24 May 2007

Countdown to Midway: Battlespace

Timeline: SUNDAY, 24 MAY 1942USN - Carriers Hornet and Enterprise move towards Pearl Harbor, where they will quickly be refitted and sent to Midway. The Japanese preparing to attack Midway mistakenly believe these carriers are in the Solomons.

Geography: Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and sea mounts extending from Hawaii up to the tip of the Aleutian Islands and known as the Hawaii-Emperor chain. Formed 28 million years ago, the island’s volcanic mass subsided over the years, gradually being replaced by a coral reef that grew around the former volcanic island and was able to maintain itself near sea level by growing upwards. That reef is now over 516 feet (160 m) thick and comprised of mostly post-Miocene limestones with a layer of upper Miocene (Tertiary g) sediments and lower Miocene (Tertiary e) limestones at the bottom overlying the basalts. What remains today is a shallow water atoll about 10 kilometers across.

Location: As its name suggests, Midway lays nearly half-way between the continents of North America and Asia (and, coincidentally, it lies almost halfway around the Earth from Greenwich, England. Because of this strategic position, the humble outcrop of coral and sand became an important point in the journey by sea and later, air, between the US and Asia. The first attempt to establish Midway as a strategic outpost came in 1871, 12 years after their discovery and being claimed for the US, and four years after the island was formally taken possession of by Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna. The Pacific Mail and Steamship Company started a project to dredge a ship channel through the reef to establish a coaling station while avoiding the high-taxes imposed at ports controlled by the Hawaiians. The project was an utter failure, however, and while evacuating the last of the workers, the USS Saginaw ran aground on Kure Atoll – an inauspicious beginning to be sure…

The next occupying effort came as part of laying the trans-Pacific telegraph cable. In 1903, in response to complaints about incursions by Japanese poachers, President Teddy Roosevelt placed the island under the protection of the U.S. Navy which in turn, saw a 21-man Marine detachment posted to the island. In 1935, with the introduction of flying boat service to Asia via Pan Am’s famous clippers, Midway became an important refueling and stopover point until war intruded in 1941.

Beginning in 1940, facilities at Midway were steadily built-up as Midway was deemed second in importance only to Pearl Harbor. The Naval Air Station was completed as were the ship channel and island defenses.

Strategic importance: A casual glance at the chart on the left will make immediately apparent the strategic importance of Midway. Given its location, long-range patrol bombers and submarines operating from the base would assert effective control of shipping lanes throughout the central Pacific region, directly impacting the movement of forces and supplies either East- or Westward bound. Possession of Midway also entailed control of the Hawaiian Islands, even absent an occupying force. If Japan’s goal of Asian domination was to be complete, it had to eliminate Hawaii as a launching pad for American forces – likewise, if America was to remain a factor in the Pacific, it had to keep Hawaii operational and, by extension, Midway.

The die which had been cast 28 million years ago was now coming a cropper…