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That morning, Lt. Cmdr. C. Wade McClusky’s dive-bomber squadron came upon a lagging Japanese destroyer. Even through the planes had exhausted most of their fuel, McClusky made the decision to follow the ship’s path toward the Japanese fleet.

“By that time, the fuel gauges on those airplanes were well below half-empty,” said Mr. Symonds, the Naval Academy professor. “Most of these pilots are assuming they’re not going to get back. But they’re perfectly willing to accept that responsibility in order to put a bomb on a Japanese carrier.”

Those planes couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive upon the carriers. Preparing to launch an attack on the recently discovered U.S. vessels, the Japanese were caught rearming their aircraft with anti-ship weapons. With their fighter planes drawn near sea level by Waldron’s torpedo bombers, they also were unable to counter McClusky’s high-flying dive bombers.

The circumstances were perfect. In a matter of minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers were struck. They all would sink by the next day.

Not long afterward, the dive bombers’ fuel gauges began to hit empty. But most of the courageous American pilots would be rescued at sea, living to fight another day.

“The machines we could rebuild,” Mr. Symonds said. “The pilots we could not replace.”

The American fleet, though, did not escape unscathed, as the fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, managed to deal a fatal blow to the Yorktown.

There to capture history from the deck was Mr. Roy, who kept his cool and photographed the sinking vessel as the battle raged around him. When it came time to abandon ship, he preserved his three cans of film by taping them under his shirt and life jacket before plunging into the ocean.

“I was in the water for about five or six hours,” Mr. Roy said. “I lost track of time.”

By the time he was rescued, the Yorktown had been avenged. Dive bombers from the Enterprise crippled the Hiryu that afternoon, and the ravaging of Japan’s carriers was complete.

“When you lose your carriers, you can’t land anywhere,” said Hank Kudzik, who was 17 when he served as a gunner’s mate on the USS Nautilus submarine at Midway.”You’re going to run out of fuel; you’re going to land in the water. You’re done.”

Righting a wrong

It was never entirely clear why, but something about Rochefort rubbed the D.C. bigwigs the wrong way.

Perhaps some saw him as an outsider because he didn’t graduate from Annapolis. Or maybe it was the friction he created with Washington when he insisted Midway was the target of the Japanese attack instead of Hawaii or the West Coast.

Whatever the reason, Rochefort was repeatedly recommended by Nimitz for the Distinguished Service Medal — and rejected every time.

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