The Battle of Midway was a decisive naval conflict between the forces of the United States and Imperial Japan during World War Two. The battle occurred in the Pacific Theater of the war. The US Navy defended against the attacking Japanese fleet, inflicting damage that could never be repaired. After Midway, Japan’s capacity to replace losses became insufficient in the context of an escalating conflict. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of the US industry meant that America was able to replenish her forces far faster. Midway, along with the subsequent Guadalcanal Campaign, is often cited as a turning point in the Pacific War.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto split his invading force into three, which was an error as it caused the squadrons to be too far apart to support one another. As well as Chūichi Nagumo’s First Air Fleet, there was a Midway Occupation Force carrying 51,000 men, and his own main force comprising one carrier, four cruisers, seven battleships, twelve destroyers and eighteen submarines. As well as taking Midway, Yamamoto was hoping to lure the American Pacific Fleet into a massive engagement that, in hindsight, it could not win.
Intelligence was key to the American victory at Midway: both the accurate and timely information that Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific, was given by his code-breakers, and the halting and inaccurate reports that Admirals Yamamoto and Nagumo got from their intelligence officers, who did not have the luxury of reading their enemy’s signals. To make matters worse, the Japanese failed to pool what little information they did have, partly because Nagumo’s radio transmitter was weaker than Yamamoto’s and partly because of the need for radio silence.
Nimitz made a bold call: to stake everything upon the accuracy of American intelligence information. Japanese intelligence believed that Yorktown had been sunk at the Coral Sea, and that the other two US carriers, Hornet and Enterprise, were far away in the Solomons. But Yorktown was fit for sea, albeit with a makeshift air component. Nimitz was therefore able to deploy two task groups to cover Midway; one led by Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher – in overall command – and the other by Raymond Spruance. This would be a carrier action, with Nagumo’s flat-tops its objectives. The navy’s planes were recognized as the critical weapons.
With the resources in the Pacific strained to the limit while two American carriers were assisting the British in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the Commander-in-Chief of the American fleet, Admiral Ernest J. King, asked the British to provide one of the three British carriers then operating off the African coast for the Pacific. He was promptly turned down. This was a serious error in spite of the concern over the Indian Ocean which motivated the refusal. Aside from a few units of the Australian navy, the Americans faced the Imperial Japanese navy in the great crisis of the Pacific War by themselves.
The garrison of Midway prepared to sell their lives dearly, knowing the fate that had already befallen many other island defenders at Japanese hands. On the US carriers three hundred miles to the north-east, aircrew readied themselves to fight what they knew would be a critical action. One of them, Lt. Dick Crowell, said soberly as they broke up a late-night craps game on Yorktown: ‘The fate of the United States now rests in the hands of 240 pilots.’
Nagumo’s First Air Fleet approached the atoll under heavy cloud cover, masking it from Midway’s reconnaissance planes, and was able to launch a dawn attack with half of its planes. This was successful, although the runway was not attacked, as the Japanese wanted to use it as soon as they had captured the atoll. The ninety-three planes in the reserve were fitted with bombs and torpedoes in case of an appearance by the fifty-vessel American fleet. Nimitz was satisfied that the scenario was unfolding exactly as he had anticipated. Yamamoto was troubled that the US Pacific fleet had not yet been located.
Having finally spotted Nagumo’s fleet at 07.00 hours, Rear-Admiral Spruance, who commanded the Enterprise and Hornet battle group, sent 116 planes into an all-out attack from 175 miles away. As in the battle of the Coral Sea, neither side’s ships even came within sight of each other, in this new form of naval engagement. At exactly the same time, Nagumo, having heard reports from Midway that another wave of attacks was needed, but knowing nothing about the American fleet, which he had every reason to believe had sailed off north to deal with the diversionary attack against the Aleutian Islands, ordered his reserve planes to be refitted with incendiary and fragmentation bombs. However he countermanded the order shortly afterwards.
Nagumo took the fateful decision to land his Midway first-strike planes before launching the others. While the flight crews on the carriers were struggling to reattach the torpedoes, at 09.05 Nagumo turned 90 degrees east-north-east to engage the American task force. This had the effect of allowing him to evade, for the moment, the US dive-bombers and fighters from the Hornet. Yorktown, to the east, launched half her planes at 07.30. Fifteen Devastator torpedo-bombers from the Hornet did spot Nagumo’s force, and went straight into the attack. Only 8 survived before the attack was broken off at 10.24 hours.
The torpedo-bombers of the Enterprise (nicknamed ‘the big E’) and Yorktown were badly mauled without any positive results, and the attack was broken off with only eight Devastators still in the air out of an initial attacking force of forty-one. ‘For about one hundred seconds the Japanese were certain they had won the battle of Midway and the war,’ wrote the US Navy’s official historian Rear-Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. The chilling accounts of the pilots who flew the planes speak volumes about the hopeless situation they found themselves in.
At 10.26, before the Zeros had time to regain altitude after attacking the Devastators, thirty-seven dive-bombers from the Enterprise appeared directly above Nagumo’s four carriers. Cloud cover at 3,000 feet masked the American approach, but below that the visibility was ideal for the attackers. Soon after the Enterprise dive bombers attacked, planes from first the Hornet and then the Yorktown arrived. The Japanese crews were still changing the bombers’ armaments, and so were caught with the maximum amount of ordnance in the most exposed place possible, so when Enterprise’s dive bombers hit, the result was carnage.
Nagumo’s flagship, the Akagi, took two direct hits: the first on the aft rim of the amidship lift, the second on the port side of the flight deck, the effects of which might have been controlled if the deck had not been wing-tip to wing-tip full of burning planes loaded with exploding torpedoes. By 10.46 Nagumo – who had made one of the worst decisions in military history – was persuaded to transfer his flag to the light cruiser Nagara, which he did with reluctance. The ship was abandoned at 18.00 hours.
‘We had been caught flat-footed in the most vulnerable position possible,’ wrote Fuchida, ‘decks loaded with planes armed and fuelled for an attack.’ Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier Kaga slipped beneath the waves at 19.25, with 800 of her crew dead, and another carrier, Soryu, which had suffered three hits from thirteen planes in three minutes, sank at 21.13, with her captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto singing the ‘Kimigayo’, the Japanese national anthem.
Nagumo ordered the fourth carrier, Hiryu, to sail off north-eastwards and send forty planes to attack Yorktown. Although only seven made it through the American defenses, they were able to land three bombs on her. Later on Yorktown was also hit by two torpedoes from planes returning from Midway, forcing the listing carrier to be taken in tow back to Pearl Harbor. Fletcher transferred to the cruiser Astoria, with Spruance taking over tactical command. Hiryu was not going to escape retribution: planes from Enterprise and Yorktown sank her with four hits.
Admiral Nagumo opted for withdrawal, only to have his order countermanded by Yamamoto, who demanded a night surface attack on the Americans. This was frustrated when Spruance turned away, recognizing that his fleet had accomplished everything possible. Yamamoto acknowledged failure, and ordered a Japanese retreat. Spruance again turned and followed, launching a further air strike which sank one heavy cruiser and crippled another. On the way back to Pearl Harbor, Yorktown and an escorting destroyer were sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168. They were the only American vessels lost in the entire battle.
The Japanese fleet remained a formidable fighting force: in the months that followed, it inflicted some severe local reverses on the Americans in the Pacific. But the US Navy had displayed the highest qualities at a critical moment. Japanese industrial weakness made it hard to replace the losses of Midway. The Americans, by contrast, soon began to deploy thousands of excellently trained aircrew, flying the superb new Hellcat fighter. Nimitz remained short of carriers until well into 1943, but thereafter America’s building program delivered an awesome array of new warships.
The battle wrecked the three-phase Japanese plan for Asian domination midway through its second phase. It was true that the two minuscule Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska had been captured by the northern diversionary force, but because of Allied code-breaking, that attack had failed to divert American forces away from Midway. The battle of Midway deserves its attribution as one of the most decisive battles of history, because the United States could now attack the perimeters of the Southern Japanese Resources Area at will. The British also took great heart from the victory.