A Brief History
On June 4, 1942, the Battle of Midway began with Admiral Nagumo of the Imperial Japanese Navy ordering an airstrike on the US held island of Midway in the Central Pacific. Flush with victory after victory, the powerful Japanese task force expected another rousing victory on the road to defeating the United States, but “you can’t always get what you want!”
The Japanese took America by surprise on December 7, 1941, with a crippling blow struck at the Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, quickly followed up by equally devastating strikes against other US bases (in the Philippines, etc) as well as British and Dutch colonial targets. The Japanese Navy and Army seemed to be unstoppable.
With the war in Europe (Germany declared war on the United States shortly after Pearly Harbor) taking precedence in the planning of the British and Americans, the Pacific theater seemed ripe for the taking by Imperial Japan. The use of aircraft carriers and state of the art carrier aircraft made the Japanese Navy a terrifying opponent.
The US had fought the Japanese to a draw at the Battle of the Coral Sea a month before the Midway campaign, and the US had lost the carrier USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown was severely damaged, so much so that the Japanese pilots reported her sunk. Yorktown was repaired in time to participate in the Battle of Midway, a feat rarely accomplished in the history of ship repair.
The losses at Coral Sea (the Japanese also lost a carrier) left the US with 3 aircraft carriers carrying 233 aircraft (with 127 land based aircraft on Midway, mostly obsolete planes) to face the Japanese armada that included 4 large aircraft carriers and 2 light carriers with a total of 248 available aircraft (large carriers alone). The odds seemed to favor the Japanese, but the Americans had recently broken the Japanese naval code, and had the advantage of reading Japanese radio messages.
In the battles that followed from June 4 to June 7, 1942, all via aircraft and submarine with no engagement of surface vessels against each other (a trend started with the Battle of Coral Sea), the Japanese suffered a stunning defeat, losing all 4 major aircraft carriers along with a cruiser, all 248 aircraft from the large carriers, and over 3000 men dead. The US suffered heavy, though by comparison minimal, losses of the USS Yorktown, a destroyer sunk, and 150 aircraft lost, losing only 307 men killed. The Japanese invasion force was turned around and the plan to seize Midway Island was permanently over. Any thought of further offensive operations against the Hawaiian islands, the Panama Canal, and the Mainland United States were put on hold, never to become practical.
The Japanese suffered their first major defeat at the hands of the United States and never again regained the initiative. Admiral Yamamoto had warned the Japanese government if the attack on Pearl Harbor and other allied bases went forward, he could guarantee only 6 months of victories, after which the scenario would be less clear. Yamamoto was prophetic in this warning, as the US rapidly seized the initiative despite the “Europe First” policy of the Allies and kept up the pressure on the Japanese for the remainder of the War. Yamamoto himself was killed in an ambush of his plane by US Army P-38 fighter planes thanks to radio intercepts that pinpointed his location and schedule.
The Battle of Midway was the turning point of the War in the Pacific during World War II, and is one of the greatest victories by the US military in a long and celebrated history. The Battle of Midway may well be the greatest Naval victory in the history of the United States Navy, and is a shining example of the underdog beating the seemingly superior force. Victory at Midway allowed the United States time to mass produce hundreds of new ships and thousands of new superior aircraft by 1943, production and innovation the Japanese could never match.
Question for students (and subscribers): Are you a fan of Naval History? If so, please tell us which naval battles during World War II you think are as significant or more significant than the Battle of Midway. If you have any insight into this battle, please share it with your fellow readers in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Lord, Walter. Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway (Classics of War). Burford Books, 1998.
Symonds, Craig L. The Battle of Midway (Pivotal Moments in American History). Oxford University Press, 2013.