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June 15, 2013

Three battles to know in U.S. history

Like most Americans, I find myself every year on June 6 thinking of the brave and heroic efforts made in 1944, when the D-Day landings by Allied forces in Normandy first breached the walls of Adolf Hitler’s so-called “Fortress Europe.”

The battle, dramatized in such films as “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “The Longest Day” (1962), is among the most well-known American engagements of the war, along with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge in present-day Belgium.

By attacking just as the Soviet Union’s offensive to the east was gaining steam, the Allies put Hitler in an impossible strategic conundrum that greatly expedited the war’s end, which came less than a year later. But after the Red Army’s decisive 1943 victory at the Battle of Kursk, Hitler’s downfall was inevitable, and the western Allies had some breathing room to plan the Normandy campaign carefully and methodically.

I’ve always thought Imperial Japan, by contrast, posed an imminent threat to the United States that has often gone understated. Japan’s battle-hardened, state-of-the-art navy and air force inflicted heavy defeats on the Allies in Singapore and the Philippines in 1942, and hoped to threaten the U.S. mainland by air and sea before America had a chance to tap into its vast strategic resources.

In that spirit, here are three battles from U.S. history whose stories I think should be told more often, in reverse chronological order.

• The Battle of Midway (June 4 to June 7, 1942). The Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor may have been shocking and horrific, but the Japanese high command soon learned that none of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor that day. In the early days of combined air and navy operations, aircraft carriers were of the utmost importance. They were also massively expensive and time-consuming to produce, so the stakes were high at Midway Island when four of them under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo came looking for a fight.

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