*Under Construction and Soon to be Expanded*
Certainly one of the most stunning battles of the Second World War, the Battle of Midway served as the turning point in the Pacific because it crippled the Japanese navy in June of 1942.
Alright, so it took us a minute after Pearl Harbor, but once we got rolling, the American war machine proved far more formidable than the Japanese has reckoned.
Much like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the idea was for the Japanese to seize Midway in order to curb our Pacific activity, reduce our potential threat to their imperial plans and, of course, secure the safety of the home islands. At Midway, they hoped to draw out our remaining fleet and destroy it (1). There was a hurry to neutralize us as quickly as possible – following Pearl their navy was numerically superior, but they knew that once America got their economy in gear, simple logistics would shift events in US favor. They needed to knock the US out before that became an issue. They hoped that after eliminating our navy they could push for peace. With no Pacific fleet, America would have no choice but to accept and then they could go about their business, safe from any potential Western threat to their imperial plans (2).
Midway was planned as a two-part attack, with a feint in Alaska and the Aleutians designed to draw our attention from the main thrust at Midway. In Alaska, they were (technically) successful, if by successful one means that they managed to capture two utterly unimportant and uninhabited islands that carried little strategic value at all.
The feint didn’t work anyway, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Following Pearl, the Japanese possessed six carriers to a measly American two, giving them great advantage. However, numerous mistakes stripped them of their advantages and put the adversaries on an even footing at Midway. The screw-ups began at Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese failed to hunt down and destroy the missing American carriers. A similar mistake occurred at Midway, when they made the erroneous assumption that the American fleet was in the Solomons(3). It was not.
The mistakes continued. The previous month, the Battle of Coral Sea had dealt damage to the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, leaving them unable to participate at Midway and depriving them of a number of aircraft and trained pilots. The prudent thing to do would have been to postpone the attack. However they pushed on, sending us carriers that were not fully armed with planes and pilots that were not fully trained (4).
The feint in the Aleutians also drew off a substantial portion of their navy. Just as shoddy intelligence work had left them to assume the US was in the Solomons, it also left them ignorant to the fact that the Yorktown, mauled and believed sunk at Coral Sea, had actually been patched up in what must be the quickest repair job ever. The Yorktown was to join the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, along with sundry other ships and destroyers, for the defense of the island. Combined with the airstrip at Midway, the US now faced the Japanese on nearly even terms.
A massive mistake was made in broadcasting Japanese battle plans via radio (5). Our cryptographers decoded almost the entire thing and we knew just what they were up to, leaving us to dismiss the feint in the Aleutians and prepare ourselves to ambush them at Midway, turning the hunter into the game.
Admiral Yamomoto further compounded these mistakes with others, such as his failure to create a contingency plan in case surprise was not achieved, his failure to alter plans in the face of discovery, or his insistence on radio silence which hampered communications and therefore intel.
In essence, the Battle of Midway practically handed us the Japanese navy with gift wrap and a bow.
The first wave of attack found old, out dated planes defending the base while the bombers, alerted by radar, had already been scrambled and were heading towards the Japanese fleet. This initial attack was not very successful for Americans – the bombers were un-escorted and suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Japanese fighter planes. The base at Midway took heavy damage but remained useful while the Japanese attack force suffered losses of 60% (6). Bombs spent and low on fuel, they returned to their carriers to prepare for a second wave in order to fully neutralize the base. Yet Admiral Nagumo had found himself in a quandary. Choosing at first to arm his fighters with bombs to finish off the base, a sighting of the American navy caused him to order the planes stripped and rearmed with torpedoes. Furthermore, Japanese doctrine discouraged piece-meal attacks, so he chose to hold his planes until the Midway strike force returned and all planes could be launched at once. This call cost him precious moments while American planes, launched from the three carriers which the Japanese had not expected, approached the Japanese fleet.
What our pilots saw when they arrived must have looked like a pyromaniac’s Christmas wish, the Japanese planes all lined up like highly-explosive presents just waiting to be ignited. In those conditions it was quick work indeed to break the back of the Japanese – in just five minutes three out of four carriers were mortally wounded. The fourth was later sunk by another air attack.
The costs of Midway were high indeed for the Japanese. In one fell swoop they lost a substantial portion of their navy, three hundred planes, and five thousand sailors and pilots, effectively crippling their navy and making it possible for us to pursue our “Germany First” strategy (7). The loss at Midway also prevented them from mounting a new major offensive while allowing us to go after the Solomons, and rendered them unable to lend Germany, sans a proper navy themselves, previously promised aid.
—E. L. Akin
- Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 104.
- Ibid., 127.
- Ibid., 158.
- Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 335.
- Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 167.
- Weinberg, 339.