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Naval Academy Honors Battle of Midway Veterans

Posted on: June 06, 2013 08:00 EDT by Jessica Clark

The four empty chairs at the front of the crowd gathered for the Naval Academy’s Battle of Midway Commemoration Ceremony June 5 served as a stark reminder that what Tom Brokaw famously called the “greatest generation” is fading.

But not from the annals of history.

The ceremony, which took place adjacent to the academy’s Battle of Midway Memorial Monument outside Bancroft Hall, is held annually to remember and honor the men who fought in one of the most important naval battles in the U.S. Pacific Campaign during World War II.

The empty chairs were reserved for World War II veterans, many of whom have attended the Annapolis ceremony in the past.

“It’s important we acknowledge and recognize the significance of the Battle of Midway not only in our naval history but in our national history,” said professor emeritus of history Craig Symonds.

Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller spoke about Commodore Dixie Kiefer, a 1918 graduate of the Naval Academy and executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown during the Battle of Midway. When Yorktown was sunk during the battle, Kiefer shattered his right leg and ankle while leaping from the ship. Despite his injuries, he helped sailors into a life raft and swam, pushing the raft to another ship for rescue.

“He embodied exactly what we expect from our graduates,” said Miller.

Symonds went on to talk about other key players in the attack on the Japanese carriers at Midway.

Capt. Joseph Rochefort was the cryptographer who helped partially decode Japanese intelligence traffic and convinced Adm. Chester Nimitz that the Japanese planned to attack the Midway Atoll in late May or early June despite arguments from other intelligence officers that the Japanese were going to attack somewhere else in the Pacific and later in the summer.

In the wake of the physical and emotional turmoil left by the attack on Pearl Harbor and with limited assets, Nimitz made “the bold decision” to send his carriers 300 miles north of Midway, said Symonds.

The other two men Symonds mentioned were pilots Clarence Wade McClusky and Richard Best.

McClusky was the USS Enterprise air group commander. Leading his scout bombers in search of the Japanese carriers, he made the critical tactical decision to continue the search knowing his planes would run out of fuel before they could get back to the Enterprise. He finally spotted the wake of a single carrier which led the squadrons to the other Japanese ships.

In the confusion of the ensuing battle, all of the aircraft attacked the Japanese carrier Kaga, leaving the Akagi free. At the last second, Best noticed this and broke off with his two wingmen to attack the Akagi, landing a fatal bomb in the middle of the ship’s flight deck.

If Best hadn’t taken action, the Akagi would have survived unscathed and changed the outcome of the battle, said Symonds. “In that two minutes, the course of the Pacific War had changed.”

“Luck, chance, providence if you would, all play a role in the events of man. But sometimes luck is a product of the decisions that we make,” said Symonds. “Whether it’s Joe Rochefort or Chester Nimitz or Wade McClusky or Richard Best - or thousands of others like them who made small decisions throughout this battle, they are the ones who fought and won the Battle of Midway.

“They are the ones we here today to honor,” he said.

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