Home / Community / The Flame Lit at the Battle of Midway Continues to Burn Bright
Photo illustration of Battle of Midway with Department of Navy seal

The Flame Lit at the Battle of Midway Continues to Burn Bright

By Adm. Michelle Howard
Vice Chief of Naval Operations

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of a seminal event in our nation’s history. On June 4th, 1942, brave ancestors of our sea services fought in a battle which turned the tide in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The Battle of Midway was defined by the courage of each and every individual sailor. If just one person had failed at their moment of destiny, the results of the battle may have been very different.

WASHINGTON (June 4, 2015) Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO)  Adm. Michelle Howard renders honors during a wreath laying at the Navy Memorial to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Midway.
WASHINGTON (June 4, 2015) Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO) Adm. Michelle Howard renders honors during a wreath laying at the Navy Memorial to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Midway.

In a letter home to his parents after the fight, one naval aviator wrote, “Out here between the spaceless sea and sky, American youth has found itself, and given of itself, so that a spark may catch, burst into flame, and burn high.”[1]

The Battle of Midway is our flame. It is our heritage. Sailors, Aviators, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines who fought there provided the decisive spark. The flame they ignited would halt Japanese expansion in the Pacific and give the American people a crucial victory less than six months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.

Yet the survival of the flame was not certain on this day, 73 years ago. Victory was not assured. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the weight of full-scale war had yet to produce convincing wins in the Pacific. But at Midway, the flame was lit through the concerted efforts of three groups of warriors: civilian workers, active duty service members, and reservists.

Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV-5), shortly after she was hit by three Japanese bombs on 4 June 1942.
Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV-5), shortly after she was hit by three Japanese bombs on 4 June 1942.

The flame was lit by civilian workers at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and countless industrial bases throughout the country. Badly damaged at Coral Sea just weeks before, the aircraft carrier Yorktown was seen as a lost cause. Some predicted that repairs required to bring the ship back to battle readiness would take more than 90 days. But civilian workers at Pearl Harbor would have something to say about that. More than 1400 workers—shipfitters, welders, electricians, and hundreds of others—poured over every square inch of the ship. They worked without pause; they worked because the fate of their nation depended on it. And thanks to their selfless, around-the-clock efforts, instead of 90 days, American workers completed repairs on Yorktown in a remarkable 3 days. Their sparks of metal-on-metal transformed into sparks of victory. The result was a crucial third American aircraft carrier in service at Midway.

The flame was lit by active duty soldiers, sailors, and Marines, who fought hard on ships and submarines, in aircraft and on land. The ingenuity and perseverance of so many different warfighting communities came to bear at Midway. Cryptological analysts, led by Commander Joseph Rochefort, broke the Japanese code and provided crucial intelligence to Admiral Nimitz. Naval aviators, many still green around the ears in some of their first fighting of the war, spotted the Japanese task force. With the advantage of surprise, they succeeded in placing four enemy aircraft carriers out of commission. Brave Marines flew bombers and fought hard on the island, denying enemy control of this crucial strip of land. These sparks of courage helped provide the decisive difference that led to victory.

And as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of our Navy Reserves, it is important to note the flame at Midway was lit by reservists. Of all the Sailors who served in WWII, more than 87% were reservists. Midway saw high numbers of Naval Reserves in every capacity of warfighting.

Captain Richard E. Fleming
Captain Richard E. Fleming

Exemplifying the contribution of reservists to the battle was Captain Richard E. Fleming, a pilot in the Marine Corps Reserve. During the afternoon of the battle, Captain Fleming and his squadron launched from the island of Midway to strike the enemy naval force. With odds stacked against them already, even Admiral Nimitz expressed doubts about air power at Midway where planes were “ill-suited for attacking ships.”

Undaunted, Captain Fleming flew on with determination. When his squadron commander was shot down before they reached their target, Fleming took his own plane down to 400 feet. Flying through a thick field of anti-aircraft fire, he made sure his bomb would strike. Over the next 24 hours, Fleming and his fellow fliers would inflict heavy damage on Japanese ships before he himself was shot down. Captain Fleming—a reservist—is the only Midway recipient of the Medal of Honor. We stand here in honor of his spark, and the flame that thousands of other reservists ignited.

The flame lit at the Battle of Midway continues to burn bright. And now it is our turn to safeguard that light, to ensure the torch is brought forth by today’s naval heroes. There is greatness within each of us, and when our nation calls, we will step forward with the same courage and sacrifice as the veterans of the Battle of Midway. The flame will continue through future generations of our sea services.

Midway is our heritage. Midway defined Naval courage. Let us never forget the hallowed actions that forged our sea services.

Let us keep the flame alive.

WASHINGTON (June 4, 2015) A sea of white uniforms greets visitors to the Navy Memorial in Washington D.C as Sailors pause to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Midway.
WASHINGTON (June 4, 2015) A sea of white uniforms greets visitors to the Navy Memorial in Washington D.C as Sailors pause to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Midway.

 

 


[1] Diary is unsigned; sources describe this quote as coming from “an anonymous diary” of a naval aviator in Midway. Source: http://www.usflag.org/letters.html

Check Also

USS Doris Miller (CVN 81) Naming Ceremony

On Jan. 20, 2020 —the holiday marking the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King …

Leave a Reply