The Molossian Naval Academy

The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway, fought in World War II, took place on June 5, 1942 (June 4-June 7 in US time zones). The United States Navy defeated a Japanese attack against Midway Atoll, marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific theatre.

Fought just a month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, Midway was the turning point of the Pacific Campaign. Skill, daring, and luck all played a part. The attack on the island of Midway, which also included a feint to Alaska by a smaller fleet, was a ploy by the Japanese to draw the American carrier fleet into a trap. With the remaining American ships destroyed, the Japanese hoped to avenge the bombing of the Japanese home islands two months earlier during the Tokyo Air Raid, plug the hole in their Eastern defensive perimeter formed by U.S. control of Midway, finish off the US Pacific Fleet, and perhaps even invade and take Hawaii.

Considerable academic debate has centered on whether Japan could or would have threatened attack against the US West Coast. Had the Japanese achieved their objective at Midway of a quick knock-out of the US Pacific Fleet, the US West Coast would have been essentially defenseless against the Japanese Navy. The remaining US naval ships were fully deployed halfway around the world in the North Atlantic. One academic camp stresses that regional conquest, and not conquest of North America, was the Japanese objective; another argues that is irrelevant, and that threatened or actual attacks on the US West Coast would have caused the US to divert military assets away from Europe, thereby at best lengthening the war in the European theater, and at worst allowing Germany to prevail.

Before the battle

Midway itself was not especially important in the larger scheme of Japan's intentions: they were keen on concentrating on the Samoa Islands, Fiji and Australia to expand their newly acquired SE Pacific territory. However, it was the closest remaining US base to Japan, and would therefore be strongly defended by the US.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's battle plan was, typically, bold and ingenious. Like most Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) strategic doctrine, it was designed, in part, to lure major parts of the US Fleet into a fatally compromising situation. Yamamoto's main force trailed his carriers and was intended to take out whatever part of the US Fleet might come to Midway's support. The plan was complicated, probably in part because it was put together very rapidly in the wake of the Tokyo Air Raid by US Army B-25's flying from US carriers in the middle of April. The Raid had done little significant damage, but demonstrated that the Japanese military could not prevent attacks against the Japanese Home Islands. It was a severe psychological shock.

The Yorktown Under Attack

US intelligence

US Naval Intelligence (in cooperation with the British and Dutch) had been reading parts of the primary Japanese Imperial Fleet communications system (JN-25, an enciphered code) for some time, and since the most recent version change just before the Pearl Harbor attack, had made considerable progress on the new version. By April and even more by May, it became apparent that enough of the current JN-25 version was becoming known that new Japanese operations might be blocked effectively. One code element was unclear, however. Location AF was clearly to be a major point of attack, but it was unclear what AF was. Some, especially in the Pacific, thought it Midway; others, concentrated it seems at OP-20-G in Washington, believed AF to be in the Aleutians. However, there was no cryptographic way of settling the issue. An ingenious suggestion by a young officer, Jasper Holmes, at Station Hypo, helped discover the Japanese plan. He asked that the base commander at Midway radio Pearl Harbor to say, in plain English, that there was an emergency drinking water was running low due to a breakdown of the water plant. A JN-25 message not long thereafter noted that AF had fresh water problems and that the attack force should plan accordingly. AF was therefore Midway, and would be attacked in the new operation.

Information from JN-25 decrypts came in slowly, and it wasn't till the very last minute that Admiral Nimitz had enough information to put together an ambush for the Midway attack force. He called back Fletcher's carriers from the SW Pacific area, and Pearl Harbor shipyard did a legendary job getting Yorktown severely damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea together enough to steam with the rest to meet the Japanese at Midway.

In 72 hours of back-breaking work, Yorktown was transformed from a barely-operational wreck headed for a long stay at Bremerton, into a working (if still compromised) aircraft carrier. Her flight deck was patched, whole sections of internal beams were cut out and replaced, and a new air group was put on her from the naval station's own planes. Admiral Nimitz showed total disregard for established procedure in getting his third and last available carrier ready for battle; in particular, repairs continued as Yorktown sortied. Just three days after pulling into drydock at Pearl Harbor, the ship's band was playing "California, Here I Come" as she steamed westward to her destiny. Meanwhile, at Truk, Shokaku was laid up waiting for an air group to be brought to her to replace her decimated planes; while the lightly-damaged Zuikaku was waiting for repairs. One has to wonder how the battle would have unfolded if the Japanese had not assumed that the United States would be sending only Enterprise and Hornet, under Admiral Spruance, to meet Soryu, Hiryu, Akagi and Kaga.

The battle

At dawn on June 4, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed and heavily damaged the base on Midway. Long range bombers, including B-17's, made several attacks on the Japanese, with no effect, and Midway-based fighters made a strenuous defense of Midway, also to little effect. US carrier forces, led by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was in overall command from Yorktown, but Spruance had better knowledge of the present operational situation), had the advantage of knowing, through decryption of Japanese Navy communications, the enemy plans and intentions. When the Japanese aircraft returned to their carriers, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo decided to re-arm them with bombs for a second strike at Midway. While the planes were being serviced, the waiting American ships were detected. Nagumo eventually decided to change the arms load for an attack against the American ships. With torpedoes and bombs stacked, and fuel hoses snaking across their decks, the Japanese carriers made vulnerable and highly flammable targets. Moreover, the Japanese aircraft had not managed to start against the US fleet, before they fell under attack themselves. As the ships turned into the wind to launch their attack, disaster befell them from the cloudy sky.

Spruance launched an attack from his carriers USS Enterprise and Hornet against the Japanese carriers. Anti-aircraft fire and fighters shot down 35 of 41 TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, including every plane of Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8 (see also George Gay). This, and other action, brought the defending Zeros down so low that American SBD Dauntless dive-bombers from Enterprise under Wade McClusky were able to attack almost without opposition. Five minutes later, three Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, were ablaze, abandoned, or crippled.

Aircraft launched from the remaining Japanese carrier Hiryu struck the USS Yorktown, which was severely damaged, but it survived both this and a second attack, only to be sunk while adrift by a Japanese submarine on June 7. The same submarine sank the destroyer USS Hammann which had been assigned to remain with the Yorktown. With Yorktown damaged and abandoned, full command of the battle and ultimate credit for its victory passed from Admiral Fletcher into the hands of Admiral Spruance. Aircraft from the Enterprise in turn attacked the Hiryu and set her ablaze, and damaged the destroyer Isokaze. After this, Spruance, in concert with the forces on Midway, launched attacks that crippled and destroyed the Japanese cruisers Mogami and Mikuma.

Aftermath

Having scored a decisive victory, American forces retired. The loss of four carriers stopped the expansion of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific, and put Japan on the defensive. It had been six months to the day since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Admiral Yamamoto had predicted to his superiors that Japan would prevail for only six months to a year against the United States, after which American resources would begin to overwhelm the Japanese Navy. He had been exactly correct.


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