Midway Is Our Trafalgar

By Commander Brian Fort, USN

Influence clearly served Mahan"s purpose; not only did sea power influence history, but history would indeed have a profound effect on sea power, as well. By treating the wars of the time span he covered as purely maritime conflicts, he was able to use history as a force to help shape doctrine that modernized navies prior to and after World War I.
Unfortunately, naval history's force and influence on sea power in the United States today is weak, unfocused, and, sadly, too often ignored. Sounding this alarm, Dr. John Hattendorf, the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College, wrote in the Spring 2003 Naval War College Review about the U.S. Navy's tendency "to ignore the value of and advantages to be found in historical insight." 1 In the December 2004 Proceedings he wrote: "Present historians have a difficult time learning what our service is doing today, and our achievements may never be known to future generations." 2

The bottom line is that the Navy simply does not appreciate its history and is therefore not well positioned to learn from it today or tomorrow. Short-term corrective action and plans for a long-term vision are needed now. A comparison between the Royal Navy's annual commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar and the U.S. Navy's attempt at an annual commemoration of the Battle of Midway is a case in point. The U.S. Navy's negligence in celebrating the annual anniversary of Midway, Fleet-wide, is the single most egregious example of its failure to embrace its own history.

The Royal Navy and the Battle of Trafalgar

Consider Trafalgar. On 21 October each year, every Royal Navy command, afloat or ashore, in conflict or at peace, honors the immortal memory of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and the triumph of the Royal Navy over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. Typically, mess dinners celebrate the victory. Many U.S. Navy Sailors, officers and enlisted, have attended such dinners as guests of the Royal Navy, and everyone comes away from these events with tremendous respect and admiration.
The 2005 Trafalgar anniversary was distinctive, marking the bicentennial of the battle and of the death of Nelson. Navies from around the world turned out for a multitude of celebrations, including a Fleet Review off Portsmouth, England, at Spithead. 3 What is distinctive about Trafalgar and the death of Nelson is that they are two historic events immortalized not only within the Royal Navy, but also by the British populace at large, the most obvious monumental testaments being Trafalgar Square and the Nelson Column. Centrally located in London, the square, with its iconic column, is one of the most recognized places in the world, taking center stage every year during New Year's Eve celebrations. Of particular note here, no one had to tell the British about the importance of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, and no one had to tell the Royal Navy to honor its significance annually. 4

The U.S. Navy and the Battle of Midway

Now, consider Midway. A dedication stone inscription by historian Walter Lord at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, puts the Battle of Midway in its proper context: "They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war... even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit-a magic blend of skills, faith, and valor-that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory." Add to that remarks by former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger at a dinner to recognize the 61st anniversary of the battle at the Army and Navy Country Club in 2003, and you have the definitive context for placing Midway among other crucial turning points in world history.

Then came Midway. Through an extraordinary combination of the skill and
courage of our pilots, splendid intelligence, prudent risk-taking by our
commanders that paid off, and sheer good luck, the apparently inferior
American forces were victorious. This victory occurred despite the inferiority
of our aircraft, the ineffectiveness of our torpedoes, the substantial absence
of backup surface ships, and our overall numerical inferiority. You know the
rest! Four Japanese carriers had been sunk. It all confirmed the dictum of
Otto von Bismarck: "the Lord God has special providence for fools, drunkards,
and the United States of America." The Japanese offensive had now been
blunted. The Japanese fleet turned back toward the Home Islands and the
opportunity for victory had been lost forever. Roosevelt could now execute
his Grand Strategy, with all that was to imply regarding the condition of
post-war Europe. 5

So, with this remarkable historical backdrop, how are the U.S. Navy and the American people memorializing this turning-point battle? America has no equivalent of Trafalgar Square, and there is no American Nelson. Only three modest memorials commemorate the Battle of Midway, one placed on Sand Island of the Midway Atoll in 1995, another placed on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy just more than a year later, and a third opened in 2001 at Chicago's Midway Airport Terminal. Were it not for the extraordinary efforts of the International Midway Memorial Foundation (IMMF), the Naval Academy Class of 1942, and the Chicago Department of Aviation, it is unlikely any of these unassuming memorials would even exist. 6

Unfortunately, because the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps is the Navy's major commissioning source, only a relatively small percentage of officers will ever see the Academy's memorial, and only an extremely small percentage of the general public will ever visit Midway and see the memorial there. While Midway Airport sees considerable traffic, its memorial is really more of an exhibit than a memorial.
Influenced by the first two memorial initiatives, then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jay Johnson attempted to take another step toward instilling historical esprit de corps into the Fleet through release of a message titled Naval Heritage . 7 In it, the CNO cited preserving and building on naval heritage as a Fleet goal, indicating the Navy's date of birth, 13 October 1775, and the date of the Battle of Midway, 4 June 1942, should be celebrated annually. Less than a year later, Vice CNO Admiral Donald Pilling released a follow-up message specific to Midway commemorations, and the Naval Historical Center added Midway Night dining information to its Web site. 8 The vision of a Fleet-wide commemoration of Midway through an annual Midway Night dinner along the lines of the Royal Navy's Trafalgar Night dinner, however, has not come close to reality.

How is this still possible, and how was it possible that the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Midway included no formal monument to the battle? How is it possible today that so few U.S. Navy Sailors have participated in celebrations honoring Midway and remain unaware of the battle's significance in the context of world-much less Navy-history?

While there may be many reasons why Midway has not garnered proper historical respect and recognition, Dr. Schlesinger gave three summations in his previously mentioned speech: (1) British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's Eurocentric canon on World War II, (2) Midway amidst the shadow of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, and (3) lack of recognition within the U.S. Navy itself.

Added to this could also be that, because recognition of Midway has been so passive in the past, memorializing it today might seem somewhat forced. And while victory at Trafalgar quelled the immediate English fears of the threat of invasion from Napoleon, the victory at Midway, although recognized as having turned the tide of the war in the Pacific, still left the U.S. Navy with tremendous challenges to ensure the ultimate defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
With respect to Admiral Johnson's naval heritage initiatives in general, like many ideas that begin with the right intentions, naval heritage has since been fundamentally diminished by relegating it to the realm of a few questions on rating examinations and in warfare qualification standards and subsuming it to the environment of Navy general military training. This effectively kills any real value associated with naval heritage training. Nothing demonstrates this last point more clearly than a review of the 12 training topics for 2006, which include not a single stand-alone naval heritage topic, even though the Navy Education and Training Center conveniently labeled all 12 as part of the naval heritage subject area. 9 These include topics such as sexual assault, personal financial management, and grievance procedures, to name only a few. This is a poor excuse for naval heritage training.
Of positive note, however, are a few outstanding examples of Midway Night celebrations and naval heritage being done right. For example, Naval Air Station Jacksonville held a Midway Night dinner on 4 June 2005 that was co-sponsored by the Navy League of Mayport and the Greater Jacksonville United Services Organization. More than 400 attended the event, including 22 Midway veterans, then-CNO Admiral Vern Clark, and the mayor of Jacksonville. 10

The U.S. Navy and the Battle of Trafalgar

Notwithstanding such examples, echoes of the chairman to the Secretary of the Navy's Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History's warning-that for too long the Navy has viewed history as "someone else's problem"-can still be heard loud and clear throughout the Fleet. 11 Along these lines, a blatant and globally visible example of the U.S. Navy's failure to use naval history to its advantage was its level of participation in and recognition of the importance of the Royal Navy's 2005 Trafalgar Bicentennial Fleet Review.

On 28 June 2005, 167 ships from some 35 countries participated in the review at Spithead. The invitation to participate in this 600-year-old tradition provided the U.S. Navy an excellent opportunity to take part in one of the most significant maritime and historical events of a lifetime. Just as shameful as the U.S. Navy's failure to embrace the historical significance of Midway was the fact that its participation in the review was limited to a single warship, USS Saipan (LHA-2). Owing to the requirements of the war on terrorism, no U.S. Navy aircraft carrier participated, leaving the French carrier Charles de Gaulle as the largest warship.
Adding to this lack of historical perspective, the press release from Commander, Naval Forces Europe/Commander, U.S. 6th Fleet, noting Saipan 's participation, failed to capture the significance of the event, blandly noting that "Participating in the celebrations provides the U.S. Navy in Europe the opportunity to promote theater security cooperation through pursuit of shared diplomatic goals and military readiness." 12 Not only was this not a theater security exercise, but no mention was made of the importance of the Battle of Trafalgar, the leadership example of Nelson, or the importance of an enduring maritime legacy to a nation's history.

The point here is certainly not to denigrate the men and women of Saipan , who looked magnificent on the deck as they passed before the Queen of England on the reviewing ship, nor any of the Sailors stationed in the United Kingdom who participated in Trafalgar bicentennial events. And it is particularly not the intent to criticize the Sailors on board 6th Fleet ships who could not participate because of current operations. The point is that for an International Fleet Review of this significance, which was planned with as much lead time as this one was, the U.S. Navy should have sent an aircraft carrier and at least one escort.

Short-Term Recommendations

Laying out a set of complaints is simply that-a set of complaints. Therefore, following are some simple recommendations:

  • Uniformed and civilian senior leadership must be actively involved in annual Midway Night commemorations. There are more ships, submarines, squadrons, and naval stations than there are flag officers and senior executive service officials. There is no excuse for invitations not to go to every member of the U.S. Navy's senior leadership each year for Midway Night events. If not already scheduled, commanding officers and executive officers must direct a Midway Night celebration be added to their command calendars now.
  • U.S. Navy public affairs officers must go on a naval heritage frontal assault. They need not be overly creative. Start by getting permission to reprint the words of Dr. Hattendorf, Dr. Schlesinger, and Walter Lord regarding the importance of the Battle of Midway and the value of naval heritage.
  • Truly incorporate naval heritage training in officer and enlisted basic training. Don't waste time re-inventing the wheel. Copy the Marine Corps model. It works.
  • Send historians to sea. Get historians involved in the process at sea. Get Sailors involved with historians.
  • Do whatever it takes to have the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., opened on Sundays. Half of weekend tourists miss the opportunity to see naval heritage in operation.

One recent bright spot on the naval heritage horizon is the U.S. Naval Institute's introduction in 2004 of an annual Applied Naval History Conference that has begun to attract active-duty panelists and audience and those of us who are naval history enthusiasts but don't have history degrees. Its cosponsors include the U.S. Naval Academy history department, which will resume its biannual Naval History Symposium for academic purists.

A Vision

Although the CNO's naval heritage message is now more than five years old, Fleet-wide commemoration of the Battle of Midway through annual Midway Night dinners will not happen overnight, nor will a Midway equivalent of Trafalgar Square, with statues of the great naval commanders, appear on the Capitol Mall tomorrow.

First, the message of the importance of naval heritage must continue to reach many audiences, in many venues, and in many forms. We cannot afford to miss opportunities to promote it. For those who truly believe in the significance of the Battle of Midway and the importance of honoring naval heritage, long-term goals to achieve something as spectacular as the Trafalgar celebrations must be bold and visionary.

An example of the possibilities for one such vision exists in Washington today. Restoration of the capital city's southeast corridor along the Anacostia River waterfront is being planned around a new baseball stadium to house the Washington Nationals professional baseball team. Conveniently, the metro stop that will bring fans to the new ballpark is the Navy Yard stop. What if a monument to the Battle of Midway were also built in this revitalized neighborhood? What if this development simply became known as the Washington Midway, second only to the Mall in attracting tourists to the nation's capital? What if we could combine America's pastime with America's naval heritage to recognize the turning-point Battle of Midway and the fact that our history would be substantially different if not for this great victory?

History is indeed an extremely powerful force. A century ago Mahan's dissertation about the influence of sea power on history set in motion the course of events that led to the status the U.S. Navy enjoys in the world today. It is the history, though, before and after Mahan, from Trafalgar to Midway, and history as yet unwritten, that must be recognized, studied, articulated, respected, and prepared for because of the nature of its influence on sea power. The Royal Navy has provided the example, in honoring the Battle of Trafalgar, that the U.S. Navy should follow to appropriately memorialize the most decisive naval battle in its own history.

Commander Fort is currently serving on the Joint Staff J7. He is an avid naval history enthusiast and future commanding officer afloat.

   1. John B. Hattendorf, "The Uses of Maritime History in and for the Navy," Naval War College Review Spring 2003, Vol. 56, No. 2, 12. back to article
   2. John B. Hattendorf, "Our Naval Heritage Is in Danger," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , Dec. 2004, Vol. 130, No. 12, 64. back to article
   3. While it can certainly be argued whether Trafalgar is the most decisive naval battle in history, its importance to U.S. Navy historians is unquestionable as the battle appears in numerous U.S. Navy history texts (e.g., Craig L. Symonds, Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy [Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995]). back to article
   4. Construction on Trafalgar Square commenced in 1829 with the Nelson Column being erected in 1843. back to article
   5. Dr. Schlesinger's entire speech can be found on the Naval Historical Center Web site, http://www.history.navy.mil back to article
   6. Images of both memorials and information on the accomplishments and activities of the IMMF can be found at the website, http://www.immf-midway.com . For scenes of the Midway Airport Exhibit, visit http://www.ohare.com/doa/avi_news/doa_avi_news_pr_45.shtm back to article
   7. NAVADMIN 164/99. back to article    
   8. NAVADMIN 68/00. back to article
   9. NAVADMIN 257/05. back to article
  10. Details of the Naval Air Station Jacksonville 2005 Midway Night Dinner can be found on the Web site http://www.jaxairnews.com/stories/060905/mil_midway001.shtml back to article
  11. Dr. David A. Rosenberg, Chairman, "The Report of the Secretary of the Navy's Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History for 2001," to Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, 7 December 2001, 6. back to article
  12. http://www.news.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=18950 . back to article



Commander Fort is currently serving on the Joint Staff J7. He is an avid naval history enthusiast and future commanding officer afloat.

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