In the waning weeks of May, the greatest assembly of Japanese naval power since Pearl Harbor steamed out of the port of Hashirajima and headed towards the miniscule island of Midway, to capture it and lure the crippled American Pacific fleet out into a final showdown. One week later, on June 8, 1942, the fleet sailed home, completely crushed, with its striking arm--the carrier force, almost annihilated. What transpired within that week would be forever remembered as the great Battle of Midway. Between December 7, 1941, the day that the U.S was brought into the war and August 6, 1945, the day that the war ended with Hiroshima, Midway represents one of the greatest turning points that forced the Japanese away from American soil.
The war with Japan for the Pacific began abruptly on December 7, with the Japanese boming of Pearl Harbor. For the Americans, this attack was shocking; many of the soldiers garrisoned on the island had thought that the Army had gone insane and attacked the harbor; no American had thought that the Japanese would have the courage to attack such a large and important naval base that was so close to the continental U.S itself. This event was not the last of the Japanese aggressions against the U.S. Soon after Pearl Harbor, the armed forces of Japan made various invasions in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, such as the invasions of Guam, the Philippines, Wake, Corregidor and other strategic island strongholds. These hostile movements all stemmed from the growing need for raw materials in Japan, especially oil. After signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, which as Charles Mercer states, "...promised to enter into war if any of the three was attacked by a new enemy,"Roosevelt, feeling threatened by Japanese involvement in the war froze all of the oil that was being sold to Japan, and also convinced France and Britain to do likewise. By doing so, Roosevelt had taken away almost all of the crude oil that Japan was importing, which in turn stopped the Japanese imperialistic movement in Asia. Oil, after food, is the most important resource available to an armed force, without it, any heavy equipment such as tanks and ships will not run. To compensate for the losses, Japan decided to risk war with the U.S. by invading the south Pacific, an area abundant in natural resources. Convinced that their economy would collapse if the embargo upon Japan was not lifted, the Japanese high command planned to make the U.S. stop the trade block by conquering its possessions in the Pacific, especially New Guinea and Australia, both being of importance to the U.S. The attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, etc. were successful militarily, but they provided the complete opposite psychological effect on the people of the United States. Instead of demoralizing the country, it united the public opinion on war with Japan.
In an effort to stem Japanese advances towards New Guinea, the U.S. Navy sent a carrier task force under the command of Vice Admiral Fletcher, who would later participate in the Battle of Midway. They were to harass the enemy invasion forces and to deal out as much damage as possible. Although the invasion force provided no significant resistance, a Japanese carrier force that lurked behind the transports attacked the American carriers, and the resulting battle, knownas the battle of Coral Sea, became the first engagement between two carrier forces. Each side lost one carrier and had another damaged. Although considered a draw, the battle canceled the invasion of New Guinea and showed the Japanese high command the potential threat that the American carrier groups posed. Stung by Coral Sea, Admiral Yamamoto, fleet Admiral of the Japanese Navy and mastermind of the Pearl Harbor raid, decided to lure the American forces out and crush them once and for all.
The plan was set for Midway. Although the Japanese Naval council did not believe that Midway was a suitable target, they played along for the time in light of Adm. Yamamoto chose Midway because of its distance from the U.S. With Midway occupied, the Japanese could stage raids against Pearl Harbor and the continental U.S. Yamamoto threatened to resign if the plan was not accepted. As in the Pearl Harbor raid, Vice Admiral Nagumo's First Air Fleet would be the striking arm of the operation. Although stripped of two of his veteran carriers, Nagumo¡¯s force was still a formidable one. With the carriers Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu and a screening force of two battleships and a number of cruisers and destroyers, the First Air Fleet was directed to initiate combat and to destroy enemy forces on the island and shore batteries. Three hundred miles behind the initial spearhead was the Main Body, which Yamamoto directed himself. Built around a nucleus of battleships, the flagship being the Yamato, a 70,000 ton monster that was larger and better armed and armored than any other ship in the world at the time, the main force would stay out of most of the action, only reserving itself for emergencies and a showdown with the U.S. Fleet. Following this force was a landing fleet that would take the island and mop up any resistance.
The battle of Midway was more than just a military legend, it was a major feat of intelligence. This operation was kept top secret, and was not known to the Americans, if it were not for the code-breakers at "Hypo", the intelligence installation in Hawaii. Led by one of America's most talented code-breakers, Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort, the intel team was able to deduce the location of the Japanese invasion to the letters AF. Because most of the U.S. island bases had closed wire communications, Rochefort assumed that AF was Midway, and told them to send a trap message back to Hawaii, not encoded saying that the island was running low on fresh water. Shortly afterwards, Hypo intercepted a Japanese message saying that AF was running low on fresh water. Finally the location of the Japanese assault was known.
Adm. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific theater hastily mustered a small force of carriers, cruisers and destroyers and sent them to protect Midway. He knew that the Japanese were coming, but they didn't know that he was hunting them, and assumed this an advantage. Under the command of Rear Adm. Spruance, carrier task forces 16 and 17, including the carriers Enterprise, Yorktown -and Hornet, each with a defensive screen sailed to meet the enemy.
On June 2, the American forces join up east of Midway, waiting for the enemy while scouts constantly surveyey the skies for signs of Nagumo's fleet. On June 4, the Japanese carrier planes begin their attacks on Midway. Although they were relatively successful in shooting down American fighters, they did insignificant damage to the island installations themselves. After the first wave of Japanese fighters returned to their carriers to rearm, the Midway defenders launched several attacks of their own against the Japanese carriers. Americans bombers suffered light casualties but dealt little damage in return. As the second wave of Japanese fighters were armed, the planes of the U.S. carriers, mostly torpedo planes loomed over the horizon and made several brave attacks upon the carrier Akagi. The planes suffered massive casualties and did not score a single hit upon the carrier. Several more waves of American bombers attacked thecarriers, but were unsuccessful due to lack of a fighter picket and ferocious anti-aircraft fire. Although these attacks did nothing to damage the Japanese ships, they did tie up the Japanese fighters and forced them to land to refuel.
The fateful decision to have all the carrier-based planes land and refuel at the same time was suggested by one of Yamamoto's most esteemed subordinates, and was enacted by Nagumo. This left the carriers vulnerable and without fighters to fend off attackers. By sheer luck, the American carriers had launched of dive bombers when the Japanese were refueling, catching them off guard, and setting fire to three of the four carriers. With an amazing turn of luck, the Americans now had the upper hand in the battle.
However, they did not go without casualties. As the American dive bombers attacked the three carriers, the fourth, the Hiryu, was able to launch a wave of bombers, which found the American carrier Yorktown and damaged her with several . The carrier stayed afloat, but had reduced speed and maneuverability. Rushing to aid their sister, the two other American carriers did not make it in time to save the Yorktown from a second wave of planes, which scored a torpedo hit upon her hull. The end was drawing near for the venerable carrier, but still the crew tried to save her. She would not be sunk until June 7, after she finally finished off by a Japanese sub.
Meanwhile, the Japanese force and been disastrously crippled. Of the three carriers that were set afire, two sunk by themselves, while the third was scuttled by its crew. As revenge for their fallen sister, the planes of Enterprise and Hornet dove in on the last remaining Japanese carrier, setting it ablaze. Nagumo, completely dazed by the stunning defeat, ordered the remaining two carriers, which were burning to be torpedoed, then sounded a general retreat. One battle that lasted for three days had decided the fate of Japan in the war. With their carrier air power completely destroyed, they could no longer duel with the three Pacific carriers that the U.S. still had. Even with the Pearl Harbor battleships out of order, the Japanese Navy could no longer effectively fight the carriers of the U.S. This battle also proved that the time of the battleship was over, and that a new generation of carrier sea warfare had begun.
The psychological effect upon the staff of the Japanese Navy was immense. Yamamoto sunk into a deep, brooding period in which he lost much of his old ingenuity and bravura. The battle had little effect upon Japanese public morale, however because of the cover-up that the government issued, most of the Japanese citizens thought that the battle was a great victory. To the Americans Midway was a gigantic climax in a series of morale lifting events, from the Doolittle Raids to Coral Sea and finally Midway. The lift in morale also meant a increase in production of the materials of war. Midway was the turning point in the Pacific war. It once and for all shattered Japanese domiance of the Pacific, and it shook the confidence of the Japanese high command. From that point, the U.S., as historian Gordon Prange states, "...laid aside the shield and picked up the sword, and through all the engagements to follow, never again yielded the strategic offensive."
Department of the Navy. Battle of Midway:4-7 June 1942:Online Action Reports relating to the Battle.1999. http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq81-4.htm (17 Nov. 2002)
A collection of first-hand documents of naval personnel from the time of the battle to several weeks afterwards.
Feldman, George. World War II:Almanac. Boston:the Gale Group, 2000.
A general source that gives a brief overview of the battle and the events that lead up and followed the battle.
Lord, Walter. Incredible Victory. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
A collection of personal tales written from the memoirs and interviews of both Japanese and American survivors of Midway. Each period of the battle is written in third person narrative from the view of the peronnel of the various ships and aircraft involved.
Prange, Gordon. Miracle at Midway. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982.
A detailed narrative and analysis of the battle by historian Gordon Prange. Includes information gathered from battle reports, newpapers, letters, etc. A good detailed source explaining each phase of the battle.
WWII: the War Chronicles. Don Horan. New Video, 1983.
A set of videos that are comprised completely of original first-hand footage of almost all of the important events of WWII, along with commentary.