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DAVID GELERNTER

Hear the Heroes of June 4th

June 03, 2005

Samuel Eliot Morison was one of the 20th century's most eminent American historians. His writing is vivid, but in "The Two-Ocean War" he appeals directly to his readers just once. Speaking of airmen who died at the Battle of Midway, he writes, "Think of them, reader, every Fourth of June. They and their comrades who survived changed the whole course of the Pacific War."

As June 1942 began, Japan was on a rampage. America had yet to recover from Pearl Harbor, hit in late '41. The Japanese had just launched a campaign to grab Midway Island from the U.S. as a base for more air strikes against Hawaii and to open the central Pacific to attack.

The two fleets faced off north of Midway, too far apart to reach each other with gunfire. The battle was fought by aircraft. There were three American carriers (virtually all that remained of the U.S. Pacific fleet) versus four large Japanese carriers.

The first waves of U.S. warplanes attacked, disastrously. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron led a squadron of 15 torpedo bombers; all were shot down, and the Japanese ships remained untouched. Two more squadrons followed, one under Lt. Cmdr. Eugene E. Lindsey, one led by Lt. Cmdr. Lance E. Massey. They too suffered heavy losses and failed to scratch the Japanese.

Silence. It looked like America had shot its wad and lost everything. "For about one hundred seconds" at the heart of the battle, Morison writes, "the Japanese were certain they had won the Battle of Midway, and the war."

Then, one more group of U.S. warplanes suddenly appeared -- dive bombers led by Lt. Cmdr. Clarence W. McClusky. In countering the previous attacks, Japanese fighter planes had been drawn downward -- leaving American bombers unmolested at 14,000 feet, free to dive on the Japanese ships. Two carriers were sunk. Soon afterward a third was destroyed, later a fourth. The U.S. went on to win the battle -- and the war.

Why must we remember? Because Midway was the turning point in our war with Japan -- which is central, in turn, to our understanding of the 20th century and the human race.

World War II dislodged Europe from the center of world politics and created the U.N., the drive for European unity, Israel's rebirth -- and a 50-year Cold War. One more thing. It destroyed humanity's sense of itself as basically good.

Morality collapsed and was trampled to death in three of the world's largest nations simultaneously. Today's public understands the criminal depravity of Hitler. (Although Europe doesn't understand well enough to deny itself the pleasure of its latest round of Jew-hatred.) People understand (vaguely) the monstrousness of Stalin. But no one wants to know what Japan did to captive Asian peoples and POWs.

I pick up Arnold Brackman's book about Japanese war crimes unwillingly. I don't want to read about the British officer at the Tamarkan camp, near the River Kwai, beaten insensible then kept four days in a trench in six inches of mosquito-infested rainwater. At war's end, he was insane. Or about prisoners of Japan on a torpedoed ship who struggled to reach a life raft, where a Japanese seaman chopped off their hands or split their skulls with an ax. Routine incidents. This is the Japan that almost won the Battle of Midway, and the war. American soldiers refused to let it happen.

Memorial Days come and go, and Americans know less about World War II and Midway every year. While the veterans still survive, we ought to listen to them. They want to talk and (Lord knows) they deserve to. We should take Morison's advice at last and remember the day we almost lost the Pacific war, and the soldiers who turned it around for us -- those who died heroically and those who lived. The president could make it happen with a stroke of the famous presidential pen -- not another Memorial Day but a Day of Listening, devoted to the Midway veterans, to all our World War II veterans. How much longer are we going to wait?

The heroism of these old soldiers doesn't erase the unspeakable atrocities of the war. It does mean that humanity has something to say in its own defense. These veterans are still our benefactors. Think of them, reader, every Fourth of June.

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