Possibly the most decisive sea battle of World War II, Midway was the second major carrier battle of the war. The U.S. Navy defeated the striking force of the Japanese fleet and established rough naval parity and sharply curtailed Japanese offensive power, enabling the Allies to accelerate their counteroffensives by several months.
Having been thwarted in their drive against Port Moresby, New Guinea, in May 1942, and unprepared to attack the weak allied positions in the Indian Ocean, the Imperial Japanese Navy now sought a decisive battle against the U.S. Navy to guarantee the defense of the conquered south Asia resource area for the foreseeable future. The island of Midway, guarding the strategic approaches to Pearl Harbor, became the immediate objective for an amphibious assault, which would force the U.S. Navy to give battle with its last operational aircraft carriers and major surface units.
The Japanese demonstrated—fatally—their penchant for divided operations consisting of many subunits of the main force detailed to diversions, subsidiary operations, and indirect approaches to the main objective. In this case, no fewer than eight separate naval forces headed for Midway and the diversion attacks aimed at the Aleutians. Allied codebreakers effectively used portions of the Japanese naval codes and traffic analyses to decipher most of their intentions. Thus, the three U.S. carriers and their escorts covered Midway from the northeast in two task forces, while the four carriers of the Japanese striking force approached Midway, unsupported by the vast armada that followed. The U.S. Navy achieved a favorable concentration of force at the initial point of contact.
Initial Japanese air attacks on June 4, 1942, against Midway’s garrison and air base, decimated the defending aircraft, but proved inadequate for preparing the island for invasion. Thus, the Japanese strike force commander readied a second effort at the precise moment when his aerial reconnaissance detected the first of the U.S. carrier task forces. Thanks to Midway’s reconnaissance and attack efforts, the U.S. Navy task forces launched effective air strikes first, sinking or mortally crippling three of the four Japanese carriers. The Japanese repost crippled a single U.S. carrier that would be sunk the next day by a submarine, but the overwhelming follow-on strike sank the last Japanese carrier of the striking force, which left the rest of the Japanese fleet spread out over thousands of sea miles—uncovered by the carriers sent to the Aleutians diversion.
Faced with its losses and the situation that now existed, the Japanese Navy canceled the operation and turned away from Midway the night after it lost the cream of its aircraft carriers and hundreds of key personnel and air-crews. Although a Japanese victory at Midway could not have won the Pacific war for Japan, the U.S. Navy’s victory stripped the offensive power from the dominant navy of its day. The Japanese naval force never recovered, and the U.S. Navy—backed by hundreds of ships due to emerge from the shipyards in a year’s time—began its ascendancy in the Pacific. In the dark days of 1942, the Battle of Midway was the first victory for the United States over Japan’s navy. Also, aircraft carriers became the preeminent weapon in the Pacific war.
U.S. Marine Corps; U.S. Navy; World War II
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