WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Rising and falling on the bumpy air currents, a lone PBY patrol plane droned over the empty Pacific, some 700 miles to the west of Midway Island on June 3, 1942, on the look-out for an advancing Japanese fleet. Suddenly, the clouds parted momentarily and Ensign Jewell H. Reid, the pilot of the craft, spotted a large formation of ships on the horizon.
"Do you see what I see?" he asked his co-pilot.
"You're damn right I do!" was the vigorous response.
Rapidly ducking back into the cloud cover, they radioed the report of the sighting to Pearl Harbor, where Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. fleet, was anxiously awaiting it. Nimitz greeted the news with "a bright, white smile," according to one of his aides. The curtain had gone up on the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
In the six months since a devastating Japanese surprise attack had left the most of the battleships of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet a smoking ruin, the Japanese had fanned out over East Asia and the Pacific with a rapidity that astounded even themselves. Within a few months, they had captured the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. In May, the Japanese had been bloodied in the Battle of the Coral Sea -- the first sea battle fought entirely between aircraft carriers -- but the enemy juggernaut still seemed unstoppable.
Nevertheless, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had planned the Pearl Harbor raid, was under no illusions. While serving as a naval attache in Washington, he had seen America's industrial might at first hand and knew Japan had to win a decisive victory before this power could be brought to bear. "I shall run wild for the first six months or a year," he had declared, "but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years of the fighting."
Obsessed with the need to complete the work begun at Pearl Harbor by smashing the remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Yamamoto chose Midway, a bleak atoll about 1,100 miles west of Hawaii, as the site of this climactic battle. The Midway operation, like most Japanese naval planning, was a complex blend of stealth, ruse and division of forces designed to keep an enemy off balance.
Yamamoto divided his fleet into three major divisions: A striking force of four aircraft carriers and a dozen transports carrying 5,000 troops to occupy the island that were escorted by two battleships and a light carrier, and the main body consisting of seven battleships.
This armada was preceded to sea by by a diversionary force of two carriers assigned to raid Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians and to seize the bleak islands of Adak, Attu and Kiska. The Aleutian raid was was intended to lure the Pacific Fleet to the north while Midway was being occupied. When the Americans learned of the ruse and hastened south, they would be destroyed by Yamamoto's carriers and battleships.
The Japanese had a overwhelming preponderance of force, but Admiral Nimitz had the advantage of being aware of much of their plan. The Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor, commonly called Station Hypo, had broken JN25b, the Japanese naval code used for communicating between ship and shore. Hidden away behind locked steel doors in the basement of a headquarters building, Hypo was under the command of Lieut. Commander Joseph J. Rochefort. Rochefort drove himself and his staff of cryptanalysts, translators and clerks unmercifully.
By the spring of 1942, Hypo was reading about 30 per cent of Japanese traffic. As the isolated fragments of information grew denser, enlarged, and touched each other, the cryptanalysts began to make educated guesses about Japanese fleet operations. Not every message could be read -- as in baseball, it was the batting average that counted -- but the code-breakers made giant strides in creating their own versions of the Japanese code books.
Toward the end of April, Washington requested Station Hypo to provide a long-range assessment of Japanese intentions. Rochefort predicted a massive Japanese naval operation in the Central Pacific that summer and pinpointed Midway as the target.
Few naval commanders have been confronted by a sharper strategic dilemma than the one confronting Nimitz. The Japanese movements could be a ruse to cover a new attack on Pearl Harbor, or even on the West Coast.
Responding to skeptics in Washington, Rochefort and his staff, noting that Japanese radio traffic made numerous references to "AF," which they believed to be Midway, suggested that the island's commander to transmit a message in plain language that his fresh-water distilling plant was out of order.
The Japanese took the bait like a hungry shark. Two days later, Hypo intercepted a Japanese message reporting that "AF" was short of fresh water.