The Battle of Midway was the decisive World War II naval engagement between the United States and Japan. With their amazing run of successes in the first months of the Pacific war, the Japanese were understandably reluctant to go on the defensive. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commanding the Combined Fleet, and his staff wanted to secure Midway Island 1,100 miles west of Pearl Harbor.
The half-dozen U.S. carrier raids from February to May 1942—especially the April 18 raid on Tokyo—helped silence Yamamoto's critics and produce approval for his Midway plan. Under the revised plan, the Japanese first move would be to advance deeper into the Solomons and take Port Moresby, on the south coast of New Guinea. Yamamoto's Combined Fleet would then occupy Midway Island, which Yamamoto saw as a stepping-stone toward a possible Japanese invasion of Hawaii. In any case, Midway could be used for surveillance purposes. After the Midway operation and the anticipated destruction of the U.S. fleet, the Japanese would resume their southeastern advance to cut off Australia.
In the May 8, 1942, Battle of the Coral Sea, however, U.S. carriers caused the Japanese to call off the invasion of Port Moresby. In that battle, the Japanese lost the light carrier Shōhō and the fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku were damaged. The Americans lost the fleet carrier Lexington and the Yorktown was damaged. It was a plus for the United States strategically, however. Both Japanese carriers in the battle failed to participate in the subsequent fight at Midway (one from damage and the other for lack of aircraft), while superior U.S. repair facilities and superhuman efforts made it possible for the heavily damaged Yorktown to join that fight.
Meanwhile, planning for the Midway attack went forward. Yamamoto's plan was both comprehensive and complex. For the Midway invasion, Yamamoto deployed an advanced submarine force to savage U.S. ships on their way to Midway; an invasion force under Vice Admiral Kondo Nobutake of 12 transports with 5,000 troops supported by four heavy cruisers and a more distant covering force of two battleships, a light carrier, and four heavy cruisers; Vice Admiral Nagumo Chūichi's First Carrier Force of the fleet carriers Hiryū, Sūryū, Kaga, and Akagi, with two battleships, two heavy cruisers, and a destroyer screen; and the main battle fleet under Yamamoto of three battleships (including the giant Yamato, his flagship), a destroyer screen, and a light carrier. The total was 8 carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines, and more than 600 aircraft—some 200 ships, constituting almost the entire Japanese navy.
For the Aleutians, Yamamoto allotted an invasion force of three escorted transports carrying 2,400 troops, with a support group of two heavy cruisers, two light carriers, and a covering force of four older battleships. Apart from its tie-in with Midway, this force was to enable the Japanese to occupy Attu and Kiska, thus blocking a supposed U.S. invasion route to Japan.
The battle would begin in the Aleutians, with air strikes on June 3, followed by landings on June 6. On June 4, Nagumo's carrier planes would attack the airfield at Midway. On the June 6, cruisers would bombard Midway and troops would be landed, covered by the battleships. The Japanese expected there would be no U.S. ships in the Midway area until after the landings, and their hope was that the U.S. Pacific Fleet would hurry north to the Aleutians, enabling the Japanese to trap it between their two carrier forces.
Commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific Admiral Chester W. Nimitz could only deploy 76 ships; he had no battleships and only two carriers, the Enterprise and Hornet, fit for action. By an astonishing effort, the Yorktown, heavily damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea, was readied in 2 days instead of the estimated 90 and sent to join the other two carriers. Nimitz did have the advantage of an accurate picture of the Japanese order of battle, and, thanks to code-breaking, he was reasonably certain that Midway was the Japanese objective. By contrast, the Japanese had virtually no information on the Americans, but at this point in the war the Japanese tended to dismiss the Americans and exaggerate their own abilities.
Nimitz packed Midway with B-26 and B-17 bombers. He positioned the three U.S. carriers, with 233 planes, some 300 miles to the northeast. He hoped the carriers would remain hidden from Japanese reconnaissance planes while counting on information on Japanese movements from Catalina aircraft based on Midway. He hoped to catch the Japanese by surprise, their carriers with planes on their decks.
Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance had tactical command of U.S. naval forces in the battle. The Japanese deployed 86 ships against 27 U.S. and had 325 planes against 348 (including 115 land-based aircraft) for the United States. Carrier strength was five for Japan and three for the United States.
On June 3, the day after the U.S. carriers were in position, U.S. air reconnaissance detected the Japanese transports some 600 miles west of Midway. A gap in the search pattern flown by Japanese aircraft allowed the U.S. carriers to remain undetected. In any case, the Japanese did not expect the U.S. Pacific Fleet to be at sea yet.
Early on June 4, Nagumo launched 108 aircraft against Midway, while a second wave of similar size was prepared to attack any warships sighted. The first wave did severe damage to Midway at little cost to itself, but the pilots reported the need for a second attack. Since his own carriers were being bombed by planes from Midway, Nagumo ordered the second wave of planes to change from torpedoes to bombs and to focus on the airfields.
Shortly thereafter, a group of U.S. ships was spotted about 200 miles away, but the Japanese at first thought it was only cruisers and destroyers. Then at 8:20 a.m. came a report identifying a carrier. Most of the Japanese torpedo bombers were now equipped with bombs, and most fighters were on patrol. Nagumo also had to recover the first wave of aircraft from the strike at Midway.
Nagumo accordingly ordered a change of course to the northeast. This helped him avoid the first wave of U.S. dive-bombers. When three waves of U.S. torpedo bombers attacked the Japanese carriers between 9:00 and 10:24 a.m., 47 of 51 were shot down by Japanese fighters or antiaircraft guns. The Japanese now believed they had won the battle.
Two minutes later, however, 37 U.S. dive-bombers from the Enterprise swept down to attack the Japanese carriers, while the Japanese fighters that had been dealing with the torpedo bombers were close to sea level. Soon the Akagi and Kaga were flaming wrecks, with the torpedoes and fuel on their decks feeding the fires. The So–ryu– took three hits from the Yorktown’s dive-bombers that also arrived on the scene, and soon it too was abandoned.
The Hiryu–, the only Japanese fleet carrier still intact, then sent its planes against the limping Yorktown, forcing the Americans to abandon it. Then 24 U.S. dive-bombers, including 10 from the Yorktown, caught the Hiryu–. It went down the next day. Yamamoto now suspended the attack on Midway, hoping to trap the Americans by drawing them westward. Spruance, however, refused to take the bait.
The Battle of Midway was a crushing defeat for Japan. The Americans lost the carrier Yorktown and about 150 aircraft, while the Imperial Navy lost four fleet carriers and some 330 aircraft, most of which went down with the carriers, and a heavy cruiser. The loss of the carriers and their well-trained aircrews and support personnel was particularly devastating. The subsequent Japanese defeat in the important land battle of Guadalcanal was principally due to a lack of naval air power.
The Battle of Midway also provided the Americans a respite until, at the end of 1942, the new Essex-class fleet carriers began to come on line. In Nimitz's words: “Midway was the most crucial battle of the Pacific War, the engagement that made everything else possible.”
See also Coral Sea, Battle of the; Guadalcanal, Naval Battles of; Japan, Navy; Kondō Nobutake; Nagumo Chūichi; Nimitz, Chester William; Spruance, Raymond Ames; United States, Navy; Yamamoto Isoroku.
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