- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

HONOLULU (AP) — Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a weakened and outnumbered U.S. fleet limped north to confront a flotilla of Japanese ships advancing on the remote Pacific atoll of Midway.

A Japanese victory would have cost the U.S. a strategically critical scrap of land between Hawaii and Japan and could have decimated U.S. naval forces. Instead, the U.S. sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and snatched the military advantage from Tokyo.

Monday marks the 65th anniversary of the start of the three-day battle that changed the course of World War II. Three Midway veterans in their 80s and 90s and the current Pacific Fleet commander will visit the island 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu for a ceremony hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs a nature reserve on the atoll.

“Americans like underdogs, and here we are underdogs,” said Donald Goldstein, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. “I think that’s what made it so good — that we shouldn’t have won and we did.”

George Chockley, one of the veterans visiting Midway, was a 22-year-old chief petty officer on the USS Enterprise during the battle.

“I was just a young kid. I didn’t have sense enough to be afraid,” he said with a laugh during a telephone interview from his son’s home in North Carolina. Mr. Chockley, 87, of Mebane, N.C., ran the aircraft carrier’s public-address system and maintained its navigational instruments.

The U.S. thwarted Japan’s intentions with a mixture of code breaking, smart decisions and luck.

The Navy’s intelligence experts deciphered encrypted Japanese communications, giving Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, the precise time of the planned assault and the route Japan’s ships would travel to Midway. He also was given notice about which vessels Japan would bring to the battle.

Both nations lost dozens of fighter planes, dive bombers and torpedo planes in the fight to sink each other’s aircraft carriers.

But American troops had the benefit of knowing roughly where the Japanese forces were and how many ships their enemies had. Japan’s commanders were forced to guess about their foes.

The United States lost one carrier, 145 planes and 307 men.

Japan lost four aircraft carriers, a heavy cruiser, three destroyers, 291 planes and 4,800 men.

“The captain of the ship told us that they had sunk before the battle was over. That they had sunk most of the Japanese fleet,” Mr. Chockley said. “They were just dancing for joy. If you can call it dancing.”

The defeat was so overwhelming that the Japanese navy kept the details a closely guarded secret, preventing the story of the battle from coming to light in Japan until after the war.

Midway enjoys quieter days today. The Navy handed the two islets that make up Midway — Sand and Eastern islands — over to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996.

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