History | June 4, 2017 12:29 am

Battle of Midway: 75 Years Later, Inside the Turning Point of Pacific War

Japanese were overconfident after Pearl Harbor, but U.S. launched own surprise attack.

Battle of Midway
American Navy torpedo bombers fly over burning Japanese ship during the Battle of Midway. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/US Navy/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

It proved to be an improbable naval victory that tilted the War in the Pacific for the United States, equal parts pluck and luck.

Seventy five years ago this Sunday, one of the most important battles of World War II unfolded near a tiny atoll in the South Pacific. But the Battle of Midway could have gone very differently.

In honor of the milestone anniversary, The Wall Street Journal conscripted Robert Garnett, a professor of English literature at Gettysburg College, to regale readers with the backstory often left out of the history books.

Battle of Midway
A Japanese heavy cruiser of the Mogame class on fire after attack by planes of Task Force-16 during the Battle of Midway. Near Midway, 1942 | Location: near Midway. (© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Six months after severely damaging the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were lulled into a false complacency—as an armada of 150 Japanese warships and 250 warplanes steamed unsuspecting into an American attack.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, in charge of the U.S. fleet, got conflicting predictions of where the Japanese would strike next—whether Australia, San Francisco, or Hawaii—but opted to head further into the far South Pacific. He relied on codebreakers under Commander Joe Rochefort to get him the intel.

Because Rochefort’s team could decode roughly one-eighth of the atypical message, there was a lot of educated guessing involved.

So Nimitz extrapolated correctly—and the Battle of Midway resulted on June 4, 1942.

When the smoke cleared, the Japanese fleet suffered enough losses to force them to suspend thereafter its previously successful attack campaign in the Pacific theater.