I have been reading Herman Wouk’s books on World War 2 – The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. Though they were published many years ago, I had not yet gotten around to reading them. The books are a masterful retelling of various events related to the war seen through the eyes of a particular family. I would certainly recommend them to just about anyone who is interested in learning a bit more about this chapter in our nations’ history.
The Battle of Midway was a key turning point in the battle of the Pacific. The battle was staged in a relatively new form of warfare between aircraft carriers. The tactics and strategies for carrier warfare were being developed and few people had had much training in this method of combat. Ideally, aircraft were supposed to form into combat groups with fighter aircraft giving support and protection to the slower moving torpedo bombers and dive bombers. In the split-second decision making leading up to the battle, three groups of U.S. torpedo bombers were ordered to launch their attack on the Japanese carrier groups, but the support from the U.S. fighters was not provided.
Fifteen aircraft from Squadron VT-8 from USS Hornet, fourteen aircraft from Squadron 6 VT-6 from USS Enterprise, and 13 aircraft of Squadron VT 3 from USS Yorktown were dispatched into battle. None of the squadron’s torpedoes scored hits on any of the carriers, or if they did, none exploded due to a serious problem with the Navy’s torpedoes at the time. The attack patterns of torpedo bombers made them easy targets for the Japanese fighters and the ship-based anti-aircraft guns. Torpedo bombers generally need to fly low and straight and slow in order to make an effective torpedo drop. Without the support of the fighters, the casualties were incredibly high. Of the 42 aircraft sent on their mission that morning, only 7 returned to their carriers. Squadron 8 lost all of its aircraft and only one pilot survived the mission that morning. Herman Wouk made sure to list the names of all of the pilots and crew members of these brave torpedo bomber groups who gave their lives that fateful morning. At face value, the mission of these squadrons seemed to be a tragic waste. But the mission these men embarked on turned out to be a significant factor in the events that unfolded next.
As the Japanese fighters launched to engage the U.S. torpedo bombers, and as the carriers and other surface ships engaged in evasive maneuvers to avoid torpedo attacks, it created an enormous distraction so that when the U.S. dive bomber and fighter squadrons arrived, they had almost no opposition in their bombing run on the Japanese carriers. In a matter of minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers were flaming wreckage and the entire tide of the war was changed dramatically. Japan never fully recovered its aircraft carrier advantage after the battle of Midway.
As I read the names of all of the torpedo bomber pilots who lost their lives that day, I wondered what it was like for them to fly into a situation where they were supposed to have support from fighters in order to properly execute their mission. Were they tempted to turn back and say “let’s go later when we are part of a full air combat group.” Did they know they were flying into almost certain death? I am very impressed with their commitment to following their orders that morning even though they may have thought their mission was futile. Their sacrifice, which seemed somewhat pointless at the time, turned out to be of enormous value in turning the tide of the war.
There are at least two things I took from this story. First I am grateful for the sacrifices made by these pilots and their crew members who gave their lives for our nation and for a cause larger than themselves. As an American citizen who has been blessed to live in this great nation, I don’t ever want to take these sacrifices for granted. Second, I am struck by the focus these men had on fulfilling their mission in spite of the fact that it was not going “according to their plans.” They followed their orders and they sought to be faithful to the duty assigned to them in spite of the cost.
As we enter into the season of Lent this month, I want to encourage you to think about what it really means to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost. In our culture today, “obedience” has become a sort of dirty word. We are told that smart people chart their own courses and obedience is for losers. But in the Bible God calls his people to obey his word. In John 3:36 Jesus warns people: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” As Christians in the Presbyterian tradition, we stress the importance of salvation by grace but that does not mean that obedience can be abandoned. Just as those pilots at the battle of Midway probably did not see the rewards of their obedience immediately, in the long run their commitment to obeying their commander was of immense value. So too in the spiritual life, obedience to Jesus may be hard, and it may involve great sacrifice, but in the end obedience to Jesus has eternal significance.