Innovation and Victory at the Battle of Midway

By Adm. Scott Swift, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet

This year marks 75 years since our U.S. Navy earned a crucial victory in World War II at the Battle of Midway.

When I take a look at the arc of history in the Pacific, in particular the history of the Pacific Fleet, one of the things I find most compelling is the immense shift that took place in our Navy 75 years ago.

For decades prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, our Navy was centered around our battleships. By the time we fought at Midway just six months later, our entire paradigm had shifted. The aircraft carrier had ascended to its role for the remainder of the fight in the Pacific as the U.S. Navy’s primary offensive platform.

This shift was born out of necessity following the rest of the fleet being battered on December 7th.  It was cemented, however, by the culture of innovation fostered by Admiral Nimitz, and driven by the warfighters within the ranks who recognized the opportunities to find a new approach to the problem set they faced, and took that challenge and responsibility personally. Our Sailors, both uniformed and civilians, were empowered by leadership to pursue the most effective way to employ the Fleet.

Navy cryptologists and intelligence specialists in Hawaii worked to decipher parts of the Japanese code early in the war, in order to provide Pacific Fleet leadership predictive queuing data on the enemy’s attack plans.

 

That culture of innovation was readily apparent at Station HYPO here in Pearl Harbor. The code-breaking team recognized that the limits of their charter and the way that business had always been done before wasn’t good enough. Those limits didn’t give the Fleet enough insight to defeat the enemy. But the HYPO team, empowered by ADM Nimitz’s broad guidance, had enough diversity of thought and initiative to venture beyond their limits. Rather than falling accepting a role that was reactive to the past, or being satisfied with being proactive toward the challenges faced in their present, they flipped the script and became predictive of the future. It was a high standard with an ambitious goal – but through ingenuity, relentless passion and determination, they produced results that enabled the Fleet to fight with their limited resources – and to fight successfully.

Read: Reflections on the Battle of Midway from the PACFLT Basement

Consider that on Dec 31st, 1941, when Nimitz took command of Pacific Fleet, the only weapon system he had full confidence in was the submarine force. You’ll remember he was first a submariner. He gave the force broad guidance: Go out and attack Japanese shipping. He left it to the innovators, the submarine Sailors themselves, to determine the best way to employ their weapon system in achieving his mission orders.

Nimitz did the same with the aircraft carriers. He gave his intent to the task force commanders and allowed them to develop and employ their force. At Coral Sea, Nimitz committed all available carriers, knowing full well what risk he carried in doing so, but also recognizing that the risk of anything less than going all in was even greater.  The experience gained through his wise application of strategic, operational and tactical risk at Coral Sea would soon pay huge dividends.

Less than a month later, empowered with critical intelligence developed by Station HYPO, Nimitz again committed his entire carrier force at Midway, allowing his innovators to apply the lessons learned at Coral Sea and exploit their advantage to devastating effect.

Japanese Type 97 shipboard attack aircraft from the carrier Hiryu amid heavy anti-aircraft fire, during the torpedo attack on USS Yorktown (CV-5) in the mid-afternoon, 4 June 1942. At least three planes are visible, the nearest clearly having already dropped its torpedo. The other two are lower and closer to the center, apparently withdrawing. Smoke on the horizon in right center is from a crashed plane.

 

At the Battle of Midway, it all came together: The adjustments made after Pearl Harbor, the experience of Coral Sea, the innovations in employing a carrier force, and the predictive intel that let Nimitz maximize the impact of his limited resources.  And it was at Midway that Nimitz’ confidence in his Pacific Fleet Sailors, including the civilian Sailors from the Pearl Harbor shipyard, was rewarded.

We know now that the outcome of the Battle of Midway was the assured operational defeat of the Imperial Navy which in turn resulted in the defeat of Japan’s strategic goals, a lesson we are well served to recall and reflect on as it is as relevant today as it was then.

Today, we honor those Sailors whose dedication and commitment to the Navy and nation was complete. We remember the brave Sailors, Marines, and Airmen that fought so valiantly seventy-five years ago, ever grateful for their service and sacrifice. And we remember that today – like then – our Navy is strongest when our Sailors innovate to overcome the challenges we face as a Navy and a nation.

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