Midway Battle Marked the Turning Point in WWII

Nearly 2,000 people gathered on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific to honor those who served in the Battle of Midway 65 years ago. That was the fight that marked a turning point in World War II. Six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy was planning another sneak attack and the target was Midway. But this time the U.S. Navy was ready.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Just as December 7th is the anniversary of an American military defeat, the early days of June are the anniversary of a great victory. Six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy was planning another sneak attack. And this time the target was the tiny island known as Midway in the middle of the Pacific. But this time the U.S. Navy was ready. And 65 years later, military brass, history buffs and even some veterans of that conflict met on Midway.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren was there.

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ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, recalled the desperate situation America faced after Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Navy was badly broken and a mighty Japanese navy was on the offensive.

Admiral ROBERT WILLARD (Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet): And then came Midway. The Japanese sent an enormous combat-seasoned fleet of 88 warships with the dual mission of capturing the Midway Atoll and luring the remains of the United States Pacific Fleet to its destruction.

SHOGREN: But unlike in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy did not have the element of surprise on its side. Intelligence officers had figured out the code the Japanese navy used to communicate with its ships.

Admiral WILLARD: Our adversary did not count on us breaking their naval code, outflanking them or locating them on time. They did not count on nor could they imagine our resolve.

SHOGREN: When it was over, the Japanese had lost four aircraft carriers, 300 planes, and thousands of men. The U.S. lost one carrier and about 300 men. James D'Angelo heads the Midway Memorial Foundation. He said the significance of the battle was not clear until later.

Mr. JAMES D'ANGELO (President, Midway Memorial Foundation): No one knew it at the time, but the tide of war in the Pacific had turned because of the heroism and sheer determination of those who spoke on June 4th, 1942. Because of them, the Japanese navy would never again regain the offensive in the war against the United States.

SHOGREN: Eighty-five-year-old William Tunstall was one of only several veterans of the Battle of Midway who made it to the ceremony. He said that for him the victory at Midway came at a great cost. He was a young mechanic on the USS Hornett Air Craft Carrier. He remembers that ship sending off 15 torpedo bombers with two men in each. Only one man made it back.

Mr. WILLIAM TUNSTALL (U.S. Navy Veteran): The principal thing I remember was my friends didn't come back, you know; they all got killed. And many of them are very, very good friends of mine.

SHOGREN: About a thousand people made it to the ceremony. Some traveled several days on a cruise ship from Los Angeles. Others took a three-hour flight from Honolulu. Tunstall and the other Midway battle veterans were the rock stars of the day. Television cameras follow them around and they were flocked by people asking for their autographs and to take pictures with them. David Denning(ph) from Johnson, Tennessee just wanted to shake Tunstall's hand.

Mr. DAVID DENNING (Resident, Tennessee): My name is David Denning. I'm from Johnson City, Tennessee. I've been reading about the Battle of Midway for nearly 40 years. And it's the first time I ever got to actually meet someone that I knew was in the battle. And it was really a thrill.

SHOGREN: These days on Midway, you hear birdcalls and not bomb blasts. Midway is a wildlife refuge and the hub of a new national monument that includes the whole northwestern Hawaiian island chain and the waters surrounding those islands. It's home to endangered monk seals and huge sea birds called the Laysan Albatross.

After the ceremony, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne stood in a field full of big fluffy albatross chicks and talked about the remote island's changing history.

Mr. DIRK KEMPTHORNE (Secretary of the Interior): Sixty-five years ago today, it was one of the most violent areas of war. Today it's a place of tranquility, serenity, of hope. So there's two different faces. I prefer this face.

SHOGREN: But Kempthorne says whether it's 65 years or a 165 years, Americans will still remember the acts of heroism that made this tranquility possible.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Midway Islands.

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