Midway: The 80th Anniversary of the Turning Point in the Pacific

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walter W. Napier III
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy conducted a surprise attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese goal had been to destroy the U.S. fleet stationed there in order to give Japan a free hand to expand their Pacific empire. Despite the Pearl Harbor attack causing 2,403 deaths, sinking 20 U.S. ships, and destroying over 300 aircraft, the Japanese failed to cripple the U.S. carriers. Isoroku Yamamoto, who had planned the Pearl Harbor attack, represented a new way of thinking in naval warfare, viewing the carriers as a key component. His goal had been to destroy the carriers, but at the time battleships were considered the primary naval weapons, and the Japanese admiral on site, Chuichi Nagumo, was more conservative minded. Luckily for the U.S., on the day of the attack the carriers were not docked at Pearl Harbor, and Nagumo failed to follow up his attack and destroy them.

The failure to destroy the U.S. carriers proved to be a blunder by the Japanese, and kept the Pacific fleet in the fight. On April 18, 1942, American pilots under Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle flew B-25’s off Navy carriers and dropped bombs on Tokyo. While the Doolittle Raid was neither tactically or strategically effective, it provided a much needed morale boost to the Americans at home, and a wake-up call to the Japanese. The Doolittle Raid forced the Japanese to realize their home island was still under threat. As the Japanese continued to expand in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy met the Japanese at the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 4-8, 1942. This engagement, the first naval battle where opposing ships never saw each other, showcased how naval warfare was evolving, and how significant the aerial dimension of battle was becoming to naval success.

After Coral Sea, the Japanese pulled back to regroup. Despite the tactical victory, the battle proved to be a strategic loss. Coral Sea forced the Japanese to abandon their planned invasion of Port Moresby, and the loss of men and aircraft were substantial. Yamamoto recognized that for the Japanese to fully capitalize on their recent string of victories, they must destroy the U.S. carriers. With four carriers, Yamamoto planned on a new attack on the Midway Atoll. The area is roughly centered between the continental U.S. and the Japanese main island. It had become a key refueling area for transpacific flights, and also a key naval position in the Pacific. Yamamoto planned to conduct a sneak attack on Midway, from which he could establish an air base. He hoped the attack on Midway would either draw the Navy out, at which point he would destroy the U.S. carrier fleet. If he met his objective, the Japanese would simultaneously reinforce their defensive position in the Pacific, while also having a free hand to attack Hawaii.

Yamamoto’s first action was to attempt a bit of subterfuge to persuade the U.S. in thinking the attack would come on the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. He sent a portion of his fleet north, and they would conduct a smaller attack to grab the American’s attention. He then further dispersed his fleet by having the battleships trail the carrier group by a significant distance. This tactic was designed to surprise any enemy sent to directly counter the carrier’s actions. As the opposing battleships charged towards the carriers, his unseen ships would come up behind the unsuspecting foe. These various diffusions of his armada, however, weakened his attack power by adding to the losses recently suffered at the Coral Sea. At the recent battle, the light carrier Shoho had been sunk, the larger carrier Shokaku had been damaged significantly and could not join the fleet for the Midway attack, and considerable Japanese aircraft losses had yet to be replaced.

Despite these potential weaknesses, the Japanese remained confident in their plan. The Japanese sported an unbroken string of victories in the Pacific since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their Zero’s had proven their ability against the American aircraft, and despite their losses at the Coral Sea, the U.S. had suffered similar losses. The Japanese, however, overestimated the U.S. Navy’s losses. First, the Japanese believed the Yorktown had either been sunk at Coral Sea, or at least would be unable to take part in the fight (similar to their own Shokaku). Second, Yamamoto believed his complex plan of dispersal would distract the U.S. from his true targets.

Yamamoto, however, made a number of errors in his calculations. First, he had misjudged the American’s drive and ability. The USS Yorktown had not been sunk at the Coral Sea, and despite the ship’s extensive damage she was repaired, battle ready, and back to sea within 72 hours of arriving at Pearl Harbor. Secondly, the dispersal of the Japanese Navy made surprise not simply an objective, but a near requirement for success. A requirement that was hampered due to the fleet’s formation. The attack on Pearl Harbor had been conducted under radio silence because the ships were close enough to communicate with each other. But for the attack on Midway, the Japanese were forced to use radio communications to coordinate movements between the three groups. Unbeknownst to Yamamoto, these radio communications were being monitored.

The U.S. cryptologists had broken a substantial amount of the Japanese code by 1942, and Naval intelligence knew the Japanese were planning an attack on an undetermined location denoted “AF.” What specific location AF referenced, however, was somewhat trickier. Naval intelligence began believing the location to be Midway, and came up with an idea to confirm. The Midway garrison sent a false message stating the island was running short of water. The Japanese dutifully relayed the message that AF was short on water, and the Navy knew Midway was the target. By the time of the Japanese attack, Navy intelligence knew the attack was coming either June 4 or 5, the location of the attack would be Midway, and even the Japanese order of battle.

Yamamoto’s plan was as follows: the attack the Aleutian Islands represented the initial action, hopefully drawing U.S. attention to a potential invasion. After this feint, the main attack would unfold in three primary actions: first, the Japanese would launch an air attack on Midway with carrier based fighters and bombers. After the air attack, a ground force would be landed on the island to begin securing an airfield for continuing operations. While the ground attack took place, the trailing battleships would be catching up and move into the battle space. Finally, as the carrier group out of Pearl Harbor arrived at Midway in reaction to the attack, his entire fleet would attack, with the U.S. carriers representing the primary targets.

The U.S. Navy had different plans. Early on June 4, 1942, the Japanese aircraft began attacking Midway. The U.S. fleet wat not at Pearl Harbor, however, but east of the island. As the initial attack ended, the U.S. launched their own attack with a wave of Douglass TBD Devastator torpedo-bombers. A Japanese scout plane, however, had located the American ship Yorktown and informed the fleet. Vice Admiral Nagumo quickly shifted tactics, and ordered his aircraft scratch the plan for a second run on Midway and prepare for the incoming U.S. attack. The results were devastating to the U.S. pilots. Unescorted by U.S. fighters, and outclassed by the Japanese Zeroes, nearly all the Devastator bombers were shot down in their initial run.

As the Japanese pilots returned from the fight, crews on the carrier deck rushed to refuel and rearm the aircraft. It was at this moment, however, that the U.S. Navy’s second attack came in. This time the more capable Douglass SBD Dauntless dive-bombers swooped in and found the Japanese unaware. With few fighters left to respond to the American attackers, the U.S. pilots caused devastating damage. The fuel and ammunition present on deck acted as an accelerant, and by the end of the second U.S. attack run three of the four Japanese carriers (Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu) were on fire and abandoned. The Japanese’s remaining carrier Hiryu, then launched two waves of aircraft to attack on the Yorktown. The Yorktown was heavily damaged in the attack, and its crew abandoned the vessel, but still the ship refused to founder. In response to the attack on Yorktown, the U.S. sent bombers from all three carriers (Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown) to attack the Hiryu, and shortly afterwards set it ablaze as well.

Following the attack on the Hiryu, the major actions of Midway were at an end. On June 6, Yamamoto ordered his ships to retreat. The only other major action at sea also occurred on June 6. The Yorktown, at this point, was still hanging on and the Navy believed she could be salvaged. The USS Hammann, a destroyer, was sent to protect the Yorktown until the battle was over and the carried could be towed back to Pearl Harbor for repair. After standing vigil for two days, a Japanese submarine snuck in and sank both ships.

By the end of the battle the Japanese had lost over 3,000 men, hundreds of aircraft, four aircraft carriers, and one cruiser. The U.S. lost the Yorktown, the Hammann, 144 aircraft, and 362 men. Midway, however, was more than just a stat sheet. It was a turning point in the Pacific campaign. The Japanese Navy never recovered from the losses at Midway. The U.S. took the initiative in the aftermath of the battle, and never lost it. The early summer of 1942 represented the peak of the Japanese capability, while the U.S. began growing exponentially in 1942 and beyond. In August of 1942, the U.S. began the island hopping campaign in the Pacific with the landing at Guadalcanal. But the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway had shown the absolute necessity of air power in both ground and naval operations.

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