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80th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway is one of my favorite battles in the Pacific Theater for a straightforward reason--it proves the importance of good intelligence. I feel that society often only focuses on the times we got intelligence wrong, and I understand why lives are lost when intelligence is terrible. But we rarely focus on the victories won by good intelligence; as someone very close to the intelligence world, that matters to me.

So this is the story of how good intelligence gave America our first victory in the Pacific Theater during WWII.


Lead up to Midway

After Pearl Harbor, Japan saw the United States Pacific Fleet as severely crippled and moved quickly to secure islands in the Pacific. By March of 1942, islands like Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and various island groups in the central and western Pacific had been seized. Japan was beginning to move forward on phase 2, to isolate Australia. After the Doolittle Raid, the Imperial Naval Forces of Japan issued "Navy Order No. 18," which included the occupation of Midway and the development of an Air Base.

The Intelligence

Beginning in early 1942, there was a lot of chatter from Japan relating to the plans above. By March 13, cryptanalysts the basics of Japan's Naval code and began to suspect that "AF" was code for Midway. Suspecting was not enough; we needed a definitive answer. Cryptanalysts at Midway figured out a way to confirm by sending a series of false messages and claimed that Midway was out of fresh water. Shortly after these false messages were sent, Allied Force intercepted a Japanese code that said, "AF is out of fresh water." We knew the location by May 22, 1942, but were still unsure of the date. By going through Japanese code from the last several months, cryptanalysts felt reasonably confident the date of the attack was scheduled around June 4. Admiral Nimitz agreed, and plans were in motion for a surprise attack.

The Battle

On June 4, Japanese Aircraft attacked and damaged the American base at Midway, unaware that American Carrier forces were waiting. After the initial attack at Midway, Japanese forces traveled back to their carriers to refuel and regroup. At that point, Devastator torpedo bombers and Dauntless dive bombers left the USS Hornet, USS Yorktown, and the USS Enterprise to begin their attack.

The attack successfully destroyed the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu.

After three long days, Japanese forces lost around 3,057 men, four carriers, one cruiser, and hundreds of aircraft. The United States lost roughly 362 men, the USS Yorktown (carrier), the USS Hammann (destroyer), and 144 aircraft.

The Battle of Midway was a significant victory for the United States, both morale and strategy. While Pearl Harbor remains a stain on the intelligence community, and rightly so, the Battle of Midway reinforces how vital good intelligence can be.

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