The Battle of Midway

On 3 June 1942, Japanese planes from the light carrier Ryugo strafed and bombed Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese hoped to lure the American carriers into the open with the attack on American soil. As the American carriers respond to the attack on Alaska, they were to be destroyed by the four carriers of Admiral Nagumo’s Kido Butai which was fast approaching the island of Midway.

However the Americans were already there and waiting. On 2 June 1942, Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 17 rendezvoused with Admiral Spruance’s TF 16 at “Point Luck” 325 miles north east of Midway. The next day, 3 June 1942, aircraft from Midway Island spotted the Japanese invasion fleet and the three American carriers, the USS Hornet, the USS Enterprise, and the USS Yorktown, began steaming west to engage the Japanese.

In the early morning hours of 4 June 1942, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the Victor of Pearl Harbor, assumed that the greatest threat to his aircraft carriers, the Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, were the land based bombers on Midway Island. He had no idea that three American carriers were lurking nearby.

Nagumo’s first strike on Midway Island did extensive damage to the airfield but a second strike was needed. While he was arming for a second land attack, one of his reconnaissance planes radioed that they had spotted an American carrier. With the first strike’s planes returning and low on fuel, he sent his second strike back below decks to rearm for a naval attack while he recovered the first strike. Unknown to him, an American attack was on its way.

Due to confusion on the American carriers, navigation errors in the search, and haste to launch the attack, the Americans were not synchronized. The coordination between Admiral Fletcher’s aircraft from the Yorktown, and Admiral Spruance’s aircraft from the Enterprise and Hornet was poor at best. Moreover, the attacks were supposed to be integrated: with torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and escorting fighters all arriving over the target simultaneously. This would have dispersed defending Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire, but some squadrons couldn’t find their compatriots, some squadrons didn’t wait around, and some waited in the wrong spot. To make matters worse, Nagumo’s carriers made a slight course correction, and many planes flew to the wrong spot only to find empty ocean. The Battle of Midway looked to be a repeat of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Fortunately, individual squadrons found the Japanese on their own. The first were the torpedo bombers of LtCdr “Lem” Massey’s Torpedo Squadron Three (VT-3), followed shortly by LtCdr John Waldron’s Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8). As the Japanese planes were being recovered, the American torpedo bombers attacked and the defending Japanese Zeros made short work of the low and slow flying TBD Devastators. The six fighters of LtCdr Jim Thach’s Fighter Squadron Three couldn’t adequately protect their vulnerable wards and the TBs suffered almost 100% casualties. Of the twenty seven torpedo bombers that attacked, only two from Waldron’s squadron returned, and only one man from VT-8 survived: wounded and floating in the ocean was a young ensign, George Gay. As the historian Samuel Elliot Morrison pointed out, “For about 100 seconds, the Japanese thought they had won the Battle of Midway, and the war.”

They could not have been more wrong.

Two squadrons of Dauntless dive bombers approached almost simultaneously. The first, Max Leslie’s Bombing Three (VB-3) was the last squadron to take off from the aircraft carriers, and was actually the only squadron to have an accurate idea of where the Japanese were. The second squadron, Bombing Six (VB-6) was escorted by LtCdr Wade McCluskey’s Fighting Six (VF-6). Initially, they couldn’t find the Japanese ships. But, McClusky, low on fuel, decided not turn back even though he knew most of his planes would have to ditch in the ocean. His persistence paid off when he spotted a lone Japanese destroyer sailing at flank speed. He decided to follow it, and it led his planes directly to Nagumo. Adm Nimitz would credit McClusky’s decision, that of a relatively junior field grade officer, as one of the most important of the war; “It decided the fate of carrier task force and our forces at Midway…”

The suicidal torpedo runs by VT’s 3 and 8 were not in vain. They forced the defending Japanese Zeroes near sea level to chase the slow TBs and left the sky above the Japanese carriers free of air protection. The American dive bombers took advantage of the clear approaches to their targets.

In four minutes, from 10:22 to 10:26 am on 4 June 1942, VB-6 from the USS Enterprise screamed out of the sun and scored direct hits on the Kaga and Akagi, while VB-3 from the USS Yorktown pounded the Soryu. The Japanese carriers had decks packed with bomb and fuel laden planes, and the American dive bombers turned them into exploding infernos. Only the Hiryu escaped complete and catastrophic destruction.

The Hiryu responded and launched two counterattacks which severely damaged the Yorktown later that morning. That afternoon, planes from the Enterprise, including ten originally from the Yorktown, so damaged the Hiryu that she had to be scuttled. Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, probably the best Japanese carrier admiral of the war, chose to go down with the ship in shame.

Without air cover, Admiral Yamamoto turned his battleships and the invasion fleet around. By the evening of 4 June 1942, the Japanese lost four carriers, all of their aircraft, most of their experienced pilots, and incalculable crew and staff experience in carrier operations. They would never recover from the loss. The dreaded Kido Butai, the most powerful and feared fleet in history, was no more. The massacre of the torpedo bombers during the Battle of Midway was the Japanese high water mark. There were still three long years left in the Pacific fight but initiative was now with the Americans and would stay that way for the rest of the war.

The Blue Army

Poland did not exist as a state since the Partition of 1795, during which the autocracies of Austria, Russia, and Prussia divided up the country amongst themselves. 122 years later, in 1917, the Great War presented an opportunity for a free and independent Poland carved from Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after their defeat, an opportunity fully embraced by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. To this end, Polish immigrant communities across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States sought volunteers and formed training camps for the inevitable call to arms. Local barracks were established, and recruiting began among the members of Polish fraternal organizations, the Falcons and Polish National Alliance, in coal and steel towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Officer training camps were created in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania and, after a secret deal with the Canadian government, Toronto. By March 1917, the Polish communities in the United States had over 12,000 men in training and prepared to fight for an independent Poland.

Just three weeks before the United States entered the war, Dr. Theophil Starzynski organized an “extra-ordinary” meeting of the leaders of the various Polish groups in America. Many traveled from across the country to attend. In a small hall on the corner of 18th and Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh on 3 April, 1917, Dr. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a renowned pianist and composer (and future Polish prime minister) who had recently emigrated to California, spoke to the packed assembly on the creation of a Polish Volunteer Army to fight in France. Within a week, thousands more volunteered. Unfortunately Dr Paderewski’s call was ill timed: The United States declared war on Germany just three days later.

The United States’ entry into the Great War on the 6th divided the Polish community in America – not for or against the war, but whether the men standing-by should volunteer for the rapidly expanding US Army, or wait for the formation of a Polish Army. Thousands joined the US Army rather than wait. The formal call for the formation of a Polish Army of expatriates and emigrants wouldn’t come from America as expected. The call for a Polish Army to fight for its independence came from a different source, France.

On 4 June 1917, Raymond Poincare, the President of France, (Not to be confused with Georg Clemenceau, the more famous Prime Minister of France) authorized the formation of a Polish Army to fight on the Western Front in exchange for France’s support for an independent Poland at the end of hostilities. France was in desperate need of men to fill the trenches and give respite to the exhausted and demoralized French soldiers who at that moment were mutinying in ever greater numbers. Tens of thousands of Poles from the Polish diaspora willing to fight were a godsend until America’s vast resources could arrive in force.

The first units in the Polish Army in France were formed from prisoners of war. As Poland had been occupied since 1795, many Poles fought in the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany and were subsequently captured by the Allies. Furthermore, the Poles (and many Russians) of the Russian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, which was consumed by mutiny at the time, volunteered for the new Polish army, if only to get away from the front. As word of the new formation spread, Poles across Europe deserted from the armies of the Central Powers or left their homes and made their way to France, most via Italy or through Sweden. From around the world the Polish diaspora responded, whether through the organized efforts of the Polish fraternal organizations in the United States, or through newspaper ads and formal announcements, then taking the long boat ride to Canada from their homes in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others. They in-processed and were given rudimentary training in a camp outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and they were subsequently organized for their trip in a convoy across the U-boat infested Atlantic to France. Over one hundred thousand Poles arrived in France to fight on the Western Front throughout 1917 and 1918.

The volunteers were sent to Camp le Ruchard outside Tours where they were trained by the French. They were issued old “Horizon Blue” French uniforms, and thereafter became known as “The Blue Army”. Further training camps opened as more volunteers arrived, including an officer cadet school, an NCO academy, and specialist training centers for logistics, artillery, engineering and signals. The Blue Army was integrated with the French Fourth Army, with Polish units partnered with French units as they formed and down to platoon level. Initially, their officers were French until suitable Polish replacements arrived, or could be found or trained. The first Polish regiment of the Blue Army went into combat alongside the French in January 1918, and the first division was formerly presented its colors by President Poincare in June. But the Blue Army itself still lacked cohesiveness, and more importantly, a Polish leader above the rank of colonel.

After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia in March, 1918, the Polish Legions of the Austrian and German armies in the Ukraine were interred alongside Polish troops of the Russian Army to prevent them from joining their comrades in France. Nevertheless, many Polish soldiers and officers escaped in the confusion that was endemic to Eastern Europe with the fall of the Imperial Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution. In the summer of 1918, the former commander of Austria’s 2nd Polish Legion, Brigadier General Josef Haller Von Hallerburg, made his way to Moscow, then Murmansk, and eventually France. On 4 October, 1918, the Polish National Committee, the newly recognized Polish government in exile, offered Haller command of the Blue Army. Gen Haller accepted command of a force which had grown to eight modern divisions, including a training division, seven squadrons of airplanes, and a tank regiment, nearly 110,000 men and women in total. The Blue Army fought on the Western Front until the armistice ending the Great War was signed in November.

In March, 1919, the Blue Army, now known as Haller’s Army, boarded trains for the newly independent Poland, where they were directly incorporated into the fledgling Polish Army then fighting to establish the borders of the Second Polish Republic. The regiments of Haller’s Army were the only formally trained units in Poland at the time. When the Red Army invaded in early 1920 to spread Bolshevism to a weakened Germany and France, Haller’s men, still in their trademark horizon blue uniforms, held the gates of Warsaw along with the population of the city against an overwhelming mass of Soviet soldiers. They bought Marshal Pilsudski just enough time to counterattack and break the Soviets in what is now commonly known as, “The Miracle on the Vistula”, thus saving Europe’s neck from the iron boot of Communism, at least for a few years.

After the Polish-Soviet War, Marshal Pilsudski, the defacto leader of the Second Polish Republic saw the members of the Polish National Committee as his main political rivals, and hastened the disbandment of the Blue Army, whom he thought were more loyal to the PNC than him. In 1920, the Polish government began making arrangements for Blue Army volunteers who wished to return home. A camp was set up outside Warsaw that organized travel, though the funding for such had to come from their home countries. Many languished in this camp for more than a year. Furthermore, the volunteers who wished to return were not formally discharged and therefore not recognized as veterans in Poland or in their home countries. These issues caused much bitterness, particularly with those from the Americas and Australia who traveled thousands of miles to fight for a country that no longer needed them and were now stuck in Eastern Europe. This break with the country of their forebears would manifest itself almost two decades later, when another call to fight for Poland came in 1939, this time against Communist Russia and National Socialist Germany. The volunteers from the Polish diaspora didn’t respond to Poland’s plea. There would be no second Blue Army to fight in 1939. However, to their everlasting credit, the Polish diaspora did loyally respond in great numbers to the calls to arms from their adopted homelands during the Second World War.

Light My Fire

In late 1966, The Doors were an opening band at the Whiskey A Go Go for bigger LA acts such as the Byrds and Them (with a young Van Morrison). In January 1966, they released their self titled debut album, but it really didn’t go anywhere due to suggestive and “obscene” lyrics, drug references , and song length. But the album was a hit with the counterculture movement and the underground psychedelic scene. Their first single release off the album, “Break On Through” was a flop (!??!?!?) but the much longer “Light My Fire” kept getting radio airplay requests. However, at 7:06, it was far too long to play over the radio.

On 3 June 1967, The Doors released a shortened three minute version for use on the radio. This shorter version of Light My Fire catapulted The Doors onto the national music scene. They’d be asked to play the song on the Ed Sullivan show with adjusted lyrics for “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” The Doors agreed and even rehearsed the new line. But when the time came, Jim Morrison sang the original line on national TV, and after the show lost their contract with the producers. The Doors didn’t care – They “did Sullivan”. Light My Fire dominated the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”.

The Lod Airport Massacre

As Israeli commandos stormed the Sabena Flight 571 hijacked by members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at Lod Airport (modern Ben Gurion International Airport), their brother organization, the hard left Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was planning another attack on Israel, this time directly at the airport itself. The operation was financed with the ransom money the PFLP received from the West German government after successfully hijacking a Lufthansa airplane in February.

After the Sabena hijacking, security to get into Lod Airport was tight. To bypass this, the PFLP planned to fly in from a different airport and attack the terminal from within. Additionally, the PFLP recruited three members of the Japanese Red Army to carry out the attack. They were training with the PFLP at one of their camps in Syria. Their ethnicity was thought to make it easier for them bypass security and avoid suspicion.

On 30 May 1972, the three Japanese men in business suits arrived at Tel Aviv’s Lod airport on an Air France flight from Paris. They strolled over to the baggage claim with the rest of the passengers. Once they claimed their bags, specifically their violin cases, they pulled out sawed off Czech assault rifles, and opened fire on the people in the terminal. One ran out on the tarmac and opened fire on the people descending the stairway off of an El Al flight that had just landed. 26 were killed, including the head of the Israeli National Academy of Science, and 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico. 80 more people of many nationalities were wounded.

One gunman ran out of ammunition and was killed by his comrades. A second ran out of ammunition and killed himself with a grenade. The third was captured when he tried to escape. Kozo Okamoto was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He was eventually exchanged with the PLO in 1983. He currently lives in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

Operation Isotope

On 8 May 1972, a Sabena Boeing 707, Flight 571, took off from Vienna for Tel Aviv. 45 minutes into the flight, two men and two women of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September hijacked the plane. Despite having the cabin stormed mere seconds before, the pilot made a calm announcement to the passengers and crew that “We have friends on board”.

Capt. Reginald Levy was a former member of the RAF and a veteran of both the Second World War and the Berlin Airlift. 8 May was his 50th birthday. By all accounts, he’s also the guy everyone wanted to have a pint with, and the only reason the terrorists didn’t kill any passengers. When the flight landed at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport (Ben Gurion International Airport), the terrorists made demands for the release of 315 convicted Palestinians held in Israeli jails. But thanks to coded messages sent by Levy to the air traffic controllers, the Israelis were already prepared.

They chartered a flight to Egypt filled with 315 fake prisoners that was to take off in the morning. That night, agents snuck onto the tarmac and cut the hydraulic lines in the landing gear and slashed the tires, preventing the plane from departing. The terrorists were furious, but Levy calmed them down by talking to them to keep them occupied, especially after they separated the Jewish passengers and sent them to the back of the plane. He, “spoke of everything, from navigation to sex”. They trusted him enough that they sent him off the plane with some explosives, to show the Israelis they meant business. Of course, Levy gave all the information that the Sayeret Matkal, the elite Israeli Special Forces, needed to storm the plane. Levy returned with photographs of the bogus prisoner transfer, and assurance that mechanics would fix the plane.

At 4 pm, 16 “mechanics” drove up to the plane dressed in all white coveralls. The disguised commandos breached the plane in five places: the main door, the rear door, the emergency door, and over the two wings of the plane. They killed the male terrorists, and captured the two female terrorists. Two passengers were wounded, one of whom died of her wounds, and one commando was wounded.

Operation Isotope was the first successful operation to seize a hijacked plane. There would be many more. Two of the commandos were future Prime Ministers of Israel, Ehud Barak, and the current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the only commando wounded in the operation.

The Battle of Goose Green

The British landings on East Falkland Island from the San Carlos Water went well despite Argentine air attacks that mauled the defending task force, and sunk a destroyer, a converted container ship, and two frigates. Unfortunately, the Battle of San Carlos was perceived as a defeat for the British in the international media. The Thatcher government needed a victory on land to compensate for the losses at sea.

The Argentine 12th Infantry Regiment outside of the towns of Goose Green and Darwin, just south of the landing site, became the target. The Argentine position at Goose Green was initially intended to be isolated and bypassed during the move on Port Stanley. However, the British convinced themselves that the Argentinians there could potentially threaten the landing site when the British began their attack east toward the capital. Despite the media woes, both the Thatcher government in London and the British command in the Falklands balked at the idea to attack, but they were finally won over by the commander of the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (2 Para) Lt Col Herbert “H” Jones’ determination. During a period of conflicting orders on the 26th, Jones was heard saying in the command post, “I’ve been waiting twenty years for this and now some f*****g Marine has cancelled it.” Eventually, 2 Para was ordered to attack.

Aerial reconnaissance was unavailable and the details of the Argentine defense were provided by an infantry squad sent ahead of the main body and an SAS observation post to the east. They did an admirable job of identifying the main Argentine defenses and minefields in front of Goose Green and the small town of Darwin, but completely missed mutually supporting perpendicular trenchlines on the east side of the Darwin Hill saddle, and the two reserve companies around the airfield. Since their air transport and most of their vehicle transport was at the bottom of the San Carlos Water, 2 Para conducted a “yomp” or approach march of 13 miles with full kit across the cold, wet, and barren island to their assault positions, on the evening of the 27th. To make matters worse, the Argentinians were expecting them because the BBC announced to the world about the impending attack the night before.

In the early morning hours of 28 May 1982, the 690 paratroopers of 2 Para assaulted over the open terrain at the dug in positions of the 1100 Argentinian defenders of the reinforced 12th Infantry Regiment and supporting air force personnel manning anti-aircraft guns. The tough defense of Lt Col Italo Piaggi’s soldiers caused significant delays in the attack. Most British troops were pinned down with accurate direct and indirect fire, and many trenches had to be stormed and cleared at bayonet point. Lt Col Jones and his command group eventually moved forward to rally the men. He was killed early in the battle by fire from the unknown trenches on the east side of Darwin Hill while he personally assaulted a trench line. His command fell to his 2IC, Major Chris Creeble. It was through his calm leadership, and the leadership of several other junior officers and NCOs, that kept the attack from breaking down in the face of determined Argentine resistance. Had the Argentinians counterattacked in strength at any point in the battle, the British would probably have been defeated in detail.

By the early afternoon, 2 Para cleared Darwin and Darwin Hill of defenders, but the attack culminated in front of the town of Goose Green. Inside the town, were 600 Argentinian soldiers and 200 British civilians, and 2 Para was exhausted and disorganized. Via Argentinian POWs, Creeble asked for their surrender to spare the civilians in the town the inevitable airstrikes and artillery bombardment. LtCol Piaggi, with nowhere to withdraw to, agreed.

2 Para’s assault at Goose Green inflicted 190 Argentine casualties, and captured over 900 for the cost of 18 killed and 65 wounded. The Battle of Goose Green is the textbook example of a successful hasty dismounted infantry attack by a battalion sized force against a numerically superior enemy force in a deliberate defense.

Operation Anthropoid: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich was one of Hitler’s favored young Nazi leaders. In 1942 at the age of 38 he was a picture perfect National Socialist: tall, blond, courageous, arrogant, intelligent, and utterly ruthless. In his youth, he was an uncompromising street thug, and quickly rose through the Nazi ranks. He betrayed the SA during the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934 when he saw that Himmler and the SS were Hitler’s personal favorites. He personally sent thousands of Jews to concentration camps four years later during Kristallnacht, or “The Night of the Broken Glass”. He masterminded the fake border attack that gave Germany the pretext to invade Poland in 1939 when he was head of the combined SD (Nazi Party Intelligence), Gestapo, and Criminal Police. In 1940, he ordered the SS and occupying troops to collect Jews and other “undesirables” into ghettos in the newly occupied territories to make their eventual extermination easier. Soon after, he formed the first Einsatzgruppen to follow behind the the German invasion of the Soviet Union and massacre “Enemies of the Reich”. He chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference where the logistical and practical details of the Final Solution were worked out in cold detail. In late 1941, Heydrich was made the military governor of Bohemia and Moravia (roughly the modern Czech Republic). Heydrich ensured the brutal and iron grip of National Socialism was absolute.

Details of Heydrich’s inhuman rule made it to London, and the Czech government-in-exile decided to act. They approved Operation Anthropoid, the mission to assassinate Heydrich. In cooperation with Britain’s Special Operation Executive (SOE), the forerunner of MI6 and the organization responsible for wartime espionage and sabotage on the Continent, six Czech agents were parachuted into the Bohemia from an RAF bomber. Over several months, they slowly made their way into Prague. Once there, they were surprised to find that Heydrich’s control of the city was so complete, that he arrogantly rode in the back of an open topped black Mercedes marked by several small Nazi flags from his opulent home to work every morning along the same route.

On the morning of 27 May, 1942, two of the agents ambushed Heydrich at a sharp turn which forced his driver to slow down. One of the agent’s weapons malfunctioned, and a shootout on the street ensued. Heydrich was eventually fatally wounded by a grenade thrown by the other agent. He was rushed to the hospital but would die several days later.

Even before his death, the reprisals began. 21,000 police and soldiers descended upon Prague to search for the agents. A cordon was laid around the city permitting no one to leave. In the next few days, 3000 were arrested and 1357 were summarily executed. 637 more would die under Gestapo interrogation in the coming weeks. When Heydrich died on 2 June, Hitler personally ordered the extermination of an entire Czech village in response. SD agents and German soldiers surrounded the nearby town of Lidice, shot all 172 men and boys over 10, and sent the women and children to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Lidice was then razed to the ground.

Despite the reprisals, it took the Germans three weeks to find the actual killers. They were hiding in the basement of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the city. On 18 June, the SS surrounded the church and attempted to storm it. But the six agents fought for over two hours before they ran out of ammunition. In the exchange, the SS took almost forty casualties. When the SS finally overran the crypt, they found nothing but corpses: the Czech agents used the last remaining bullets to kill themselves rather than be captured.

A Uniquely American Miracle: the USS Yorktown

On 27 May 1942, the battered USS Yorktown limped into Pearl Harbor from the Coral Sea, and Admiral Frank Fletcher did quite the same from the harbor into his boss’s office, the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, Admiral Nimitz. Fletcher wanted to ask Nimitz for permission to continue on to the West Coast for much needed repairs.

The Yorktown suffered tremendous damage at the Battle of the Coral Sea. From the executive summary of report sent to Nimitz the day before, “A 551-pound armor-piercing bomb had plunged through the flight deck 15 feet inboard of her island and penetrated fifty feet into the ship before exploding above the forward engine room. Six compartments were destroyed, as were the lighting systems on three decks and across 24 frames. The gears controlling the No. 2 elevator were damaged. She had lost her radar and refrigeration system. Near misses by eight bombs had opened seams in her hull from frames 100 to 130 and ruptured the fuel-oil compartments…”

Fletcher told Nimitz that with the San Diego facilities the Yorktown could be operational in a month but would need three months to do the job right. Admiral Nimitz looked him in the eye and said,

“Frank, you have three days.”

Admiral Spruance, “Bull” Halsey’s replacement (Halsey was in the hospital with a bad skin rash), was due to leave for Midway in two days with the carriers USS Hornet and USS Enterprise to intercept the Japanese. If Fletcher left any later than two days after that, he would miss the upcoming battle.

Nimitz himself was one of the first to wade into the dry dock to inspect the damage, and he personally waived hundreds of safety regulations preventing the timely, albeit slightly more dangerous, repairs. In order to accommodate the massive power needs of the repair parties to work around the clock, the mayor of Honolulu diverted power to Pearl Harbor causing rolling blackouts across the city. Less than a dozen people within a hundred miles of Pearl Harbor knew of the Japanese plan to attack Midway, but Fletcher’s call for help in immediately repairing the Yorktown could only mean one thing: the Japanese were close. In countless feats of ingenuity, initiative, professionalism, competence, and old fashioned hard work, the workmen and maintenance personnel of the island of Oahu surged on the USS Yorktown. Navy, Army, Marine, and civilian mechanics, engineers, electricians, yard workers, pipefitters, welders, sailors, maintenance techs, cabin boys, and deck swabbers from all walks of life worked day and night to get the Yorktown prepared for the coming battle.

72 hours after Nimitz’ challenge, Admiral Fletcher and the Yorktown steamed out of Pearl Harbor to join the Hornet and Enterprise north of Midway Island with a full complement of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes. The people of Oahu came together at a moment’s notice for the Yorktown, not in survival and recovery as they had after Pearl Harbor, but with the can-do attitude that only comes when you’re finally given a chance to strike back. They did three months’ work in as many days.

With the addition of the Yorktown and a report that two Japanese fleet carriers were spotted in Japanese home waters (the Shokaku and Zuiakaku), America now had three carriers to the Japanese four instead of the two to six they were expecting to fight the battle with less than a week before. Furthermore, because the American carriers were larger, they had near parity in planes. The Americans had a fighting chance in what Admiral Nimitz knew, one way or another, would be the most decisive naval battle in American history: The upcoming Battle of Midway.

The Battle of Bir Hacheim

On 26 May 1942 German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel launched his offensive in Libya with the intention of capturing the Allied port of Tobruk and pushing on to Egypt. This would keep the British at bay so the Italian Army and Navy and German Paratroops could capture Malta in Operation Herkules, which was in the final stages of preparation. The PanzerArmee Afrika feinted along the coast road, and sent the Afrika Korps with most of the German and Italian panzer and armored divisions around the south of the British Gazala line.

The Allies fortified the Gazala Line after stopping Rommel’s Riposte in response to their over-extension during Operation Crusader the winter before. After months of digging in and preparing to renew the offensive, the British, Commonwealth, and other Allied troops defended brigade sized defensive boxes or sand forts reinforced by mines and barbed wire along the forward edge of the battlefield. These boxes ran from the coast road along the Mediterranean south into the desert with the areas in between patrolled by the garrisons. The box furthest south was held by the Free French at the oasis near Bir Hacheim.

Up to this point in the war the Free French were still tainted by the surrender of France two years before and the Vichy French collaboration with the Germans. The determined Vichy defense of Syria and Lebanon the previous summer especially stung. Additionally there were few purely ethnic French formations in the Free French units (most surrendered in 1940) and the majority were French colonial troops or Foreign Legionnaires, considered unreliable or freebooters by the other Allies. The Battle of Bir Hacheim would change all that.

The Free French consisted of two battalions of Legionnaires, a colonial battalion from Central Africa, one battalion from Indochina and the French Pacific possessions, and a motley crew of Arabs, Bedouins, and French sailors and marines. The Free French box at Bir Hachiem suffered the brunt of Rommel’s attack. The fort of Bir Hacheim was the only position preventing Rommel from flanking the entire British line. Rommel expected the fort to fall in one day, but General Marie-Pierre Koenig’s Free French brigade at Bir Hacheim disillusioned him of that notion. The British just north fell back, and Rommel ended up sending the bulk of his five best and most powerful German and Italian Divisions at the French. The German attacks repeatedly bogged down in the face of tenacious French resistance and options for maneuver were limited by what Rommel came to call the “mine marsh” of Bir Hacheim. For sixteen days, Koenig’s Frenchmen held off the best Rommel could throw at them and gave the British to the north the needed time to prevent themselves from being encircled and counterattack.

Only overwhelming firepower from German Stuka dive bombers and a lack of ammunition forced the evacuation of the fort on 10 June. During the escape, the only female French Foreign Legionnaire in history, the Englishwoman Susan Travers, was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre and the Legion’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur. She reconnoitered a gap in the Axis encirclement which allowed more than 2/3rds of the French strength, including equipment, to escape back to Allied lines to fight another day.

The Battle of Bir Hacheim lessened the stigma of the French defeat in 1940, delegitimized the Vichy French regime, and proved that Free France was a real partner in the Allied fight against the Germans.