Many, if not most, American students learn at least briefly about the Battle of Midway at some point in school. Cited by many as the turning point in the battle in the Pacific Theater during World War II, it saw American forces decisively triumph over the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) in dramatic fashion.
The Battle of Midway itself lasted from June 4 to June 7, 1942, a mere six months after the United States entered the war following the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t the first example of a duel between aircraft carrier fleets of the US and IJN – that distinction rests with the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier, which itself contributed to the outcome of the Battle of Midway.
Pearl Harbor, the battleships, and the flattops
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they intended to quickly destroy both the American naval capabilities and overall morale.
With the Japanese Empire rapidly expanding, American control over the Philippines presented a potential threat to the shipment of raw materials (particularly oil) from newly-conquered areas back to Japan. While America officially remained neutral up to this point, it stayed on friendly terms with the British and Dutch, whose colonial holdings in the region Japan threatened.
If Japan could eliminate the American Pacific fleet in one fell swoop, it would hopefully force a quick peace settlement and destroy any American stomach for a drawn-out conflict. But this did not happen.
The Japanese attack damaged or sank 21 ships – but mostly ignored the dockyards, oil tank farm, and the old headquarters building that housed the intelligence division. As a result only three ships were a total loss (most famously the battleship USS Arizona). Furthermore, no carriers were in port on that day, meaning they escaped entirely unscathed.
Prior to World War II, naval warfare revolved around battleships with their massive guns inflicting punishing strikes on the enemy. With most of her battleships out of action, the United States Navy was obligated to rely largely on carrier groups and submarine warfare.
To learn more about the role that battleships played, stop by the USS Iowa Museum at berth in Los Angeles Harbor; commissioned during World War II, Iowa also saw service in other conflicts such as Korea.
You should also check out the World War II Submarine Memorial at Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, which honors the sacrifice of the over 3,000 submariners who lost their lives during that war.
I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.
-Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!
Yamamoto’s plan to end the American threat for good
If Japan wanted to secure its holdings in the Pacific, it needed to decisively end the threat posed by the American carriers. To this purpose, the commander-in-chief of the IJN, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, developed a complicated plan to lure them into a trap.
A diversionary force would attack the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, potentially enticing the American forces out of the relative safety of Pearl Harbor.
Four carriers under the command of Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, along with their escorts, would launch an attack on Midway Island, followed by a ground invasion. Controlling Midway would put Japan within easy striking distance of Hawaii and potentially mainland America.
This would all but require the American Navy to respond to defend Midway. Nagumo’s carriers, backed up by a large surface force under Yamamoto, would then launch an overwhelming attack against the inferior American forces and destroy them.
What went wrong and what went right before the Battle of Midway even started
Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the U.S. had largely broken their codes and learned both the overall plan and the general time frame for its execution. The forces on Midway had time to prepare for the attack and greatly increased their reconnaissance flights to scout for the incoming Japanese fleet.
Furthermore, the Japanese believed that the Americans could only field two fleet carriers to oppose them, not realizing that USS Yorktown survived the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier. And despite repair estimates of three months, heroic efforts by round-the-clock repair crews saw Yorktown headed towards Midway behind Hornet and Enterprise in just around three days.
Also courtesy of Coral Sea, the Japanese carrier Shōkaku suffered significant damage, while fellow carrier Zuikaku lost many of her planes, leaving both ships out of the Midway operation. Due to established Japanese carrier doctrine, no apparent effort was made to combine the Shōkaku air groups with those on Zuikaku, which would have given the IJN five carriers to the US’s (supposed) two.
Finally, Japanese attempts to confirm the presence of the American carriers at Pearl Harbor failed. A planned reconnaissance flight was canceled when the submarine intended to refuel the scout plane found the intended refueling spot occupied by an American naval force. Furthermore, a submarine picket intended to report on the location of the American carrier groups as they were lured to Midway arrived only after the fleet already passed by.
The Japanese plan depended heavily on the advantage of surprise, but had been compromised almost from its inception. They did not expect to encounter any American naval forces during the initial attack at Midway, but nonetheless kept half their planes in reserve armed with anti-ship torpedoes.
The Battle of Midway: Opening salvo
The extensive reconnaissance efforts of the Americans bore fruit, with Nagumo’s fleet spotted by a Midway scout shortly after the initial attack wave launched towards Midway. Midway scrambled every plane into the air, sending its bombers to attack the IJN fleet while keeping the fighters to defend the base.
The Japanese, meanwhile, also launched reconnaissance planes, almost a token gesture and too few in number to efficiently cover thousands of square miles of ocean.
The American fleet near Midway, despite having only three carriers to the Japanese four, possessed a comparable number of planes, plus those based on Midway itself.
During the assault on Midway, the Japanese aircraft led by Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga caused extensive damage to the facilities, but failed to destroy the runways. This meant that the Americans could still use the airfield to land, rearm, and refuel aircraft. Tomonaga determined that second strike was necessary.
Then Nagumo’s fleet came under attack from several successive waves of aircraft launched from Midway. Many of these planes were obsolete, or their pilots inexperienced. They scored no hits and suffered huge casualties. But they significantly delayed Nagumo’s ability to launch a second strike on Midway.
They sacrifice themselves like samurai, these Americans.
-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, 1976 film Midway
Around this time, the Japanese spotted a lurking American submarine, USS Dauntless, which launched a torpedo at battleship Karishima before diving. The destroyer Arashi pursued but failed catch her.
Then the attack waves from the American carriers started arriving. One after another after another, they fell to the Japanese fighter cover.
Then Nagumo heard from one of his scout planes: an American carrier had indeed been sighted.
Battle of Midway: The turn of the tides
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Tomonaga’s attack wave against Midway returned, low on fuel. Would Nagumo launch his reserve aircraft against the American carrier fleet, or allow the bombers to land? He decided on the latter, with the plan to rearm and refuel the planes and launch an organized and consolidated attack against the carriers afterwards.
But then more American planes attacked, delaying launches again. The sheer number of aircraft sent against them meant that there must be at least two carriers nearby. Furthermore, this latest group had fighter escort, VF-3 under Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Thach, which engaged the Japanese combat air patrol with surprising skill.
Once again, no American bombs or torpedoes found their targets. But now the carriers’ air cover was out of position and down at sea level, picking off the slow-moving torpedo planes or engaging the tenacious fighters.
Seemingly out of nowhere, dive bombers from Enterprise appeared from high altitude, charging straight down at the carriers Akagi and Kaga. This air group, led by Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, had spotted and followed destroyer Arashi back from her fruitless hunt for USS Dauntless.
At the same time, Yorktown bombers attacked Sōryū from the opposite direction. Unlike the waves of seemingly-ineffectual attacks throughout the morning, these dive bombing runs proved utterly devastating.
Bombs pierced the flight deck and exploded on the hangar deck below among the fueled and armed planes and the bombs waiting to be stowed.
Within minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers burned out of control. Admiral Nagumo was forced to transfer his flag from Akagi to the nearby light cruiser Nagara. Carrier Hiryū remained undamaged. He ordered a counter-attack on the American carrier they knew about.
The strike hit USS Yorktown with three bombs, putting out three of her boilers. Due to the damage, Admiral Fletcher, who was in operational command of the fleet, transferred to the heavy cruiser Astoria. But Yorktown wasn’t out of the fight; her damage control teams patched her flight deck and restored power to some of her boilers within an hour.
The second Japanese wave, when they found Yorktown, assumed that she was another ship entirely since she was under full steam. This attack finally crippled Yorktown, and her captain ordered an evacuation. However, she remained afloat and was taken under tow; it was only on June 6 that a torpedo salvo from a Japanese submarine finally sent her to the bottom of the ocean, along with destroyer USS Hammann, which had been providing auxiliary power. The next carrier to bear her name participated in the battle that destroyed legendary Japanese battleship Yamato.
A final attack by American dive bombers hit Hiryū, and the same story played out with her as with her three fallen sister ships. Without their carriers, the Japanese fleet was forced to withdraw and the invasion of Midway abandoned. Smaller attacks occurred through June 7, but the main action of the Battle of Midway ended with a shockingly decisive victory in favor of the Americans.
For an absolutely fantastic breakdown of the course of the battle from the perspective of the Japanese, check out this YouTube video by Montemayor:
It’s around 40 minutes long, so be sure to grab a snack!
After the Battle of Midway, the American forces had lost one carrier (Yorktown) and one destroyer, plus approximately 150 aircraft and 307 personnel.
The IJN, by comparison, lost all four fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser (plus another heavy cruiser damaged), 248 aircraft destroyed, 3,057 men killed, and another 37 captured. The dead included a large number of experienced pilots and air crews.
But beyond the material losses, the American victory at Midway for the first time put the Japanese military off-balance and greatly boosted American morale. The Japanese never again established air superiority in the Pacific or launched a major offensive.
“This memorable American victory was of cardinal importance, not only to the United States, but to the whole Allied cause… At one stroke, the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed…
The Battle of Midway also clearly demonstrated the importance of naval air superiority. The battleships that ruled the waves a century ago serve today largely as sentimental memorials, while carrier groups lead naval might and prestige. It also affirmed the value of intelligence and cryptoanalysis to the military arsenal.
Many battles remained on both land and sea for the Pacific Theater, including the largest naval engagement in history: the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the last gasp of the Imperial Japanese Navy before the end of World War II.
Yet even so many decades later, the Battle of Midway remains firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of many Americans as a sign of national pride, a shining example of ingenuity, skill, and heroic action.