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The Yorktown, in need of months of repairs, was docked at Pearl Harbor and patched together in much prompter fashion. It was a risk, for sure. But Nimitz decided to roll the dice.

“Adm. Nimitz came aboard,” recollected 92-year-old William G. Roy, a photographer on the Yorktown. “He told the captain, ‘I need you. You’ve got 72 hours. Get out.”

Breaking the code

Mr. Showers, the code-breaker, was stationed in Seattle when he got home from church on a Sunday in early December 1941, and turned on the radio to learn his country was at war. An Iowa farm boy who had never seen the Navy uniform before enlisting at age 20, Mr. Showers soon found himself under Rochefort’s command, right in the thick of one of history’s most significant naval conflicts.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said.

The United States had cracked Japan’s diplomatic code years earlier, but the naval messages were another matter entirely. Even though the code was never entirely broken, Rochefort’s team deciphered enough bits and pieces to gain a considerable tactical advantage at the Battle of the Coral Sea and, a month later, at the Battle of Midway.

“The Japanese thought that navy code was impenetrable, and they kept the same code all during the war,” Mr. Showers noted. “We had ups and downs in our ability to get hard intelligence, but generally we did pretty well. We relied heavily on that.”

Although Rochefort was confident that the Japanese intended to attack a target classified as “AF,” his superiors were skeptical that the designation referred to Midway. So the U.S. sent a radio message in the clear announcing the atoll was short on drinking water.

Shortly thereafter, an intercepted Japanese message spoke of AF’s decimated water supply. Rochefort’s suspicions were confirmed.

Although breaking the code surely was crucial, it would have mattered little if the execution amid the heat of the battle was lacking. That much, Mr. Weadon points out, was always going to be true.

“Cryptology in warfare is always important,” the museum curator said. “But you have to understand that cryptologists do not win battles. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines win battles. That’s the bottom line.”

A vital triumph

As comprehensive a victory as the Battle of Midway ultimately turned out to be for the U.S. fleet, the clash provided many touch-and-go moments for the American forces.

Early on June 4, the Japanese savaged nearly 100 planes that had taken off from Midway, dealing heavy losses to the Americans while sustaining minimal damage.

Later, when Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron led 15 torpedo bombers toward the Japanese fleet, the escorting dive bombers followed the wrong reading and were separated from the pack. All 15 of Waldron’s planes were shot down. Their sacrifice, however, would be key to the U.S. success.

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