- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

About 65 years ago, the fate of democracy was going up and down as though riding on a cosmic teeter-totter as the tide of war did not yet flow in a decisive direction.

This weekend marks anniversaries of the turning points in two major theaters of World War II. Monday’s anniversary, the 61st for the D-Day landings on Normandy that gave the United States and the Western Allies a lodgment on the European mainland unbreakable by Nazi Germany, is regularly celebrated. Last year world leaders gathered at the beaches to praise the bravery of the mostly young men who gave their lives that day and in the weeks after.

Of equal magnitude, but often forgotten is today’s anniversary of the decisive battle that came two years earlier in the Pacific. The Battle of Midway smashed the Japan’s naval air arm and ended its ability to advance and conquer new territory.

Embarrassed by the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, which punctured the myth of Japanese invincibility, Japanese Combined Fleet Commander Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto planned to draw out and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carrier strike force.

The Japanese admiral meant to knock out quickly the defenses of the tiny U.S. mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll and establish his own air base there. He believed the U.S. carriers would come out and fight, but too late and in too little strength.

The intended surprise was frustrated because of U.S. communications intelligence and code-breaking. These allowed Adm. Chester W. Nimitz to prepare an ambush by his carriers, lying in wait for the enemy.

On June 4, 1942, in the second of the Pacific Theater’s great carrier battles, the trap closed on the Japanese. The courage and skill of U.S. Navy pilots plus a great deal of luck on the American side cost Japan four fleet carriers the empire could not replace. Only one of the three U.S. carriers —the Yorktown — engaged in the battle was lost. It was replaced many times over as the U.S. exerted its industrial superiority.

The American base at Midway, though damaged, remained operational and became a key component in the U.S. drive across the Pacific.

The Battle of Midway left the Japanese fleet without an effective air arm, putting the fleet on the defensive for the rest of the war. And as U.S. strength grew, Japanese power waned until Tokyo was forced to turn to kamikaze suicide pilots in a futile effort to ward off U.S. hammer blows.

On June 6, 1944, U.S. and Western Allied troops stormed ashore the Normandy beaches to establish first a toehold, then a foothold, and finally a stranglehold on the Germans.

Victory was far from automatic (nor was it at Midway) and the loss of life was high. U.S. casualties on the beaches and for the inland parachute drops totaled some 5,200, about a third killed in action — a little more than 5 percent casualty rate.

While this was far from the costliest day in U.S. military history, it was still a high price for some sand that would returned to its original owners.

By comparison, the bloodiest single day for American soldiers was Sept. 17, 1862, in the Battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, as Yankees call it. On that day, the Union Army of the Potomac suffered more than 12,000 casualties (a 25 percent casualty rate) and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia suffered more than 10,000 (a 31 percent casualty rate).

It has been said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. This weekend’s anniversaries show that, when vigilance fails, it must be redeemed with the blood of young people. It is a bitter lesson being taught us again. Perhaps one day we will learn it.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a free-lance writer.

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