The Battle of Midway is remembered as one of the greatest naval victories in American history. The big moments — whether it was the heroic sacrifice of Torpedo Squadron 8 or dive bombers catching three Japanese carriers exposed and vulnerable — are well known. But those moments wouldn’t have happened without a single undersea cable and a brilliant idea.
In the weeks before the Battle of Midway, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was fighting his own battle — and it wasn’t with the Japanese. Instead, it was against bureaucrats in Washington who were proving to be the bane of Nimitz’s existence. With the attack on Pearl Harbor still fresh on everyone’s mind, a fierce debate raged over a single question: Where will the Japanese strike next?
Wilfred J. Holmes (call him “Jasper”) was the man responsible for the gambit that led Japan to reveal Midway as their target.
Nimitz needed to know the answer to this question for two reasons: One, the Pacific Fleet was outnumbered — big time. Two, he wanted the bureaucrats in Washington off his back. If he followed their advice and things went wrong (as in losing Midway and/or the carriers), he knew who’d take the heat — and it wasn’t gonna be the folks in Washington. It was then that an intelligence officer, Jasper Holmes, came up with a plan.
Long before World War II, America laid an undersea cable to send messages across the ocean. Nimitz used this line to broadcast an unencrypted message, saying that the fresh-water condensers on the atoll were broken and they needed a shipment of H2O.
The Battle of Midway, where Japan lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma and four carriers, was one of America’s greatest victories.
The hope was that the Japanese would pick that message up and pass it on. They did — and the Americans were listening in. Surprisingly, the Japanese didn’t give pause as to why such an operational vulnerability would be revealed via radio broadcast. Nimitz had the proof he needed that Midway was, indeed, the next Japanese objective.
The rest was history. One of America’s greatest victories had come about because an American commander got the enemy to help him get Washington off his back.