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Transcript: Bob Ballard Press Conference on Finding the Yorktown

All right. Now let’s dim the lights and get underwater. Now we don’t have a whole lot of time. They didn’t give me, really, the two hours that it is going to take to do the television special. I’m going to go through very quickly the historical aspects of this because I know that what you came here for was “what did we do?” But it really wouldn’t serve the purpose of what we did unless you had some historical backdrop. Chuck is here to later correct me on every mistake I made. (Chuck, I’m going to make some, I’m sure. Be kind.) When we go in the Q&A, if you have any historical questions, I’m going to send them all back to Chuck. He can also take a few moments to correct all the mistakes that I made in my presentation. But let’s start with the Battle of Midway story.

The Battle of Midway story, as you know, really began December 7, 1941, when the surprise attack took place on Pearl Harbor, caught us napping. And the aircraft carriers that played a role in that campaign were the very same aircraft carriers that we actually, you might think, got our revenge upon when we sank them at Midway. But the story really began December 7, the next day, and into May 6, and finally, with the fall of Corregidor and the fall of the Philippines and, during that same period of time, the fall of Guam, Rabaul, and Wake. It was a very bleak moment in American history, as we were sustaining one loss after another against the Japanese Imperial Navy, which seemed invincible at the time.

We had a brief moment to cause them worry when, on April 17, Doolittle mounted his raid on Tokyo, and that certainly caused the high command of the Imperial Japanese forces to think a little about who they’d picked a fight with. And that certainly led to decisions by Admiral Yamamoto that he felt it was essential that Midway be taken and be used not only as a strike point on Pearl Harbor, but also in an attempt to lure the remnants of our fleet out into a fight, where he felt his superior forces could vanquish the remaining aircraft carriers that were in the area and cause America to capitulate early, negotiate the end of the war quickly, because Yamamoto knew that the war against us had to be fast and brief and successful, because if we came to sustained battle, he was convinced Japan would lose to us. So he was after a quick kill, and he felt that by taking Midway and by luring our remaining aircraft carriers onto the battlefield, that his superior forces—which were truly superior to anything that we could put into the field in those early months of 1941—was essential. And so he began to craft the concept of this attack. But fortunately we were listening in on this.

As we were monitoring in April and May, we started to begin intercepting Japanese messages referring to a plan they referred to as “AF.” In May our code breakers sent an uncoded signal saying that Midway was experiencing a water shortage, and they sent it out in free, uncoded message as a trap. The Japanese intercepted that message and then began to advise their planners that AF had a water problem. And at that moment, we knew what AF was; we knew it was Midway. But that was May, and the Japanese forces were already deploying for the battle in two major groups: the attack group on the islands—the actual occupation force, invasion force—as well as the strike force, the aircraft carriers to the north.

About that time in late May, the Yorktown was limping back from quite a pounding in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Battle of the Coral Sea had taken place in our first effort to actually thwart the Japanese in invading New Guinea and posing a severe threat against Australia and New Zealand. And although you might think of the Battle of the Coral Sea as a draw, in many ways we were happy to have a draw at that point in our engagements with the Japanese. And it was on May 28 that the Yorktown limped back into Pearl Harbor, convinced that it was going to take many, many weeks, if not months, to turn around. But Nimitz had other thoughts, and he realized that he needed the Yorktown to prepare for the counteroffensive against the Japanese strike force on Midway, and said, “You don’t have months, you have days. In fact, you have hours.” And they were able to, in Hawaii, began to assemble their force, put three carriers into the field: the Hornet, the Enterprise, and the Yorktown. The key players, or the key target—the key battlefield—was around Midway.

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