Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Battle of Midway in Cinema and History

I watched "Midway" yesterday afternoon on Cinemax. My Mom took me to see this film in its theatrical release back in 1976. I think Mom fell asleep halfway through, or that might have been when we saw "The Battle of Britain" or "A Bridge Too Far" (it might be the latter, but it's hard to remember, as my Mom took me to a lot of war movies back then).

The motion picture's got an all-star cast, including not just James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, and Pat Morita, but up-and-comers like Erik Estrada and Tom Selleck. The film's background story involving Heston's "Captain Garth" and his son's romance with a Japanese American was a bit corny, but nevertheless interesting in its portrayal of anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. following Pearl Harbor. The film's got an accurate historical account of the strategic run-up to the engagement, although the battle-scene cinematography was flawed by the use of combat footage not authentic to the carrier fighters in use in 1942. I found the battle scenes riveting in any case, especially the first couple waves of the American bomb and torpedo assualt on the Japanese aircraft carrier group -- unassisted by the cover of fighter aircraft -- in which American pilots sustained heavy losses.

Historically, however, the Battle of Midway is considered significant in the development of naval warfare, and was widely seen as the turning-point of the Pacific War. As R.A.C. Parker remarks in his book, "The Second World War," the Midway engagement, along with the Battle of Coral Sea, was the first naval battle in which the combatants fought each other from beyond the horizon, never seeing enemy ships or exchanging gunfire.

Second, as Richard Overy notes in his book, "Why The Allies Won," the Battle of Midway was America's Trafalgar. Japan thereafter had no chance of threatening the Western United States and the Western Allies' sea-lines of communication in the Pacific. As Overy notes:

Midway did not end the war in the Pacific, but threw Japan to the defensive, and allowed the United States to divert men and materials to the German war. Over the next three years [Admiral Chester] Nimitz and [General Douglas] MacArthur wore down Japanese resitance island by island, from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, against fierce, suicidal defence. Japan's fleet was decimated, her merchant shipping obliterated. When bases near enough to Japan's home islands could be secured, a relentless aerial bombardment of her cities eroded what economic strength remained. Without Coral Sea and Midway this bitter erosion of Japanese fighting power would have been both longer and more costly. The United States might have well had to fall back on California as its front line in the Pacific. Midway was won by the narrowest of margins -- ten bombs in ten minutes -- but was not an accidental victory. It was rooted in sound intelligence and the effective deployment of air power at sea for which the United Startes navy had prepared for twenty years. Victory in the mid-Pacific was the first leg in the long haul back to Allied command of the sea.

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