half-indian,' disregarded patrol instructions and found the Japanese by sheer luck), to the tragic (torpedo squadron VT-8 arrived over the Japanese fleet alone and unescorted, courageously attacked anyway and lost every plane and all hands save one, Texas Aggie Ensign George Gay, who then watched the entire pivotal battle of the war--and arguably modern history--from the ocean in the middle of it...but in that sacrifice drew down the fleet's combat air cover, leaving it critically undefended).
When, in that fleeting, supremely advantageous moment, with it's fighter cover off wave hopping after obsolete torpedo planes and the decks of its four carriers overflowing with bombs being loaded for a second strike on Midway and it's attack planes sitting helpless while being refueled, and the Dauntless dive bombers of USS Enterprise arrived above the Japanese fleet, the course of the Second World War changed. Reversed, in the span of moments. Vulnerable beyond any set of circumstances one could contrive, the dive bombers from Enterprise would sink three of Japans front line aircraft carriers, and join flyers from Yorktown and Hornet in decapitating the fourth and final, before the day was done. Worse for the aggressor, in a single morning the flower of it's most experienced, most talented aviators would perish, irreplaceable--either killed on the decks in that moment after the Enterprise dive bombers appeared unexpectedly above them, or after ditching their aircraft in the sea when there was no place to come back to, after the last sortie.
The massive invasion force had turned for home by June 6. A final, reflexive strike saw the Yorktown taken in return, though most of her crew, flyers and planes were saved. America had turned aside the blow intended to finish her, and her allied nations, in the Pacific War. For the first time since hostilities had begun, *she* commanded the seas.
It was a command the Allies would never relinquish. Just as they had not won a battle against Imperial Japan, until Midway, they would not lose a battle to Imperial Japan after Midway. Fortune in the battle for half the world changed in the virtual blink of an eye, in the skies above the mid-Pacific, won by the endlessly creative minds of iconoclastic American code breakers, the relentlessly committed sweat-and-muscle of American manual laborers, the commitment of American leadership and the courage--and blood sacrifice--of American warriors, June 4, 1942, 72 years ago today.