Obama's Midway Stopover Marks Climate Change, Pacific Pivot

President Barack Obama speaks to media as he tours on Midway Atoll in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Sept. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama speaks to media as he tours on Midway Atoll in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Sept. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Barack Obama headed to the "hallowed" speck of coral reef that is Midway atoll Thursday on a symbolic visit to address climate change and also to send the message that the U.S. will remain the dominant maritime force in the Pacific.

Aboard one of the smaller versions of Air Force One, Obama left Hawaii enroute to Midway's Henderson Airfield, named for Marine Maj. Lofton Henderson. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for leading Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241) in attacks on Japanese warships in the pivotal June 4-7, 1942 Battle of Midway.

Before leaving Hawaii on the three-hour flight, Obama told Pacific island leaders that he had a dual mission in going to remote Midway:

"I'm going to travel to the Midway Atoll to see it for myself. Seven thousand species live in its waters, a quarter of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Ancient islanders believed it contained the boundary between this life and the next. Hundreds of brave Americans gave their lives there in defense of the world's freedom. So this is a hallowed site, and it deserves to be treated that way. And from now on, it will be preserved for future generations."

Earlier, Obama announced that he was quadrupling by executive order the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which includes Midway, to 582,578 square miles, creating the largest ecologically protected area on the planet.

The brief visit to Midway was meant to underline the administration's commitment to combating climate change ahead of Obama's trip to China beginning Saturday for the G-20 economic summit in what was expected to be the last Asia swing of his presidency.

Midway will also symbolize the administration's resolve to follow through on the so-called "Pacific pivot" -- the rebalance to 60 percent of U.S. forces to the region -- to reassure allies and counter the rise of China.

"It's a signal, it's a message saying the United States is committed to staying in the Pacific, and not sort of backing away," naval historian Tom Hone told Reuters of the Obama visit.

At Henderson field, Obama will see the holes in the runway left by the strafing Japanese Zero fighters, and the crumbling pillboxes and rusting artillery pieces of the American defenders. He will also pause at the Midway Memorial of three headstone-like granite slabs set up by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission.

The central black slab carries the inscription: "Dedicated to the preservation of the memory of Midway where the most decisive naval battle in military history was fought."

On the back, there is a quote from author Walter Lord's book on the battle: "They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war. More than that, they added a new name-Midway - to that small list that inspires men by example, like Marathon, the Armada, the Marne. Even against the greatest odds, there is something in the human spirit -- a magic blend of skill, faith and valor -- that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory."

Naval historians still debate what happened at Midway, but there is little argument with Lord's assessment that there were long odds against the Americans inflicting such an overwhelming defeat on the huge battle fleet including four carriers assembled by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto.

Military historian John Keegan called Midway "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare" which established the U.S. as the major Pacific power.

Against the Japanese armada, Adm. Chester Nimitz, the Pacific commander, had the carriers Enterprise and Hornet. The carrier Yorktown had been badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Workers at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard did a 72-hour repair job and the Yorktown was able to join the fight. Nimitz had no battleships. Some were still at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

In addition, Adm. William "Bull" Halsey was laid up at Pearl Harbor with the shingles. At Halsey's recommendation, Nimitz named Rear Adm. Ray Spruance, a cruiser and destroyer commander, to lead the task force.

Flying off the Enterprise, Lt. Cmdr. C. Wade "Mac" McClusky, at age 40 the oldest pilot on the ship, led a squadron of SBDs (Scout Bomber Douglas), the Dauntless dive bomber. His fuel gauge showed he was reaching the point where he could not get back to the Enterprise. Still, the squadron could not find the Japanese fleet. Then McClusky spotted the wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi and followed its heading back to the main fleet.

McClusky's squadron attacked, destroying the carriers Kaga and Akagi. At the same time, a squadron from the Yorktown arrived. The carriers Hiryu and Soryu were destroyed. It was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

McClusky, who died in 1976, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions at Midway. Each year, the Navy gives an award to the attack squadron deemed the most outstanding in the fleet. It's called the "Wade McClusky Award."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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