History Matters: The Battle of Midway and the Lions of Cantigny

Each week we will be exploring the connections (both in print and on OpsLens TV) between seemingly disconnected events that occurred this week in military history, in addition to our daily military history posts. (Originally published at OpsLens.com)

76 years ago this week was the great Naval battle of Midway – “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto hoped to lure the U.S. Pacific Fleet into a great air-sea battle and destroy it. The Japanese could then capture the strategic island, giving them an ideal staging ground for attacking Pearl Harbor, but little did he know that the Americans had the drop on them.

Naval cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese Navy’s main radio code earlier in the year, so we knew the location, date, and strength of the supposed surprise attack on the U.S. base at Midway. A fleet of submarines were already in position, the base’s garrison had been strengthened, and additional land-based planes had flown in. Admiral Chester Nimitz’s carriers were east of Midway, ready to spring the trap by the time the Japanese launched a devastating attack on the island on June 4.

As the planes returned to re-arm following their first wave of attacks, Japanese scouts discovered three American carriers, including USS Yorktown, which had to come as a complete shock since the flattop was crippled during the Battle of Coral Sea a month ago and believed to be out of action. Repair crews had performed a miracle to put her back in action while they steamed towards Midway.

Flying without fighter escorts, a wave of American TBD Devastator torpedo bombers attack the relatively unprotected Japanese carriers and are wiped out nearly to a man in the first strike. However, their sacrifice paves the way for additional waves of warplanes that send all four carriers to the bottom with virtually no opposition.

USS Yorktown will be pounded by Japanese planes and finished off by an enemy submarine, but hundreds of Japan’s irreplaceable pilots and crew are wiped out.

Midway is the high-water mark for Japan; they no longer enjoy naval superiority following their decisive defeat, which enables the Americans to switch to the offensive and not look back. Yamamoto had warned his superiors that American war production would overcome even a crippling loss at Pearl Harbor in just six months, and his warning appears prophetic when the Japanese retreat from Midway six months to the day after their sneak attack on December 7.

100 years ago this week, the American “doughboys” received their baptism in fire during World War I. Germany, France, and England had over four years of combat experience under their belts by the time Gen. John J. Pershing’s untested American Expeditionary Force arrived at the front lines.

Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard’s soon-to-be-famous 1st Infantry Division (“the Big Red One”) launches the first major attack by U.S. forces during World War I, capturing the French town of Cantigny from a far-more experienced German Eighteenth Army led by Gen. Oskar von Hutier.

Following a two-hour artillery bombardment, whistles are blown along the American trench lines, and soldiers from the division’s 28th Infantry Regiment – destined to become known as the “Lions of Cantigny” – climb over the top and into the open. Supported by French aircraft, tanks, and mortar and flame-thrower teams – the Americans advance over a distance of 1,600 yards in three waves at marked intervals behind a creeping artillery barrage. Soon, the German lines are defeated and the town is in American hands.

Meanwhile at the site of an old French hunting preserve named Belleau Wood, Germans punch through the French lines, and American soldiers and Marines move up to fill the hole. When Marine Capt. Lloyd W. Williams arrives, he sees French troops withdrawing from battle. After being advised by a French officer to retreat, the Marine officer famously replies, “Retreat? Hell! We just got here!”

Williams is one of nearly 2,000 Americans killed during the battle, but over the next several days the crack shooting and tenacious fighting of the Marines at Belleau Wood becomes the stuff of legend and earns them the nickname “Teufelhunden” – devil dogs. When the smoke settles and the Germans are defeated, American Expeditionary Force commander Gen. John J. Pershing says, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a U.S. Marine and his rifle.”

The Germans – who, like so many others throughout history, had dismissed the Americans as not having the stomach for real fighting – have developed a quick respect for their new foe.

This week in 1917, Gen. Pershing, along with a freshly promoted Capt. George S. Patton, depart the United States and secretly steam for France. Pershing’s protégé would train American troops for combat while serving as a personal aide to Gen. Pershing. Patton grows restless in his new position, and was about to take command of an infantry battalion when he develops an interest in tanks and goes on to become perhaps the best armor commander in history.

Patton also served as a personal aide to Pershing during the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916. After volunteering to lead soldiers in combat, Patton conducts the first motorized attack in U.S. military history, using three Dodge touring cars to ambush and kill Villa’s second-in-command and two bandits while on a foraging mission.

When Patton’s younger sister Nita traveled to meet George, he introduced her to Pershing and the two were quickly engaged. The relationship ended when Pershing traveled to Europe to command the American Expeditionary Force.

Another “Black Jack” made history this week in 1868: U.S. Army general John A. “Black Jack” Logan designated May 30 as a national public holiday known as “Decoration Day.” – the predecessor to Memorial Day.

Logan fought alongside Ulysses S. Grant when the two men were junior officers during the Mexican-American War and would later become one of Grant’s successors when he commanded the Army of the Tennessee as the Civil War came to an end.

Logan designated May 30 as a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” Maj. Gen. – and future president – James A. Garfield presides over ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery (the former estate of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee), and approximately 5,000 participants decorate the graves of both Union and Confederate dead — about 20,000 of them — buried on the grounds.

Incidentally, when Grant’s funeral procession passed West Point in 1885, the honor guard that saluted the fallen president was led by a young cadet named John J. Pershing.

Both Pershing and Patton served in the 10th Cavalry Regiment during their careers. During Pershing’s day, the 10th Cavalry was a “Buffalo Soldier” unit – consisting of black soldiers led by white officers – which is where he got the nickname “Black Jack.” Another famous 10th Cavalry trooper is Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who achieved fame by becoming the first black general in the U.S. Armed Forces.

This week in 1944, his son Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. led the famed “Tuskegee Airmen” of the 99th Pursuit Squadron into combat over the Mediterranean. When the younger Davis graduated from West Point, he and his father were the only black officers in the Army. Davis will fly over 60 combat missions during World War II and Korea before becoming the Air Force’s first black general.

This week in 1983, Pete Tzomes becomes the first black skipper of a submarine when he boards the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Houston (SSN-713). “The racial thing had nothing to do with motivating me except for the fact that I knew that if I got the command that I would be the first,” he says. “But it wasn’t, ‘I want to be the first black commanding officer.’ I want to be a commanding officer. This stuff is fun. I want to be in charge. This is what I want to do, just coincidentally I’m black.”

Author: Chris Carter

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