A brief history of the battles of Midway and D-Day
This week the Center for Security Policy honored me with its 2013 “Freedom’s Flame” award — two years after giving me the greater honor of delivering a short tribute to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon as the “Keeper of the Flame.” Receiving the award has special meaning for me because our American history this week is all about freedom’s flame.
America soon responded in the daring Doolittle raid on Japan on April 18, 1942, showing that America was not defeated and that we would strike back. However, we suffered a tough defeat May 7-8 at the Battle of Coral Sea, and the Imperial Japanese Navy fleet made its way back across the Pacific with its eyes upon a strategic location with a ready made airfield, Midway.
Admiral Yamamoto commanded the fleet, which possessed heavy confidence of aircraft carrier superiority. Indeed, the USS Yorktown was badly damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea and limped back to its home station for repair. The damage assessment after the battle predicted that it would take months to repair the ship and make it battle ready.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, knew we did not have months, and industrious Americans restored the Yorktown in 72 hours. It set sail to join the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet near Midway Island.
Thanks to naval cryptologists and PBY search and reconnaissance aircraft, Americans spotted the Japanese fleet. And from June 4 to June 7, one of the greatest naval battles took place near that flat atoll.
A truly classic study in naval maneuvers and carrier tactics ensued, something this ole Army doggie would be hard-pressed to understand and certainly to explain. But the key is that the carrier USS Yorktown made the difference. Even though it eventually sunk, the carrier made a vital contribution.
Military historian John Keegan called the Battle of Midway “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” It was Japan’s worst naval defeat in 350 years and a decisive turning point in the Pacific theater of operations. The battle set the stage for the Solomon Islands campaign — first stop Guadalcanal, where heroism was defined.
We all know the story – or perhaps I hopefully assume we do. The evening of June 4, men of the 82d and 101st Airborne divisions jumped into place behind German lines to disrupt and seize key crossroads so ground forces could push deep into the Normandy countryside.
Anti-aircraft fire spread the paratroopers all over the place and they missed their drop zones. But wherever they landed, they fought – even when dropped right on top of German Wehrmacht units in places like St. Mere Eglise.
They fought through the night to secure their objectives because they knew what would occur at sunrise. The Army Rangers braved the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc to take out German gun emplacements. Ronald Reagan remembered them in a breathtaking speech on the 40th anniversary of the landing.
Then as the sun rose, landing craft launched and scores of brave young Americans hit the beach. They were from all over our great land and wore patches of the 1st and 29th Infantry divisions on Omaha beach. They wore the ivy patch of the 4th Infantry Division, “Steadfast and Loyal,” on Utah Beach, where Army Brigadier Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. landed with the assault force and was later killed in combat.
Despite massive casualties, allied forces prevailed. Within the year, Germany surrendered and Europe was liberated from the Nazis and the horrible specter of the Holocaust.
This week, if you are in the Washington, D.C., area, take the time to visit the World War II Memorial and gaze upon the tribute to the Battles of Midway and Normandy. If you just happen to get a chance to look at a piece of history, a World War II veteran, go up to him and shake his hand.
You may not have much longer to recognize them in person. Just this week we lost our last World War II veteran serving in Congress, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Parents and grandparents, if you cannot make it to the capital, sit down with the next generation this week and watch the films about that era: “Midway,” “The Longest Day,” “Saving Private Ryan” or the mini-series “Band of Brothers.”
The next generation must never forget the sacrifices of those before them in order to keep freedom’s flame burning brighter than ever. And let those sacrifices inspire us to greater exertions to guarantee that their sacrifices were not in vain.
Steadfast and Loyal,
Allen B. West