The final World War II veteran to serve in the United States Senate died on the eve of the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Midway. Frank Lautenberg’s passing is significant, and every American should understand why.
Fifty-two years ago, fellow World War II vet John F. Kennedy told America that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” That torch is now burning out; an era has ended, and many wonder if America will ever see another like it.
To try and understand, go back seven decades to the empty sea west of Hawaii in June 1942. Only a half-year before, Japanese planes had nearly wiped out the American fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbor in a brilliant surprise raid. By some miracle – the first of several – our precious carriers had been at sea and were not annihilated at their berths.
In a single morning America transformed from a nation at peace, trying to shake off the lingering Depression, into a nation at war. And no matter who won, the looming fight at Midway would be the decisive battle of the Pacific theater.
The Japanese were at their high water mark as they sent a mammoth task force of carriers and battleships to seize lonely Midway Island from the Marines who guarded it. With it in their hands, they would have ruled the Pacific. Their equipment was better, with their dreaded Zero fighters far superior to the defenders’ slap-dash collection of outdated aircraft. They outnumbered the Americans as well, and they were on a winning streak. Not long before, in the Battle of the Coral Sea, they had sunk the carrier Lexington and gravely damaged the Yorktown.
There was no way anyone other than Americans would have stood a chance. But, as Admiral Yamamoto had foretold, it was Japanese’s grim fate to have chosen to make Americans their enemy.
The Americans knew the Imperial Navy was coming, despite the fleet’s radio silence. American codebreakers had cracked the Japanese naval ciphers. The codebreakers were independent and eccentric, dismissive of military discipline and arbitrary rules. They were entrepreneurial, quintessential Americans, brimming with vision and ideas in the days when cryptography was an art rather than a brute force exercise in supercomputing. They were cut from the same cloth as the men who would later spark the computer revolution in their California garages.