National Geographic : 1999 Apr
colossal offensive aimed at destroying Ameri can power in the Pacific. Japanese strike forces, spread across 2,000 miles of ocean, were to invade Midway and two islands in the Aleu tians, the bleak archipelago curving westward from the Alaska mainland. Japanese strategists expected to draw the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Pearl Harbor and into a decisive battle. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, believed that his plan would smash the enemy fleet, forcing the Americans to a negotiated peace. Spearheading the Japanese operation were four aircraft carriers: the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu. Surrounding them was a screen of 11 destroyers, two battleships, and three cruis ers. The other forces included transports for the 5,000 troops who would invade Midway. Secret documents recently made available show that U.S. commanders had reason to believe the Japanese were contemplating poi son gas for the invasion. This would have been a fateful decision, for the United States would have retaliated, and a horrible new weapon would have entered the war. As the Japanese fleet steamed toward Mid way on June 2, Yamamoto hoped the advan tage of surprise was still on his side. But in fact three U.S. carriers-the Yorktown, Hornet, and Enterprise-withtheir destroyers and cruisers, were waiting to pounce on an enemy they knew was coming because of the incredible performance of U.S. code breakers. SINCE LONG BEFORE the Pearl Harbor attack, U.S. cryptanalysts had been chip ping away at the Imperial Navy's most secret communications. The frontline code breakers worked in a basement room at the naval district headquarters building in Pearl Harbor, a dank, dark place known as "the dungeon." It is still there, empty and forgotten. Ruling the room in 1942 was a genius of code breaking, Comdr. Joseph J. Rochefort. Rarely sleeping or eating, he paced the win dowless room in his shabby red smoking jacket and carpet slippers, downing cups of coffee and coming up with answers to riddles. "He never took anything for granted," remembers Gilven M. Slonim, one of the cryptanalysts. "Only if it could be proven was it intelligence." REPORT TO THE U.S.S. ENTERPRISE: "ENEMY FLEET UNITS At age 88 Richard Best recalls the day he com manded Bombing 6, a squadron of Daunt less dive-bombers like the one behind him. He spotted the Japanese carrier Akagiand aimed at the flight deck's red rising sun. His bomb hit home. Other Daunt lesses set a cruiser afire (left). A faulty oxygen system seared Best's lungs, and after Midway he never flew again. But, he says, "I quit at the top."