One of the most important battles of World War II was fought on June 4-7, 1942, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Battle of Midway not only denied the totalitarian Japanese empire the Midway Atoll, and thus a staging area for further attacks upon Hawaii, it also destroyed forever Japan's strategic initiative in the war.
By spring 1942, the United States was still reeling from Japan's sneak attack against Pearl Harbor. Much of the U.S. fleet's striking power had been sent to the bottom, and the prospect of the U.S. Navy hitting back at Japan, or even being able to defend America in the Pacific, was in doubt. In April, Army Air Corps officer Jimmy Doolittle led a daring attack that successfully bombed the Japanese home islands. Questions of morale aside, Doolittle's mission did little to halt the Japanese advance.
In early May, American and Japanese carriers fought the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was the first naval battle in world history where the fighting ships never saw each other — the battle was conducted entirely by aircraft launched from opposing ships. The battle was a strategic draw, and the U.S. Navy had to scuttle one carrier, the Lexington, and a second carrier, the Yorktown, was badly damaged.
The Japanese were in the superior position, however. After the Battle of the Coral Sea, and led by the brilliant tactician Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the Imperial Japanese Navy boasted four fleet carriers, huge naval behemoths that could each carry 70 aircrafts. By contrast, the United States Navy had only two carriers to meet them, the Enterprise and the Hornet, with the Yorktown in such bad shape that no one thought it could ever be ready for the impending showdown.
The commander-in-chief of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet, Adm. Chester Nimitz, had a daunting task. No one knew where the Japanese would strike. Alaska, Hawaii, Australia, San Francisco and the Panama Canal were all possible targets. With a chessboard the size of the ocean, anticipating Japan's move wouldn't be easy. Fortunately, he had an ace in the hole: The U.S. could read Japanese codes.
Historian Barrett Tillman notes the important role that intelligence played: “Chester Nimitz possessed the priceless asset of knowledge of enemy plans. His code breakers had reached into the atmosphere and plucked down enough information to give (his command) a look over Yamamoto's shoulder at the strategic card table.” The Japanese target was Midway Atoll, northwest of the Hawaiian islands.
When the U.S. and Japanese forces met in earnest on the morning of June 4, no one could be sure what would happen. The odds would be somewhat better than predicted, however. The Yorktown had been repaired in only three days, an astonishing feat of engineering, and the Americans went into the battle with three fleet carriers to Japan's four.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson describes the chaos of the American attack upon one of Japan's carriers: “(A) bomb from one of the American dive-bombers plowed into the hanger and ignited the Akagi's stored torpedoes, which immediately began to rip the ship open from the inside out. ... (The Japanese) wooden runways offered poor protection for the fuel, planes and bombs in storage below. ... The best naval pilots of the imperial fleet were being slaughtered in a matter of minutes.”
America's victory at Midway stemmed not from just one great leader, but from several men in varying positions whose intelligence, daring and bravery sealed the fate of the four Japanese carriers that day. In addition to the admirals, whose intuition and willingness to gamble paid off, the pilots who flew the attacks, sailors who withstood the repeated Japanese assaults, and the teams that worked round the clock to repair the Yorktown, proved themselves to be the engineers of victory.
Japan lost all four of its fleet carriers at Midway, three of them in under an hour. America only lost one. As for the human cost, the Japanese lost more than 3,000, while the United States lost more than 300 — a relatively small count when compared with casualty rates in other major World War II battles.
Japan would never again enjoy such naval superiority, and thus lost the strategic initiative for the rest of the war. As Hanson writes: “During the four years of the war the Americans constructed 16 major warships for every one the Japanese built.” Simply put, Japan could not make good its losses. The United States could.
Every major American victory in the Pacific War was built upon the triumph at Midway. In a very real sense, it proved the turning point in America's war against Japan and ended the fear of a major Japanese invasion elsewhere in the Pacific.
Historian Craig L. Sydmods summed up the significance of the battle: “That the Americans at Midway changed the course of World War II is indisputable. At 10 o'clock on the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese were winning the Pacific War; an hour later, three Japanese aircraft carriers were on fire and sinking.”
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the codeveloper of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]